Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

Crises of Faith or Doubt and Annie Besant

Catherine Wathen – USA

The nineteenth century, everybody knows, was an age when faith was lost and scientific skepticism came to the fore. It was, after all, the age of Darwin, the saint of faithless skeptics. Yet, what “everybody knows” has been challenged in a recent book by Timothy Larsen: Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England (Oxford University Press, 2006). In this book, Larsen argues that the view of the century of Darwin as a time when faith was on the wane is wrong, or at least incomplete. He cites examples of skeptics who rediscovered faith in traditional religion and maintains that they represent a “crisis of doubt” in the secular values of skepticism.

It is relevant that Timothy Larsen took his first two academic degrees at Wheaton College, a nonsectarian but fundamentalist college in the same town that incongruously harbors the national center of the Theosophical Society in America. Furthermore, he currently holds the Chair of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. Considering the author’s background, the thesis of his book is not much of a surprise.

What is something of a surprise is that one his “reconverts” (skeptics who rediscovered faith in religion) is Annie Besant. It is true that AB was early on an Anglo-Catholic who became a leader of the skeptic movement in England and then rediscovered religious values and practices. However, AB’s rediscovery was not the sort of most of Larsen’s other “reconverts”; she did not go back to conventional Christianity but became an advocate and leading exponent of Theosophy, which is hardly the kind of faith that “Wheaties” (i.e., students of Wheaton College) are encouraged to explore, much less adopt.

As Besant’s spiritual quest was so unlike that of Larsen’s other “reconverts,” one wonders why he included her at all. She seems to be one of the few women he could find to cite (there is only one other). And among all his subjects, Besant clearly stands out as one of the most intelligent and accomplished. Here is what he has to say about her (pp. 258-9):

Annie Besant (1847-1933)

The literature about Annie Besant is voluminous. She is arguably the most prominent nineteenth-century Secularist leader to defect. Born Annie Wood, she became a devout adherent of the Oxford Movement. In 1867 she married a clergyman, Frank Besant. In 1871 she began to move into religious scepticism. Her freethinking On the Deity of Jesus of Nazareth (1872) was published anonymously. Frank insisted that his wife should be an active Anglican, and as she could not be one, they separated.

Besant joined the National Secular Society in 1874. She quickly became one of the most popular Secularist leaders. She was a regular contributor to the National Reformer and eventually co-proprietor with Bradlaugh. This leading duo of organized scepticism also founded and ran together the Freethought Publishing Company. Bradlaugh was the president of the National Secular Society and Besant vice-president. She was very popular among the rank and file and became the most prominent leader of organized atheism in Britain beside ‘Iconoclast’ himself. Her atheistic writings were manifold. My Path to Atheism (1877) may serve as a representative example. The unequivocal embracing of the ‘atheist’ label is significant. It is also revealing that many of the essays in this collection are anti-Bible or anti-Christian ones. There are also more general attacks on religion, which are significant given later developments, including ‘On the Nature and the Existence of God’ and ‘On Prayer’.

In 1889 Besant joined forces with Madame Blavatsky and converted to Theosophy. A measure of how far Besant was to travel is a version of this conversion that she told much later in life. She claimed she was, of all places, in the offices of Britain’s greatest atheistic paper, the National Reformer, when she heard a voice say: ‘Are you willing to give up everything for the sake of truth?’ To which one of Britain’s most prominent atheists responded: ‘Yes, Lord.’ Bradlaugh was deeply disappointed. Trotting out the standard innuendo, he complained that her acceptance of these new beliefs had been ’somewhat of suddenness’. Besant, however, was in earnest. She rose to the presidency of the Theosophical Society and contributed extensively to its literature. She was a serious student of Hindu thought. Her scholarly accomplishments include her own translation from Sanscrit of the Bhagavad Gita. Besant became convinced that a young brahmin, Jiddu Krishnamurti, was the reincarnation of the World Teacher. Her My Path to Atheism, published by the Freethought Publishing Company, may be contrasted with a volume of hers published exactly twenty years later. In perfect symmetry, the publisher this time was the Theosophical Publishing Society, and the title echoed a keyword, The Three Paths to Union with God (1897).