Point Loma Theosophical Community

views updated


POINT LOMA THEOSOPHICAL COMMUNITY was an organization of American Theosophists that was based at Point Loma, California, from 1900 to 1942. The site for the Point Loma Theosophical Community was located on the western side of San Diego Bay, on the northern end of a peninsula also used by the U.S. military. Much of the site for the Point Loma Theosophical Community is now occupied by Point Loma Nazarene University.

The Point Loma Theosophical Community's origins can be found in the history of the American Theosophical movement. Helena P. Blavatsky (18311891) and Henry Steel Olcott (18321907), along with William Q. Judge (18511896) and several others interested in Spiritualism, comparative religions, and the occult, began the Theosophical Society in New York City in 1875. Until 1878 Blavatsky and Olcott supervised regular meetings in which participants heard lectures on and discussed various matters related to the occult, world religions, Spiritualism, and other topics of interest to urban middle-class individuals who gravitated away from traditional religions and toward the late-nineteenth-century alternatives available from a growing body of printed literature, as well as from leaders like Blavatsky. In 1878 Blavatsky and Olcott sailed for India to take up Theosophical work there. The movement in the United States experienced a period of decline. In 1883 Judge revived the Theosophical organization by conducting public meetings and publishing a monthly magazine, the Path, that appeared regularly from 1886 to 1896. Through Judge's efforts as a lecturer and a frequent contributor to the Path, an increasing number of middle-class Americans found Theosophy to be a viable alternative to the religious cultures in which they were raised.

Numerous conversion accounts printed in Theosophical magazines beginning in the late 1800s recount a similar story: the individual became dissatisfied with doctrines preached and taught in their churches, wandered among religious institutions and movements (often finding a temporary home among Spiritualists), then heard a lecture about Theosophy, read a Theosophical book or magazine, or was befriended by a Theosophist. Theosophy resolved their doubts and challenged their imaginations. It provided a satisfactory explanation for the structure of the universe, relying upon many of the scientific notions of the day, but still reserved a place for the religious teachings of the world.

Theosophy claims that humanity evolves through various stages across eons of time, reincarnating as waves of souls or sparks of divinity in progressively more advanced forms. The worlds on which these waves of evolution occur are themselves evolving, with each evolutionary cycle ultimately reaching a point of greatest material density and then slowly working toward heightened spiritual glory and maturity before the waves of human souls move on to other worlds. Watching, and to some extent overseeing, these grand cosmic developments are a class of beings called masters who have advanced intellectually and spiritually many levels beyond most souls. Theosophists claimed that Blavatsky frequently communicated with certain masters. The masters were supposedly responsible for much of the information contained in some of her most important published works, especially her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine (1888). The Theosophical version of the universe, then, offered to late-nineteenth-century Americans a stimulating vision of the cosmos and their place in it. Those who embraced this vision sometimes cut off ties to family and friends. Theosophists reoriented their affiliations, associating with one another in local lodges that sprang up in dozens of American cities during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. In these lodges, members held regular meetings in which Theosophical topics were discussed, distributed literature, and instructed children in Theosophical Sunday schools called Lotus Circles. Judge was the president of the American Section of the Theosophical Society until 1895, when he led the Americans in convention to declare their independence from the rest of the Theosophical Society worldwide after a series of disputes involving Judge, noted British Theosophical leader Annie Besant (18471933), Olcott, and others.

Shortly before Judge's death, Katherine Tingley (18471929) assumed an increasingly important role in Judge's leadership circle in New York City. Her origins as a Theosophist are difficult to determine. She was a middle-class social reformer, like many women in her class at that time, who fed the poor and supported other charitable works. After Judge's death, many of those closest to him were convinced that Tingley should succeed him. This succession was ratified by a pro-Tingley convention of the American Theosophical Society in 1898, in which the organization adopted a new name, Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society. During this period, Tingley led Theosophists in New York City and other American cities to engage in activities consistent with the priorities of women reformers and the emerging political and cultural ethos of Progressivism, activities designed to improve the quality of life and living conditions of the urban poor (e.g., training and socializing children, feeding the hungry, offering job instruction, providing housing and support for prostitutes, and caring for orphans). During the Spanish-American War of 1898, Tingley and other Theosophists worked in a hospital camp on Long Island at one of the disembarkation points for returning American soldiers. Many of these soldiers were weak and ill from tropical diseases contracted while in Cuba, and they required food and medical treatment. Because the U.S. Army was slow to organize adequate facilities to receive the influx of returning troops, the care provided by the Theosophistsas well as by other organizations like the Red Crosswas crucial in saving many lives. In recognition of her organization's work, President William McKinley provided transport for Tingley and other Theosophists to journey to Cuba to establish relief work there. This led to the eventual foundation, during the first decade of the twentieth century, of four Theosophical schools in that island nation.

Meanwhile, Tingley and other leaders among her inner circle were increasingly interested in relocating to California. The reasons for this move are not entirely clear, but California was attractive to many Americans in the East and Midwest at the beginning of the twentieth century. It provided a mild climate, geographical diversity for agriculture and industry, and freedom from the cultural, social, and economic constraints characteristic of the more settled areas of the United States. During a worldwide tour of Theosophical lodges in 1896 called the Crusade, Tingley, with the assistance of Gottfried de Purucker (18741942), her eventual successor, learned of the exact location of available land on the Point Loma peninsula and directed her agents to purchase it.

When she returned to the United States in 1897, Tingley gathered American Theosophists for a dedication ceremony at the Point Loma site. But Theosophists did not take up residence in substantial numbers at Point Loma until 1900 and after. In the early days of the Point Loma Theosophical Community, several hundred adults lived in tents and other temporary structures that eventually gave way, over the years, to houses and bungalows, as well as buildings containing facilities for various activities supported by the community, including a printing press, medical clinic, classrooms. From the beginning, children were central to Point Loma's existence. Tingley and others justified the creation of Point Loma as a home for souls then entering the world as children who were morally and spiritually advanced. Given the proper environment and training, these children could become superior world citizens whose lives would be devoted to the service of humanity. Taking their cues from comments made by Blavatsky in print, Point Loma Theosophists believed that they lived at the beginning of a new cycle in human evolution. If they did not do everything possible to raise an exceptional generation of souls, they believed humanity might delay or even miss the opportunity to advance spiritually.

The educational approach at Point Loma was called Raja Yoga, a term borrowed from Hinduism that described the holistic educational philosophy held by Tingley and others. Under Raja Yoga, children were challenged to grow in all ways that mattered: intellectually, physically, culturally, spiritually, and emotionally. The curriculum of the Raja Yoga schools emphasized the fine arts and humanities, although instruction in business skills, engineering, mathematics, and the sciences was available, depending upon the expertise of Theosophical adults on the teaching staff. As children grew to adulthood at Point Loma, many of them became teachers and served in other capacities in the Point Loma Theosophical Community. One outstanding example was Judith Tyberg (19021980), who was born and raised at Point Loma. Tyberg taught young children when she became a young adult, and later, when the Theosophical University was founded at Point Loma in 1919, she took advanced degrees and ultimately became a teacher and administrator in that university.

At its largest, the Point Loma Theosophical Community numbered in the hundreds of adults and at least as many children. Many of the latter were the progeny of adult members, but they were not permitted to live with their parents on the Point Loma site. Instead, they were housed in collective homes, segregated according to age and sex. Other children were sent to Point Loma by their Theosophical parents or guardians, so that Point Loma served as a Theosophical boarding school. A few Cuban children were brought to Point Loma during the early years, but several of them presented discipline problems and were sent back to Cuba. Criticism of Raja Yoga education, raised by some Theosophical parents and echoed in the press, focused on the children's separation from their parents and strict control of eating habits, among other techniques used to control the children's living environment. Later in life, a number of these former Raja Yoga pupils would recall their childhood experiences with dismay. But others considered their upbringing to be beneficial, even inspirational. Although the quality of care-giving was uneven, those children who had loving adult care-givers generally had positive experiences and memories of their childhoods at Point Loma.

During the first three decades of the twentieth century, Tingley traveled across the United States and around the world many times. On most of these trips, she took selected Point Loma adults and adolescents with her. During a tour for world peace in 1913, she was accompanied by over twenty young men and women, who provided musical and dramatic entertainment at a Theosophical peace conference in Sweden. These young people, most of whom had grown up at Point Loma, embodied the ideals of Raja Yoga education. Many of them married one another, often due to Tingley's matchmaking choices, although some Point Loma youth married persons outside the Point Loma Theosophical Community. During the 1920s many young adults left Point Loma. The reasons for their departure varied. Some wanted to continue their education in colleges and universities elsewhere. Others wanted to live outside the protected, insular world of Point Loma and found employment in San Diego or other locations.

Tingley and others from her generation brought to Point Loma a Victorian decorum popular among their social classes in the late nineteenth century. This decorum was transmitted to the children of Point Loma. A moral and didactic tone infused the language and relationships at Point Loma during Tingley's tenure. By the 1930s the Raja Yoga school program had a higher percentage of paying students who lived in San Diego and attended during the daytime only than in earlier decades The older Victorian cultural sensibility among young people raised at Point Loma contrasted with the choices in music and other aspects of popular culture, as well as daily customs, of the students who did not live at Point Loma and were influenced by larger culture far more.

Tingley died as a result of an automobile accident in 1929. Her successor, de Purucker, was a self-taught polymath who specialized in ancient languages and religious texts. Over the years his duties as a community member at Point Loma permitted him to devote considerable attention to scholarly pursuits. By the time he assumed leadership responsibilities, his immersion in Theosophical literature and related areas of study enabled him to give numerous lectures that were later published as collections of essays. De Purucker's articulation of complex Theosophical ideas is known among Theosophists and students of the Theosophical movement as technical Theosophy because of his sophisticated presentation of Theosophical teaching going back to Blavatsky and carried forward, in the Point Loma Theosophical tradition, through Judge and Tingley. De Purucker altered the organization's name to the Theosophical Society, dropping the older appellation of the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society. By the time of his death in 1942, the community had moved from Point Loma to Covina, near Los Angeles, to avoid the military activity occurring at Point Loma after the United States entered World War II. De Purucker's successor was not clearly identified. During the war years a group of leaders ran the organization. In 1945 a retired U.S. Army officer, Colonel Arthur L. Conger (18721951), was brought in as leader. Some lifelong Theosophists objected to Conger, but their party failed to carry the day. Many of these individuals left the Theosophical Society. Conger was succeeded by James A. Long (18981971) in 1951. He was succeeded in 1971 by Grace F. Knoche (b. 1909), who served as leader of the Theosophical Society, Pasadena, the organizational descendant of the Point Loma Theosophical Community. Their principal activities include the publication of Sunrise, a bimonthly magazine, as well as Theosophical classics by Blavatsky, Judge, Tingley, de Purucker, and others.

See Also

Besant, Annie; Blavatsky, H. P.; Judge, William Q.; Olcott, Henry Steel; Theosophical Society; Tingley, Katherine.


Ashcraft, W. Michael. The Dawn of the New Cycle: Point Loma Theosophists and American Culture. Knoxville, Tenn., 2002.

Blavatsky, Helena P. The Secret Doctrine: The Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy. 2 vols. London and New York, 1888; reprint, Pasadena, Calif., 1988.

Greenwalt, Emmett A. California Utopia: Point Loma: 18971942. Rev. ed., San Diego, Calif., 1978.

Judge, William Q. The Ocean of Theosophy. London and New York, 1893; reprint, Pasadena, Calif., 1973.

Knoche, Grace F. To Light a Thousand Lamps: A Theosophic Vision. Pasadena, Calif., 2002.

Purucker, Gottfried de. Fountain-Source of Occultism. Pasadena, Calif., 1974.

Tingley, Katherine. The Gods Await. Point Loma, Calif., 1926; rev. ed., Pasadena, Calif., 1992.

Waterstone, Penny. "Domesticating Universal Brotherhood: Feminine Values and the Construction of Utopia, Point Loma Homestead, 18971920." Ph.D. diss., University of Arizona, Tucson, 1995.

W. Michael Ashcraft (2005)