Theosophy

Birth of the Theosophical Society in Canada

 Ted G. Davy – Canada

Tribute I

Lavender, Ted’s favorite flower

The following is adapted from a chapter of a forthcoming history of the Theosophical Society in Canada) In 1906 a Toronto T.S. member, Nathaniel W.J. Haydon, wrote to the Editor of the Occult Review (a magazine published in London, England, covering a wide spectrum of “occult” interests:

“I should be much obliged if you would acquaint your numerous readers with the fact that the members of the Theosophical Society who reside in Canada hope to celebrate Mrs. Besant’s visit to the Dominion in 1907 by the inauguration of a Canadian Section. At present they are represented by branches at Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria, and by centres at Hamilton and Winnipeg; there are also a few members at large.” (1)

Mrs. Besant’s 1907 visit came and went but another twelve years passed before Haydon’s dream became a reality. If not the first, however, his must have been one of the earliest expressions of interest in forming a Canadian Theosophical Society separate from that in the U.S.A. At the time, and indeed from the 1880s, Canadians wishing to join the Theosophical Society (Adyar) did so as members of the American Section. During this period Canadian and American T.S. branches alike were administered from the American headquarters, which in 1912 were moved from Chicago, Illinois to Hollywood, California. There, the T.S. estate was named Krotona, and soon the headquarters were known by that name alone.

Although Canadian Theosophists have long stressed the importance of autonomy, there was never what could be remotely described as a “struggle for independence.” In 1920, the first Canadian T.S. General Secretary, Albert E.S. Smythe, recalled:

“On many occasions in the past twenty years the formation of a Canadian Section of the Theosophical Society has been discussed. Several times when it was brought before the Toronto Theosophical Society the proposal was negatived on the ground that the distances were too great to hold conventions and the forces available too slender to surmount the obstacles.” (2)

 

In all probability Haydon’s 1906 letter was written on his own initiative and expressed the views of a mere handful of like-minded members. Up until then, and for many years afterwards, the majority evidently saw no urgency to create a separate Canadian Section. In fact, during the earlier years, the small membership scattered over the vast country in four branches did not even bother to organize by region, let alone nationally. Furthermore, under the rules of the international Society at least seven branches were required to support an application for the charter of a national Section of the Theosophical Society. Because of this restriction, Haydon’s goal could not in any case have been achieved until 1911 at the earliest. That year, the Edmonton, Regina and Winnipeg Lodges came into existence, thus making independence technically possible.

Once that it was constitutionally feasible, it was almost as if the American headquarters could not wait to be rid of the Canadians. No sooner had the Edmonton Lodge made up the requisite number of branches, in May 1911, than the question was raised by Dr. Weller van Hook, the General Secretary of the American Section. In a letter to the Canadian Lodges, he suggested the formation of a Canadian Section. The reaction to this official prompting was mixed, but mostly negative.

Members of the new Edmonton Lodge immediately expressed themselves in favor of such a new organization. (3) The veteran Montreal group was more conservative:

“The general feeling of the members... appeared to be that no particular benefits would accrue by taking such a step just now.”

For its part, the attitude of the American Section is understandable and seems reasonable. If Dr. van Hook’s seeming haste is any indication, the Canadian members and branches were probably looked on as an unnecessary administrative burden.

Apparently other Lodges were of the same mind as Montreal, as in the event nothing came of van Hook’s suggestion. But the Edmonton members would not be put off. The following year, 1912, they revived the question of forming a Canadian Section, failing which they proposed that the American Section appoint a District Secretary for Canada. (5) Dr. van Hook was so advised, and the proposal was circulated to the other Canadian Lodges.

This time, Montreal’s attitude was more positive, but the members still “did not see how that desire could be filled just yet.” They stressed, however, “that this idea did not in the least interfere with the cordiality of our feeling for the American Section.” (6) So it appears this round of discussions also bore no fruit, and the matter rested.

Although technically the separation could have been effected any time after May, 1911, the main reason it was not undertaken right away was presumably the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” attitude. Inertia can be a powerful force in any organization! The majority of members probably just wanted to get on with their studies, and the administration of their organization was of little concern to them. Whether their branches came under national or continental jurisdiction was with most a matter of indifference if not apathy. Lodge Secretaries would dutifully continue to address correspondence and forward members’ dues to wherever they had to go, be it Chicago, Krotona or Toronto.

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 heralded many changes in Canada, not least in the activities of the Theosophical Society. Several members went off to serve their country. The Montreal Lodge paid the annual dues of those of its members who enlisted for overseas service, (7) and this was likely the general practice. It was during these difficult years that the first rumblings of discontent with the American T.S. administration began to be heard in Canada. Nor apparently was this dissatisfaction confined to the Canadian branches – but unlike their American counterparts they had the power to do something about it.

From the documentation available, it seems likely it was a combination of irritants that finally roused the will of the Canadian members to form a new national Section. One of these was later recalled by Albert E.S. Smythe:

“The suggestion for a Canadian Section ... was admittedly the result of a feeling that under the American Section various movements, more or less desirable in themselves, were obtruded on the members to the crowding out of Theosophy proper.” (8)

This refers to the growing number of organizations that were closely associated with the T.S., such as Co- Masonry, the Liberal Catholic Church, the Order of the Star in the East, and others. Relatedly, Charles Lazenby observed:

“The chants, the music, the incense and ritual which are already beginning to find their way into American Lodges are not likely to find favor with the average Canadian Lodge” (9)

Another undoubted provocation was a bizarre incident which arose when in 1917 the International T.S. President, Mrs. Annie Besant, and several prominent T.S. members in India were interned by the British government for political activities considered detrimental to the war effort. While this severe action was naturally deplored by the majority of T.S. members, it was hardly a situation which warranted the Society to break with its long held apolitical tradition. A.P. Warrington, the National President of the T.S. in America, thought otherwise, and drafted a fanatic “open letter” addressed to Lloyd George, the wartime Prime Minister of Great Britain, demanding Mrs. Besant’s release. The letter, which was basically a series of emotionally charged statements and threats, reminded Lloyd George of “The relief America has brought to your country in finance, in food, in munitions and in men.” (10) This incredible document was circulated among the branches for approval.

Anti-American sentiment in Canada during the first World War was not serious but not absent either. Statements such as the above would hardly fail to rile many Canadians who had already been fighting the war alongside the Allies for three years before America joined them in 1917. Also, many Canadian T.S. members had immigrated from Great Britain in the years leading up to the war, and probably retained family if not patriotic ties with the “old country”. Certainly, Canadian reaction to the open letter was angrier than had ever previously been shown.

Not long after this controversy, in August 1917 A.L. Crampton Chalk of Vancouver, one of the Canadian members who had expressed outrage over Warrington’s initiative, circulated a letter to the Canadian Lodges in which yet again the formation of a Canadian Section was promoted. This time both Montreal and Edmonton Lodges deferred immediate decision, and nothing happened as a result of this attempt.

Then early in 1918yet another incident added fuel to the fire. The American Section proposed to make radical by-law amendments, among which were some specifically designed to give the National President what amounted to autocratic powers. These changes especially disturbed the members in Toronto and Vancouver.

One of the members of the Orpheus Lodge in Vancouver, E.A. Lucas, was a prominent lawyer in that city. He analyzed the proposed new by-laws, and was scathing in his criticism. He noted:

“… the presence of a dozen time-honored devices for centralizing control; that is, in politics, keeping the power in the hands of the inside crowd, and effectually shutting out the Intelligent Elector from any but the most formal participation in affairs – such as voting and cheering. (11)

Lucas concluded his professional opinion by stating that the result aimed by the by-laws could have been achieved with less effort:

“… if the intentions of those who drafted [the by-laws] had been carried out, frankly it would only have taken one short clause: “The Theosophical Society shall be governed by the National President, who shall exercise all authority and who shall choose a successor should he deem it at any time advisable to retire.” (12)

This document was circulated to all Canadian (and to at least some American) Lodges. To it was appended a strong appeal by Charles Lazenby to the members, urging them to sign a “Petition of Protest” to the proposed by-laws. Many did.

The Toronto Theosophical Society called a special meeting of members for the purpose of passing a resolution in which “the Toronto Theosophical Society, numbering 154 members in good standing register protest against the proposed bylaws. (13) In Montreal, however, the reaction was quite opposite. After considering the relevant correspondence the Lodge cautiously “decided to ignore all suggestions of upsetting Krotona’s by-laws, either as they were or as they were proposed & that the secretary write to Krotona saying that we had every confidence in the people there & had no fault to find.” (14)

At the same time, more letters concerning a national Section for Canada were being circulated. Obviously, the inevitable could not be delayed forever, and the prospect of autonomy was increasingly attractive. From the summer of 1918, the subject was not let drop, and at last the Canadian Lodges got down to business. “The [Canadian] members feel that they are ready for it now,” reported President Warrington, following an American Section tour which included some Canadian T.S. centres. (15)

In his report already quoted, the first Canadian General Secretary observed:

“When ... in 1918, the British Columbian members began to consider the matter and requested the Toronto Society to take charge of the work of drafting a constitution and organizing a Section, it was felt that it would be unwise not to encourage a spirit of co-operation in Theosophical work throughout the Dominion. Accordingly a Toronto committee was appointed and a constitution was drafted and sent to the other branches. (16)

With the exception of Montreal Lodge, where the members were divided, the idea of being independent of the American Section gained an increasing number of supporters across Canada. The popular lecturer Charles Lazenby even offered a “Theosophical” argument for autonomy. “The Theosophical Society in Canada,” he wrote:

“… must then have ... a different function from the Theosophical Society in the States. It will have far less to do with psychism, with the weaving of the outer garments of religion, with the vast emotional excitements and turmoils which must mark the progress of Theosophy in the States. (17)

The draft constitution and various administrative details were discussed among the Lodges through correspondence. Toronto was selected to be the headquarters location, and it was also decided that a Section magazine be published.

Eventually, nine Lodges each signed a petition to Mrs. Annie Besant, President of the Theosophical Society, for a national charter for Canada. These were Victoria, Nanaimo, Vancouver, Orpheus (Vancouver), Edmonton, Winnipeg, Hamilton, Toronto and Montreal. The latter, so long more pro-Krotona than any other, must have had a last minute change of heart. No explanation has ever been offered as to why the ten other branches existing at this time did not also sign the petition. Some perhaps were still doubtful; inertia probably accounted for the rest.

On November 12, 1919, the Theosophical Society in Canada was officially chartered as a national Section of the international body. The charter was received in Toronto in early December 1919. It names only seven – the required number – of the petitioning Lodges. The exclusion of Montreal and Edmonton from the list was evidently a decision taken either at Krotona or at the international headquarters in Adyar. In passing it is observed that the charter reads that it was granted to the Society with “its administrative centre at Canada in the country of America.” This howler did not pass unnoticed, but geography was of little concern to those faced with the task of setting up the new organization.

Officially, 797 members were transferred, but “deducting the dead, inactive, resigned, and overseas members we found 630 members actually on the list, a few of these being doubtful.” (18) Krotona’s inaccurate record keeping was just one of the difficulties faced by the new administration. The launching of a Section monthly journal, The Canadian Theosophist, as early as March 1920, was a major achievement.

Immediately an election was held. The General Secretary, Albert E.S. Smythe, was elected by acclamation. There were seventeen candidates for the seven-member General Executive, the preferential system of voting being used. Four men and three women were elected, and this initial governing body was roughly representative geographically. The Theosophical Society in Canada was at last a reality.

The new Section was not without its supporters outside Canada. H.N. Stokes, the fiery editor of the O.E. Library Critic, wrote:

The Canadian Lodges have withdrawn from the American Section, T.S., and have organized “The Theosophical Society in Canada,” which is still a branch of the Adyar T.S., but independent of Krotona. Canadian Theosophists have manifested a broader and more democratic spirit than their fellows in the United States, and in the selection of Albert E.S. Smythe as General Secretary is guarantee that this spirit will be fostered. (19)

The “democratic spirit” fostered by Smythe and others of like mind included the right to criticize leaders, which at the time elsewhere in the T.S. was considered treachery. Consequently, a small number of Canadian members who revered the T.S. leadership, and unable to sway the majority to their view, eventually split off. But by and large The Theosophical Society in Canada was off to a viable start, and has since seldom gone unnoticed when playing its small part on the stage of the wider Theosophical Movement.

Notes and References

  1. The Occult Review, III, 330 (June 1906).
  2. [Albert E.S. Smyth], “Organizing the T.S. in Canada” The Canadian Theosophist 1:1 p. 10. (March 1920).
  3. Edmonton Lodge Minutes, July 20, 1911.
  4. Montreal Lodge Minutes, August 8, 1911.
  5. Edmonton Lodge Minutes, September 5, 1912.
  6. Montreal Lodge Minutes, November 5, 1912.
  7. Montreal Lodge Minutes, April 5, 1916.
  8. Albert E.S. Smythe, “The T.S. in Canada” in The Forty-Sixth Annual General Report of the Theosophical Society, 1921, p. 120.
  9. Charles A. Lazenby, “Manifesto to the Lodges of The Theosophical Society in Canada” November, 1918.
  10. [A.P. Warrington], “An Open Letter addressed to Hon. Lloyd George, Prime Minister, London, England.” Undated. Cyclo-styled.
  11. E.A. Lucas, “Opinion on the Proposed By-Laws of the Theosophical Society” — A printed circular to which was appended a letter by Charles Lazenby addressed “To My Fellow Members of the American Section of the Theosophical Society” followed by a ‘Petition of Protest. March, 1918”.
  12. ibid.
  13. Notice to Toronto T.S. Members, March 28th, 1918, signed by Albert E.S. Smythe, President, and H.R. Tallman, Secretary.
  14. Montreal Lodge Minutes April 23, 1918.
  15. Joy Mills, 100 Years of Theosophy: A History of The Theosophical Society in America, p. 60.
  16. “Organizing the T.S. in Canada” — op. cit.
  17. Charles A. Lazenby, “Manifesto” to the Lodges of the Theosophical Society in Canada, November, 1918.
  18. Albert E.S. Smythe, “The T.S. in Canada” in The Forty-Sixth Annual General Report of the Theosophical Society, 1921, p. 118.
  19. O.E. Library Critic, IX, 20 (May 12, 1920).

[From: The Canadian Theosophist, July-August 1991]

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