Abner Doubleday and Theosophy in America: 1879-1884

By Michael Gomes

The development of the early theosophical movement is so linked with the lives of H. P. Blavatsky and H. S. Olcott that histories of the Society usually follow their departure from New York to India at the end of 1878, and scant attention is paid to the work in America until the establishment of the American Section of the TS in 1886 with William Quan Judge as General Secretary. The efforts of the handful of members who carried on in the United States in the face of indifference and neglect can be documented thanks to the notebooks put together by one early member, Abner Doubleday.

Major-General Doubleday is one of many theosophists featured in the annals of American history. Born at Ballston Spa, New York, on June 26, 1819, he entered West Point as a cadet in 1838, graduating in 1842. He was commissioned in the artillery, fighting in Mexico, promoted to first lieutenant in 1847, to captain in 1855, and to major-general in 1862. Stationed in Charleston in 1860-61, he is credited with firing the first shot from Fort Sumter in response to the Confederate Army's. Distinguishing himself in the battle of Gettysburg, he was later stationed in Washington, DC, finally retiring from active service December 11, 1873. For the rest of his life he made his home in Mendham, New Jersey, where he died on January 26, 1893. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Doubleday joined The Theosophical Society in 1878, and the Founders' regard for him was such that Olcott issued a "Foreign Order" from London on January 17, 1879, designating him President ad-interim of the Society. As Olcott explained to Doubleday in a letter of the same date, "In making choice of my substitute I cast about for a man of unblemished character, of ripe age, of energy, and moral courage and quick intelligence and found him in you," and instructing him, "What you can do is to keep in working order a Committee of the chief officers of the society to keep us and our work before the public, and keep up an active interest in all matters connected with the East and its mysteries and wisdom." (1)

This is as much direction as Doubleday received for some time, for after the Founders' arrival in Bombay in February 1879, Olcott "had become perfectly fagged out by visitors who besieged us from dawn to midnight and some of whom sucked out the magnetism from my very hearts core . . ." (2) After a few days visiting the Karli Caves near Bombay with HPB, Mulji Thakarshai, and their servant Babula, in mid-April the party left on a tour of North India to meet Swami Dayananda Saraswati at Saharanpur on May 1, then proceeded to Meerut where Olcott lectured before the Arya Samaj. In a letter from Bombay dated May 12, the day after their return, Olcott described his impressions to Doubleday: "The Swamee is a great -- a thoroughly great man; with profound learning, both exoteric and esoteric. His moral courage is boundless, and he is wielding a mighty influence." Notifying Doubleday that the Swami was to write to him, Olcott ended with the advice, "Meanwhile keep on working by lectures and in the newspapers, constantly keeping the T.S. in the public mind. We have a splendid career before us here." (3)

Swami Dayananda did write Doubleday, recommending that

Till such Time as our American brothers after studying Sanskrit, translate the Aryan philosophy into English, the Americans should read "Isis Unveiled" because from what I have heard of the book and from the conversation which we have had, it appears to me that Sister Blavatsky will have written the book in accordance with Vedic philosophy. (4)

There had been discussion of organizing the TS into three ceremonial degrees, and the Swami also notified Doubleday that he would send him a manuscript organizing the Society based on Aryan Masonry, but nothing developed. All Doubleday received from India were copies of resolutions passed by the General Council of the Society in India, as well as developments in the rules and by-laws forwarded by the Joint Recording Secretary, K. N. Seervai.

In the absence of promised directives American members were left to their own initiative. Alexander Wilder, a Vice-President of the TS, writing Doubleday in July 1879, suggested:

I do not like mere gossip-meetings nor those which are too heavily philosophical. I would like papers prepared, read and considered; and then an hour or more social, even sportive. A good secretary as well as financial officer will be necessary. If our papers are worth the while, a committee or editor could be designated to print them. (5)

But by November Wilder had resigned his Vice-Presidency "from poverty." Olcott had taken the list of members with him, and it was not returned "for a year," which hampered Doubleday's efforts to contact the membership. After the entries for November 1879, fourteen pages have been cut out of Notebook 8, and the absence of any reference to theosophical work for the first half of 1880 is explained by an undated petition by Doubleday and Judge "To the Supreme Council of the Theosophical Society" notifying that "1. The N.Y. Society is at this time practically suspended. 2. It does not seem wise as we are now situated to begin active work on the old plan, nor to continue the methods initiated by President Olcott." Under the circumstances they suggested a probationary degree of "Inquirer of the Theosophical Society" for those interested, but who would not be members yet entitled to receive the Society's publications. (6)

HPB, as Corresponding Secretary of the TS, wrote Doubleday from Bombay, April 17, 1880, that the General Council "having confidence in your devotion to the cause of Universal Brotherhood and to the general objects of the Society" had, upon nomination of the President, elected him a Vice-President for the current year. (7) In spite of this vote of confidence, the Society in America continued to languish for the rest of 1880 and most of 1881 while the energies of the movement were poured into the work in India and Ceylon. Olcott sent no orders, HPB -- occupied with editing her new magazine The Theosophist wrote less and less, and the little information received came via Damodar K. Mavalankar, Joint Recording Secretary, and from correspondence with members elsewhere. George Wyld, President of the British Theosophical Society, for example, conveyed some of the activities carried on by English members:

Our London Society goes in for Self-Culture and the Regeneration of Soul and Body by a gradual process, in harmony with the highest inspirations and does not seek after magical manifestations as we can get them at Spiritual Seances if we chose to attend such. Purity of Life, Self Denial and a desire to know the truth and to live it out with reverence to God and forbearance and love towards our weaker fellow creatures is our desire. How is it with the Brothers in New York. (8)

Although publicly the work in America seemed to be dormant, links were maintained by individual members, as the correspondence between Judge and Damodar shows. Public interest in Eastern philosophy was being stimulated by books like Edwin Arnold's Light of Asia, and by A. P. Sinnett's Occult World which intimated something about HPB's spiritual teachers.

The application to form a Branch at Rochester, New York, was approved in 1882, and Doubleday instructed Albert L. Rawson, FTS, "as one of the most experienced members of our society," to proceed to Rochester and organize the Branch there with William B. Shelley as President and Mrs. Josephine Cables as Secretary. (9) The Rochester Theosophical Society was duly organized July 27,1882. This founding of the first Branch of the Society in America was indicative of a growing awareness of The Theosophical Society there. Almost simultaneously the members in New York had their first meetings since 1876. Judge was to present a lecture on March 22, 1882, but he was called away on business to South America, where he would be for most of the year. General Doubleday provided the discourse instead, held at Mott Memorial Hall in New York, and his statement that "the time is therefore propitious for us to unfurl our banner, with investigation, love of truth and free thought inscribed upon its folds," must have been encouraging, for another meeting was held a month later.

Doubleday's Notebooks show continued interest in the Society throughout 1882. Thomas M. Johnson, of Osceola, Missouri, and six others wrote on May 2nd about founding a Branch there. Other letters of inquiry show some uncertainty about the nature and function of the organization. Oliver M. Knight of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, asking for further information, guessed that the objects were "Chiefly Educational." (10) Part of the confusion came because applicants who wrote to India for information were often referred back to New York, the process taking months. Olcott outlined the procedure to be taken:

The course for you to take with applications is to (1) Acknowledge their receipt, and say the papers have been forwarded to the Bombay Head Quarters for decision.
(2) send them to me.
(3) I will order the issue of a charter and send it to you for delivery with copies of the Rules, current at the time.
You must tell them to send some one to the New York Head Quarters, when convenient, to receive the pass-word and grip. (11)

The form of admission used for candidates at that time was reminiscent of those in Masonry, including the giving of signs and passwords. Early members signed an application for fellowship stating their sympathy with the Objects of the Society and an Obligation of Secrecy where they promised to maintain "absolute secrecy respecting its proceedings, including its investigations and experiments, except in so far as publication may be authorized by the Society or Council."

Although there are no entries for 1883 in the Notebooks, a steady undercurrent of interest in The Theosophical Society continued. A Charter was issued to Elliott B. Page, M. A. Lane, and Wm. Throckmorton of St. Louis, who in July 1883 organized the Pioneer Theosophical Society with Elliott Page as President. In November 1883 a Charter was issued by Olcott to W. Q. Judge, Doubleday, David A. Curtis, and others to organize a Branch of the Society in New York. Judge was elected President, Doubleday, Vice-President, Mortimer Marble, Secretary, George W. Wheat, Treasurer, and in December the name, Aryan* Theosophical Society was declared. The objects of this Branch were "To promote the study of Aryan and other Eastern religions and sciences, and vindicate its importance; to investigate the hidden mysteries of Nature, and the psychical powers latent in man; and to co-operate in the general work of the Theosophical Society." (12) Olcott notes in his Historical Retrospect (Madras, 1896) that this Branch was essentially a reorganization of the remaining New York members of the old Society, and that at this time "General Doubleday went out of office." But after a few meetings Judge left to join Olcott and Blavatsky in Europe, and according to the Minute Book of the Aryan Lodge "no regular meetings were held" until 1885.

*[From arya (Sanskrit), meaning "noble, valid, trustworthy," referring originally to the ancient peoples of Central Asia who emigrated into India, Iran, and Europe. -- Ed.]

In May 1884 Olcott issued an Order from London "to constitute a Board of Control for America, and have charge of the general direction of the Theosophical movement in that part of the world." In addition to General Doubleday, it was composed of Dr. Jirah Dewey Buck of Cincinnati, William B. Shelley and Mrs. Josephine W. Cables, President and Secretary of the Rochester TS, Elliott B. Page of St. Louis, Thomas M. Johnson of Osceola, Missouri, and George Frederick Parsons of New York. Two additional members were added by Olcott in August: Elliott Coues of Washington, DC, and Mordecai Evans of Philadelphia. The Board was "empowered to admit and initiate applicants and by consent of a majority grant temporary Charters for new Branches without preliminary reference to Headquarters." (13) In sending a copy to Mrs. Cables, Judge explained that "The result of this order is that now [there is] no recording secretary in America, and you are practically in charge." When the Board met in September Elliott Page was elected Chairman, Mrs. Cables, Corresponding Secretary, and Dr. Buck, Treasurer. Elliott Coues was elected President of the Board at the annual meeting of July 4, 1885.

With the formation of the American Board of Control Abner Doubleday's active involvement in theosophical matters seemed to lessen, although he continued on the Board until it was abolished by Order of the President in 1886, and the American Section organized to replace it. His feeling for the Society and its work can be gauged from remarks in his March 1882 speech at Mott Memorial Hall:

The Society . . . is colorless as to specific creed, as it rests upon reason and not upon authority. Every member, therefore, is entitled to hold an independent opinion, and to express it, however different it may be from the views of the majority. . . . Every one who is honestly seeking for truth is welcome to our ranks. . . . we have a certain duty to perform towards suffering humanity, and that duty requires an organization and united effort. Not for ourselves alone do we meet here, but to aid mankind, now groping in darkness and confusion, to find that inner light which never deceives. (14)

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1991. Copyright © 1991 by Theosophical University Press.)

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Unless otherwise stated all documents quoted are from the TS Archives, Pasadena.

1. Doubleday Notebook (hereafter referred to as DN) 8, pp. 4-5; reprinted with text of Olcott's "Foreign Order No. 1" in The Theosophical Forum, Oct 1939, pp. 280-3. (return to text)

2. Olcott to C. C. Massey, President of the British TS, Apr 9, 1879, DN 7, p. 44. (return to text)

3. DN 8, pp. 35-6. (return to text)

4. Copy dated May 16, 1879 in DN 8, pp. 45-6. (return to text)

5. DN 8, p. 47. (return to text)

6. DN 7, p. 24, reprinted in Theosophical Forum, Jan 1940, p. 53. (return to text)

7. DN 8, pp. 76-7, reprinted in Theosophical Forum, Nov 1939, p. 368. Doubleday's acceptance, June 10, 1880, given in Olcott's Historical Retrospect, Madras 1896, p. 8. (return to text)

8. Wyld to Doubleday, Nov 15, 1880, DN 8, p. 85. (return to text)

9. Doubleday to Rawson, May 4, 1882, DN 7, p. 1. (return to text)

10. DN 7, p. 15; some of his replies to inquirers and applicants appear in Theosophical Forum, Dec 1939, pp. 445-7 and Jan 1940, pp. 52-3. (return to text)

11. Olcott to Doubleday, May 12, 1882, DN 7, p. 10; Doubleday noted it was received June 26, 1882. (return to text)

12. Announcement by Judge, Supplement to The Theosophist, Feb 1884, p. 31. (return to text)

13. Copy dated May 13, 1884 in Records, Theosophical Society, American Board of Control 1:5-6; typed copy DN 7, pp. 60-1, 63-4. Copy in Olcott's handwriting, TS Archives, Adyar. (return to text)

14. DN 7, front inside cover. (return to text)