Thursday, August 5, 2010

Orthodoxy and Theosophy: the Vera Johnston story

The site of The Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas,, which “exists to promote the study of the history of the Orthodox Christian Church in the New World,” has an interesting piece on HPB’s niece, Vera Johnston (1864-1923). Titled “Orthodoxy and Theosophy: the Vera Johnston story,” it looks at her involvement with the seminary of the Russian Orthodox Church near Tenafly, New Jersey. Established in 1912 on fourteen and a half acres, it housed a dormitory, classrooms, offices, and a chapel that was dedicated to St. Platon. Her husband, Charles Johnston (1867-1931), was listed as “Teacher of English Language” there in 1918. When the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia, the loss of financial assistance from the Church of Russia led to severe financial distress for the seminary, and St. Platon's Orthodox Theological Seminary closed in 1924.

The writer suggests, “Vera Johnston had converted—or, re-converted—to Orthodoxy. She was involved, almost on a day-to-day basis, with the life of the Russian Mission. The thing is, she doesn’t seem to have given up Theosophy. Her husband Charles, who was also involved in the Russian Mission, remained a major figure in the Theosophical movement,” without realizing that she could have remained a Christian while being a Theosophist. There is also some confusion, giving her mother’s name as Vera Blavatsky, instead of Vera Zhelihovsky, as can be seen here.

The mention of the Order of the Living Christ that Charles and Vera Johnston participated in throws some light on one of the more obscure theosophical creations. The Order was essentially an attempt to merge Christianity and Theosophy. The group believed in reincarnation, but adopted the externals of Anglo-Catholicism (traditional Anglicanism). They revered the works of Helen Blavatsky and her associates, but also had a deep fascination with early Christian mysticism. Members saw it as perfectly acceptable to be a part of the Order and still participate in the life of, for instance, the Episcopal Church. It is likely that Vera Johnston shared this philosophy, and she may well have considered herself an Orthodox Christian while simultaneously adhering to beliefs which Orthodoxy recognizes as patently heretical. All this, while teaching future priests at the official seminary of the Russian Archdiocese in America.

The pages of the Theosophical Quarterly, the Journal of the now defunct Theosophical Society in America, which the Johnstons were members of, show a growing interest in Christian mystics and saints as it drew toward the end of its run in 1938. Ernest Temple Hargrove, another member of the group, was caretaker of the Chapel of the Comforter in New York City at the time of his death in 1939. The Griscom family built a religious retreat, Chapel Farm, in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, New York, which became the center of activity for the Order of the Living Christ (Genevieve Ludlow Griscom, who bought the property in 1920s, was married to the industrialist, Clement Acton Griscom, 1868-1918, their son Ludlow Griscom, 1890-1959, was a noted ornithologist). In 1969 the property was sold to Manhattan College.

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