Founding of the Theosophical Society

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Minutes from September 8, 1875.

The Theosophical Society was officially founded in New York on November 17, 1875, by Helena P. Blavatsky, Henry S. Olcott, William Q. Judge, and others. The process of forming the Society required six meetings, which took place from the months of September to November, and the inaugural address by president Henry Steel Olcott took place on November 17th.

Theosophists around the world celebrate November 17th as Foundation Day or Founders' Day.

September 7

At this time of her life H. P. Blavatsky was living at 46, Irving Place, in New York City, and was quite well-known among those interested in the Esoteric Philosophy. Her apartment had become a place for people to come and learn from her about these subjects.

Felt lecture

On Tuesday, September 7, 1875, a meeting was organized at her rooms to hear a lecture given by George H. Felt entitled "The Lost Canon of Proportion of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans". There is no official record of the persons present on this particular evening, although they were probably around twenty or less. Col. Olcott described the meeting as follows:

[George H. Felt] was a remarkably clever draughtsman, and had prepared a number of exquisite drawings to illustrate his theory that the canon of architectural proportion, employed by the Egyptians, as well as by the great architects of Greece, was actually preserved in the temple hieroglyphics of the Land of Khemi. His contention was that, by following certain definite clues one could inscribe what he called the “Star of Perfection” upon a certain temple wall, within which the whole secret of the geometrical problem of proportion would be read; and that the hieroglyphs outside the inscribed figure were but mere blinds to deceive the profane curiosity-seeker; for, read consecutively with those within the geometrical figure, they either made undecipherable nonsense or ran into some quite trivial narrative.
This diagram consists of a circle with a square within and without, containing a common triangle, two Egyptian triangles and a pentagon. He applies it to the pictures, statues, doors, hieroglyphs, pyramids, planes, tombs and buildings of Ancient Egypt, and shows that they agree so perfectly with its proportions that they must have been made by its rule. He applies the same canon of proportion to the masterpieces of Greek art and finds that they were, or might have been, carved without models by this rule. It is, in fact, the true canon of Nature’s architecture.[1]

During the lecture Mr. Felt was asked by Dr. Seth Pancoast, a learned Kabalist, whether he could prove his occult knowledge and ability to evoke "spirits from the spatial deep". He replied categorically that through his chemical circle "He could call into sight hundreds of shadowy forms resembling the human, but he had seen no signs of intelligence in these apparitions".[2]

Proposal for organizational meeting

The talk was enthusiastically received and stimulated an animated discussion. H. S. Olcott wrote on a slip of paper "Would it not be a good thing to form a society from this kind of study?" He handed it to W. Q. Judge to pass it to HPB, who nodded in assent.[3]

Mr. Felt said that in the course of a series of lectures he could show how to evoke and control elementals. A new lecture was organized for the next day, after which would follow a meeting to organize the new society.

Col. Olcott explained that when he proposed the formation of the Society, he had in mind--

...A body for the collection and diffusion of knowledge; for occult research, and the study and dissemination of ancient philosophical and theosophical ideas: one of the first steps was to collect a library. The idea of Universal Brotherhood was not there, because the proposal for the Society sprang spontaneously out of the present topic of discussion...

The Theosophical Society was an evolution, not--on the visible plane--a planned creation.[4]

E. Gerry Brown account

Elbridge Gerry Brown reported about the meeting in The Spiritual Scientist, recognizing its significance:

One movement of great importance has just been inaugurated in New York under the lead of Col. Henry S. Olcott, in the organization of a Society to be known as "The Theosophical Society." The suggestion was entirely unpremeditated and was made on the evening of the 67th inst., in the parlor of Madame Blavatsky, where a company of seventeen ladies and gentlemen had assembled to meet Mr. George Henry Felt whose discovery of the geometrical figures of the Egyptian Cabbala may be regarded as among the most surprising feats of the human intellect. The company included several persons of great learning and some of wide personal influence ...

After Mr. Felt's discourses, an animated discussion ensued. During a convenient pause in the conversation, Col. Olcott arose, and after briefly sketching the present condition of the Spiritualistic movement, the attitude of its antagonists, the materialists, and the irrepressible conflict between science and the religious sectarians, the philosophical character of the Ancient Theosophists and their sufficing to reconcile all existing antagonisms, and the apparently sublime achievement of Mr. Felt in extracting the key to the architecture of Nature from the scanty fragments of ancient lore left us be the devastating hands of the Moslem and Christian fanatics of the early centuries, he proposed to form a nucleus around which might gather all the enlightened and brave souls who were willing to work together for the collection and diffusion of knowledge. His plan was to organize a Society of occultists and begin at once to collect a library and diffuse information concerning those secret laws of nature which were so familiar to the Chaldeans and Egyptians but are totally unknown by our modern world of Science...[5]

September 8

On the next day, September 8, 1875, Mr. Felt lectured again, and afterwards a meeting to organize the Society took place. Col. Olcott was elected as Chairman and Mr. Judge as Secretary. From among those present, sixteen people handed in their names as willing to form and become members of such a Society. Col. Olcott published the official report of the meeting of September 8 quoting from the Minute Book:

In consequence of a proposal of Col. Henry S. Olcott, that a Society be formed for the study and elucidation of Occultism, the Cabbala, etc., the ladies and gentlemen then and there present, resolved themselves into a meeting, and, upon motion of Mr. William Q. Judge, it was

Resolved, That Col. H. S. Olcott take the chair. Upon motion it was also

Resolved, That Mr. W. Q. Judge act as Secretary. The Chair then called for the names of the persons present, who would agree to found and belong to a Society such as had been mentioned. The following persons handed in their names to the Secretary:

Col. Olcott, Mme. H. P. Blavatsky, Chas. Sotheran, Dr. Chas. E. Simmons, H. D. Monachesi, C. C. Massey of London, W. L. Alden, G. H. Felt, David E. de Lara, Dr. W. Britten, Mrs. E. H. Britten, Henry J. Newton, John Storer Cobb, J. Hyslop, W. Q. Judge, H. M. Stevens (all present save one).

Upon motion of Herbert D. Monachesi, it was

Resolved, That a committee of three be appointed by the Chair to draft a constitution and by-laws, and to report the same at the next meeting. Upon motion, it was

Resolved, That the Chair be added to the Committee.

The Chair then appointed Messrs. H. J. Newton, H. M. Stevens, and C. Sotheran to such Committee.

Upon motion, it was

Resolved, That we now adjourn until Monday, September 13th, at the same place, at 8 P.M.[6]

September 13

Mr. Felt gave another lecture on September 13 where he further described his discoveries. A few more people attended. After this, the committee formed by H. J. Newton, H. M. Stevens, C. Sotheran and Col. Olcott to draft a Constitution and By-Laws made its report. Col. Olcott reports:

The Rules of various corporate bodies were examined, but those of the American Geographical and Statistical Society and the American Institute were thought by us to be as good models as any to follow.[7]

It was in this meeting that the name of the Society was resolved to be that of the Theosophical Society. Col. Olcott writes:

The choice of a name for the Society was, of course, a question for grave discussion in Committee. Several were suggested, among them, if I recollect aright, the Egyptological, the Hermetic, the Rosicrucian, etc., but none seemed just the thing. At last, in turning over the leaves of the Dictionary, one of us came across the word “Theosophy,” whereupon, after discussion, we unanimously agreed that that was the best of all; since it both expressed the esoteric truth we wished to reach and covered the ground of Felt’s methods of occult scientific research.[8]

It is interesting to notice that a few months earlier Mme. Blavatsky had already written a personal letter using the term Theosophy:

My belief is based on something older than the Rochester knockings, and springs out from the same source of information that was used by Raymond Lully, Picus della Mirandola, Cornelius Agrippa, Robert Fludd, Henry More, et cetera, etc., all of whom have ever been searching for a system that should disclose to them the "deepest depths" of the Divine nature, and show them the real tie which binds all things together. I found at last, and many years ago, the cravings of my mind satisfied by this theosophy taught by the Angels and communicated by them that the protoplast might know it for the aid of the human destiny.[9]

Rev. J. H. Wiggin and C. Sotheran were appointed to select suitable meeting rooms. Several new members were nominated and their names added as founders.[10]

October 8

One of the early members, John W. Lovell, gave an account of his experience, implying that a meeting took place on October 8 in which he became a Founder:

It was in September, 1875, that I first heard of the proposal to start the Theosophical Society. I was living at that time at Rouses Point in the Northern part of New York State, where I had a large printing office and book manufactory, doing work for publishers in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Amongst these was the firm of J. Sabin & Sons, who published a small magazine I printed for them. This was edited by Mr. Charles Sotheran, and necessarily I was brought in close relations with him. I must have told him I had become interested in psychic phenomena for, on calling on him on the 23rd day of September, 1875, in connection with the work I was doing for his firm, he told me that he and some of his friends were getting up a Society for the investigation of psychic phenomena to be called the Theosophical Society, and invited me to become a member.

I told him I would be very glad to do so though, living so far away, it was doubtful if I could be present at many of its meetings. On asking about dues, he said that an initiation fee of $5.00 was all that had been decided on. I handed him this for which he gave me the receipt, a facsimile of which appears on page 39 of "The Golden Book of the Theosophical Society" and he said he would have me elected a member at the next meeting, October 8th. At that meeting, I w think it was, Col. Olcott had a resolution passed that all those who became members previous to final organization should, with the sixteen who attended the first meeting on September 8th, be considered Founders of the Society. So, in this way, I because one of the Founders, though in later years the name was only used to apply to Col. Olcott, Madam Blavatsky and William Judge."[11]

October 16

On October 13, 1875, Col. Olcott issued the following notice, inviting to the first meeting held under the name of "Theosophical Society":

The Committee on By-Laws having completed its work, a meeting of the Theosophical Society will be held at the private residence, No. 206 West 38th St., on Saturday, October 16, 1875, at 8 p.m., to organize and elect officers. If Mr. Felt should be in town, he will continue his intensely interesting account of his Egyptological discoveries. Under the By-Laws proposed, new members cannot be elected until after thirty day’s consideration of their application. A full attendance at this preliminary meeting is, therefore, desirable.

The undersigned issues this call in compliance with the order adopted by the meeting of September 13th ultimo.

(Signed) HENRY S. OLCOTT, President, pro. tem.[12]

On October 16 the following people were present: Mme. Blavatsky, Mrs. E. H. Britten, Henry S. Olcott, Henry J. Newton, Chas. Sotheran, W. Q. Judge, J. Hyslop, Dr. W. H. Atkinson, Dr. H. Carlos, Dr. Simmons, Tudor Horton, Dr. Britten, C. C. Massey, John Storer Cobb, W. L. Alden, Edwin S. Ralphs, Herbert D. Monachesi, and Francisco Agromonte.

The By-Laws were discussed and various motions on them were made, after which the meeting adjourned.

Officers of TS, from Preamble

October 30

During the meeting on October 30 the committee reported that the selected meeting place for the Society was Mott Memorial Hall, 64, Madison Avenue.

The By-Laws were finally adopted and the election of officers took place. Henry S. Olcott was chosen as President; George Henry Felt and Dr. S. Pancoast, M.D. as Vice-Presidents; Mme. H. P. Blavatsky, Corresponding Secretary; John Storer Cobb Recording Secretary; Henry J. Newton, Treasurer; and Charles Sotheran, Librarian. The Councillors were Rev. J. H. Wiggin, Mrs. Emma Hardinge Britten, R. B. Westbrook, Dr. C. E. Simmons, M.D., and Herbert D. Monachesi. William Q. Judge was chosen as Counsel to the Society.[13]

This date is given for the publication of the Preamble and By-laws of the Theosophical Society.

November 17

On November 17, seventy days after the formation of the Society was conceived, the members met at Mott Memorial Hall and Col. Olcott delivered his inaugural address as President-Founder of the now fully constituted Theosophical Society. In hindsight, the opening remarks of this address proved to be prophetic, which is remarkable taking into account that the organization started with just a small group of like-minded people:

In future times, when the impartial historian shall write an account of the progress of religious ideas in the present century, the formation of the Theosophical Society, whose first meeting under its formal declaration of principles, we are now attending, will not pass unnoticed. This much is certain.[14]

The next meeting of the Theosophical Society was planned for December 15, 1875.

Early meetings

While Col. Olcott was active in the early meetings of the Society, Mme. Blavatsky did not take active part in them after the first few sessions. She was busy with the correspondence, the publication of articles, the discussions in the "Lamasery", and the writing of Isis Unveiled. Mr. Judge did not attend the meetings either, being busy with his work and attending the "Lamasery" during the evenings to study.

More members were admitted from time to time, both Active and Corresponding. Mr. Felt was not able to fulfill his promise to materialize "spirits" in public, although Mme. Blavatsky had asserted he had done it in the presence of a private, small group of students. Eventually he left the Society, as did most of the other early members when they found that their expectations were not met. From the close of 1876 to that of 1878 (when the Founders moved to India) the Society as a body was comparatively inactive and its meetings almost ceased. However, it kept having a growing influence mostly through the meetings in the "Lamasery", the correspondence, and the publication of articles.

Online resources




  1. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves First Series (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 115-116.
  2. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves First Series (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 116.
  3. Sylvia Cranston, H.P.B. The Extraordinary Life & Influence of Helena Blavatsky, (New York: Putnam Book, 1993), 143.
  4. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves First Series (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 120.
  5. John W. Lovell, "Some Personal Reminiscences," The American Theosophist 34.11 (November, 1946), 241. Quoted from E. Gerry Brown article in The Spiritual Scientist of 1875 by John W. Lovell in a paper he read at a meeting of the New York Lodge, on November 6, 1928.
  6. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves First Series (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 121-122.
  7. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves First Series (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 133.
  8. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves First Series (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 132.
  9. John Algeo, The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky vol. 1, letter 21 (Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Publishing House, 20034), 86.
  10. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves First Series (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 130-131.
  11. "John W. Lovell, "Reminiscences of Early Days of the Theosophical Society" The Canadian Theosophist (March to August 1929).
  12. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves First Series (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 133.
  13. Henry Steel Olcott, Old Diary Leaves First Series (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 135.
  14. Inaugural Address of the President-Founder of the Theosophical Society by H. S. Olcott