TINGLEY, KATHERINE (1847–1929), was a leader of the Theosophical movement in the United States from 1896 to 1929. She led the organization that established the Point Loma Theosophical Community and was a well-known figure in early-twentieth-century American society.
Tingley was born Catharine Augusta Westcott in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1847. According to her own account, she was a dreamy child who enjoyed walking in the woods or along the seashore, engrossed in her imagination. During the Civil War her father equipped and led a company of volunteers to fight for the Union. His unit was transferred to Virginia, and his family followed him. Tingley, as a teenager, witnessed the aftermath of battle, caring for wounded soldiers from both the Union and Confederate armies. Other details of her adolescent and early adult years are sketchy. She married three times, the third time to Philo Tingley. No children resulted from these marriages. By the 1880s she was living in New York City. Like many women from the middle classes of that period, she was interested in various late Victorian, Progressive causes that would improve the quality of life for the urban poor, especially women and children. She was responsible for one or more voluntary establishments that provided food and other relief. Supposedly in the early 1890s, while she was conducting one such operation, she met William Q. Judge (1851–1896), the leader of the Theosophical Society in the United States. Some sources also point to her interest in Spiritualism as a possible context in which she had contact with him.
The Theosophical Society began in 1875 in New York City under the leadership of Helena P. Blavatsky (1831–1891) and Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907). It attracted urban, middle-class individuals interested in Spiritualism, comparative religions, and the occult. By the time Judge and Tingley met, Theosophical lodges across the United States were growing in size and number. But the most influential leaders of this nationwide movement resided in New York City. They included businessmen, teachers, physicians, and other middle-class, often professionalized, men and women. Judge led many American Theosophical lodges to declare their independence from the worldwide Theosophical Society in 1895. He died the next year. Tingley succeeded him, although the circumstances surrounding her succession remain unclear. Over time, many leaders loyal to Judge shifted their loyalty to her, but not all. Some of the dissenters formed their own Theosophical groups.
Tingley mobilized Theosophists across the United States to work for social reform. Theosophists were responsible for public vegetable gardens, orphanages, halfway houses for prostitutes, job training for the poor, emergency relief, and Theosophical Sunday schools for children, which were originally begun under Judge but expanded under Tingley and called Lotus Circles. The Theosophical response to American soldiers returning from Cuba after the Spanish-American War in 1898 is noteworthy. The United States Army was not prepared to receive the troops who came home weak and ill from tropical diseases. At one such disembarkation point on Long Island, Theosophists led by Tingley staffed a hospital camp where soldiers received food and medical treatment.
In the late 1890s Tingley and the leadership around her took steps toward the establishment of a community of like-minded adults who would provide an education for children based upon Theosophical principles. They selected Point Loma as the location for this community. It was a relatively isolated site a few miles from San Diego, California, with a mild climate and space to expand facilities. American Theosophists led by Tingley believed that they stood on the cusp of a new cycle or age in human history. Ancient souls who had reincarnated countless times in past eons were especially mature and ready to advance spiritually and morally as they appeared in this incarnation as children. This promising cohort required special nurture, and Point Loma was their nursery. Tingley and other adults at Point Loma strictly controlled their children's exposure to the outside world, their diets, their reading material, their physical activities, and their relationships with one another. This system of child-rearing and education was called Raja Yoga, a term that the Theosophists borrowed from Hinduism but invested with their own meaning. In their worldview, Raja Yoga was the holistic education of children in which all of their faculties—spiritual, mental, physical, and emotional—could be cultivated simultaneously. From 1900, when Tingley and others moved to Point Loma, until the community relocated to Covina, California, in 1942, Point Loma Theosophists raised and educated hundreds of children.
Throughout the first three decades of the twentieth century, Tingley made numerous tours of the United States and the world. She set the tone for such travel in 1896 by visiting Theosophical lodges worldwide. Thistour, called the Crusade, was designed to consolidate support for her leadership and establish good working relationships with Theosophists elsewhere. For many years afterward she traveled avidly, publicizing the Point Loma Theosophical Community and advocating a number of social and political causes, especially world peace. During the years immediately preceding World War I she became a noted national and international figure in various peace conferences. Even after the American entry into the war, she continued to advocate peace, and for this reason briefly attracted the attention of the United States government as a possible agent for Germany, although suspicion of Tingley's cooperation with German agents proved unfounded.
Tingley was a high-profile figure, often in the news because of remarks she made at public gatherings or in court cases that included various individuals at Point Loma. Some of these cases dealt with divorces of married couples, some with the settlement of estates left behind by deceased Point Loma residents. In all such instances, Tingley was a witty and feisty participant, yet she maintained a pronounced Victorian respectability consistent with her social class, gender, and generation.
Tingley was praised by Point Loma Theosophists as the rightful successor to Blavatsky and Judge as the leader of world Theosophy, in spite of the opposition to this assertion by other Theosophical organizations. Theosophists claimed that their leaders were granted both paranormal abilities and special authority to teach Theosophical principles by a group of advanced beings called the masters, who supervised the great cosmic evolution of souls and worlds. Point Loma Theosophists believed that, as the sanctioned leader, Tingley manifested extraordinary powers of prediction and perception. Her commands were followed without question by those who revered her. She was seen as the mother of the age, as well as the mother of people in this age, especially the suffering and destitute. Maternity defined her particular style of leadership, in contrast to the masculine style of Judge before her, and the more scholarly style of her successor, Gottfried de Purucker (1874–1942). Tingley was a persuasive speaker in an era when public speakers enjoyed widespread popularity and influence in American society. Many of her speeches appeared in the magazines and books printed by Point Loma's press. But within the Point Loma Theosophical tradition, both during and after her lifetime, she was regarded as a great organizer and manager, not a scholar. Her speeches and writings mostly repeated Theosophical ideas already extant, but she articulated them in a way that appealed to late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Americans. She evoked patriotic pride as well as concern for all of humanity; advocated gender distinctions as well as common characteristics of men and women; and argued for children to be both protected and challenged in their nurture. Her genius lay in her ability to tap into American folkways and middle-class discourse about culture, and to intertwine those with Theosophical doctrine.
Tingley was in an automobile accident in Germany in May 1929. As a result of injuries sustained in that accident, she died of illness while convalescing on the island of Visingso, in Sweden, in July 1929. She was eighty-two years of age. Today, the organizational descendant of the Point Loma Theosophical Community is the Theosophical Society, Pasadena, which publishes a bimonthly magazine and Theosophical classics, including the works of Katherine Tingley.
Ashcraft, W. Michael. The Dawn of the New Cycle: Point Loma Theosophists and American Culture. Knoxville, Tenn., 2002.
Kirkley, Evelyn. "Equality of the Sexes, But…: Women in Point Loma Theosophy, 1899–1942." Nova Religio 1, no. 2 (1998): 272–288.
Tingley, Katherine. The Gods Await. Point Loma, Calif., 1926; rev. ed., Pasadena, Calif., 1992.
Tingley, Katherine. The Voice of the Soul. Point Loma, Calif., 1928.
W. Michael Ashcraft (2005)