Vanguard of the New Age The Toronto Theosophical Society, 1891-1945
Vanguard of the New Age unearths a largely ignored dimension of Canadian religious history. Gillian McCann tells the story of a diverse group of occultists, temperance leaguers, and suffragettes who attempted to build a Utopian society based on spiritual principles.
Members of the Toronto Theosophical Society were among the first in Canada to apply Eastern philosophy to the social justice issues of the period - from poverty and religious division to the changing role of women in society. Among the most radical and culturally creative movements of their time, the Theosophists called for a new social order based on principles of cooperation and creativity. Intrigued by this compelling vision of a new age, luminaries such as members of the Group of Seven, feminist Flora MacDonald Denison, Emily Stowe, and anarchist Emma Goldman were drawn to the society. Meticulously researched and compellingly written, this careful reconstruction preserves Theosophist founder Albert Smythe’s dream of a culturally distinct, egalitarian, and religiously pluralist nation.
At [The Toronto Theosophical Society’s] height in the 1920s, it numbered not much more than 200 members. Small though its membership may have been, it could boast of being in the vanguard of cultural developments. It supported suffragettes, tolerance for all religions, homeopathy, “natural medicine,” vegetarianism, anti-vivisection, bicycle riding for ladies, and cremation. The appeal of this religion, as formulated by its inventor, the Victorian mystic Madame Blavatsky, is obvious. Its Secret Doctrine promises immortality via reincarnation, while dispensing with inconvenient notions of Heaven and Hell. It speaks of the displacement of our material world by a universe governed by spiritual laws. And while Theosophists, like atheists, deceive themselves when they claim to be rid of dogma, there is no doubt their philosophy is streamlined and free of the more elaborate forms of ritual and doctrine. Read the full review here
Scholarly interest in the Theosophical movement steadily continues to grow with the advancement of our historical knowledge of the roots of new religious movements, the academic study of Western esotericism and new approaches to modern culture at large. It is also becoming clearer, at least to experts in the field, that the Theosophical movement has impacted a great variety of significant aspects of modern culture, such as literature, art, modern religiosity, sex, politics, and science. Much research no doubt still needs to be done to better understand the many cultural dynamics of the Theosophical movement and to influence the way histories of modern culture are written, but McCann’s fine new book, which explores the hithero largely historically neglected Toronto Theosophical Society, is a much welcomed original scholarly contribution to the development, filling a significant gap in our historical knowledge about Theosophy in Toronto, Canada.
The Toronto Theosophic Society was by far the most important grouping of Theosophists in Canada, and Gillian McCann’s fine study traces both the internal workings of the Toronto society as well as its consideradble impact on Canadian culture. In the first instance the TTS was shielded from some of the major scandals that rocked the international movement by the steadying influence of the central character in McCann’s narrative, Albert E.S. Smythe. Born in the north of Ireland, Smythe was introduced to Theosophy on his way out to Canada by William Quan Judge, the president of the American Theosophical Society. Young Albert’s conversion was immediate and complete. A journalist by profession he founded the TTS in 1891 and effectively led the Society for the next fifty years. Never numerically large, the Toronto Theosophic Society clearly punched above its weight culturally, and as “the vanguard of the new age” provided a lively domain for the propagation of many modern and progressive ideas. Read the full review here