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Volume XVIII

Index of Contents


Theosophical History: Vol. XVIII, No. 1-2
January – April 2016

H. P. Blavatsky’s hitherto unpublished letter to James Ralston Skinner is one of great consequence.  Despite its relative obscurity, evidence of its existence has been previously alluded to by J. D. Buck (Modern World Movements) and Boris de Zirkoff (BCW VIII, 220).  Blavatsky herself mentioned the recipient of the letter on numerous occasions, clearly revealing her admiration of his great learning as demonstrated in his ”wonderfully clever and erudite volume, The Source of Measures” (BCW XIII, 258).  Indeed, it is no accident that Skinner is “constantly mentioned” in The Secret Doctrine.  In his overview of letter’s recipient, Assistant Editor Jerry Hejka-Ekins has observed that both the author and his Source of Measures are mentioned more often in The Secret Doctrine than any other author with the exception of Plato, a remarkable observation given the relative obscurity of both Skinner and his work.  It is no surprise that John Drais considered the book important enough to compile his Index of Hebrew and Numerical Terms contained in The Source of Measures by J. Ralston Skinner.

Blavatsky’s opinion of J. Ralston Skinner was not limited to her private comments in this letter.  In Volume XIV of the Blavatsky Collected Writings, we find this public assessment:

“The Key to the Hebrew Egyptian Mystery, in which a learned Mason of Cincinnati, Ralston Skinner, unveils the riddle of a God, with such ungodly ways about him as the Biblical Yah-ve, is followed by the establishment of a learned society under the presidentship of a gentleman from Ohio and four vice-presidents, one of whom is Piazzi Smyth, the well-known Astronomer and Egyptologist (91).”

Because of her high esteem for Skinner, it is surprising that no previous attempt was made to publish this 36-page letter.  For this we are grateful to Jeffrey Lavoie for his initiative and efforts at transcribing and photographing the letter.  In his introduction,  Mr. Lavoie has noted a number of important observations, including Blavatsky’s praise of Skinner as a “great mathematician” and “an (occult) genius,” her desire to cite him properly in her forthcoming masterpiece (The Secret Doctrine) that appeared the following year (1888), her observations regarding the Masters as living men and not Spirits, her unrestrained disposition and academic weakness, and finally her negative, even anti-Semitic attitude toward Jews.

The publication of the transcript of the letter together with selective pages taken from the original was scheduled to occur shortly after receipt of the material, but upon reviewing the transcription and comparing it with the sometimes undecipherable script, it was only prudent to delay publication until it was certain that the text was accurately rendered.  More than one set of eyes were necessary to accomplish this, so I invited Mr. Hejka-Ekins to participate in the transcription of the letter.  As an expert on all things Theosophical and as founder and head of the Alexandria West Archives, I was confident that the problems confronted could be readily overcome.  One additional problem that we soon discovered was the discovery of several lacunae in the letter.  Fortunately, the Alexandria West Archives contained an anonymous transcript  of the letter that was prepared  in the 1980s by several Theosophical students.  The transcription, though filled with numerous misreadings, proved invaluable because it supplied the missing pages and established their proper order.

By the time the transcription of the letter was completed, there were still problems regarding the accuracy of the transcription of selected words, phrases, and even whole sentences. Furthermore, it was obvious that the sole reliance on the Andover-Harvard  transcription was insufficient and unsound.  Only the original letter could serve as ultimate basis of our transcription, necessitating access to the letter at the Andover-Harvard Library.

In 2015, Mr. Hejka-Ekins and I visited the Andover-Harvard Library to view the Skinner Collection and to examine the Blavatsky letter.  It soon became clear, upon examination of the original, why Mr. Lavoie had such a difficult time in assembling the letter and transcribing its contents.  Reading the original letter was no easy task.  Its decipherment presented difficulties regarding the determination of capitalization, underlining spelling, and punctuation.  Certain words could be transcribed with almost equal certainty in two ways, for instance, “member” or “number.”  In order to acquire the most accurate reading,  Mr. Hejka-Ekins and I have reviewed the letter both in tandem and separately.  On numerous occasions the meaning of passages only became obvious upon multiple readings.

A decision regarding the editing of the letter also had to be resolved.  I made the decision to remain faithful to the style and content of the letter, so there were no changes in style, grammar, or content.  Some guesswork was necessary for reasons stated above, so there is every possibility that disagreements may arise regarding the reading.  If mistakes were committed, I take full responsibility.  We would like to declare the transcription as perfect but such is probably not the case. Corrections have continued over many months with each reading and revision leading to a more perfect reading. That is all we can hope for at this stage.

There is no doubt that delaying the publication of the letter has resulted in a more accurate transcription.  The delay also led to the growing realization that the letter’s contents required explanatory notes. To be as unobtrusive as possible, these notes are placed at the end of the letter.

Other benefits resulted from this delay.  One was the ability to place the letter and its recipient in a more revealing light.  During the time of our preparation of the letter and subsequent research, a new and important publication appeared, Letters to the Sage: Selected Correspondence of Thomas Moore Johnson: Volume One: The Esotericists (see note 4).  The volume was anticipated since one of the co-editors, Patrick Bowen, mentioned its forthcoming publication in his article, “Magicians, Muslims, and Metaphysicians: The American Esoteric Avant-Garde in Missouri, 1880-1889.”  He introduced the article by remarking that it draws largely from the personal papers of Thomas M. Johnson, which have until now remained almost completely unmined for their value in esoteric studies.  Johnson’s papers contain hundreds of letters from individuals connected to the esoteric movement in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, numerous official documents of the T. S., as well as H. B.  of L. teaching materials.

Among the letters included in Letters to the Sage, it was fortuitous that Skinner’s name appears in those of Jirah Dewey Buck and Silas H. Randall.  From this research, we now know that Skinner was part of the esoteric community in Cincinnati, which included Buck, Silas Herbert Randall, and Elmira Y. Howard.  Mr. Hejka-Ekins has expanded on these discoveries in his Introduction with the promise of an expanded biography sometime over the next two years.

The second discovery only came near the end of our research, but there is no doubt that it will be of great utility to any student of The Secret Doctrine.  Our research into the sources of the Blavatsky letter surprised us regarding the number of names and titles.  This research made me appreciate all the more the efforts of James and Ina Belderis and other unnamed collaborators of The Theosophical Society (Pasadena), to locate and list all the sources of The Secret Doctrine. When I first became aware of “Secret Doctrine References,” only the sources associated with Volume I were completed. Now, however, the sources cited in the second volume have been completed. No doubt these references will prove to be invaluable to researchers.  For the easiest access click on “Study References” in the left column of the home page, http://www.theosociety.org/pasadena/ts/h_tsintro.htm.

In conclusion, this project could not have been undertaken and brought to a successful conclusion without the assistance of the Curator of the Manuscripts and Archives Office and of the James Ralston Skinner papers, Ms. Frances O’Donnell.  She has proven to be invaluable in allowing us unrestricted access to the James Ralston Skinner Collection.  We extend our thanks and gratitude to both Ms. O’Donnell and to the Andover-Harvard Library.

Editor’s Comments James Santucci
Response to Robert A. Gilbert Jeffrey Lavoie
Isis Unveiled on Metempsychosis and Transmigration: A Reply to Julie Chajes’ Paper Pablo Sender
Letter from H. P. Blavatsky to James Ralston Skinner: Dated February 17, 1887 Transcribed by Jeffrey Lavoie
Edited, amended, and annotated by Jerry Hejka-Ekins and James A. Santucci
Contextualizing the Blavatsky-Skinner Letter: 17 February 1887 Jeffrey Lavoie
J. Ralston Skinner (1830–1893) Jerry Hejka-Ekins
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky: Activities from 1878–1887 James A. Santucci
Vanguard of the New Age: The Toronto Theosophical Society, 1891–1945
Ted G. Davy
Leo Rising: The Story of the Astrological Lodge of London Nicholas Campion

 


Theosophical History: Vol. XVIII, No. 3-4 
July – October 2016

This issue highlights the research of three scholars—John P. Deveney, Massimo Introvigne, and Jeffrey Lavoie.  The first article, Mr. Deveney’s poignant “Albert Leighton Rawson, Initiate of the Brotherhood of Lebanon, Bigamist, Plagiarist and Felon, and D. M. Bennett, Agent of the Theosophical Masters, ‘Foul-Mouthed Libertine’ and ‘Apostle of Nastiness’,” focuses on the nocuous activities of two individuals who had a peripheral role to play in Theosophical history.

The second article by Dr. Introvigne discusses the role of the Theosophical Society primarily through the activities of the painter Tomás Povedano de Arcos (1847–1943), the first president of the Virya Lodge of the T.S. established in San José.

Dr. Lavoie investigates what he considers two  “philosophical shifts between the writing of Esoteric Buddhism and The Secret Doctrine”: the soteriological issue of annihilation and the evolutionary arguments surrounding the Mars-Mercury identity.

A. L. Rawson (1829–1902)—engraver, illustrator, landscape painter, author of books on religion, languages, and archaeology, and initiate of the Druze as Theosophical historians are aware—was an eyewitness and chronicler to a number of Madame Blavatsky’s early adventures.  This he did in two well-known articles, “Two Madame Blavatskys—The Acquaintance of Madame H. P. Blavatsky with Eastern Countries” and “Mme. Blavatsky. A Theosophical Occult Apology,” both of which were reprinted in Theosophical History.  Building on his status as chronicler, Rawson’s profile in recent times has increased in part because of the work of K. Paul Johnson, whose article, “Albert Rawson,” appeared in the July 1988 issue of Theosophical History (pp. 229–51), itself a revised text of his presentation at the 1987 Theosophical History Conference held in London.  A few years thereafter, Mr. Johnson’s investigations appeared in the early version of The Masters Revealed, followed by a revised version and expansion in the 1994 SUNY publication (25–30, 82–83).  Aside from his activities in the esoteric world, Rawson was, and is, known primarily as an illustrator and portrait and landscape artist, as noted in the Announcement of his death, which appears on page 189 of this issue.

In the October 2004 issue of Theosophical History, Mr. Deveney introduced a facet of A. L. Rawson’s character that questions his association with Madame Blavatsky in 1851.  To recount, Rawson claimed that he and Blavatsky were in the Near East in 1851 and 1852 before arriving in New York in 1853.  Mr. Deveney, however, questions Rawson’s claim because he was imprisoned from September 15, 1851 to June 22, 1852, raising doubts on Rawson’s claim.   Mr. Deveney reasonably concluded that one should not readily accept “standard claims about H. P. B.’s life.”

The article appearing in this issue adds to our knowledge of Mr. Rawson, and it is not positive since it addresses the charge of bigamy with his marriage to Mary D. Rawson in 1860.  Furthermore, the claim that he discovered the location of Mount Pisgah and Mount Nebo, the site where Moses viewed the Promised Land, was proven to be fraudulent by the Chancellor of the University of New York and noted Biblical commentator, Rev. Howard Crosby.

The negative assessment of the second subject of Mr. Deveney’s article, DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett (1818–1882), though less deserving than that of Rawson, is still justified, though not by reason of his numerous violations of the Comstock Act, which was an anti-obscenity federal statute passed in 1873 preventing both the “mailing or importation of obscene materials” and “information about contraception or abortion as well as items that might be used for contraception, abortion, or indecent purposes.”  In Bennett’s case, it was the unlawful mailing of material that came under the definition of obscenity.  From a broader historical perspective, both Bennett and Rawson were involved in the free thought movement, with Bennett organizing the National Liberal League and whose principles were defined in The Truth Seeker Collection of Forms, Hymns, and Recitations, subsequently published by Bennett.  Therein, he wrote that this progressive movement should operate under the watchwords of “UNION, FRATERNITY, ORGANIZATION” (p. 8); that its organizational name may be “Liberal Associations,” “Liberal Leagues,” “Free Religious Societies,” “Progressive Societies,” “Societies of Humanity,” etc. (8); and that its motto should be “Think for yourself, and express that thought! Freethought will give us Truth!!” (11).

As the editor and proprietor of the free thought journal, Truth Seeker, the argument could be made that Bennett was born in the wrong century.  He would certainly get a more sympathetic hearing in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries for violations as defined under the Comstock Act.  Less sympathetic, however, was Bennett’s commission of adultery, which came to light in the Religio-Philosophical Journal and Boston Herald.  Mr. Deveney’s reproach of Bennett, therefore, originates with his liaison with a young woman while supposedly living the life of a devout family man.  The charge, then, is based upon this hypocrisy.  Notwithstanding, as a side note, after more than 130 years after his death, Paul Johnson informs me that there is a website devoted to pardoning Bennett, located at dmbennettpardon.com.

Bennett’s inclusion within Theosophical lore was based upon an unfulfilled and enigmatic promise.  He appears in Mahatma Letter 37 (received Jan. 1882) from the chela Djual Khul, who, writing on behalf of K. H., identifies “a certain Mr. Bennett of America who will shortly arrive at Bombay…[as] one of our agents (unknown to himself) to carry out the scheme for the enfranchisement of Western thoughts from superstitious creeds.”

In the course of Mr. Deveney’s article, two articles were cited that promised to add a new perspective on Rawson’s view of Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society, “Personal Recollections of Sir Richard Francis Burton” and “Theosophical Thanks,” both included in this issue.  An excerpt from the first reveals Blavatsky as a “pretty young (grass) widow)” and in the second a sometimes sardonic and lampooning assessment of Blavatsky, an attitude not as noticeable in his other portrayals. Mr. Deveney’s revelations about Rawson are important, if only to assess the accuracy of his interpretation of Blavatsky’s personality and character from an eyewitness who most likely saw Blavatsky as a rival who could lessen his own standing.  If Bennett did not live up to the expectations of the Masters perhaps unbeknownst to himself, Rawson, on the other hand, committed the greater injustice by deliberately maligning Blavatsky as a fraud and by condemning the Theosophical Society as a moneymaking scheme.  This he did in his article “Theosophical Thanks,” which also contains some interesting observations, one totally unexpected.  Rawson accuses Blavatsky of separating husband from wife and family for the intention of creating “a useful order of helpers.”  She failed, he claims due to the efforts of C. W. Leadbeater and Isabel Cooper-Oakley.  To what incident was Rawson referring?  Here is a mystery that may never be solved.

The second article, “The Dream of Atlantis: Theosophy and National in Costa Rica by Massimo Introvigne, places his discussion of Theosophy in Costa Rica in the context of two versions of nationalism in Costa Rica: Catholic or Christian and secular.  The first type developed from the perception of its culture as primarily “white, Spanish, and Catholic,” but without completely excluding the Native American and African elements of the population; the second type, the secular, contains an esoteric element of which Theosophy is one of its expressions.  Although not surprising that Christianity is the dominant constituent of nationalism, one of its manifestations, as Dr. Introvigne observes, most surely is—the nation’s most popular sport, “soccer” or football, which helps define the national discourse to a great degree.

However interesting this is, it is the esoteric subset of the second version of nationalism that is investigated as expressed through Freemasonry and Theosophy.

Of the many individuals of importance mentioned, the painter Tomás Povedano de Arcos is the central figure, called the father of Theosophy in Central America.  As mentioned above, he was the first president of the Virya Lodge of the T.S. established in San José as also a noted painter, responsible for illustrating María Fernández Le Cappellain’s novel Zulai and its prequel Yontá.  Passages in these novels, parenthetically, are the reason for the appearance of “Atlantis” in the article’s title.  The island-continent appears later in Diego Povedano Amores’s novel Arausi as part of the esoteric history of Costa Rica and so portraying “the local race as a synthesis of Egypt, Europe, India, and Atlantis.”

One last observation that may be of interest is mention of Federico Alberto Tinoco Granados (1868–1931), the president of Costa Rica from 1917 to 1919 and husband of María Fernández, and their membership in Krishnamurti’s Order of the Star in the East.  All this is recounted in Sidney Field’s Krishnamurti: The Reluctant Messiah. In the book Field reveals that that he is the grandson of Tomás Povedano de Arcos (so the full name of the author is cited in the Spanish edition as Sidney Field Povedano).  Some of the backstory to the article is given in Field’s memoir.  Supportive of Dr. Introvigne’s mention of two versions of nationalism is the clash in microcosm.

The church versus Krishnamurti was the hottest issue of the day.  It culminated in the burning of the beautiful and newly built Theosophical temple, where members of the Order of the Star met.  A wild-eyed priest proudly confessed to setting the place on fire.  There were loud public protests, mostly among students, against the government and the church.  The bitter conflict played right into Tinoco’s clever hands.  In 1917 he overthrew the conservative church-backed government of Gonzalez Flores in a daring coup d’état.

The impact of the third article, Jeffrey Lavoie’s “Philosophical Shifts Between Esoteric Buddhism and The Secret Doctrine,” introduces a viewpoint that must be explored more deeply in future studies.  The philosophical shift is in part inspired by an early commentator of Theosophy, Arthur Lillie, who observed some variations, indeed contradictions of teachings between these two works and even within the same work.  The discussion is part of a much broader discussion on the evident varieties of Theosophical teaching.  One can argue, as has Stephen Prothero in his The White Buddhist, that two Theosophies existed in the 1870s and early 1880s: Blavatsky’s and Olcott’s, or according to J. P. Deveney’s interpretation of the early Theosophical Society engaging primarily in practical occult work during the 1870s and the second Society transforming into a “reading society devoted to parsing the works of Madame Blavatsky and attempting to unravel the theoretical secrets of the nature of man and the universe” during the 1880s.  With the publication of Esoteric Buddhism came a somewhat different version and vision of Theosophical teaching from Isis Unveiled, and before that, Blavatsky’s seminal article, “A Few Questions to ‘HIRAF*****.”  Differences do occur, such as the interpretation of reincarnation in Isis as opposed to that of The Secret Doctrine and “A Few Questions” but what was so significant, at least to my understanding, was the organization that Esoteric Buddhism brought to the teachings.  Also, there is no doubt the obvious consideration that Madame Blavatsky continued to increase her understanding of her conception of Theosophy by admitting that numerous errors in Isis Unveiled needed correction. No doubt she also needed to respond to the new revelations in Esoteric Buddhism.  Since Esoteric Buddhism revealed only fragments of the “Occult Science,” the implication could only be that The Secret Doctrine would assume that position.  This would have most likely been the case if Blavatsky completed the third or fourth volumes as conceived by Bertram and Archibald Keightley, The Secret Doctrine would indeed live up to being portrayed “the alpha and the omega of our Doctrine.”

Two book reviews also appear, one a little known review by Dion Fortune of the Hare brothers (H.E. and W. Loftus) Who Wrote the Mahatma Letters?  and the second a review of Daniel Guéguen’s Jean Delville. La contre-histoire.  I first became aware of the Dion Fortune’s review through Professor Joscelyn Godwin, who was researching the Mahatma letters in 2014.  While at the British Library, he located the review in the Hare brothers’ scrapbook and afterwards included a quote revealing Fortune’s verdict in his upcoming article, “The Mahatma Letters,” which will appear in the forthcoming Oxford University Press publication, The Early Theosophical Society and the East (edited by Tim Rudboeg and Erik Sands).  Once I came to know of the review, Leslie Price served as intermediary and arranged to send the copy through the aid of Alan Richardson and Gareth Knight, who typed the review from the Inner Light Magazine (July 1926), provided by the Society of the Inner Light.  To Mr. Richardson, Mr. Knight, Leslie Price, and the Society of the Inner Light I extend my thanks and appreciation for making the review accessible, and to Professor Godwin for sharing his draft article, “The Mahatma Letters.”

Dr. Introvigne, in his review of Jean Delville. La contre-histoire, emphasizes the author Daniel Guéguen’s attention to Delville’s continued association with the Theosophical world despite other commentators neglecting this aspect of his life.  Indeed, Dr. Introvigne argues that the key to understanding Delville is his continued association with the “messianic mission of Krishnamurti.”  Furthermore, similar to many Theosophists (J. D. Buck being one prominent example), Delville associated with other esoteric groups, including two that were particularly opposed in perspective to those of Theosophy and Martinism.  Mr. Guéguen, according to Dr. Introvigne, appears to solve this enigma.

Finally, Dr. Robert Gilbert’s communication brings to a close an exchange with Dr. Lavoie concerning the review of Dr. Lavoie’s book, A Search for Meaning in Victorian Religion. The Spiritual Journey and Esoteric Teachings of Charles Carleton Massey, which appeared in the October 2014 (Vol. XVII, No. 4) issue.  The review generated a response from Dr. Lavoie in the last issue (Jan. – Apr 2016, Vol. XVIII, No. 1 – 2).

Editor’s Comments James Santucci
Report on The International Theosophical History Conference: 17–18 September 2016 James Santucci 
C. C. Massey: A Review Revisited R. A. Gilbert
Theosophical Thanks (Freethinkers Magazine 9, No. 12 [December 1891], pp 701–709  A. L. Rawson
Announcement of Albert Rawson’s Death (The Free Thought Magazine, Vol. XX [1902], pp. 729–30
Excerpt from “Personal Recollections of Sir Richard Francis Burton, K.C.M.G., F.R.S., F.R.G.S.” (Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Vol. XXXIV, No. 5 [November, 1892], p. 574 A. L. Rawson
Albert Leighton Rawson, Initiate of the Brotherhood of Lebanon, Bigamist, Plagiarist and Felon, and D. M. Bennett, Agent of the Theosophical Masters, “Foul-Mouthed Libertine” and “Apostile of Nastiness” John Patrick Deveney
Jean Delville. La contre-histoire  Massimo Introvigne
Who Wrote the Mahatma Letters? Dion Fortune