William Quan Judge and the Theosophical Society – part one

Dara Eklund – USA

[Based on a talk given by Dara Eklund at Krotona Institute of Theosophy in April 2010.]

Annie Besant wrote the following in the October, 1922 [p. 351], issue of the Theosophist: “William Quan Judge [was] a much loved friend and pupil of H.P.B.’s, and the channel of life to the American Branch of the T.S. A highly evolved man, with a profound realization of the deeper truths of life, he built up the Society in America from small and discouraging beginnings. No difficulties daunted him, and no apparent failures quenched his fiery devotion. . . . He was beside H.P.B. through those early days, saw the exercise of her wonderful powers, and shared in the founding of the Theosophical Society. And throughout the remainder of her life on earth, the friendship remained unbroken, and during the later years she regarded him as her one hope in America, declaring that, if the American members rejected him, she would break off all relations with them, and know them no more. . . .His real work, the spread of Theosophy in America, was splendidly performed, and his memory remains a lasting inspiration. . . . William Quan Judge must ever have his place among Theosophical Worthies.”

William Quan Judge

William Quan Judge, son of Frederick H. Judge and Alice Mary Quan, was born in Dublin, Ireland, on April 13, 1851. His mother died in giving birth to a seventh child. At the age of thirteen, Judge emigrated with his bereaved father and family to New York City, arriving via the City of Limerick steamship on July 14, 1864. Very little is known of William’s early years prior to coming to America. At age seven he survived a major illness, ordinarily fatal, which changed him entirely. Boris de Zirkoff’s biography states that the doctor pronounced him dead. Under her pen name Jasper Niemand, Julia Keightley wrote: “During convalescence the boy evinced aptitude and knowledge which he had never before displayed, exciting wonder as to when and how he had learned these things, these rudiments of art and of literature . . . and from his recovery in his eighth year we find him interested in religion, magic, Rosicrucianism, and deeply absorbed in the Book of Revelations of the Christian Bible, trying to settle its meaning. He also devoured the contents of all the books he could lay hold of relating to mesmerism, character-reading, phrenology and so on, while no one knew when he had so much as acquired the art of reading at all. The emigration to America . . . broadened his thought and experience as the era of definite work and training came on” (Irish Theosophist 4.5 [February 15, 1896]: 91). Julia Keightley also relates an incident of the boy’s will power, in spite of his frail health, when some playmates jeered at Judge because he could not swim across a stream to an island. He determined to walk across the river’s bed; when out of his depth, periodically rising for breath, he was finally drawn out half-conscious by his astonished playfellows.

After arriving in New York, the young family with their widowed father lived briefly at the Old Merchant’s Hotel, moving later to Brooklyn, where Judge finished his schooling. He became interested in the legal profession while serving as a clerk at the law office of George P. Andrews, who eventually became a justice of the New York State Supreme Court. William’s father died soon after; and upon coming of age in April, 1872, William became a naturalized citizen of the United States. A month later he was admitted to the State Bar of New York, becoming a specialist in commercial law and exhibiting a natural shrewdness, industry, and persistence which later proved useful when the Theosophical Society was formed.

In 1874 Judge married a Brooklyn school teacher, Ella M. Smith, with whom he had a daughter who died in infancy from diphtheria. His wife’s family were quite religious, and frowned on his later association with Theosophy. Poverty forced him to live with them until 1893, when the couple moved to New York from Brooklyn in order to be closer to the Theosophical Society headquarters there. The marriage was not an easy one because of his wife’s strict Methodist upbringing and the loss of their child. Judge was very fond of children, who naturally gravitated to him.

We have several versions of how Judge contacted H. P. Blavatsky. Julia Keightley raised a question: “Each age has known a triumvirate of visible agents of the mysterious Lodge; where was the third point of the triangle?” (ibid., 112). Aware of the nineteenth century’s fervor for Spiritualism, Judge read newspaper accounts about the topic. People from the Other World, by Col. H. S. Olcott, led him to inquire about H. P. Blavatsky. Another account states that H.P.B. sought him out, asking Judge to come to her apartment. Annie Besant wrote that his contact with H.P.B. in the summer of 1875 brought new insights and Judge became a frequent visitor at her Irving Place apartment, where the Theosophical Society was eventually founded. She quotes Judge’s own description of this first meeting: “in the City of New York, I first met H.P.B. in this life. By her request, sent through Colonel H. S. Olcott, the call was made in her rooms in Irving Place. . . . It was her eye that attracted me, the eye of one whom I must have known in lives long passed away. She looked at me in recognition at that first hour, and never since has that look changed. . . . It was teacher and pupil, elder brother and younger, both bent on the one single end, but she with the power and the knowledge that belong but to lions and sages” (Theosophist, June 1909, p. 351).

Of this early period after Judge met H.P.B., Julia Keightley (IT, IV. 113) wrote, “Storms there were, no doubt, as well as fullest sunshine; for the pupil was a powerful mind and the teacher was the sphinx of her era.” Boris de Zirkoff considered such storms to be tests, and Keightley continued, “Whatever the pupil thought of the teacher was said to her, boldly; not a doubt or a fear concealed when these arose, as arise they must when the hour of occult teaching and trial dawns.” According to Keightley’s description of the Theosophical Society’s founding on September 7, 1875, H. P. Blavatsky asked Judge to tell Col. Olcott to “found a Society” as her Master had urged in July. Judge assumed the chair, nominating Olcott as permanent chairman. After Olcott was elected as president, he nominated Judge as secretary. That event was not the formal founding date, however, although it was the beginning of the Society. Olcott in Old Diary Leaves (1:117-8) speaks of this first gathering at H.P.B.’s rooms to listen to Mr. Felt speak on “The Lost Canon of Proportion of the Egyptians.” He regrets that there are no official memoranda of those present, and reports, “In the course of this, the idea occurred to me that it would be a good thing to form a society to pursue and promote such occult research, and . . . I wrote on a scrap of paper the following: ‘Would it not be a good thing to form a Society for this kind of study?’—and gave it to Mr. Judge, at the moment standing between me and H.P.B., sitting opposite, to pass over to her. She read it and nodded assent.”

Besant (The Theosophist, 351-2) describes William Q. Judge as one of that first New York group who stood round the cradle of the Society and was appointed as its counsel, a “young and then unnoticed lawyer . . . who became one of the great workers and leaders in the movement. . . . Spiritual and intuitional, he was also extraordinarily capable as an organizer and a leader. But those qualities at first lay hidden, for there was naught to organize or to lead. After Olcott and Blavatsky left for India, he would ‘hold a meeting by himself’ week after week, holding the lonely citadel for the coming days.” Besant also relates his trip to India, and defense of the Society during the time of the Coulomb conspiracy, writing: “His return to America marked the beginning of the upward arc of the Society there.”

Boris de Zirkoff addresses these early years of the Society as being conducted like a “literary salon” around H.P.B. as the main attraction, so that the founders leaving New York for India in December 1878 created a great vacuum. It was a period of trial for Judge, as we see from his letters to Olcott and Damodar during 1879-82. Besant describes “those terrible times of struggle and inner desolation, of gloom within and disappointment without, which are the destiny of all elect souls.” H.P.B. and Olcott left Judge to sustain the Society as best he could under the temporary presidency of General Abner Doubleday. Doing so was no easy task, for the twenty-three-year-old Judge was of frail health, married, and poor. Under trial, he felt alone and neglected. As he wrote to Damodar, he wished to be part of the action in India. Little seemed to get accomplished on the external plane. While membership dwindled, Judge kept records under the sustained devotion of General Doubleday, who held great friendship and respect for the younger man. In those early years, Judge would read the minutes and the customary passages from the Gita, with unflagging zeal even if no one else was present at meetings. We know from his letters that he had several mining adventures in South America, hoping for funds to rejoin the founders in India. Even his brother John chided him for the neglect of his law practice at home. Yet, while in South America, he did have a mysterious encounter with an Adept which he later related in his occult story, “A Weird Tale.”

According to that story, Judge encountered, at a church vestibule in the city of Caracas, Venezuela, an old man who urged him to come and have a talk. He was led to an old house where he noticed Hindu servants such as he had seen on nearby Trinidad. The old man spoke of subterranean passages extending from Peru to Caracas, which he had been sent to protect from rapacious Venezuelans who sought gold believed to be hidden there. For quite a while, the elderly guide was called away by a distant bell, yet when Judge rose to leave, he was detained by a Hindu servant, and urged by a voice not to stir yet. He fell to gazing at a mysterious silver plate struck by the setting sun’s rays. He could not decipher certain figures on the plate, but on the opposite wall he noticed “that the plate threw a reflection there upon a surface evidently prepared for that purpose and there was reproduced the whole surface of the plate. It was a diagram with compass, sign, and curious marks.” As he went closer to examine it, the sun dipped behind the houses and the figures were lost, although the letters may have been some South Indian script. “Another faint bell sounded and the old man returned. He apologized, saying that he had been far away, but that we would meet again.” Judge asked where, and the elder said, “In London.” The next day he did find the same house, but no Hindus, no Indian incense—just an ordinary Spanish house with Spanish servants and Spanish atmosphere. When they again met in 1884, the old man reminded him of the house in Caracas and enquired, “Did you succeed in making out the reflection from the silver plate on the wall?” Judge did not immediately reply but puzzled, asked, “I saw your eyes in Caracas, but not ‘your body’.” The old man then laughed and explained his use of a borrowed body, difficult to control, but a necessary vehicle; perhaps a penance. Ushered into his host’s London quarters, Judge heard through an astral pipe certain passages from the Bhagavad Gita. Then there came a rush of elementals which resembled the shapes found in Egyptian temples.

Possibly the old man’s most important message to W.Q.J. concerned the borrowed body, as Judge himself had to deal with a similar burden. Referring to the use of the body he had borrowed, the old man said: “Don’t you know that many experiments are possible in that way, and that some students are taught peculiarly? I have stood aside from this earthly tabernacle many a time to let in those who, notwithstanding that they operated the machine well enough and made quite a respectable use of it, did not know what they did.” Although we cannot here delve further into this “Weird Tale,” originally published in the Theosophist, it is included in Echoes of the Orient 1:531-8.

End of part one – to be continued


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