When the Church of Light reorganized under its current name, the old designation Brotherhood of Light yielded to a gender neutral term. Women had participated on equal terms with men in the organization since its establishment as the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. Yet in the HBofL lineage as well as many of those from which it derives, language about adeptship tends to be masculine. Many of the most influential authors in 19th century occultist circles were women writing about male adept heroes, for example Emma Hardinge Britten and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Often they used male alter egos to express claims that were actually reflections of their own experiences. In the 20th century we might add Alice Bailey, Annie Besant, Helena Roerich, Dion Fortune, and even Elizabeth Clare Prophet to the roster. “The adepts” were described in masculine terms, yet their greatest propagandists were women. After becoming acquainted with the writings of Genevieve Stebbins, I suspect that that this woman was probably the most important adept “brotherhood” teacher in the life of Elbert Benjamine, at least on the physical plane. A fine brief introduction to Stebbins is found in John Michael Greer’s Encyclopedia of the Occult. Her husband Norman Astley remains a man of mystery and the object of current research which I hope to share in future posts. But the career of Stebbins is already well documented by several recent authors, and a groundbreaking 2010 study examines her in a completely new light.
By the time Benjamin Williams accepted the task of rewriting the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor lessons, their primary author T.H. Burgoyne had been dead for fifteen years. Max Theon and Peter Davidson were preoccupied with the newer teachings of the “philosophie cosmique” and no longer much concerned with the HBofL. Henry and Belle Wagner supported the Brotherhood financially and through publishing, and their Denver group provided Benjamin Williams’s first encounter with the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. But Genevieve Stebbins and her husband Norman Astley, who had both encountered the HBofL in Europe in the 1880s, encouraged Williams to settle in California where he became Elbert Benjamine. The Brotherhood of Light lessons were written by Benjamine almost entirely in California, and the Astleys provided the living link between Benjamine’s work in the 20th century and the international occultist networks of the 19th century who had inspired the HBofL. A detailed biography of Stebbins is found in this chapter of a 1989 history of American Delsartism by Nancy Ruyter. The dance historian discussed Stebbins again in this 1996 book. In 2002 an anthology on rhetoric included an excellent chapter on Stebbins by Jane Donawerth. Many of Stebbins’s works are available online, including her final edition of her masterwork which was published in 1913. But another work published the same year, The Quest of the Spirit, remains rare and hard to find and seems to have been jointly written with Astley. A future blog post will be devoted to this book whenever I can obtain a copy.
The long-unsung heroine in the Church of Light’s history has recently been featured in an excellent scholarly study on the history of yoga. The striking thesis of Mark Singleton in Yoga Body is that “the reciprocal influence of `harmonial’ gymnastic systems (like the American Delsartism of Genevieve Stebbins…) and modern hatha yoga is enormous.”(p. 71) While Stebbins is remembered now almost entirely as a pioneer in the history of women’s exercise and dance, the “gentler stretching, deep breathing, and `spiritual’ relaxation colloquially known in the West today as `hatha yoga’ are best exemplified by variants of the harmonial gymnastics developed by Stebbins…and others— as well as the stretching regimes of secular women’s physical culture with which they overlap.”(p. 160) Singleton’s book has been praised by an impressive array of scholarly authorities on yoga. His bibliography runs more than thirty pages and his evidence and reasoning are impeccable. But the book is also compulsively readable for anyone with more than a passing interest in yoga. Encyclopedic knowledge of his subject is evident but every detail is relevant to the main argument of the book. Four pages of the chapter “Harmonial Gymnastics and Esoteric Dance” are devoted to Stebbins, who is described as “extremely influential in forging esoteric systems of `harmonial’ movement associated with yoga that directly prefigure (and enable) the `spiritual stretching’ breathing, and relaxation regimes in the popular practice of yoga today.” (p. 143)
Genevieve Stebbins earned international fame as the great popularizer of the teachings of French acting and singing teacher Francois Delsarte (1811-71) who “became famous in Europe for his theory of esthetic principles applied to the pedagogy of dramatic expression…” By the time Stebbins emerged as a Delsarte teacher she was affiliated with the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. Singleton concludes that “She brought these esoteric influences…to bear on her interpretation of Delsartism… to American audiences [which] initiated a veritable Delsarte craze”(p. 144) Her success in this endeavor recalls that of another former actress. The high point of Emma Hardinge Britten’s popularity was her activity in California stumping for Abraham Lincoln in 1864. Her stage presence as an actress and musician contributed to her later success as a political and Spiritualist propagandist; Stebbins likewise evolved from beginnings as an actress to a career as a propagandist. If we consider her cause to have been harmonial women’s gymnastics, it seems a quaint and obscure claim to fame. But Singleton persuasively argues that Stebbins was a highly effective propagandist for what we now know as hatha yoga, even though that was not the terminology she used. Recent studies cited by Singleton estimate that 15 million Americans and 2.5 million Britons practice hatha yoga regularly. He argues convincingly that what they call yoga owes as much to Stebbins and similar teachers as it does to any Indian tradition.
Stebbins’s Dynamic Breathing and Harmonic Gymnastics: A Complete System of Psychical, Aesthetic, and Physical Culture (1892) is as described by Singleton “a combination of callisthenic movement, deep respiration exercises, relaxation, and creative mental imagery within a harmonial religious framework. It is, in Stebbins’s words, `a completely rounded system for the development of body, brain and soul,’ a system of training which shall bring this grand trinity of the human microcosm into one continuous, interacting unison and remove the `inharmonious mental states’ that lead to discord.”(p. 146) Students of the Brotherhood of Light lessons may find some of these concepts quite familiar, and I suspect that Stebbins authored or strongly influenced some of the lessons. Both she and Astley are remembered in CofL lore as having assisted Burgoyne, but they might have first known him separately and in different places, rather than together in California. Her European travels are dated 1881 and 1885, and Astley’s US immigration was in 1885, but they did not marry until 1893 and the early history of their partnership is elusive. I am currently working on ancestry.com trying to sort out the chronology of Astley and Stebbins and their peregrinations in England, America, and India. From the point of view of identifying the network of 19th century adepts from whom the Church of Light descends, Genevieve Stebbins and Norman Astley are the key figures ensuring the movement’s survival in California. They will be the subject of future blog posts here as I learn more about their role in the Church of Light’s history.