Jeffrey D. Lavoie’s The Theosophical Society: The History of a Spiritualist Movement (Boca Raton, Florida: Brown Walker Press, $29.95 USD), published earlier this year, suffers from an unfortunate title, for the book is more about Mme. Blavatsky and explaining her escapades than the movement itself, as the era covered is limited to her lifespan. No doubt the book will find favour with Lavoie’s congregation, Calvary Baptist Church in Hanson, Massachusetts, where he is Senior Pastor. But why anyone else would want to buy a book that paints its subject as such a conniver, other than a select group of researchers who already know the material Lavoie has pulled from, is not clear.
Though he cites a vast number of sources the book offers nothing really new except his conclusion: “the author feels completely justified in claiming that the Theosophical Society remained completely inclusive and accessible to Spiritualists from the years 1875-1891 and could in fact have considered a Spiritualist organization during this time.” But an organization that styled itself as one that welcomed all regardless of race, creed, caste, sex or colour, could hardly discriminate against allowing membership to any particular group, so this is something of a non-issue. Nor is there any follow up on this idea, for if this was the case, as the writer suggests, and the early Theosophical Society was simply another Spiritualist group, was this concept maintained or rejected by theosophical organizations after Blavatsky’s death?
The book’s main contribution is in the chapter, “Spiritualists who Critiqued Theosophy,” which assembles the charges brought against Blavatsky by some of her main opponents: Arthur Lillie, “an elusive figure that history has nearly forgotten,” W. E. Coleman, Richard Hodgson (who is brought in as a Spiritualist because of his later interest though his report on Blavatsky is skimmed over), Emma H. Britten, and even Alfred Wallace, though Wallace’s early interest in the subject waned as his stature in the scientific world increased. Perhaps because of this, Lavoie believes that an 1878 letter from Wallace to Blavatsky acknowledging the receipt of Isis Unveiled and commenting on the “vast amount of erudition displayed in them” is a forgery, though by whom or for what purpose is not explained nor the seeming audacity of the Theosophists who published the letter in 1905 when Wallace was still alive.
Theosophists and students of Blavatsky’s writings will be surprised to hear the early Theosophical movement defined as a Spiritualist organization in spite of Blavatsky’s strictures about contacting the dead, which is one of her defining ideas.