Remembering H. S. Olcott

By Sarah Belle Dougherty


Henry Steel Olcott, President-Founder of the Theosophical Society, died 90 years ago this month. A selfless humanitarian, skillful organizer and administrator, and dedicated servant of his and H. P. Blavatsky’s teachers for over thirty years, Olcott brought The Theosophical Society into existence as an organization through his determination and resourcefulness. Before meeting Blavatsky at the age of 42, Olcott had led an eventful life. The eldest of six children, he was born on August 2, 1832 in Orange, New Jersey. In his teens he attended the College of the City of New York and Columbia University until his father’s business failed in 1851. Olcott then moved near his uncles in Ohio, where he farmed for shares for two years, which awakened his interest in agriculture. His uncles encouraged his interest in the paranormal, including mesmerism, in which he found he had some ability.

Returning to the East Coast, Olcott studied agriculture and was recognized for his work at the Model Farm of Scientific Agriculture at Newark, New Jersey. Soon he co-founded a farm school in Mt. Vernon, New York, which pioneered modern methods of teaching agriculture in the US. He became an expert on sorgho and imphee crops, writing a well-received book on the subject (1858), and also did agricultural research in Europe. The Mark Lane Express and New York Tribune both retained him as agricultural correspondent. In 1860, when Virginia authorities forbade any Northerner from witnessing the hanging of John Brown, Olcott volunteered to witness the event incognito for his New York paper, and succeeded.

In 1860 Olcott married Mary Epplee Morgan, with whom he had four children, the youngest two dying in infancy. The marriage was unsuccessful, and by 1874 he had granted his wife a divorce.

When the Civil War broke out, Olcott enlisted in the signal corps and went through the North Carolina campaign under General Burnside. After recovering from dysentery, he served for four years as Special Commissioner of the War Department, investigating fraud, corruption, and graft at the New York Mustering and Disbursement Office. Because of his integrity, courage, and effectiveness, he was made a Colonel and then assigned to the Navy Department in Washington, DC, to investigate fraud in the Navy Yards, where he reformed the system of accounts and effectively reduced corruption. He received high commendation for his work from the Secretary of the Navy. When Lincoln was assassinated, Olcott was appointed to the three-man special commission to investigate the murder.

After resigning his commission in 1865, he returned to New York City to study law. In 1868 he was admitted to the New York Bar and became successful as a specialist in insurance, customs, and revenue cases. Once established, his interest in experimental psychology and the occult revived. On reading in 1874 of spiritualistic phenomena at the Eddy Farmstead in Vermont, he determined to investigate for himself and obtained an assignment from the New York Sun. This series of articles stimulated great enthusiasm, and the New York Daily Graphic persuaded him to return for six weeks to write twelve more articles. These were reprinted all over the country, and investigators of phenomena in Europe and America praised his thorough scientific methods. Both series of articles formed the basis of People from the Other World, published in 1875.

The year 1874 was a turning point in his life. He met H. P. Blavatsky in October during his second stay at the Eddy Farmstead, and they quickly became friends. This meeting was not coincidental. One of Blavatsky’s teachers explained later that

One or two of us hoped that the world had so far advanced intellectually, if not intuitionally, that the Occult doctrine might gain an intellectual acceptance, and the impulse given for a new cycle of occult research. Others — wiser as it would now seem — held differently, but consent was given for the trial. . . . So casting about we found in America the man to stand as leader — a man of great moral courage, unselfish, and having other good qualities. He was far from being the best, but . . . he was the best one available. With him we associated a woman of most exceptional and wonderful endowments. Combined with them she had strong personal defects, but just as she was, there was no second to her living fit for this work. We sent her to America, brought them together — and the trial began. — The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, Letter 44

On returning from Vermont, Olcott continued his spiritualistic investigations and his friendship with Blavatsky. She introduced him to her teachers, adepts of occult spiritual philosophy. In May 1875 he received his first letter from one of the Masters and became a neophyte in the Brotherhood of Luxor; Blavatsky was given the task of teaching him. In June, a great psycho-physiological change took place in Blavatsky, and Olcott was transferred to the Indian section of the Brotherhood.

In July 1875 Blavatsky recorded in her scrapbook: “Orders received from India direct to establish a philosophico-religious Society and choose a name for it — also to choose Olcott.”(1) That same month his teacher suggested Olcott take Blavatsky to New York City and watch over her closely. On September 7, 1875, after a lecture to a small audience in Blavatsky’s sitting room, the suggestion to form a society to study the hidden laws of nature was made, and by November the name Theosophical Society had been chosen, Olcott elected President and Blavatsky Corresponding Secretary. (2)

After a year the Society had not grown, and all administrative power was placed in the President-Founder, who also supported it financially. Olcott continued his law practice by day, helping Blavatsky with Isis Unveiled late into the night whenever they were not busy entertaining visitors. He was undergoing a period of training and discipline. When Isis was published (1877), Olcott and Blavatsky prepared to go to India, leaving in December 1878. Olcott was anxious to visit the homeland of his guru and of the philosophy he revered, and he idealized both the land and its people. On arriving in India, he soon recognized its problems, but it always remained his spiritual homeland and permanent residence through a life of extensive travel.

Olcott’s primary objectives in India were to disseminate Asian philosophy to the West by encouraging accurate translations of texts by native scholars and to revive Oriental spiritual traditions — principally Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism — suffering under the onslaught of Western materialistic education and Christian missionary propaganda as well as military, economic, and political subjugation. In his many lectures all over India, he pointed to the truth beneath literal interpretations and ritualism, and enjoined members of each religion to practice its ethics and make its core teachings a living force in their lives. Olcott is best known for his work with Buddhists, particularly in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and next to the Theosophical Society, this work was closest to his heart. He helped revive the practice of Buddhism, wrote a Buddhist Catechism still used today, and worked to bring the various branches of Buddhism into agreement on fundamental points so they could present a united front to the West.

In 1882 Olcott began performing magnetic healing in India and Ceylon. Blavatsky describes the life he often led during that period:

At 5 o’clock in the morning the whole courtyard and veranda of the houses we stopped in were crowded with the lame and the cripple. At every station, the railway platforms were crowded with the sick lying in wait for him. . . . I saw him begin curing the sick at 6 in the morning, and never sit down till 4 p.m.; and when stopping to eat a plate of vegetable soup have to leave it to cure a possessed woman and his plate of soup remaining unfinished at 7 p.m. and then he would sit down and dictate to his Secretary till 2 in the morning; having only three or four hours sleep. — The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky to A. P. Sinnett, p. 61

Not surprisingly, after about a year, Olcott was ordered by his teacher to stop magnetic healing, as he was becoming too depleted.

Unfortunately, from the mid-1880s until Blavatsky’s death in 1891, Olcott began to distrust his fellow-founder and, increasingly, had trouble forgiving her explosive temperament and frequent criticisms. Moreover, the humanitarian and religious aspects of their mission were closest to his heart; he was neither a mystic nor an occultist, and the inner purposes of the Society and of Blavatsky and her teachers were extremely difficult for him to grasp. Apparently, he never fully understood Blavatsky, and more and more found her a disruptive element. Particularly after the Coulomb attack (3) and ensuing publication of the Report by the Society for Psychical Research (1885), he resolved to dissociate the TS publicly from phenomena and the mahatmas. This was in line with the policy of the mahatmas, who by the fall of 1884 had allowed Blavatsky

to retire for three reasons (1) to disconnect the T. S. from her phenomena, now tried to be represented all fraudulent; (2) to help it by removing the chief cause of the hatred against it; (3) to try and restore the health of the body, so it may be used for some years longer. — The Mahatma Letters, Letter 55

At this time, in KH’s words, “A fearful responsibility is cast upon Mr. Olcott; . . .” (ibid.).

Blavatsky left for Europe in March 1885 to regain her health and write The Secret Doctrine, having resigned as Corresponding Secretary. Olcott continued to work in Asia, lecturing, establishing new branches, and placing the facts of the Coulomb case before the public. He faced many obstacles in administering the Society, particularly as he was away from the Headquarters for extended periods every year. Personnel and financial difficulties abounded, and criticism of him and his actions also. However, in her defense of him in 1889, Blavatsky said: “Wherever he will be, there will be the T. S. so long as he lives; those who want me, must have him, . . .”(4)

Olcott believed “the proper work of the Founders of the Society is rather that of organization than research,” i.e., making philosophical and religious discoveries or policies. The former was his province, the latter Blavatsky’s. He felt he had established the Society along the correct lines and tried to organize it in a way that would insure its continuance after the two Founders’ deaths — his great fear was that it would not outlast them. Unfortunately, his decisions in running the Society resulted in a machine-like organization unresponsive to the mahatmas, who by then referred to it as a “corpse.” Therefore Blavatsky, having recovered her health sufficiently, began again to take a more active role in the Society, revitalizing and leading the European work and organizing the Esoteric Section under her direct control. Olcott did not understand the need for this — indeed, if he had understood, there would not have been the need — and he was hostile to many of her moves, seeing her as a disorganizing force and her teachings as an unacceptably sectarian factor. He did not believe the Society should promote any particular philosophy, but rather encourage people to search in existing traditions and within themselves. Nevertheless, under instructions from their teachers, he acquiesced to her policies, and worked cooperatively with her until her death.

Olcott was increasingly disturbed by the high standing and veneration given to Blavatsky and her work. He wrote his Old Diary Leaves in part to combat what he perceived as a tendency towards hero worship of Blavatsky, and his portrait of her is at times deliberately far from flattering. He felt that his role was being undervalued, and hers distorted:

Nor was Madame Blavatsky any more than myself the “Founder” of the Society: neither of us was anything more than a willing agent. . . . it was I who proposed the formation of the Society, who had all the early burden of guiding its infant steps, and who, after the collapse of the original legislative scheme of Rules and Bye-Laws, had . . . all the executive responsibility. . . . Yet she was the intermediary between them [the adepts] and me, thus earning my lifelong gratitude, as she long ago did by brotherly love and loyalty. . . . Like the active volcano, she throws out a good deal of lava, scoria and sulphur, but like it she often uncovers gold and silver veins of arcane truth for those who are not too blind to see it. —The Theosophist, September 1889

After Blavatsky’s death, Olcott (President-Founder), William Q. Judge (Vice-President of the TS and co-head of the Esoteric Section), and Annie Besant (President of the Blavatsky Lodge, London, and co-head of the ES) were the leading officials. Olcott saw the President as someone who would

administer his office with strict impartiality as between nations, sects and political systems. He must live at Adyar, develop the Library, keep up The Theosophist, push on the educational work, . . . in Ceylon and Southern India, and be ready to visit all parts of the world as occasion shall require, to weave the outlying Sections into the great golden web of brotherhood whose centre and nucleus is at Adyar. — Address at the Annual Convention, 1893

Long-standing personal and policy tensions between Olcott and Judge (similar but far greater than those between Olcott and Blavatsky) magnified the conflicts that eventually split the Society in 1895. After the division, Olcott continued his theosophical work with Annie Besant, traveling widely, lecturing and establishing new Branches, until he injured his leg on shipboard in Europe in late 1906. He returned to Adyar, where he died of heart disease on February 17, 1907.

Henry S. Olcott led an extraordinary life. He dedicated his last three decades to helping humanity, and his thoughts and aspirations remained fixed on the mission he undertook for his teachers. His faults have often been noticed, but as Blavatsky remarked: “One thing I do know — and my Master and his know it too — he has done his best which is all that any of us can do.”(5)

(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Theosophical University Press)

1. H.P. Blavatsky: Collected Writings 1:95

2. The precise details of the events are not clear. Olcottt remembered suggesting that a Society be formed, while W. Q Judge remembered passing a note from Blavatsky to Olcott asking him to form a Society, after which Olcott made the suggestion.

3. See “William Quan Judge: A Biographical Sketch“. Sunrise April/May 1996.

4. Letter to N.D. Khnandalavala, dated 21 Nov., 1889 ; in The Theosophist, Aug. 1932.

5. The Theosophist, 53 : 622-3 (August 1932) written November 21, 1889