Reviewed in this essay: Vanguard of the New Age: The Toronto Theosophical Society, 1891-1945, by Gillian McCann. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012.
On 26 March 1891, some of Canada’s early avant-garde artists, labour activists, and feminists sat in the parlour of an esteemed Spadina Avenue home to discuss “The Key to Theosophy on Karma.” Spurred by a growing interest in the Social Gospel and the increasing influence of Methodism, members of Toronto’s cultural elite banded together to form the Toronto Theosophy Society which, according to Gillian McCann was the precursor to contemporary New Age spiritualism. In Vanguard of the New Age, McCann, assistant professor of Religions and Cultures at Nipissing University, examines the colourful history of this small, yet vibrant institution in the context of occultism in the modern world and Ontario’s religious and cultural history.
The birth of theosophy stems from the “crisis of faith” that gripped educated citizens of the Western world in the second half of the nineteenth century. The power of scientific knowledge and the rise of Darwinism left many feeling uneasy about life (and the after-life) in a godless world. This occurred at the same time as ‘Eastern philosophy’ was being introduced to Western audiences through academic journals and public lectures by colonial administrators. For some, the anxieties of the modern age could be directed towards spiritual learning. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky directed the spirits of the numerous subscribers to theosophy with her text “The Secret Doctrine.” Sourced from her powers as a medium and wisdom garnered from Tibetan Masters, or “Mahatmas,” adherents were guided by the text in their discovery of the “universal brotherhood” and the quest to “investigate the unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in man.”
The establishment of a Canadian theosophy movement came from a chance meeting on a cross-Atlantic voyage in 1884. Albert Smythe, of Northern Ireland, was on his way to Canada and met William Quan Judge, president of the American Theosophical Society – the words exchanged during this mystical encounter sent Smythe on a mission to gather the brightest minds in Canada to discuss social and political issues as well as the human condition in the context of Karma, self-redemption, and reincarnation. McCann argues that Smythe approached the Victorian “Crisis-of-faith” with “a minimum of crisis.” Like other members of the TTS, the Protestant background of Toronto’s elite was permeable enough to consider the Eastern Traditions explored by Theosophists while maintaining their primary religious beliefs. In fact, the oppressively rigid Protestantism revealed itself on more than one occasion in the TTS’s history. The most egregious example pointed out in this text is when D.P. Pandia, an advocate for British Columbia’s marginalized Sikh Community, gave a public lecture in Toronto in 1939 only to be the subject of outwardly racist treatment from the TTS’s inner circle. In other ways, however, the TTS challenged the religious practices of Toronto’s homogeneous religious community. When Toronto financial advisor, art critic, and theosophy subscriber Frederick Housser died of a heart attack, he was cremated – a rare practice that prompted the newspaper headline “Service for Fred Housser Impressive and Mystical – committed to fire.” Nevertheless, in the fashion of the Toronto society’s ‘blending’ of cultures, sod was thrown on the casket of ashes – an homage to Protestant tradition.
In her introduction, McCann quotes her favourite professor’s reaction to the topic of this monograph: “Why would you want to research a bunch of Rosedale matrons dabbling in exotica?” I, for one, am thrilled that someone is interested in exposing the history of this unique cultural institution, but I wish that McCann was more thorough in linking the history of the Toronto Theosophical Society to the culture in which it was borne. Theosophy is an intriguing religious phenomenon and many historians have used it to understand greater issues such as feminism (Joy Dixon) and the culture of modernity (Alex Owen). While McCann hints at the role of theosophy in Canadian arts culture, feminism, and labour activism, it lacks a thorough integration of the religious practice and its cultural context.