The First Leaf of T.S. History

H. S. Olcott

Originally published in The Theosophist, November 1890.

I have just come across a fragment of the MS. of my first Anniversary Address as President-Founder, and hope to interest our members in its contents. Its date is October 4, 1876 [sic], and it was delivered at our rooms in Mott Memorial Hall, in the city of New York. The seeing of it brought back in a rush all the memories of that baby-age of our Theosophical movement; that time of bright hopes, perfect trust, and fond illusions. It also recalled the recollection of the crumbling away of certain illusions we had been under when the Irving Place group of ladies and gentlemen agreed, upon my motion, to form a body, which became in due course the Theosophical Society. The imminence of its coming Fifteenth Anniversary lends an interest to this first leaf of the Society’s history, and induces me to point [sic] the lesson it contains.

It will be remembered by some that the meeting above referred to was an informal gathering of friends and acquaintances, to the number of a dozen or so, in Madame Blavatsky’s parlour, to listen to Mr. George H. Felt’s explanation of a certain alleged discovery by him of the Lost Canon of Proportion, by use of which the peerless architects of Greece had built their temples and forms. His lecture, illustrated by a set of very fine coloured drawings, was tenfold heightened in interest by his assertion that he had not only found, on reading the hieroglyphs, that the elemental spirits were largely used in the temple mysteries, but he had even deciphered the mantrams by which they were subjugated, had practically tested them, and found them efficacious. In the company present were several old Spiritualists, myself included, of open mind, who were ready and willing to investigate this subject, even though they should be compelled to face a myriad demons angry at those who might invade their mysterious domain. As for myself, I had acquired a full conviction of their existence and of the power of man to subjugate them, from seeing many phenomena produced by Madame Blavatsky under non- (rather, I should say, anti-) mediumistic conditions. I had also come to know of the existence of initiated magical adepts in Egypt, India and certain other parts of the world. The chance, therefore, of being able, with Mr. Felt’s help and without dragging in the names of either of my Teachers, to throw such a flood of light upon the problem of psychical phenomena, at once suggested itself to my mind; so I wrote on a slip of paper a line or two asking H.P.B. if she thought it a good idea to propose the formation of such a Society, got Mr. Judge to pass it over to her to the opposite side of the room, and, upon her nodding assent, rose and, after making some remarks about the lecture and lecturer, asked if the company present would join me in organizing a society of research in the department covered by Mr. Felt’s alleged discovery. I dwelt upon the materialistic tendencies of the age and the desire of mankind to get absolute proof of immortality; pointing to the enormous spread of the spiritualistic movement as the best evidence of the fact, and hinting at the possibility of our being helped in our philanthropic work by the Teachers, from whom H.P.B. had learnt what she knew, if we seriously and unselfishly set ourselves to study. Among the friends present was a Unitarian clergyman, who had an editorial connection with a religious paper, and his not very full report of that meeting – which lies before me as I write – brings back the scene vividly to my memory. The suggestion was taken up at once, Mr. Felt promised to show us his elementals, and to direct our studies; the formation of the Society was unanimously voted, I was elected President pro. tem., and a committee was appointed to draft the necessary code of rules and declaration of principles. I have given these facts more briefly before. The meeting occurred late in August (1875), the By-Laws Committee had several sessions; on the 16th October a meeting of the members was called to discuss, and one on the 30th to adopt, the draft finally agreed upon. On the latter occasion an adjourned meeting was appointed for the formal inauguration of the officers and the opening address of the President. Thus the executive life of the Society dates from the evening last specified. The officers chosen were the following:

President: Henry S. Olcott.

Vice-Presidents: S. Pancoast, M.D., and George Henry Felt.

Corresponding Secretary: H. P. Blavatsky

Recording Secretary: John Storer Cobb, LL.D.

Treasurer: Henry J. Newton.

Librarian: Charles Sotheran.

Councillors: Rev. J. H. Wiggin, Emma Hardinge Britten,
R. B. Westbrook, D.D., LL. D., C. E. Simmons, M.D.,
Herbert D. Monachesi.

Council to the Society: Wm. Q. Judge.

Mr. Charles Carleton Massey, Barrister-at-Law, of London, was present at the meeting of October 30, joined the Society, and thus became one of its co-founders. Later, the famous and honored Mr. William Stainton Moses, M.A. (Oxon), already an active correspondent of mine – and ever since a dear friend – joined us, as did also Miss Kislingbury, the then General Secretary of the British Spiritualists’ Association, and other excellent persons. They ultimately organized in the year 1878, with the help of Dr. Storer Cobb as my official Delegate, the first of our Branches, the British T.S., now known as the London Lodge T.S., under a charter issued by me in 1876.

The originally declared objects of the Theosophical Society were the study of occult science and esoteric philosophy, in theory and practice, and the popularisation of the facts throughout the world. The original Preamble says: “In other words they (the Founders) hope that by going deeper than modern science has hitherto done into the Esoteric philosophies of ancient times, they may be enabled to attain for themselves and other investigators, proof of the existence of an ‘Unseen Universe,’ the nature of its inhabitants, if such there be, and the laws which govern them and their relations with mankind.” In a word, our hope was to acquire this occult knowledge with the aid of Mr. Felt and H.P.B. That our ideas were eclectic and non-sectarian is clearly shown in the second paragraph of our Preamble:

“Whatever may be the private opinions of its members, the Society has no dogmas to enforce, no creed to disseminate. It is formed neither as a Spiritualistic schism, nor to serve as the foe or friend of any sectarian or philosophic body. Its only axiom is the omnipotence of truth, its only creed a profession of unqualified devotion to its discovery and propagation. In considering the qualifications of applicants for membership, it knows neither race, sex, color, country nor creed”.

I drafted this document myself, and this is the platform upon which we took our stand, and have been standing ever since. There is no distinct formulation as yet of the now-known “Three Objects,” but the Universal Brotherhood clause is mirrored in the eclecticism above expressed, and the study of Oriental Literature in the eleventh paragraph of the Preamble, where it is said that “The Founders being baffled in every attempt to get the desired knowledge in other quarters, turn their faces toward the Orient, whence are derived all systems of religion and philosophy.” The modesty of our pretensions may be gauged by this concluding paragraph of the document in question:

“The Theosophical Society, disclaiming all pretension to the possession of unusual advantages, all selfish motives, all disposition to wilfully and causelessly injure any established organization, invites the fraternal co-operation of such as can realise the importance of its field of labor, and are in sympathy with the objects for which it has been organized.”

Our first bitter disappointment was the failure of Mr. Felt to fulfil his promises. With difficulty I got him to give one or two more lectures, but he never showed us so much as the wag of the tail of a vanishing elemental. H.P.B., then working night and day upon her first book, “Isis Unveiled,” soon refused to even attend our meetings, let alone do so much at them as make the smallest phenomenon – though she was continually astounding her visitors with them at her own house – and so, naturally enough, the leading Spiritualists in the Society became dissatisfied and dropped out. Forced, contrary to all my expectations, to keep up the interest at the meetings and carry the whole load myself, while at the same time attending to my professional business and helping H.P.B. on “Isis,” I did what I could in the way of getting psychometers, clairvoyants, mesmerisers, and spiritual mediums to show us sundry phases of psychical science. Gradually a correspondence grew up with home and foreign fellow students, and so the year wore away, and the evening arrived when my first annual address was delivered. Unfortunately the second half of the MS. is missing, so that I cannot give a complete survey of the year’s work. The chief topics I find in the portion before me are these: (a) the completion of the first draft of “Isis Unveiled” – which was re-written twice and finally published by J. W. Bouton, of New York, on the 29th September 1877; (b) the public celebration of the funeral rites of one of our members, Baron de Palm, a Bavarian nobleman, whose body I publicly cremated in the month of December following, this being the beginning of the now popular cremation movement in America; (c) the rescue from starvation and return to their own country in charge of one of our members, Mr. Edward Spaulding, of a party of destitute Tunisian Arabs who had found their way to New York; (d) the testing of the mediumship of Dr. Slade, by request of the professors of the St. Petersburg University, and the sending of him there under a contract executed by me with him on their behalf; (e) the successful attempts of four of our members to project their astral bodies and visit distant friends. One case in point I may cite here, since I had the gentleman’s permission at the time to make it known: –

“One of our Fellows who resides in Europe, and who has been more successful in his experiments than any other of us, has been in the habit of lying upon his settee for an hour, after dressing himself in the morning, and trying to go out of his body. One night as I was at work at my table intently engaged upon the matter in hand, I heard a low, indescribable sound, and turning my head quickly I saw, as though he were a phantom, our European friend. Before I could speak to him, he was gone. Upon the table lay a small diary, in which were given the differences in time between the principal cities in the world. Turning to it I noted the hour it then was in the place where the sleeper must be lying at that time, and at once wrote to him the particulars. Ten days later I received a letter by post from him, telling me that at an hour which corresponded exactly with the one I had noted, he had succeeded in getting across the water, and seeing me. Our letters had crossed each other on the way – mine reaching him at about the same time that I received his. The name of this gentleman, I am allowed to say, is W. Stainton-Moses, a Professor in University College, London.”

The Address touches upon the interesting facts of the revival of the word “Theosophy” after it had been so long under the ban, and of the possibility of forming a Theosophical Society in the clean air of progressive American thought; and note is taken of the instant notoriety given to our undertaking by the press of the whole world: the bitter assaults of the Spiritualistic Papers upon us, and a recent one by the most noted medium-lecturer of the day, pretending to speak under the control of disembodied human spirits. There were words of reproach and admonition in the Address to such members as had joined us merely to come and see miracles. It says:

“The Theosophical Society was the last place of all to visit, if miracle-seeing were the only object in view. Its Founders made no contract to develop mediums or magicians, but, on the contrary, expressly declared that what we did must mainly be done at home, by ourselves individually. The semi-monthly meetings, it was remarked in the President’s Inaugural, would be devoted to a comparison of personal experiences, the reading of correspondence, and the making of such experiments as would succeed in a mixed assemblage.”

Observe how exactly the developments of character among our members of the first year tally with those of every other one down to the present: a majority come to gape and be astonished, to get psychical powers for selfish ends without personal effort, a minority are prompted by the yearning after knowledge, the wish to purge away false ideas, and the strong desire to help mankind to see through error, extinguish ignorance, prejudice and selfishness, and to knit themselves together in a common friendship of races and creeds.

The above is a plain, unvarnished narrative of the beginnings of the Theosophical Society as it appears from the outside. No fact has been suppressed or distorted, and no coloring given of magic or mystery. No phenomenal dropping of MSS. out of space occurred, no fairy bells rang out joy-peals, no Eastern magician suddenly appeared among us. I got no “order” to make the Society, nor was any such thing assumed by anybody in the room. The evolution of the Society was – as events now clearly prove – an inevitable incident in our contemporary social progress. The provocation of the suggestion lay in my long-felt and practical interest in psychical science, now fanned into a hot flame by H.P.B.’s phenomena, my fresh contact with Eastern adepts, and the apparently easy means of contributing enormously, with Mr. Felt’s help and H.P.B.’s participation, to the current knowledge of the astral world and its races. The idea sprang up in my mind as naturally and spontaneously as possible, as such ideas do usually occur in one’s every-day experience. But a deeper problem lies back of this mental fact. Did the thought of forming, first a group of students, to be known as the “Miracle Club”, which I broached publicly shortly before, but which had to be abandoned because our intended experimental medium, one David Dana – brother of the present Editor of the N. Y. Sun – failed us utterly, and afterwards the Theosophical Society, really spring from my own brain, or was it put there ab extra, by some master of thought transference? That is a question that cannot be judicially settled in the absence of Mahatma judges and advanced Chela jurymen. What my belief may be is not legal evidence, nor can the case be ever determined, on this plane of consciousness. But here is one analogous fact, of the nature of valid proof to me, not heretofore published, to the best of my recollection, – though it may have been. The Spiritual Scientist (Boston, U. S. A.) of that time contains as [sic] leading article a circular headed “Important to Spiritualists”, and signed “For the Committee of Seven, Brotherhood of Luxor.?..” I wrote it myself, alone in my room, away from H.P.B. – in another city, in fact – and, so far as I know, from every other hypnotising agent. The document comprises six paragraphs as finally printed, my first draft having been corrected and the matter re-arranged in what seemed to me a better order. My mental state was an active one, my thoughts were clear, my judgment cool and calm; certainly, therefore, it was the opposite to the mental condition of mediumship, viz., passivity. This made the sequel all the more striking. I had the document separately printed as a circular, and, as a matter of taste, ordered the printer to do the initial of each paragraph in red ink, the rest being in black. The next time I saw H.P.B. I handed her a copy of the printed document, which she took to read, and presently began laughing. Then she asked me to read the word that the red initials composed, reading from the top downward. Imagine my stupefaction to find that they spelt the name of the very adept – an Egyptian – from whom, through H.P.B., I had been for some time receiving my esoteric teaching! If anything was ever calculated to make a beginner in psychical study hesitate before dogmatising about independent mental phenomena, this was. It struck like a thunderbolt; it meant so much.