An American Experiment

By W. Q. Judge

As I write these words there lies before me an old book written by Jacob Boehme, a German shoemaker who was a very religious and extraordinary man.* His book is called Forty Questions on the Soul; it was printed in English in the year 1647, and was only one of the many books he wrote. In all of these he calls himself a "theosopher," which in those days was the same as 'theosophists,' the title really belongs to one who has put all the theosophical principles into practice. Still, popular usage is always stronger than fine distinction, and it is almost impossible to keep before the mind of the public the fact that a mere member of this Society is not necessarily thereby made into a perfect being, and is indeed only one who is on trial. The famous Madame Blavatsky made this clear one day in London to a visitor who asked if she was a theosophist, to which she replied, "No, but I am trying to be one." So in my use of the title "theosophist" I mean one who is trying to put theosophy into practice and that too without regard to membership in the Society. But this old Teutonic theosopher Boehme was, I think, in all senses a theosophist, for he ever lived up to his doctrines and came at last to have a great influence, which may be considered proved from the anger he aroused in the hearts of certain dogmatic priests of his day who caused him to be persecuted and driven from his town.

There was already beginning to spread among the minds of the people of Europe in the time of Boehme a revolt against the terrible orthodoxy which would not allow a man to believe that the earth was round or that it could not be possible that the globe and all thereon were created in six small solar days. This discontent at last led to the pilgrimage of the puritan fathers to America and the great nation now on this continent as a consequence.

Among the descendants of these strong men were such as Franklin and Jefferson and Washington and their friends. But at the same time there was also another man in England who did not come here until the revolution had begun to be whispered in the air, though as yet not broken forth. This personage was the well known Thomas Paine, than whom no other man, perhaps, has been so unjustly libeled since his death. Washington said of him that the American colonies owed him a debt of gratitude, for to him more than any one, in Washington's opinion, did the people owe the impulse to strive for liberty. These prominent figures in the history of this nation -- Washington, Franklin and Jefferson -- were the freest of thinkers, and all the wild efforts of interested persons since then have not been able to show them as only church going pious souls, but solely as men who lived justly and did right in the eyes of men and the sight of the one God in whom they believed. Certainly as to Paine and Franklin it is clear that they were liberal and wholly untrammeled by any church or priest.

These men, with their friends and supporters, established the United States on a footing of absolute freedom from dogmatic interference, and as a revolt against tyranny. They took care to leave God out of the Constitution -- and why? For the reason that every man has his own conception of that Being, and if God were mentioned in that great instrument, then bigots and sectaries would enforce their notion of God on every one else, drawing their supreme warrant from the Constitution. And so the great American experiment came on the world's stage; to be a success or miserable failure; to hold out to humanity for ages to come the hope of an ever-widening horizon of liberty and truth and right. Whether those hopes will be fulfilled is a mystery yet in the womb of time.

"What," you may ask, "has all this to do with Theosophy?" A very great deal; for the latest and best organized attempt to revive true Theosophy and spread it among the people of the earth was begun in the United States, the land of experiment and of reform. Fifteen years ago and a little over, the sages of the East conveyed to their friends the intelligence that the time had now come to start the preparations for a new wave of thought and a new revival of belief in the soul and its powers, together with a new building up of the breastworks needed to stem the onrush of materialism, which had been growing under the diligent, fostering care of the scientific schools, whose masters and pupils care not for the immortal and believe not in the inner self. The result of this communication -- in itself a command -- resulted in the forming of the Theosophical Society in the city of New York, with the avowed object of forming a nucleus of a universal brotherhood -- in fact, a repetition, on the purely moral side, of the Declaration of Independence. Unlike other bodies with broad aims, this one had from the first a basis which has given it solidity and will ever keep it alive.

The founders of the organization, believing in the intelligence sent to them that a wave of interest in the powers of the soul was about to rise and that a new seeking for the philosopher's stone upon an entirely different basis from any in the past would soon begin, wisely directed the attention of the members to the ancient stores of learning, to the end that all the superstition of the centuries might be stripped off from the doctrines and beliefs held from immemorial time in respect to man, his power, his origin and his destiny. This attention resulted in a belief in the ranks of society that there existed a key to the puzzles of the inner self, and soon upon the belief there followed a wide promulgation. But such a divulgement inevitably draws down abuse and ridicule from all who will not take the trouble to know what it is all about, and brave men and women are required to carry the struggle forward until misunderstanding disappears. Such men and women have been found, and now a little more light begins to break, increasing the probability that the people are almost ready to give a hearing to expositions of such satisfying doctrines as those of karma and reincarnation, which are two out of many that the members of the Society endeavor to place before thinking people.

These two doctrines are in fact the foundation stones of all theological edifices, for without them the universe is a hopeless jumble, while with them hardly a question of cosmogony or anthropology remains unanswered.

Evolution, so widely accepted, is admitted as an empiric doctrine only, for there is no connection between the links of evolution, and scientists are obliged to assume many things, many of them hunting forever for the missing link, whether it be between the ape and man, or between the mineral and the vegetable more highly organized. But with karma and reincarnation the link appears, maybe without any visible representative, but plainly seen as a philosophical conception. And in the great question of the evolution of man as a reasoning being, all doubts disappear at once when we master the theosophical idea of his origin and destiny. Theosophy does not deny evolution but asserts a reasonable one. It shows man as coming up through every form from the very lowest known to science, and postulates for him a destiny so much higher and greater than any permitted to him by either church or science that the pen of comparison gives up the task. But it goes further than science, as the human monad -- the immortal spark -- according to Theosophy, comes out of the eternities, and in each evolutionary course it emerges upon the plane of matter as we know it, in the form of an immaterial (if we may say so about that which although invisible to our sight is still matter) being called by some an elemental and by others a spirit. But of these things more at another time.

For the present it is sufficient to know that the theosophical experiment of the present century is a product of the soil of America, although engineered at the beginning by a Russian subject, who at the same time gave up her allegiance to the Czar of all the Russias and became an American citizen.

From The Omaha Bee (1891); reprinted in The Theosophical Forum(26:8), August 1948, pp. 491-94.