Helena Petrovna Blavatsky

1831 -1891


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The Theosophical Society

gets off the Ground

New York 1875



H P Blavatsky had spent decades in moving from around the world relentlessly searching for data having to do with a widespread tradition as to the existence of a hidden knowledge and secret cultivation of man's higher psychic and spiritual capabilities. Supposedly the wielder of unusual abilities in this line, she was driven by the very character of her endowment to seek for the deeper science which pertained to the evolution of such gifts, and at the same time a philosophy of life in general which would explain their hidden significance. To establish, first, the reality of such phenomena, and then to construct a system that would furnish the possibility of understanding this mystifying segment of experience, was unquestionably the main drive of her mental interests in early middle life. 


H P Blavatsky was guided by the character of the situation in which she found herself, and also, it seems, by the advice of her Master, she chose to ride into her new venture upon the crest of the Spiritualist waves. America was chosen to be the hatching center of Theosophy because it was at the time the heart and center of the Spiritualist movement. It was felt that Theosophy would elicit a quick response from persons already imbued with spiritistic ideas. It cannot be disputed that Madame Blavatsky and Col. Olcott worked with the Spiritualists for a brief period and launched the Society from within the ranks of the Spiritualist Movement. As a matter of fact it was the work of this pair of Theosophists that gave Spiritualism a fresh impetus in the United States after a period of waning interest about 1874.


Spiritualists, and the public generally, assumed that of course their activity indicated that they subscribed to the usual tenets of the mainstream spiritualism and that they accepted the phenomena for what they purported to be, i.e.,

actual communications in all cases from the spirits of former human beings. However true this estimate may have been as appertaining to Col. Olcott--and even to him it had a fast diminishing applicability after his meeting with H.P.B.--it was certainly not true of her. Madame Blavatsky shortly became the mark of Spiritualistic attack for the apparent reversal ofher original attitude toward the movement and her presumed betrayal of the cause.


The break with Spiritualism and the launching of the Theosophical Society organization does not on the surface appear to have been a deliberate act of Madame Blavatsky. While it would never have been organized without her presence and her influence, still she was not the prime mover in the steps which brought it into being. She seems merely to have gone along while others led. However her Society grew out of the stimulus that had gone forth from her.


It was Col. Henry Steele Olcott who assumed the rôle of outward leader in the young movement. He gave over (eventually) a lucrative profession as a corporation lawyer, an agricultural expert, and an official of the government, to expend all his energies in this enterprise. He had acquired the title of colonel during the Civil War in the Union army's manoeuvres in North Carolina. At the close of the war he had been chosen by the government to conduct some investigations into conditions relative to army contracts in the Quartermaster's Department and had discharged his duties with great efficiency, receiving the approbation of higher officials. He was regarded as an authority on agriculture and lectured before representative bodies on that subject. He had established a successful practice as a corporation counsel, numbering the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company among his clients. In addition to these activities he had done much reportorial work for the press, notably in connection with his Spiritualistic researches. His authorship of several works on the phenomena has already been mentioned. His career had achieved for him a record of high intelligence, great ability, and a character of probity and integrity.


It was the belief of founders of the Theosophical Movement that he was expressly chosen by the Mahatmas to share with Madame Blavatsky the honor and the labor of spreading her message in the world. A passage from the Mahatma Letters puts this in clear light.


The Master K.H. there says:


"So, casting about, we found in America the man to stand as leader--a man of great moral courage, unselfish, and having other good qualities. He was far from being the best, but--he was the best one available. . . . We sent her to America, brought them together--and the trial began. From the first both she and he were given to understand that the issue lay entirely with themselves."


In spite of difficulties, caused by the clash of temperaments and policies, this odd, "divinely-constituted" partnership held firmly together until the end. Their relationship was one of a loyal camaraderie, both being actuated by an uncommon devotion to the same cause.



As early as May, 1875, the Colonel had suggested the formation of a "Miracle Club," to continue spiritistic investigation. His proposal was made in the interest of psychic research. It was not taken up. But Madame Blavatsky's sprightly evening chatter and her reported magical feats continued to draw groups of intelligent people to her rooms. Among those thus attracted was Mr. George H. Felt, who had made some careful studies in phases of Egyptology. He was asked to lecture on these subjects and on the 7th of September, 1875, a score of people had gathered in H.P.B.'s parlors to hear his address on "The Lost Canon of Proportion of the Egyptians." Dr. Seth Pancoast, a most erudite Kabbalist was present, and after the lecture he led the discussion to the subject of the occult powers of the ancient magicians. Mr. Felt said he had proven those powers and had with them evoked elemental creatures and "hundreds of shadowy forms." As the tense debate proceeded, acting on an impulse, Col. Olcott wrote on a scrap of paper, which he passed over to Madame Blavatsky through the hands of Mr. W. Q. Judge, the following: "Would it not be a good thing to form a Society for this kind of study?" She read it and indicated assent.


Col. Olcott arose and


"after briefly sketching the present condition of the Spiritualistic movement; the attitude of its antagonists, the Materialists; the irrepressible conflict between science and the religious sectaries; the philosophical character of the ancient theosophies and their sufficiency to reconcile all existing antagonisms; . . . he proposed to form a nucleus around which might gather all the enlightened and brave souls who are willing to work together for the collection and diffusion of knowledge.


His plan was to organize a Society of Occultists and begin at once to collect a library; and to diffuse information concerning those secret laws of Nature which were so familiar to the Chaldeans and Egyptians, but are totally unknown to our modern world of science."*


* Old Diary Leaves, Vol. I, p. 119. From notes taken at the meeting by Mrs. Emma Hardinge Britten, and published a day or two later in a New York daily.



It was a plain proposal to organize for occult research, for the extension of human knowledge of the esoteric sciences, and for a study of the psychic possibilities in man's nature. No religious or ethical or even philosophical interest can be detected in the first aims. The Brotherhood plank was a later development, and the philosophy was an outgrowth of the necessity of rationalizing the scientific data brought to light. The very nature of the movement committed it, of course, to an anti-materialistic view. Col. Olcott was still predominantly concerned to get demonstrative psychic displays. He was made Chairman, and Mr. Judge, Secretary.


It is interesting to note the personnel of this first gathering of Theosophists.


"The company included several persons of great learning and some of wide personal influence. The Managing Editors of two religious papers; the co-editors of two literary magazines; an Oxford LL.D.; a venerable Jewish scholar and traveler of repute; an editorial writer of one of the New York morning dailies; the President of the New York Society of Spiritualists; Mr. C. C. Massey an English barrister at law; Mrs. Emma Hardinge Britten and Dr. Britten; two New York lawyers besides Col. Olcott; a partner in a Philadelphia publishing house; a well-known physician; and . . . Madame Blavatsky herself."


At a late hour the meeting adjourned until the following evening, when organization could be more fully effected. Those who were present at the Sept. 8th meeting, and who thus became the actual formers (Col. Olcott insists on the word instead of Founders, reserving that title to Madame Blavatsky and himself) of the Theosophical Society, were: Col. Olcott, H. P. Blavatsky, Chas.Sotheran, Dr. Chas. E. Simmons, H. D. Monachesi, C. C. Massey, of London, W. L. Alden, G. H. Felt, D. E. deLara, Dr. W. Britten, Mrs. E. H. Britten, Henry J. Newton, John Storer Cobb, J. Hyslop. W. Q. Judge, H. M. Stevens. A By-Law Committee was named, other routine business attended to, a general discussion held and adjournment taken to Sept. 13th. Mr.Felt gave another lecture on Sept. 18th, after which several additional members were nominated, the name, "The Theosophical Society," proposed, and a committee on rooms chosen. Several October meetings were held in furtherance of the Society; and on the 17th of November, 1875, the movement reached the final stage of constitutional organization. Its President was Col. Henry Olcott; Vice-Presidents, Dr. Seth Pancoast and G. H. Felt; Corresponding Secretary, Madame H. P. Blavatsky; Recording Secretary, John S. Cobb; Treasurer, Henry J. Newton; Librarian, Chas. Sotheran; Councillors, Rev. H. Wiggin, R. P. Westbrook, LL. D., Mrs. E. H. Britten, C. E. Simmons, and Herbert D. Monachesi; Counsel to the Society,

W. Q. Judge. Mr. John W. Lovell, the New York publisher, has the distinction of having paid the first five dollars (initiation fee) into the treasury, and is at the present writing the only surviving member of the founding group. At the November 17th meeting the President delivered his inaugural address. It was an amplification of his remarks made at the meeting of Sept. 7th, with some prognostications of what the work of the Society was destined to mean in the changing conceptions of modern thought.


The infant Society did not at once proceed to grow and expand. The chief

reason for this was that Mr. Felt, whose theories had been the immediate object of strongest interest, and who was expected to be the leader and teacher in their quest of the secrets of ancient magic, for some unaccountable reason failed them utterly. His promised lectures were never scheduled, his demonstrations of spirit-evocation never shown. This disappointment weighed heavily upon some of the members. Mrs. Britten, Mr. Newton, and the other Spiritualists in the group, finding that Madame Blavatsky was not disposed to investigate mediums in the conventional fashion, or in any way to make the Society an adjunct of the Spiritualistic movement, suffered another disappointment and became inactive or openly withdrew. Mr. Judge and Col. Olcott were busy with their professional labors, and Madame Blavatsky had plunged into the writing of Isis Unveiled. The Society fell into the state of "innocuous desuetude," and was domiciled solely in the hearts of three persons, Olcott, Judge, and Madame Blavatsky. However dead it might be to all outward appearance, it still lived in the deep convictions of this trio. True, an occasional new recruit was admitted, two names in particular being worthy of remark. On April 5th, 1878, Col. Olcott received the signed application for membership from a young inventor, one Thomas Alva Edison, and near the same time General Abner W. Doubleday, veteran Major-General in the Union Army, united with the Society. Edison had been attracted by the objects of the Society, largely because of certain experiences he had had in connection with the genesis of some of his ideas for inventions. They had seemed to come to him from an inner intelligence independent of his voluntary thought control.


Also he had experimented to determine the possibility of moving physical objects by exertion of the will. He was doubtless in close sympathy with the purposes of the Society, but the main

currents of his mechanical interests drew him away from active coöperation with it. As for Major-General Doubleday, Theosophy gave articulate voice to theories as to life, death, and human destiny which he had long cherished without a formal label. He stated that it was the Theosophic idea of Karma which had maintained his courage throughout the ordeals of the Civil War and he testified that his understanding of this doctrine nerved him to pass with entire fearlessness through those crises in which he was exposed to fire. When Theosophy was brought to his notice he cast in his lot with the movement and was a devoted student and worker while he lived. When the two Founders left America at the end of 1878 for India, Col. Olcott constituted General Doubleday the President of the American body.



From more info on the early years of the Theosophical Society


History of the Theosophical Society


The Theosophical Society: Its Origin, Plan and Aims

By H S Olcott with H P Blavatsky


1876 – 1878  Influence Grows Despite Inactivity


The Original Programme of the Theosophical Society


A 1907 article assessing the early progress of the Theosophical Society

The Vicissitudes of Theosophy By A P Sinnett



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