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Theosophy and the realization of Southern California's divine destiny

Grace Converse

California has been chosen as the cradle of the coming race, that race which shall fulfill for the world the idea not of competition but of co-operation, not of strife but of brotherly love, not of selfishness but of service. Here remote from the turmoil and tribulation which attends the bringing forth of the new age, fearless of famine and of cold, this land offers a broad bosom to mother the children of the future.

(Gray 1918, 7)

On February 23, 1897, Katherine Tingley (1847-1929), the leader of the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society (UBTS), marked Theosophists’ official arrival in Southern California. In front of a large crowd of San Diegans, Theosophists, and reporters, Tingley laid the cornerstone for the first building of the UBTS’s new headquarters on the Point Loma peninsula near San Diego (Greenwait 1978, 33; Ashcraft 2002, 49). In the subsequent years, a competing branch of Theosophists led by Annie Besant - the American Section of the Theosophical Society, Adyar (ASTS) - began planning their own Southern California headquarters. In July 1912, the ASTS held a comparable cornerstone ceremony to found Krotona, their new headquarters in the Hollywood Hills. While the laying of a cornerstone is a conventional beginning for public buildings, in these cases the ceremonies represented a declaration of an end to physical and spiritual itinerancy and the start of humanity’s future. In this chapter, I describe how a rapt faith in California’s divine fate drove the Lomaland and Krotona communities.

Founded by Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott, and William Q. Judge in New York City on November 17, 1875, the Theosophical Society emerged in the United States during a moment of widespread Western interest in Eastern religions, occult sciences (e.g. magic, astrology', alchemy, and clairvoyance), and alternatives to Christianity. In 1879, Blavatsky and Olcott traveled to India and officially relocated their headquarters to the Adyar neighborhood of Chennai, India (formerly Madras) in 1886 (Campbell 1980, 75-85). The deaths of the three founders over the next 20 years - Blavatsky in 1891, Judge in 1896, and Olcott in 1907 - marked the transition into the Theosophical movement’s “second generation.”1

It was no accident that second-generation Theosophists including Katherine Tingley and Annie Besant chose Southern California. These leaders were versed in Theosophical theories about the evolution of the human race as stated by Blavatsky. They believed that in building both the physical structures and their respective communities in Southern California, they were quite literally laying the foundation for the next stage in the development of the human soul. Yet, in addition to what they perceived to be the spiritual potential of the region, the cornerstone ceremonies they staged underscore the importance these leaders placed on accessing a larger network of non-Theosophists. In addition to members of their respective sections, both ceremonies attracted the broader public. Reporters from local newspapers were also in attendance to describe these events to those not in attendance (Ashcraft 2002, 49, Ross 1989, 138). These Theosophists did not arbitrarily choose sites in Southern California, they intentionally settled adjacent to the region’s most populous and rapidly developing coastal cities - San Diego and Los Angeles.

In this chapter, I trace the multiple motivating factors behind Theosophists’ decision to settle in Southern California and describe how these factors manifested in their activities between roughly 1895 and 1945. I argue that while grounded in spirituality, these communities ultimately chose the region for its commercial, social, and cultural potential. In each of these cases, the leaders relocated their headquarters from older cities in the Midwest or Northeast - ASTS was formerly in Chicago and the UBTS was in New York - to younger cities on the west coast. Settling in young cities with relatively few cultural institutions and new, if any, infrastructure provided Theosophists opportunities to participate in the development of San Diego and Los Angeles, more so than had they focused their activities during this period in more established American or European cities.

The focus of this chapter is Lomaland and Krotona as they were the most actively, and publicly, engaged Theosophical communities in the cultural and religious development of Southern California’s urban centers. It is important to acknowledge, however, that there were local Theosophical Society lodges in Southern California prior to the establishment of Lomaland and Krotona. There was also a third prominent Southern California Theosophical community. In 1904, William Dower and Francia LeDue founded the Temple of the People when they moved their Syracuse branch of the Theosophical Society (Adyar) to Halcyon, California just south of San Luis Obispo and some 80 miles north of Santa Barbara (roughly 180 miles north of Los Angeles as the crow flies).- While some may contend that this region is more California’s “central coast” than it is “southern,” I consider the Temple group to be part of the larger network of Southern California Theosophists because it benefitted from its relative proximity to major Southern California cities, particularly Los Angeles. Likewise, the Temple group bears certain similarities to Lomaland and Krotona, especially in why they chose Southern California. A final Southern California Theosophical group relevant to this history' is the United Lodge of Theosophists (ULT). In 1909, Lomaland resident Robert Crosbie severed ties with Tingley' to establish a new lodge. Frustrated with the infighting among Theosophical leaders and Tingley’s autocratic power, Crosbie founded the ULT to welcome people to practice “independent devotion to the cause of Theosophy” free from any “attachment to any' Theosophical organization” (ULT 1909, n.p.; Campbell 1980, 143-46).

Taken together, these groups suggest a clear pattern of migration to Southern California by Theosophists. For the purposes of this chapter, I choose to focus on Lomaland and Krotona because they best illustrate the reciprocal developmental relationship between the larger Theosophical movement and Southern California. To that end, I limit my study in this chapter not only' to Theosophical groups in the two most populous urban centers in Southern California, but to the communities that also served as headquarters for major branches of the modem American Theosophical movement. Indeed, while the ULT and Temple have sustained activity' in their original locations to the present (unlike the Lomaland and Krotona Theosophists), they never operated as a national headquarters for either of the two major branches of American Theosophists.

The coinciding histories of Lomaland and Krotona with the Temple and several smaller lodges are evidence of a broad, thriving network of Theosophists along the Southern California coast. Los Angeles was one hub in the region’s larger web of seekers. In this early period in Los Angeles’s, San Diego’s, and surrounding towns’ development, the boundaries between what belonged to and impacted each city were still under formation.3 As I explain in greater detail below, Theosophists largely believed that both San Diego and Los Angeles were equally poised to usher in the future, if only for the fact that these cities were located in the innately powerfol Southern California region. This belief in the region’s inherent properties and the interconnectedness of its cities and towns is evident in the fact that while Krotona initially' operated in Los Angeles, the community moved to Ojai in 1926, where they' still operate today. Similarly, the Lomaland community' moved to Covina in 1942 and ultimately to their current home in Altadena in 1945. Though geographically disparate, both Lomaland and Krotona participated in and benefited from the larger cultural network of philanthropists, entrepreneurs, medical professionals, scientists, intellectuals, artists, architects, tourists, authors, and religious leaders from across multiple faiths that both resided in and visited the region.

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