The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1981, Volume 27, Number 2

Book Review

Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor

Ancient Wisdom Revived: A History of the Theosophical Movement. By Bruce F. Campbell. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 249 pages. $12.95.

Reviewed by Emmett A. Greenwalt, Professor Emeritus, California State University, Los Angeles, author of California Utopia: Point Loma: 1897-1942. (1978).

With a doctorate in Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and several years participation in a Theosophically-related meditation group, Campbell is able to examine the Theosophical movement with both objectivity and empathy, a combination rarely found in its other critics.

But many Theosophists will challenge Campbell’s objectivity and empathy in his assessment of how Madame Blavatsky came by the doctrines that appear in her Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine. He presents evidence, principally but not solely, from William Emmette Coleman of the American Oriental Society, that she plagiarized extensively from printed works of others.

Still others, after examining the handwriting, content, and style of her Mahatma letters, charge that she authored nearly all of them, so that Campbell is forced to conclude that “the existence of the Masters and the inspiration of Theosophical writings by them are among the weakest of the Theosophists’ claims.” In the course of reaching this conclusion, he did not fail to consider Theosophical rebuttals, as his ample footnotes testify.

Whether compilation or otherwise, Campbell, after an incisive content summary, is still constrained to state that The Secret Doctrine combined ideas from Asian religions with a cosmological framework that gave meaning to individual destiny within an involutionary and evolutionary framework. For this reason, and because it gave significance to individual suffering and held out hope for salvation, the book was well suited to become what it did, “a, perhaps the, major work of occultism in the last century.” [Italics are Campbell’s]

The later years of Blavatsky, the accusations of fraud by the Coulombs, the investigation and damning conclusion of a committee of the Society for Psychical Research, and the conversion of Annie Besant to Blavatsky despite that conclusion, are well covered and documented.

The death of Madame Blavatsky in 1891 left the Society in the hands of three rivals: Besant, Olcott, and Judge. How they fared, the tactics they used, and how the American Section under Judge finally seceded in 1895 is dealt with in an interesting and reliable account.

The death of Judge, in 1896, and Olcott, in 1907, left the American Society to newcomer Katherine Tingley, and the Adyar Society to Annie Besant. These two led their followers along different paths, never willing to unite forces. Campbell does justice to both the negative and positive contributions of each.

On the negative side, Annie Besant is most criticized for remaining so long under the occult influence of Leadbeater, who could not keep his hands off boys. On the positive side, she was outstanding in her efforts to bring self-government to India, and she left the Adyar following the largest of all Theosophical Societies.

Katherine Tingley preferred to concentrate the resources of her Society at Point Loma, hoping to educate a generation who might change the world for the better, and, for a time, she tried to do the same in Cuba and Sweden.

The third largest branch of the Theosophical movement was formed in Los Angeles, in 1909, by Robert Crosbie, who was once a follower of Judge and Tingley. Known as the United Lodge of Theosophists, it reacted to the emphasis on leaders by other groups by going to the opposite extreme of anonymity of leadership. Campbell, however, has been able to identify the current self-perpetuating leadership.

A convenient synthesis of other Theosophically-related leaders and movements is included: Krishnamurti, Alice Bailey and the Arcane School, Rudolph Steiner and Anthroposophy, the Temple of the People founded by William H. Dower and Francia A. LaDue, Max Heindel’s Rosicrucian Fellowship, the “I Am” movement of Guy and Edna Ballard, Elizabeth Clare Prophet and the Summit Lighthouse, and the Philosophical Research Society of Manly P. Hall.

In his concluding chapter, Campbell calls on Theosophists for a more balanced presentation of Madame Blavatsky, stressing her accomplishments, to be sure, but not forgetting what he calls “the darker side.” And in view of the doubts cast upon the existence of the Masters by scholars, he would have Theosophists cease tying the “ancient wisdom” to belief in the existence of Masters. Moreover, he finds little evidence that internal problems that have rent the movement have been given serious thought in recent decades. Only the Adyar Society has solved the problem of orderly succession upon the death of a leader, in contrast to the organizational instability of the Theosophical Society International since it left Point Loma.

However much today’s Theosophical leaders may differ with Campbell, they would do well to study this thoughtful and provocative work.