Theosophical Society Is Founded

Reacting against the secularism that arose in the wake of Charles Darwin’s theories about evolution, the Theosophical Society sought to unite numerous religious traditions and put its members into contact with higher, mystical truths.

Summary of Event

The rise of the Theosophical Society to a position of importance during the nineteenth century may be traced to several converging factors. First, the impact of the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin left many people in Europe and the United States feeling that religious support for their ethical and metaphysical views had been undermined. Second, a hoax propagated by Margaretta, Kate, and Leah Fox in Hydesville, New York, in 1848 led to a vogue in spiritualism, messages from “the other world,” and belief in hidden powers. Finally, there was the undeniable impact and inventiveness of a charismatic member of the minor Russian nobility, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Theosophical Society
Evolution;and Theosophy[Theosophy]
Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna
Olcott, Henry Steel
[kw]Theosophical Society Is Founded (Sept., 1875)
[kw]Founded, Theosophical Society Is (Sept., 1875)
[kw]Society Is Founded, Theosophical (Sept., 1875)
Theosophical Society
Evolution;and Theosophy[Theosophy]
Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna
Olcott, Henry Steel
[g]United States;Sept., 1875: Theosophical Society Is Founded[4800]
[c]Religion and theology;Sept., 1875: Theosophical Society Is Founded[4800]
[c]Philosophy;Sept., 1875: Theosophical Society Is Founded[4800]
Judge, William Quan
Besant, Annie
Krishnamurti, Jiddu

Madame Blavatsky, as she later came to be known, developed a belief in her own occult powers from a very early age. While she was on a trip to Cairo with the opera singer Agardi Metrovich, Metrovich was killed, and Blavatsky remained behind. She supported herself in Egypt by creating an occult society, the Société Spirite (spirit society), in 1871. In 1873, scandals involving accusations of fraud caused Blavatsky to emigrate from Egypt to New York City, where she once again gained recognition as a clairvoyant and medium.

In 1874, Blavatsky met a lawyer and author who believed deeply in occult phenomena, Henry Steel Olcott. Together, the two “chums,” as they referred to themselves, established a joint residence known as the Lamasery. They began to attract other individuals with similar interests in spiritualism. Both in Cairo and in New York, Blavatsky had advanced her theory that communicating with the dead was not the highest purpose to which psychic ability could be dedicated. She began to claim that she was in spiritual contact with “Hidden or Ascended Masters.” She originally asserted these beings were located in Egypt but later said they resided in the Himalayas and Tibet.

Among the most frequently mentioned of these so-called Hidden Masters were Koot Hoomi and El Morya, figures who, it was later claimed, had visited the earth in earlier incarnations as the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III, Abraham, Pythagoras, King Arthur, Sir Percivale, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Thomas More, and other distinguished philosophical and religious leaders. The Hidden Masters were said to exist on a higher spiritual plane and to speak through psychic mediums, not merely to convey messages from departed relatives or to provide proof of an afterlife but to guide those still living “on this side” in their struggles to find a deeper truth about themselves and the universe.

The precise nature of the truth revealed by Blavatsky’s Hidden Masters seemed to vary considerably according to the individual medium, the audience being addressed, and the period when the Masters’ teaching was being manifested. Nevertheless, there was sufficient belief in Blavatsky’s claims that, in September of 1875, the Theosophical Society was formed in her apartment in order to promote the study of psychic phenomena and the revelations of the Hidden Masters.

Almost from the beginning, the Theosophical Society attempted to serve two largely incompatible missions simultaneously. To some of its members, it was a scientific society, created to investigate claims of psychic experiences to determine if they were genuine. To other members, the legitimacy of occult phenomena was beyond question, and the society’s purpose was not to challenge claims of extraordinary experiences but to promulgate them. As a result of these differences, during the late nineteenth century, various splinter groups began to split off from the Theosophical Society, creating a vast web of competing but related occult societies.

In 1879, the Theosophical Society launched a journal, The Theosophist, which soon began generating considerable profit. In 1882, a new center for the society was established at Adyar, near Madras, India, which later became the society’s international office. Additional branches (or “lodges,” as they were called, in imitation of the Masonic Masonic Order;and Theosophical Society[Theosophical Society] model) were established throughout the world during the 1880’s, and membership in the society quickly rose into the thousands. The rapid growth of the society, the isolation of its international office from the large urban centers of Europe and the United States, and the society’s repeated pattern of attracting idiosyncratic but highly charismatic individuals to positions of leadership diluted any unity that the Theosophical Society’s teachings could possibly have attained.

Annie Besant.

(Library of Congress)

Struggles for leadership within the society among Olcott, William Quan Judge Judge, William Quan , and Annie Besant Besant, Annie resulted in increasing acrimony and produced conflicting “revelations” from the Hidden Masters. These competing leaders adopted ever more complex rituals, which appealed to some members while exasperating others. A confusing amalgamation of overlapping societies developed. Accusations of pederasty and other deviant sexual practices on the part of several leaders of the society surfaced, and those leaders also undertook a series of seemingly bizarre new initiatives—such as the formation of the Liberal Catholic Church in 1915. All these developments alienated many of Theosophy’s early supporters.

As these scandals continued, they were intensified by accusations that the very “spirit manifestations” on which the society was founded were little more than fraudulent displays of stage trickery. The society’s membership soon began to wane. Nevertheless, the impact of the Theosophical Society continued to be felt in the many occult movements that it spawned and even in the phenomenon of New Age mysticism that arose in the late twentieth century.


The Theosophical Society demonstrated the hunger for deeper meaning that numerous Americans and Europeans felt after attempting to relate their former beliefs to Darwinism, the Industrial Revolution, and the decline of “divine right” government—to name just a few of the many cultural upheavals of the nineteenth century. Theosophy suggested that hidden spiritual truths were still important and that these truths could be within reach of nearly every person. As a result, the Theosophical Society helped provide hope to generations of people who felt cut off from the moorings of earlier religious society.

Furthermore, nearly every occult and mystical movement that began in the twentieth century could ultimately trace its roots to Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophical Society. The reestablishment of the Rosicrucian Order, the teachings of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff Gurdjieff, George Ivanovitch (1866-1949) and Peter D. Ouspensky Ouspensky, Peter D. (1878-1947), the Anthroposophy of Rudolph Steiner Steiner, Rudolph (1861-1925), the antiwar philosophy of Jiddu Krishnamurti Krishnamurti, Jiddu , and the entire range of New Age mysticism are almost impossible to imagine without the foundations laid by Blavatsky, Olcott, and Judge Judge, William Quan in the Theosophical Society of the late nineteenth century.

Further Reading

  • Buescher, John B. The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism and the Nineteenth-Century Religious Experience. Boston: Skinner House, 2004. Places the Theosophical movement and other spiritualist beliefs in the context of late Romantic movements involved with the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, temperance, prison reform, and labor reform.
  • Caldwell, Daniel, ed. The Esoteric World of Madame Blavatsky. Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 2001. Collection of reminiscences about Blavatsky and her circle; provides insight into contemporary views about the origins of the Theosophical Society.
  • Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas, ed. Helena Blavatsky. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, 2003. General biography of Blavatsky with an extended section on Theosophy and the origins of the Theosophical Society.
  • Jinarajadasa, C., ed. Golden Book of the Theosophical Society. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2003. The Theosophical Society’s own account of its history from 1875 until 1925.
  • Washington, Peter. Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon. New York: Schocken Books, 1993. The best place to begin a study of the Theosophical Society. Elaborately researched and clearly presented, this work connects Blavasky’s movements with numerous other occult and philosophical movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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