“Theosoph[ies] and Mormonism,” etc.

By June 28, 2008

Tradition has it that Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, co-founder of the well-known Theosophical Society, had wanted to travel to Nauvoo to see the Mormons but was unable to do so due to their expulsion from the state of Illinois shortly before she arrived in the U.S. [1]. Though such a visit unfortunately never materialized (it could have been an encounter to rival Joseph Smith’s interview with the prophet Matthias in its historical delectability), tradition also has it that she did pass through Salt Lake City in the early 1850s, perhaps en route to Mexico. She is said to have stayed at the home of Emmeline B. Wells, a detail that makes the story seem quite likely, since many a prestigious visiting woman met with or stayed with Wells, editor of Mormon women’s periodical, The Woman’s Exponent. Little else is known of the encounter, however, other than that Wells apparently “informed her granddaughter, Mrs. Daisy Woods, that [Blavatsky] was wearing men’s shoes as she intended to travel over rugged country.”[2]

Eventually Mormons had more to say about Theosophy than simple remarks about Blavatsky’s footwear. By 1893, according to Juvenile Instructor columnist Jacob Spori, some Saints were apparently even being “led away by erroneous doctrines…falsely called ‘Theosophy.'” Concern over this waywardness was one of the themes of the Saints’ semi-annual conference that year. Summing up those warnings for young readers, Spori pinpointed what he, and apparently church leaders, identified as the main fallacies and deceptions of the movement: “When somebody comes up and denies the resurrection, doubts the atonement, professes to have revelations by spirits that give doctrines contrary to those in Church books, performs, perhaps, healings and other miracles through his gifts, and then calls all this ?theosophy’ then, be sure, my dear young friends, that this is not theosophy but theo-sophistry, and a very dangerous deception.”[3]. As the description suggests, what the Saints were calling “false theosophies” or “theo-sophistries” included most metaphysical religions of the time, including spiritualism, Christian Science, and New Thought, as well as the doctrines promoted by the Theosophical Society.

Following in the same vein as Spori and greatly expanding on his efforts to steer Mormon children aright in negotiating between true and bogus theosophies, in 1895 Brigham Young University professor N. L. Nelson wrote a series of articles for the Mormon youth periodical The Contributor titled “Theosophy and Mormonism.”[4]. This six-part series was much more than an exposé of the Theosophical Society, however, and covered a wide array of associated movements ranging from occultism in general to Christian Science to hypnotism to spiritualism, weighing each against the revealed doctrines of Mormon scripture. Nelson’s aim in writing the article was to present these movements to young readers in such away that they may steer clear of the ensnarement or deception that curiosity regarding the dark arts or indoctrination at the hands of a metaphysician might bring to pass. Perhaps the fullest treatment on the issue of Mormon perceptions of these movements, these articles are also of course in many ways more idiosyncratic than representative of the Mormon view. They demonstrate, however, the concern one mature Mormon thinker felt for young Latter-day Saints who might come into contact with these strains of thought or who might be confronted with the possibility of participation in one of the several societies associated with the metaphysical movement.

To be continued…

(next up: witchcraft, necromancy, astrology, alchemy, hypnotism, and Christian Science-oh my!)


[1] See A. P.Sinnett, Incidents in the life of Madame Blavatsky (London : Theosophical Publishing Society, 1913), 62-63.   [2] Sylvia Cranston, HPB: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1993), 53.

[3] Jacob Spori, “True and False Theosophy,” Juvenile Instructor 28, issue 21 (1893): 672.

[4] N. L. Nelson, “Theosophy and Mormonism,” Contributor 16, no. 7 (May 1895): 425-31; 16, no. 8 (June 1895): 482-91; 16, no. 9 (July 1895): 562-68; 16, no. 10 (August 1895), 617-25; 16, no. 11 (September 1895): 698-705; 16, no. 12 (October 1895): 729-39.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I look forward to the continuance.

    Comment by Edje — June 28, 2008 @ 5:55 pm

  2. Me, too, especially given all the Saints, including so many members of Brigham Young’s family, who became Christian Scientists.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 28, 2008 @ 7:17 pm

  3. Fascinating, Stan; I look forward to future installments.

    Comment by Ben — June 28, 2008 @ 9:40 pm

  4. Nice write up. I remember when I was mining through the UU newspaper archive the theosophists poping up all the time.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 29, 2008 @ 2:46 pm

  5. Ardis: Very interesing. I wasn’t aware of the migration to CS, though I once read an article in a Mormon periodical–IE or JI or Contributor or something–about someone, the daughter of an unnamed GA, who went to CS and then came back when it didn’t heal her. Have you written anything up on that? Any examples of individuals who made the switch?

    J: What newspapers were in the UU collection? and what years (roughly) were you looking at?

    Comment by stan — June 29, 2008 @ 8:50 pm

  6. I was using the UU digital archive and there are skads. If I remember correctly the bulk of the articles were in 1880-90’s.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 30, 2008 @ 11:16 am

  7. 5: No, I haven’t (yet). The most prominent CS convert would probably be Brigham Young’s nephew Brigham Bicknell Young, the singer, who became a CS missionary and a Reader (in Michigan, I think he eventually settled). A sizable number of female Young relatives also converted.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — June 30, 2008 @ 11:40 am

  8. Wasn’t this all wrapped up in the Godbeit problems?

    Comment by Clark — June 30, 2008 @ 11:57 am

  9. The Godbeits were spiritualists, but there were certainly similar dynamics.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 30, 2008 @ 12:08 pm

  10. No, I recognize the philosophical differences. I mean wasn’t this all wrapped up in trying to centralize certain doctrines and practices and that the anti-theosophany move can’t be understood independent from the anti-Godbeit moves. (Or even the problems of natural seers as authority vs. formal church authority)

    Comment by Clark — June 30, 2008 @ 2:05 pm

  11. Clark: Yes, this is definitely right in the Godbeite era and is very related. In Nelson’s article, he includes spiritualism among the several theosophies he addresses.

    Comment by stan — June 30, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

  12. Thanks, Stan. I love the cultural history of metaphysicians. Both startling (at first) and delectable are the relatively recent spiritualist books that cite Moroni as proof positive of spiritualism (I found 2-3 in the last decade or so and a few around 1900 when I was working on a paper reviewing Albanese’s new book).
    You should put together a paper for JMH on this stuff.

    Comment by smb — June 30, 2008 @ 6:01 pm

  13. […]   Continued from Part I    […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » “Theosoph[ies] and Mormonism” Part Deux: Christian Science, mainly — July 7, 2008 @ 6:45 pm

  14. So… the Theosophists were wrong because their teachings conflicted with the Church’s? Isn’t that kind of… “They’re wrong because we’re right, and they disagree with us.” I’m sure there’s a fancy word for why that’s a weak argument.

    Comment by Kullervo — July 9, 2008 @ 11:05 am

  15. No one here is disagreeing that it might be a weak argument Kullervo. The Juvenile Instructor is a blog oriented toward the study of Mormonism historically, not debating whether the LDS church is true or not. We’re more interested in what this argument might reveal about Mormonism and its nature and identity than whether there really is any truth in theosophy (or Mormonism, for that matter).

    Comment by Christopher — July 9, 2008 @ 11:54 am

  16. Okay, but that doesn;t mean it’s not worth pointing out that the polemic is problematic at best. You assume a great deal about my intentions.

    Comment by Kullervo — July 9, 2008 @ 12:54 pm

  17. Perhaps, though not without some reason for doing so.

    Comment by Christopher — July 9, 2008 @ 1:28 pm

  18. Fair enough.

    Comment by Kullervo — July 9, 2008 @ 2:49 pm

  19. Kullervo: your beef is warranted, but it would be with N. L. Nelson, Susa Young Gates, and most late 19th early twentieth-century Saints in general. What I’ve tried to do here is analyze how earlier Saints viewed Metaphysical movements and how they saw themselves in relation to them. I agree it’s polemical, but is that any surprise?

    Comment by stan — July 10, 2008 @ 11:56 am

  20. as a follow-up to my last comment, keep in mind that the sources I am using are mostly LDS writing for young LDS, so a basic assumption of agreement on Mormonism’s truthfulness and a pastoral concern to steer youth away from what the writer views as a snare–a close counterfeit–is to be expected.

    Comment by Stan — July 10, 2008 @ 1:32 pm

  21. Thank you for your article. I am a grateful recipient of Bicknell Brigham Young’s wonderful Christian Science commitment and legacy.Young and his wife became Scientists because they were wonderfully restored to health and well being through Mary Baker Eddy’s teaching. CS did and does heal me and I have so much a greater perception of myself and all mankind, including Mormons, in Love’s sacred order. It is not CS which does the healing but one’s greater spiritual understanding of GOD, Divine Mind, which breaks the mesmerism and symptoms of any and all fleshly disorders which have nothing to do with the man of God’s creating. Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, cleansed the leper and cast out devils because he understood his perfect relationship with his divine Principle. He had no allegiance to human illusion. I have healed numerous individuals and situations both before and after reading SCIENCE AND HEALTH WITH KEY TO THE SCRIPTURES. I heartily recommend that every Mormon and every person on earth buy this book now and study it and energize their commitment and understanding of perfect spiritual being. Thank you and bless you in Love forever operating.

    Comment by Stubbycat — February 1, 2011 @ 3:10 pm


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