Olcott, Henry Steel (1832-1907)

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Olcott, Henry Steel (1832-1907)

Joint founder with Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and William Q. Judge of the Theosophical Society. Olcott was born August 2, 1832, in Orange, New Jersey, where his father had a farm. At the age of twenty-six, Olcott was associate agricultural editor of the New York Tribune and traveled abroad to study European farming methods. Olcott served in the Civil War and afterward became a special commissioner with the rank of colonel. In 1868, he was admitted to the New York bar. In 1878, he was commissioned by the president to report on trade relations between the U.S. and India.

His first contact with psychic phenomena was in 1874. The New York Daily Graphic had assigned him to investigate the phenomena of the Eddy brothers in Vermont. He spent ten weeks at the Chittenden farm and came away convinced of the genuineness of the phenomena he witnessed. The fifteen articles in which he summarized his experiences began his career as a leader in the psychic community.

His next opportunity was the Holmes scandal, when the materialization mediums Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Holmes were accused of fraud. Olcott sifted through all the records, collected new affidavits, and concluded that as the evidence of fraudulent mediumship was very conflicting, the mediums should be tested. After conducting tests, as with the Eddy brothers, he affirmed his belief in their powers.

Olcott related accounts of his investigations to the spiritual-ist community in his book, People from the Other World. Included was an account of his experiences with the medium Elizabeth Compton, who allegedly was able to accomplish an entire dematerialization. While some praised his work, as a whole, the book was heavily criticized. Among his harshest critics was D.D. Home, who denounced Olcott's account in his Lights and Shadows of Spiritualism as "the most worthless and dishonest" book.

As a result of his writing on the the Eddy brothers and the Holmeses, Olcott soon became known as a person aware of the spiritualist scene. When the professors of the Imperial University of St. Petersburg decided to make a scientific investigation of Spiritualism, they asked Olcott and his associate Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who had worked with the Eddys, to select the best American medium they could recommend. Their choice fell on Henry Slade, later to become known as one of the most notorious of frauds.

Enter Madame Blavatsky

The association between Olcott and Blavatsky began at their meeting at the Chittenden farm. Blavatsky had identified with the Spiritualists but she broke with the Spiritualist movement soon after the Theosophical Society was founded in December 1875. Olcott was elected president; he worked at founding and organizing the society worldwide. The society was firmly established in New York by the time of the Blavatsky exposure by the Society for Psychical Research.

Nobody witnessed more apparent Theosophic episodes through Blavatsky than Olcott. In those early days, she professed to have been controlled by the spirit "John King." She first specialized in precipitated writing, independent drawing, and supernormal duplication of letters and other things (among them a $1,000 banknote in the presence of Olcott and the Hon. J. L. Sullivan). Reportedly, the duplicate mysteriously dissolved in a drawer.

Olcott was convinced that Blavatsky could produce such illusions by hypnotic suggestion. Blavatsky once disappeared from his presence in a closed room and appeared again a short time afterward from nowhere. This admission called into question Olcott's observations and records and his testifying in "good faith" to the appearance of Mahatmas and to the souvenirs they left behind.

In 1878, Olcott and Blavatsky sailed for Bombay with a brief stop in London. A. P. Sinnett in his book The Early Days of Theosophy in Europe suggested that the manners of Blavatsky and Olcott caused offense in polite society and the beginning of the unfriendly attitude of the Society for Psychical Research was to be traced to a society meeting at which Olcott made a speech in his worst style.

The Blavatsky exposure in 1895 left Olcott's reputation damaged. According to Dr. Richard Hodgson, who compiled the Society for Psychical Research report, Olcott's statements were unreliable either owing to peculiar lapses of memory or to extreme deficiency in the faculty of observation. Hodgson could not place the slightest value upon Olcott's evidence. But he stated definitely also: "Some readers may be inclined to think that Col. Olcott must himself have taken an active and deliberate part in the fraud, and been a partner with Blavatsky in the conspiracy. Such, I must emphatically state, is not my own opinion." On the other hand Vsevolod Solovyoff in A Modern Priestess of Isis called Olcott a "liar and a knave in spite of his stupidity."

For his critics, a problematic instance of psychic phenomena is the story of the William Eglinton letter. From the boat Vega, the letter was claimed to be "astrally" conveyed first to Bombay, then with the superimposed script of Blavatsky carried to Calcutta, where it fell from the ceiling in Mrs. Gordon's home while Olcott pointed to the apparition of two brothers outside the window. According to Mrs. Gordon's testimony, Olcott told her that the night before he had an intimation from his chohan (teacher) that K. H. (a Mahatma) had been to the Vega and had seen Eglinton.

If the delivery of this letter was fraudulent (and it has been convincingly argued by experts that the K. H. letters were written by Blavatsky), the only excuse for Olcott is that he acted unconsciously from suggestions fed him by Blavatsky.

It is believed Olcott will be remembered in the future not so much for his leadership of the Theosophical Society as for his public espousal of Buddhism in 1880 in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon). His action on behalf of Buddhism began with the writing and publication of his Buddhist Catechism, which introduced the religion to many people and remains in print. He also promoted and helped pay for the presence of Buddhists at the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions which led to the founding of the first Buddhist organizations to formally receive Americans into the faith.

Olcott remained president of the society until his death on February 17, 1907, at Adyar, India. During the last years of his life he worked with Annie Besant, who succeeded Blavatsky as head of the Esoteric section and then succeeded Olcott as president.


Gomes, Michael. The Dawning of the Theosophical Movement. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1987.

Karunaratne, K. P. Olcott Commemoration Volume. Ceylon: Olcott Commemoration Society, 1967.

. Olcott's Contribution to the Buddhist Renaissance. Colombo, Sri Lanka: Publication Division, Ministry of Cultural Affairs, 1980.

Murphet, Howard. Hammer on the Mountain: Life of Henry Steel Olcott, 1832-1907. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1972.

Olcott, Henry Steel. Old Diary Leaves. 6 vols. Adyar, Madras, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1895-1910. Reprinted as Inside the Occult: The True Story of Madame H. P. Blavatsky. Philadelphia: Tunning Press, 1975.

. People From the Other World. Hartford, Conn., 1875. Reprint, Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle, 1971.

Prothero, Stephen. The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott. Bloomington: Indiana University, 1996.

Olcott, Henry Steel

views updated May 23 2018


OLCOTT, HENRY STEEL . Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (18321907) was the first American to formally convert to Buddhism and a major contributor to the Sinhalese Buddhist revival in nineteenth-century Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He was also a founder and president of the Theosophical Society, the first American organization devoted to promoting Asian religions in the West.

Born into a Presbyterian household in Orange, New Jersey, in 1832, Olcott first made a name for himself in agriculture, establishing a farm school and delivering a series of agricultural lectures at Yale University. He then moved on to careers in journalism and law. During the American Civil War he investigated fraud in the military, then served on the three-person team investigating Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

The life of this self-described "radical anti-Tammany Republican" took a fateful turn when the New York Sun dispatched him to write about spirit communications that mediums were receiving in a farmhouse in Chittenden, Vermont. There he met the Russian-born occultist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who impressed him with her Bohemian bearing, boundless charisma, and alleged connections with occult "Masters," members of an esoteric brotherhood in the East.

Now devoted to spiritual matters, Olcott joined forces with Blavatsky in New York City in 1875 to establish the Theosophical Society. He was the organization's president and she its corresponding secretary, but more importantly Blavatsky was the charismatic force propelling the society forward, while Olcott's job was to prevent it from spinning out of control. Initially, the "Theosophical Twins," as they were known, focused on reforming Spiritualism. But guided by Blavatsky's "Masters," they quickly reset their sights, transforming their society into the first American organization devoted to spreading the ancient wisdom of the East.

Unfortunately for Olcott and Blavatsky, there was not much of an American audience for their eclectic theology. So in the winter of 1878 to 1879, they took their society to India, first to Bombay (now Mumbai) and later to Adyar, a suburb of Madras (Chennai), where the society is still located. There Olcott edited the Theosophist, which offered its readers a heady mix of comparative religion, anti-missionary agitation, free thought, and esotericism. He and Blavatsky also promulgated for the first time the "three objects" of their organization: (1) to form the nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color; (2) to encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science; (3) and to investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man.

In 1880 Olcott sailed with Blavatsky to Ceylon, and in Galle they formally converted to Buddhism. The Buddhism they embraced, however, was confessedly idiosyncratic. "If Buddhism contained a single dogma that we were compelled to accept, we would not haveremained Buddhists ten minutes," Olcott explained in his six-volume Old Diary Leaves (18951935). "Our Buddhism was that of the Master-Adept Gautama Buddha, which was identically the Wisdom Religion of the Aryan Upanishads, and the soul of all the ancient world-faiths."

Given his status as a new convert, Olcott might have spent time sitting at the feet of Buddhist monks, correcting his misapprehensions. Instead he got about the business of converting the island's inhabitants to his understanding of what he called "pure, primitive Buddhism." Soon he was founding Buddhist schools, establishing Young Men's Buddhist Associations, and writing a popular Buddhist Catechism (1881), which was published in more than forty editions and at least twenty languages. In the process, he helped to spread, especially among the English-speaking middle-class, a form of Buddhism that borrowed heavily from the liberal Protestantism of his youth. Activistic, optimistic, didactic, progressive, and adaptive, this creole tradition is now widely described as "Protestant Buddhism."

While Olcott upset some monks, he was lionized by the populace, who thronged to hear "the White Buddhist" lecture on the vices of Christian missions and the virtues of Buddhist thought. In his lectures Olcott rejected stereotypes of Buddhism as "a grossly materialistic, nihilistic, a negative, a vile-breeding religion," describing the tradition instead as a philosophy (not a religion) rooted in the ancient teachings of the Buddha and confirmed by experience (rather than faith).

Olcott devoted his last years to intra-Buddhist ecumenism. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, he traveled to Burma and Japan in an effort to enlist all the world's Buddhists into one International Buddhist League. He also helped to design a six-colored Buddhist flag, which was adopted in 1950 as an international Buddhist symbol by the World Fellowship of Buddhists and now hangs in Buddhist centers worldwide.

Back in India, Olcott also made important contributions to the Indian Renaissance, founding schools for Dalits (formerly known as "untouchables"), promoting a Sanskrit revival, and establishing Hindu boys' associations. Olcott's work reverberated most powerfully, however, outside of his adopted homeland, especially in the United States, where his Theosophical activities helped to popularize Asian religions and New Age thought, and in Sri Lanka, where upon his death in 1907 over twenty thousand students were attending 183 grant-in-aid Buddhist schools.

Olcott died in India in 1907, and his cremated remains were scattered in the Ganges and the Indian Ocean. Though largely forgotten in the country of his birth (where the New York Times once denounced him as "a man bereft of reason"), Olcott is something of a folk hero in Sri Lanka, immortalized on a postage stamp and remembered each year on Olcott Day. Olcott is also admired in the Theosophical Society, which now maintains hundreds of branches on five continents and continues to preach the essential unity of all religions.

See Also

Blavatsky, H. P.; Theosophical Society.


Campbell, Bruce F. Ancient Wisdom Revived: A History of the Theosophical Movement. Berkeley, Calif., 1980.

Olcott, Henry Steel. A Buddhist Catechism. Colombo, Ceylon, 1881.

Olcott, Henry Steel. Old Diary Leaves: The History of the Theosophical Society. 6 vols. Adyar, India, 19741975.

Prothero, Stephen R. The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott. Bloomington, Ind., 1996.

Stephen Prothero (2005)

Theosophical Society

views updated May 14 2018

Theosophical Society. Organization founded in New York by Mrs H. P. Blavatsky and Colonel H. S. Olcott in 1875, to derive from ancient wisdom and from the insights of evolution a world ethical code. In 1882, it moved its headquarters to India, and became the Adyar Theosophical Society. Although intended to be eclectic, it drew increasingly on Hindu resources. An important advocate of the Society was Annie Besant.

Olcott, Henry Steel

views updated May 23 2018

Olcott, Henry Steel (co-founder of Theosophical Society): see THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY.

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