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America, Theosophy in

The early history of the American Section of the Theosophical Society (TS) is very much interlinked with the founding of the Society itself. When the principal founders, Helena P. BLAVATSKY and Henry S. OLCOTT left the United States for India in late 1878, the welfare of the work in the States became the responsibility of another founder, William Quan JUDGE. By 1882, branches had been established in Rochester, New York and St. Louis, Missouri; in 1883, the Aryan Theosophical Society of New York was chartered and other branches in cities as far apart as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia were soon organized. In 1884, the President- Founder, H. S. Olcott, issued a “Special Order” to constitute a Board of Control for the central management of the American branches; E. B. Page of St. Louis was elected president of the Board. With the further growth of branches or lodges in the United States, the General Council of the Society authorized Olcott to send instructions to Judge to organize the American branches into a “Section” of the Society (the first time the term “Section” was used as a designation for what became known later as a National Society, chartered by Adyar). Accordingly, delegates from the various branches met in Cincinnati, Ohio, on October 30, 1886, and voted to organize the American Section as successor to the Board of Control, unanimously electing Judge as General Secretary and Treasurer. This was the first time in the Society’s history that the term “General Secretary” was adopted to describe a member so elected to serve “as the official channel of communication with the Adyar Headquarters.”

The headquarters of the Theosophical Society in America
The headquarters of the Theosophical Society in America

Earlier, in 1886, Judge had begun a theosophical journal known as The Path, which, with the establishment of the Section, became then its semi-official journal and the backbone of theosophical publicity throughout the country.

Following the death in London of H. P. Blavatsky, difficulties arose between Olcott and Judge as well as between Judge and Annie BESANT, who was by then taking a leading role in the Society’s affairs. These difficulties involved not only the management of the Society, but also the headship of what was then known as its Esoteric Section (E.S.). Finally, at the Ninth Annual Convention of the American Section, held in Boston (Massachusetts) on April 28-29, 1895, the delegates approved a motion prepared by J. D. Buck (one of the original group who established the Section), chairman of the Convention. The motion concluded with the words “. . . the American Section consisting of Branches of the Theosophical Society in America, in convention assembled, hereby assumes and declares its entire autonomy and that it shall be called from and after this date The Theosophical Society in America.” Judge was duly elected president of the autonomous body for life, with the power to nominate his successor.

When Olcott was notified of this action, he issued an Executive Order abrogating the charter of the Section, canceling the charters of the Branches which had voted for the “Act of Secession” (Olcott’s term) and appointed a committee from among the members loyal to Adyar “to supervise the proper organization of the new American Section of the Theosophical Society.” Alexander Fullerton, who had been Judge’s assistant since mid-1887, was elected General Secretary of the re-organized Society under the original 1886 charter. A magazine titled Mercury, which had been started for children by John Walters of San Francisco became the Section journal, until Fullerton replaced it with a new Section journal known as The Theosophic Messenger.

Under Fullerton’s leadership, the Section’s membership grew from approximately 100 at the time of the “secession” to well over 2500, when, in 1907, he retired from office and Weller Van HOOK, a prominent Chicago physician was elected his successor. Headquarters were then moved from New York to Chicago. During Van Hook’s tenure in office, 1907-1912, the Society continued to expand; he founded the Rajput Press and the Theosophic Book Corporation as well as a Karma and Reincarnation League. Retiring in 1912, Van Hook was succeeded by Albert P. WARRINGTON, a member of the Section’s Executive Committee who was also Besant’s personal representative and Corresponding Secretary of the E.S. Besant, then International President, following Olcott’s death, had commissioned Warrington to seek a location where a center might be established that was envisioned as representing the future colony written about by Charles Webster LEADBEATER in Man: Whence, How and Whither. When Warrington was elected to succeed Van Hook, he had just succeeded in founding, with a group of members as his co-workers, the center envisioned by Besant; it was called “Krotona” and was located in Hollywood, California. Therefore, the Headquarters of the Section was now re-located from Chicago to its new home on the west coast. As Warrington wrote; “We have named the new Headquarters Krotona because of our devotion to the ideals which were taught by the illustrious Pythagoras in his institute of Krotona, many centuries ago.”

Under Warrington, the Section’s activities continued to expand with “bureaus” established for such varied functions as library, correspondence courses, literature distribution, Scandinavian, Dutch and German propaganda, prison work, Bible study, etc. as well as the Order of the ROUND TABLE and the Order of the Star in the East. The KROTONA INSTITUTE and School had begun, with, it is recorded, 144 lectures on a variety of topics given during its first “summer school.” A new magazine was launched, The American Theosophist with The Theosophic Messengerbecoming a member’s supplement. By the close of Warrington’s first year in office, there were 129 branches and over 3500 members.

Meanwhile, the Society had become incorporated under the laws of the State of Illinois and by 1915 the title “National President” was adopted to designate the General Secretary of the Section. In 1919, the number of branches in Canada had grown to a sufficient number to be separated from the American Section and chartered as an independent National Society. In 1920 Mr. Warrington requested to be relieved of office and he was succeeded by the Vice-President, L. W. Rogers. Headquarters were now moved from its Krotona site in Hollywood to Chicago once again. (The Krotona property was subsequently sold, with the E.S. headquarters later moving to Ojai, California.)

Under Rogers, the Section continued to expand: by 1921 membership stood at an all-time high of over 8,700. The book business was re-christened The Theosophical Press (a name which was retained until 1966, when it was changed to the Theosophical Publishing House); a number of administrative changes were instituted; a Publicity Department and a National Library were established. An active search for a permanent headquarters began, at Roger’s suggestion and, in 1925, a 10 acre tract in Wheaton, Illinois was purchased. (During subsequent administrations, the property was expanded by gifts and purchase to its present 40 plus acres.) Building soon began and on August 29, 1926, the International President, Annie Besant, in Masonic regalia of the thirty-third degree laid the cornerstone of the Headquarters Building according to the rites of the Co-Masonic Order. Among those in the Masonic procession for the occasion was J. KRISHNAMURTI. The following year, 1927, the building was dedicated by George ARUNDALE and his wife Srimati RUKMINI DEVI. Housing the several departments of the Section, including the National Library (re-named some years later as the Olcott Library and Research Center), the Headquarters building also provided accommodations for the resident staff of workers. A second highlight of Roger’s administration was the hosting of a World Congress in Chicago in 1919, an occasion which brought together most of the luminaries of the International Society (Geoffrey HODSON, Clara CODD and the Arundales) and which proved to be the final visit of Besant to the American Section.

The dissolution of the Order of the Star in the East by its head, J. Krishnamurti, and the onset of the great world depression, brought both a decrease in membership and several financial problems in meeting the indebtedness incurred by the building of the Headquarters. In 1931 Rogers stepped down and Sidney A. COOK, a Chicago businessman and financier, was elected National President. At the 1932 Convention of the Section, honoring the birth centenary of the Society’s President-Founder, Cook proposed that the headquarters estate be named “Olcott.” In the same year, the Section journal was re-named The American Theosophist.

In 1934, the legal name of the Section became the Theosophical Society in America. Cook set to work to rebuild the membership, instituting the “Greater America Plan,” a Section-wide lecture program combined with training workshops for members. A National Radio Committee was established and Publicity and Correspondence Course departments were set up at Headquarters. In 1937 a “Burn the Bonds” campaign resulted in the total retirement of all indebtedness on the Headquarters building and estate. In 1940 a special ceremony was held to dedicate the newly completed entrance arch, designed by the notable architect Claude Bragdon, a long-time member of the Society.

Having seen the Section safely through the war years and on a stable financial footing, Cook retired from office in 1945 (a year later he was to go to Adyar as the Society’s International Vice-President, under C. JINARAJADASA). James S. PERKINS, a Cincinnati artist, was elected to succeed Cook, taking up again the expansion of the Section by inaugurating a “Spotlight” program (SPOT as the acronym for “Speed the Popularization of Theosophy”) to strengthen weak branches and develop new ones. The Foundation for Radio Theosophy was established and, most significant for the Section’s financial stability, a Theosophical Investment Trust was instituted in 1955. National Theosophical Conferences, held annually from 1955 through 1962 in various cities throughout the country, augmented the annual Conventions and Summer Schools held at “Olcott.” Departments of Information and Education were added to the activities at the Headquarters. By the end of the 1950s a new program had supplanted “Spotlight,” called the Regional Expansion Program. Membership stood at more than 4500, the highest point since 1933.

After 15 years in office, Perkins stepped down at the elections of 1960 and Henry A. Smith, a Chicago physician who had been the Section’s vice-president, was elected. During Smith’s administration a Membership Endowment Plan was introduced; the semi-annual publication of “Special Issues” of The American Theosophist each devoted to a particular topic (in many ways the fore-runner of today’s Quest magazine) was initiated and the first major addition to the Headquarters Building was constructed with the building on of a library wing providing more space for the Olcott Library and Research Center, including three seminar rooms, one of which was to later house the Boris de ZIRKOFF library and archival collection.

However, Smith’s tenure was marred with internal dissension and he was forced to step down before the expiration of his second term. The National Board of Directors named the Vice-President, Joy Mills, as Acting President and, at the triennial elections of 1966, she was elected the National President, the first woman to be elected to that office in the American Section’s 80-year history.

In late 1965, the Kern Foundation came into existence. Established by a long-time member, Herbert A. Kern, a Chicago industrialist (founder-president of the American Aluminate Corporation), the Kern Foundation existed to aid the work of the Section, particularly its publishing and other media programs, as well as certain other selected theosophical organizations (the KROTONA INSTITUTE SCHOOL of Theosophy, Theosophical Book Gift Institute and theosophical programs at the HAPPY VALLEY SCHOOL.) Administered by the Northern Trust Company of Chicago, with the late Herb Kern’s son, John, also a member of the Society, serving as Advising Trustee, the foundation gave grants to approved programs after submissions for specific funding.

Under Mills, the first grants from the Kern Foundation were received for the publication of high-quality paperbacks, soon to be christened Quest books. The first of these, issued in late 1966 in response to public demand, was The Essential Unity of All Religions by Bhagavan Das. Helen Zahara, former General Secretary of the Australian Section, had been named co-ordinator of the Kern Foundation sponsored programs and, together with Mills, developed a number of new activities that quickly qualified for funding: the establishment of Quest Bookshops in key cities throughout the country; an expanded radio program; the development of Quest Book Films; education and training programs at the Section’s several summer camps. A National Brotherhood Committee (in response to the civil rights unrest in the country at large) and a National Education Committee (to provide materials for branch and study center study) were formed. The growth of the Quest Books program made it imperative to expand the Headquarters’ facilities and, in 1969, Mills laid the cornerstone for the second major building on the estate, the Theosophical Publishing House, which was soon to be complemented in 1972 with the construction of a book storage building. Earlier, in 1966, soon after assuming office, Mills proposed the change of name of the publishing business from The Theosophical Press to The Theosophical Publishing House, a change approved by the Board of Directors.

The Section continued to take an active role in international affairs, promoting the establishment of an Inter-American Federation, an idea mooted at a “Conference of the Americas” held in Mexico City in 1963 and taking a lead in the development of a North American Theosophical Students Conference, to which members of all the various Theosophical Societies were invited. Plans were also under way for a Centenary World Congress to be held in New York City in 1975, to commemorate the anniversary of the Society’s founding in that city.

In 1973, the death of N. SRI RAM, International President since 1953, was to have its effect on the American Section. John COATS was elected President in October 1973 and in early 1974 nominated Mills to the office of International Vice-President. Resigning then as National President later in 1974 to take up that appointment, Mills turned the administration of the Section over to its Vice-President, Ann Wylie (later Ann Greene) to fill out her unexpired term, pending the tri-ennial elections of 1975, when Dora Kunz, a member of the Board of Directors, was elected. When Mills left office, membership of the Section had reached a high of over 6,000.

Kunz, then, inherited a flourishing Section, with a range of active programs for both members and public, but she was also faced with an aging Headquarters building and the need to professionalize the work carried on in its several departments. Early in her administration, responding to member suggestions, Kunz appointed a committee to investigate the possibility of re-locating the national headquarters, at the same time completely reviewing staff and departmental needs. With the decision to modernize the Headquarters, expand the Publishing House Building and undertake a vigorous publicity and advertising program, Kunz instituted a number of new programs, funded by the Kern Foundation, including the “Eternal Quest Radio Series” and the development of videotapes for the presentation of Theosophy by branches and study centers.

Retiring from office in 1987, the year following the major celebrations of the Section’s centenary, Kunz was succeeded by Dorothy Abbenhouse, the Section’s Vice-President, long a member of its Board of Directors, former chair of the National Education Committee. Abbenhouse proposed the founding of a major public journal devoted to the presentation of theosophical ideas in contemporary form; endorsed by the Board of Directors and with funding from the Kern Foundation, Quest magazine was launched in 1989. With a major advertising program and national distribution, the magazine soon found its way into bookstores and news stands and along with Quest books continues to be the major public relations program of the Section.

After six years in office, Abbenhouse was succeeded by John Algeo, who retired as Professor of English at the University of Georgia, to accept the presidency of the Section in 1993. Algeo, a well-known lecturer throughout the Section, had served as the Section’s Vice-President and in various other capacities within the administrations of both Kunz and Abbenhouse. Emphasizing the need for an educated membership, Algeo has established the Olcott Institute of Theosophy, with a greatly expanded program of classes, seminars and workshops at the Headquarters and encouraging members to gain “credits” by attending similar programs at the Krotona School of Theosophy as well as the summer camps. Re-elected in 1996, Algeo continued to press for theosophical education programs and the wider dissemination of theosophical ideas to the public. In 2001, he assumed the International Vice Presidency of the TS, and was succeeded by Betty Bland as the National President of the American section.


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