By Iverson L. Harris
In an Interview with Robert Wright
For many San Diegans there was an aura of Camelot connected with the development of this city that began with the turn of the century and lasted, even though in fading fashion in the final years, until the outbreak of World War II. It was a gentler version of Camelot, however, for in place of castle, moat, and stone towers it offered temples and classrooms, an open air theater, and picturesque glass-domed buildings. Armored knights gave way to brigades of quaintly uniformed school children, and jousts to elaborate presentations of Greek dramas, or to festive public concerts. The guiding spirit in this operation was no King Arthur, but a short, stocky, dynamic figure named Katherine Tingley, who watched over the pageantry of Point Loma like a matronly queen. 1
Katherine Tingley was one of three remarkable women instrumental in the growth of the Theosophical movement, and she brought a combination of pragmatism, dedication, administrative skill, and a sense of the theatric into the leadership of the Point Loma community. Hers was an extraordinary experiment, and it is rightly recognized as having been “a fabulous realm of cultured cooperation.”2 But to the residents of Lomaland it was a commitment to Theosophical beliefs which provided the strongest motive for gathering together in this unusual community.
The Theosophical movement had its origins in the teaching and writings of a brilliant Russian seeress named Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891), who came to New York City in 1873 after several years of extensive travel, with an established interest in spiritualism.3 Here she met Henry Steel Olcott, an American attorney with a varied career as newspaperman and author, who shared many of Madame Blavatsky’s spiritualist views. Out of their association came the founding of the Theosophical Society in 1875, and it rapidly gained a following in the United States and abroad. By 1879 Blavatsky and Olcott had established their headquarters in Adyar, India, with frequent trips to Europe and, for Olcott, to the United States.
As espoused by Madame Blavatsky, Theosophy did not purport to be a new religion, but was a sifting of the wisdom of the ages in search of basic truths relating to man and the universe. She drew heavily from Neo-platonist teachers such as Ammonius Saccas, Plotinus, and from Jacob Boehme and Paracelsus, as well as from the Vedas, and from Hindu and Buddhist teachings. Mohammed, Christ, and Zoroaster were regarded by Madame Blavatsky as revealers of truth, and she also paid tribute to the Gnostics, but the concept of an anthropomorphic God did not play a part in Theosophist belief. Instead, the essence of God was that of a Universal Spirit, and there was a unity between the single spirit of man and that of the universe. This unity could be realized, however, only through a progression in which the individual became elevated in both virtue and wisdom to a point at which he could be released from his earthly chains. The concept of reincarnation thus came to be an integral part of Theosophist doctrine, as each spirit sought to work its way upward through a succession of earthly experiences, and there was also great emphasis upon Karma, or the inevitable consequences of one’s earthly conduct.4
The Theosophical Society enjoyed a healthy growth in. its early years, but in 1891 the movement suffered a severe shock with the death of Madame Blavatsky. In the United States an able administrator and theorist named William Quan Judge had become the dominant figure nationally, and he found himself in competion for international leadership with Henry Olcott. 5 A key figure in the struggle that followed was Annie Besant, a recent and gifted English convert to Theosophy who was initially torn between her loyalties to the two competitors, but who ultimately sided with Olcott. In 1893 the two launched an attack upon Judge, centering around their assertion that he had forged letters purporting to be from Spiritual Masters, and in the ensuing uproar most of the American membership supported the cause of Judge. In 1895 they withdrew from the international society and formed the Theosophical Society in America, with Judge as president.
The consequences of “The Split,” as Theosophists called this schism,6 led to a permanent splintering of the international Theosophist movement, but they also created circumstances which made the development of the Point Loma community possible. William Quan Judge died in 1896, and the mantle of leadership fell upon Katherine Tingley, who had become, in the closing years of his life, Judge’s closest colleague and confidant.
Katherine Augusta Tingley was born in 1847 in Newbury, Massachusetts. The early period of her life is not clearly known, but it included a period of schooling at a French convent in Montreal, two unsuccessful marriages, and a demonstrated interest in philanthropy and spiritualism. 7 In 1893, when she first met Judge, she was engaged in philanthropic work in the East Side of New York, and had entered her third—and this time successful—marriage to Philo Tingley, a steamship employee who also worked at engineering inventions. Madame Tingley was a forceful, innovative, and sometimes mysterious woman, and she began her exercise of leadership with a tour of Europe, Africa, and Asia that was designed to enlist the support of Theosophists in these areas. At the same. time, however, she made arrangements for the purchase of land at Point Loma, where she intended to open a “School for the Revival of the Lost Mysteries of Antiquity.” When she returned from her tour in 1897, she devoted her energies to the pursuit of this project.
From the first, it was apparent that Madame Tingley’s plans for her community were elaborate, and Theosophists from both the United States and abroad were encouraged to move to Point Loma and become part. of a great adventure in Theosophical living. A school was indeed started, called the Raja Yoga school, mainly for the children of families living at Point Loma, and it was eventually expanded to include instruction from the primary grades through advanced graduate studies. 8 In addition, however, the community grew to include living quarters for the five hundred or more residents who gathered there, as well as a refectory, bakery, stables, carpenter shop, smithy, machine shop, and facilities for the production of textiles and the tailoring of clothing. Orchards and vegetable gardens produced more than enough fruits and vegetables to supply the needs of the community, and the formerly barren slopes of Point Loma were soon covered with groves of eucalyptus and avocado. Even a publishing house was added to the colony’s facilities, with a printing press and a bindery turning out a steady production of Theosophical books and tracts.
One of the more colorful aspects of life at Point Loma, however, was symbolized by the construction in 1901 of a Greek theater in a canyon overlooking the ocean—the first such open air theater in the United States. Katherine Tingley was an admirer of the dramatic arts, and she viewed drama, music, and the dance as providing a means of depicting man’s nobler side before the general public. The people of the larger community of San Diego were thus treated to Greek drama, and to Shakespeare, and as the musical training of Raja Yoga students took shape, an increasingly professional concert series augmented the dramatic presentations. The effect was to strengthen relations between San Diego and the Theosophist community, and a further step in this direction was taken in 1902 when Madame Tingley purchased the Fisher Opera House in downtown San Diego, renamed it the Isis Theater, and used it to expand her program of dramatic and musical presentations, as well as for regular Sunday evening Theosophical meetings.
The best years of the Point Loma community continued until sometime in the twenties, but in that decade there was a gradual erosion of the magic that had characterized its operations in the earlier years. Madame Tingley’s advancing age undoubtedly had some influence upon her ability to lead, and she encountered worsening financial problems in the operational expense of the colony. 9 Then, in 1929, the Society suffered a double shock—first with the death of Katherine Tingley from the results of an automobile accident in Germany, and then with the economic dislocations accompanying the stock market crash. Leadership of the society under these difficult circumstances fell to Gottfried de Purucker, a fifty-five-year-old colleague of Madame Tingley who had been a member of the colony almost from its inception. Purucker was primarily a scholar, and his approach to the affairs of the community turned out to be considerably more conservative than Katherine Tingley’s. 10 He began a series of retrenchments in order to extract the colony from its financial difficulties, eliminating the pageantry and heraldry of the Tingley era, and cutting back on the support facilities for the community. Many of the residents of Point Loma drifted away during these years, and the society went through a bond foreclosure that reduced its land holdings to the area immediately surrounding its main buildings. Enrollment at the Raja Yoga school, which Purucker renamed the Lomaland school, fell steadily, and it finally closed its doors in 1940. Early in 1942, Purucker made the fateful decision to move from Point Loma, as he was disturbed by the deteriorating condition of the facilities there, the high taxes and cost of upkeep, and the proximity of naval gun positions. Property was purchased in Covina from the California Preparatory School for Boys, and by mid-year the Point Loma site had been abandoned. 11 The original purchaser was a land developer who hoped to dispose of the property to the Federal Housing Authority, but when this plan failed the property became the site of Balboa University, subsequently known as California Western University which became, in its later years, United States International University. It is now occupied by Point Loma College, and although only a few of the original buildings are still standing, the tree-covered grounds retain their charm and beauty, and through the weather-worn features of the open air theater run the memories of a more hopeful and gracious age.12 There are few San Diegans today who were witnesses to the influence of Lomaland on the San Diego community, and fewer still who were themselves part of the Theosophist experience. One of these few is Iverson L. Harris, a San Diego resident who is not only a product of the Raja Yoga school, but who worked closely with Katherine Tingley and Gottfried de Purucker, and knew them intimately. Iverson Harris became a member of the Point Loma community in 1899, at eight years of .age, when his father moved his family to Point Loma from Macon, Georgia. The young Harris was educated at the Raja Yoga school, and following this became Katherine Tingley’s traveling secretary, a position he held almost until her death. He then took on the role of financial agent for Gottfried de Purucker during the troubled years of the thirties, and when the colony moved to Covina in 1942 Harris took part in the move. Purucker’s death shortly thereafter left the community leaderless, and it was not until 1945 that Arthur L. Conger, a retired army officer, was chosen as his successor.13 Harris left the society soon after this in a disagreement over doctrinal differences, and he has not been in contact with the society since. His commitment to the Theosophical movement, however, has never waned, and he is still active in its support.
Mr. Harris lives today on a quiet street in the Pacific Beach area of San Diego. His first wife, the former Helen Plummer, died in 1970 after a long and successful marriage, and in 1972 Mr. Harris married Katherine Knoche, whose father had been general manager of the physical plant for the Point Loma community. In 1970 Mr. Harris founded Point Loma Publications, Inc., and has since been engaged in the publication of Theosophical materials for the general public. At the time of this writing he is eighty- three years of age, a cultured, articulate and thoughtful gentleman who has lived a life of rare dedication and purpose.
The interview that follows was given by Mr. Harris in 1971 to Mr. Robert Wright, who has conducted a number of valuable interviews for the San Diego Historical Society, and who also devotes much of his time in support of the restoration and showing of the Star of India. One notable change that has taken place since the date of the interview is that the site of the Point Loma community has passed from the possession of United States International University to Point Loma College.
1. The most authoritative study of the Theosophical community is Emmett A. Greenwalt, The Point Loma Community in California, 1897-1942(Berkeley, 1955), and it is the most important source for this Introduction.
2. Robert V. Hine, California Utopian Communities (New Haven, 1953), p. 54.
3. Charles S. Braden, These Also Believe: A Study of Modern American Cults and Minority Religious Movements (New York, 1960), p. 223.
4. Greenwalt, The Point Loma Community, p. 6. Other Theosophist writers have added to her output, but the most important contributions to Theosophical beliefs came from the pen of Madame Blavatsky. In 1877 she Published Isis Unveiled, a two volume compendium organized around the themes of “Science” and “Theology.” In 1888 she followed this with her most important work, The Secret Doctrine. Also in two volumes, it ranged even more widely over the teachings of the Ancients than her former work, and focused to a greater degree upon the religions of the Orient and the Near East. For an assessment of Theosophical writings see J. Stillson Judah, The History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America(Philadelphia, 1967), pp. 99-119; Braden, These Also Believe, pp. 221-56; or Greenwalt, The Point Loma Community, pp. 3-8. A lucid presentation of Theosophist beliefs is contained in Lydia Ross and Charles J. Ryan, Theosophia: An Introduction, revised and edited by Helen Todd and W. Emmett Small (San Diego, 1974).
5. For an account of the schism in the Theosophist movement see Greenwalt, The Point Loma Community, pp. 8-11; or Iverson L. Harris,Theosophy Under Fire: A Miniature ‘Key to Theosophy’ (San Diego, 1970), passim.
6. Interview with Iverson L. Harris, May 14, 1974.
7. There is no satisfactory biography of Katherine Tingley, but most studies of the American Theosophical movement contain an account of her career. See, for instance, Hine, California’s Utopian Societies, pp. 34-35; or Greenwalt, The Point Loma Community, pp. 12-22.
8. The term “Raja Yoga” means “royal union,” and symbolized Madame Tingley’s belief in the importance of environmental influence in shaping an individual’s character. Classes in the Raja Yoga school were kept small, and students lived together in cottages under the supervision of resident teachers.
9. Greenwalt, The Point Loma Community, pp. 170-81.
10. The writings of Purucker number several volumes, and are largely taken from lectures he delivered to Theosophist audiences; for a summary of his scholarly activities see W. Emmett Small, “Dr. G. de Purucker: An Invitation and a Challenge,” The Eclectic Theosophist, XXI (March 15, 1974), 1-3. For an account of Purucker’s leadership see Judah, The History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America, pp. 99- 119; or Greenwalt, The Point Loma Community, pp. 182-94.
11. The fortunes of the Theosophical Society after the move to Covina did not materially improve. The organization was forced to sell its properties there to the California Baptist Theological Seminary in 1950-51, and shifted its operations to three separate and smaller facilities in Pasadena. At the same time, the organization was fragmented by a struggle for leadership between James A. Long and William Hartley following the death of Arthur L. Conger in 1951. See Judah, The History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America, pp. 116-17.
12. In addition to its importance in San Diego history, the Point Loma colony made significant contributions to the development of Theosophist views more generally, and there are still a number of Theosophist societies in the United States and elsewhere. In addition, such religious groups as the Rosicrucians and the I Am owe part of their inspiration to Theosophy. For an assessment of the impact of Theosophy upon other religious groups see Robert S. Ellwood, Jr., Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1973).
13. As late as January 12, 1941, Purucker refused to name a successor, and according to instructions he had previously issued, the Cabinet was to wait for at least three years following his death to see if a leader appeared, and, this failing, to select one themselves. See Aileen Brittain Shurlock,Biographical Sketch of Colonel Arthur Latham Conger, Fifth Leader of the Theosophical Society, Point Loma-Covina, 1872-1951, (Oakland, 1955), pp. 44-46.
14. Albert G. Spalding (1850-1915) was one of the country’s first famous professional baseball players, and became wealthy through the manufacture of sporting goods with the firm A. G. Spalding and Brothers. He moved to Point Loma and lived there until his death in 1915, and, as Mr. Harris reveals in his interview, the disposition of his estate brought Katherine Tingley into a dispute among his heirs.
15. Dr. Lorin Wood was a physician, and part of the Theosophist community. Following Katherine Tingley’s dedication of Point Loma in 1897, he built a large hotel-sanitarium, which was later used by the Raja Yoga school. Usually referred to as the Homestead, or as the Academy, it was one of the most imposing structures on Point Loma. Dr. Wood remained with the Theosophical Society through its move to Covina, and died in 1944.
16. The Aryan Memorial Temple, which was also called the Temple of Peace, was constructed in 1900, and was frequently praised as being the most beautiful building on Point Loma. It was circular in shape, with a series of arches for outer walls, and was finished in white to resemble stone. The building was capped by a huge dome of amethyst-colored glass, superimposed by a large, glass, pinnacled sphere. A similar dome of aquamarine glass was constructed atop the Homestead, and as both domes were customarily illuminated at night they furnished a spectacular view from the sea.
17. As the terms indicate, cosmogenesis refers to the creation of the universe, and anthropogenesis to the creation of mankind. These topics furnish the respective themes of the two volumes of Helena Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine.
18. Sankaracharya—literally, “blessed, spiritual teacher”—lived in India from 510 B.C. to 478 B.C., and was one of the greatest exponents of Vedantic philosophy, which was in turn regarded as an illuminated version of Vedic writings.
Zoroaster, who lived from 660 B.C. to 583 B.C., developed a monotheistic religion in ancient Persia which contained a number of similarities to Judaism and Christianity.
Vedism, a precursor of Hinduism in India, had its basis in four religious texts known as the Vedas, which were composed between 1500 B.C. and 900 B.C. The Upanishads were a series of philosophical works written later to supplement the teachings of the Vedas.
As becomes apparent from the interview with Mr. Harris, a wide ranging knowledge of world religions is essential to an understanding of Theosophical teachings, and a working knowledge of Sanskrit can be an added boon. For simple glossaries, however, see Judith Tyberg, Sanskrit Keys to the Wisdom-Religion (Point Loma, 1940); and Helena Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy (Point Loma, 1913), pp. 299-356.
19. Gnosticism was a religious movement which paralleled and was influenced by the development of Christianity, and, like Christianity, placed emphasis upon the struggle for individual salvation. Gnostics relied heavily upon revelation for divine wisdom, and accepted the exalted role of Christ. The movement died out, however, in the 4th and 5th centuries.
20. Giordano Bruno (c. 1548-1600), was a Dominican monk who broke with the Church and authored a number of books on science, religion, and logic that were critical of Catholicism. Imprisoned by the Inquisition in 1593, he was burned at the stake in 1600.
21. Ammonius Saccas (c. 160-242) a native of Alexandria, was apparently born of Christian parents, but broke with Christianity and formulated a philosophy known as Neo-Platonism. (Neo-Platonists were called by Madame Blavatsky “the Theosophists of the early centuries”; see The Key to Theosophy, p. 340.) Plotinus, originally from Egypt, was a student of Ammonius Saccas at Alexandria. He later moved to Rome and began a school for the teaching of Neo-Platonism, gaining a considerable following. One of his students was Porphyry (c. 233-304), who preserved much of the teachings of Plotinus by organizing and editing his lectures.
22. Paracelsus, or Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim (c. 1490-1541), was a German physician whose teachings in medicine were influenced by a Neo-Platonic philosophy, and he regarded the life of man as inseparable from the functioning of the universe. His teachings had an effect upon the later career and philosophy of Jacob Boehme (1575- 1624), a German mystic whose writings were much admired by Madame Blavatsky; see The Key to Theosophy, pp. 310-11; and The Secret Doctrine (Point Loma, 1925), II, 634.
23. Dr. Rose Winkler and Dr. Gertrude Van Pelt were both physicians who became permanent residents of Point Loma, and were still with the Theosophical Society when it moved to Covina.
24. The Roseville school was a public school located near San Diego Bay which Mr. Harris attended before the Raja Yoga school was founded at Point Loma in 1900. Neither Roy Crippen nor Paul Jennings was a member of the Theosophical Society, but both became prominent members of the San Diego community in later years.
25. The Fisher Opera House, located on Fourth Street between B and C Streets, was constructed in 1891, and had a capacity of 1400. It was purchased by Madame Tingley from John C. Fisher in 1902 at a cost of $70,000, and renamed the Isis Theater. For the story of the theater see Merle Clayton, “The Fisher Opera House,” San Diego Magazine, XXII (December, 1970), 80-83, 93, 108.
26. Emmett Greenwalt has also noted the close relationship between Madame Tingley and her grandfather, and the fact that she was fascinated by the esoteric nature of his Masonic teachings; see Greenwalt, The Point Loma Community, p. 12.
27. According to Greenwalt the marriage to Henry Cook lasted but two months, and this was followed by her marriage to George Parent in about 1880, some ten years later. There is thus some uncertainty about the adoption, for Greenwalt maintains that Mme. Tingley adopted three children during her second marriage; a boy and a girl that were Cook’s through his own second marriage, and a boy from an orphan home. Cook’s boy was returned shortly to his relatives, but Mme. Tingley kept the girl until about 1895. The orphan boy died, apparently from the effects of a head injury. Mme. Tingley’s marriage to Philo Tingley took place in 1888. See ibid., pp. 12-14.
28. In February, 1945, Mr. Harris had occasion to present a detailed explanation of the schism in the Theosophical movement as part of a deposition he made when a bequest to the Theosophical Society in the will of Mrs. Ann Porter was contested by other heirs. For this deposition see Theosophy Under Fire: A Miniature ‘Key to Theosophy.’
29. The term “Adept” means “great soul” or “great self,” and is synonymous with “Master,” or from Sanskrit, “Mahatman.” Madame Blavatsky described an Adept as “one who has reached the stage of initiation and become a Master in the science of Esoteric Philosophy;” see Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy, p. 299. Adepts recognized by Theosophists include Jesus, Buddha, Lao-tse, Confucius, Zoroaster, Plato, Pythagoras, and other; see Harris, Theosophy Under Fire, pp. 23-24.
30. In April, 1973, the Articles of Incorporation of Point Loma Publications, Inc., were amended to provide that upon the dissolution of the corporation the San Diego History Center would receive “the real property of Point Loma Publications, Inc., if any, its stocks, bank deposits and other liquid assets, and all its albums and other assets regarded by the said Historical Society as pertinent or relevant to the history of San Diego.” Interview with Iverson L. Harris, May 26, 1974.
31. Reverend S. J. Neill was a Presbyterian minister from New Zealand, and one of the first residents at Point Loma. Phillip A. Malpas came to Point Loma from England, and was a former Paymaster in the British navy.
32. William Gates was one of the most gifted scholars at the Point Loma community. His interests were in Mayan archeology, and he published a number of important works on this subject. He left Point Loma, however, and in 1924 became head of the Department of Middle American Research at Tulane University, later moving to Johns Hopkins University. He retained his Theosophical beliefs, however, and frequently visited Point Loma; see Greenwalt, The Point Loma Community, pp. 119-20.
33. Howard Throckmorton was not a Theosophist, but the negotiations he conducted were in the way of a friendly arrangement designed to preserve intact as much property as possible for the Point Loma community; see Ibid., pp. 191-92.
34. For Smythe’s treatment of the Point Loma community see his History of San Diego, 1542-1908 (San Diego, 1908), 11, 715-17.
35. Hypatia lived in Alexandria near the beginning of the 5th century, and was a proponent of the teachings of Plato and Plotinus. She was executed by action of Catholic Bishop St. Cyril; see Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled, II, 53, 252-53.
DON JunÍpero SERRA AT POINT LOMA
By Kenneth Morris (1879-1937)
Sea blood-orange and ice-blue flame;
Reel and glitter of gemmed wave-tips;
Hoarse oracular far sea-lips
Crooning a secret rhyme God knows….
Change is not: there was still the same
Murmur and glow on the vast ellipse
When Don Junípero Serra came,
And Watched the south for the Spaniard ships
Here where the gay sea-dahlia blows;
And a rumor of far and beautiful fame
Shone through his eyes and ears, to eclipse
The weight of time and the loud world’s woes;
And for something’s sake that the waves proclaim,
Prophecy burned in him, heart and lips,
And the Spirit sang through the sunset’s rose….
And still that light, that wonder, glows;
And still no wavelet rippling dips
But is thrilled with strange bright news to acclaim,
Such mantic rhythm through the splendor flows….
(Dear Hill-shrine of the World-heart’s flame,
Did Don Junípero know? Who knows?)
Courtesy Iverson L. Harris
Dr. Dennis E. Berge has been a member of the faculty at San Diego State University since 1963, and is presently Chairman of the Department of History. He received his Ph.D. in History at the University of California at Berkeley in 1965 with a specialty in the History of the American West, and his teaching and research interests are in this field.