A Woman Before Her Time
Few people, outside certain occult circles, remember the name of Alice Bailey today. Yet in her own time she was one of the most influential, controversial and mysterious figures in the theosophical movement.
Theosophist, Medium, Prolific Writer
and Revolutionary Thinker.
Source: public domain
Her peculiarly eclectic assumption of a variety of religious and quasi-religious beliefs, practices and ideas, both exoteric and esoteric, has become the hallmark of what is now termed 'New Age Spirituality'. Indeed, it was Alice Bailey who coined the term.
Cynics might therefore describe her as the woman who created a multi-billion dollar market in books, CDs and videos of pseudo-spiritual mumbo jumbo - not to mention a lively market wheeling and dealing in crystal healing, tarot card reading and every conceivable variation of psychic hocus-pocus that the gullible (and perhaps slightly desperate) modern will consume.
Personally, in many ways I'd concur with the cynic on that - but only up to a point. You see, if you take the trouble to dig a little deeper - even if you profoundly disagree with the lady's beliefs as I do - you will nevertheless find a story of a woman who made some truly remarkable achievements in an age when women were still considered to be little more than the help-meets of men. Certainly, they were not meant to be educated, thinking people in her time. Still less rebellious and revolutionary in their challenges to the acceptable norms of society.
Yet, that is exactly what Alice Bailey was. And whilst it is true that on the back of that, a whole 'New Age Industry' has been spawned, it would be wrong to deny the ongoing positive effects of some aspects of her life and work.
I must admit, that it would be hard to paint her as an early radical feminist (although some have tried) but let's take a few moments to uncover some of the truths behind the myths and second-hand opinions that have accumulated about her name and see if the person we discover beneath these accretions is not in fact a remarkable woman of very great interest.
Come with me on this journey of discovery, if you will. I'll enjoy your company and value your opinion - which, when you have all the facts, may or may not be the same as mine.
Alice Bailey: Her Formative Years.
Let us go back to 1880: the same year in which the building of the Panama Canal was begun, Thomas Edison patented his 'incandescent electric lamp' and W G Grace scored an incredible 152 runs in the first ever Test Cricket Match at The Oval. The year also marks a slightly less momentous but nevertheless interesting event. Namely, the birth of Alice Bateman (later, Bailey) into a family of wealthy industrialists in the economically thriving city of Manchester, England.
|Manchester, UK. Where Alice Bailey was born.|
Permission: CC SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
The young Alice was a peculiar girl from the start. She suffered mental illness and, even as early as the age of five years old, from bouts of serious depression. She would also make attempts on her own life (although how serious these were as suicide attempts is in some doubt; it is more likely that they were a way of articulating a cry for help).
A sensitive and slightly odd child raised in a strict and disciplined Victorian household, indoctrinated with the supernatural beliefs, self-contradictory moral codes and hypocrisies of the Christian cult (her family were traditional Anglicans), her discomfort was eventually expressed as an ideological concern for the negative effects of what she would later term 'the old theology'.
She saw these negative effects most clearly demonstrated in the gulf in standards of welfare and opportunity between the higher and lower social classes and between men and women that was deeply embedded into the structure of Victorian Society. There is no doubt that this status quo was readily maintained by the established church. One of the most famous and well-loved hymns of the period - 'All Things Bright And Beautiful' - was penned by Cecil F. Alexander and included the verse:
"The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them high and lowly
And gave to each his state."
This verse is rarely published or sung today as it is no longer considered acceptable, but it was an unquestioned principle of the divinely ordained social order back in the day.
It is interesting to speculate that if she had not been raised to believe in a supernatural reality, what a motivated and effective social activist she might have become. Compare, if you will, the life and works of her contemporary, Emily Pankhurst. Sadly, she continued to seek a 'spiritual solution' and so much of her potential was drained away into the fantasy life of her 'esoteric' activities. More of that later.
With hindsight we can see that she might well have benefited from psychotherapy or other psychiatric interventions. The symptoms of depression, delusion and hallucination which would later come to dominate her life would all lead in our own more enlightened times to a reasonable diagnosis of psychosis and would be considered a happily treatable condition. However, this understanding of her condition was not available at the time. Even the now largely discredited 'science' of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis was yet in its infancy. Poor Alice lived in an age nigh on a century before modern psychiatric medicine.
However, I do believe that if we are to understand her then we must to some extent put aside our modern, scientifically informed view and try to appreciate her life and thinking in the context of her times. First, let us turn to one of her formative hallucinations and the historical context of her life, the better to understand the crucial decisions that she made in her early twenties and the impact that those decisions would have on her later life and personal development.
From Christian Evangelist to Occult Teacher
Alice Bailey had had visions and 'psychic experiences' from an early age. She usually saw men in quasi-Indian garb that told her how important she was to be and that she had special work destined for her to do. In her early years she often identified these visionary visitations with the figure of Christ, but in later years she developed an entire imaginary system of 'hidden masters' with exotic, eastern-sounding names, who were teaching her the way in which she would help them to bring about 'The Plan'.
Helena Petrovna Blavatsky
- a self-styled mystic and prophetess,
founder of the Theosophical Society
would wield great influence
on the life and teachings of Alice Bailey
Source: public domain
Clearly, as we have noted with the benefit of hindsight, these are common symptoms of compensatory psychosis. It is hardly a difficult task to appreciate how her experience of a powerful, authoritarian but otherwise absent father, a supernatural belief in an almighty patriarch, a sense of oppression and an emotionally charged awareness of the injustices inherent in the social system of her day, could lead a sensitive young woman to enter into such an episode - in which mysterious but gentle men made her feel special and full of purpose.
However, she continued to be devout in her orthodox interpretation of the Christian mythology, into her twenties. Then, propelled by her powerful and growing sense of responsibility and mission, she took up work as an evangelist, setting out to convert the heathen in India.
She was just twenty-two years old when she made the 4000 mile journey from the rolling green hills of her native England and the ordered life of its polite parlours, to the dusty, colorful and aromatic chaos of early 20th century India, which had been newly annexed to the British Empire and was burgeoning with sorry heathens in need of salvation.
She would later write of herself at this time that she had been "a rabid, orthodox Christian worker" who could not have known that she would become "a famous Occult teacher".
Although that time was still some way ahead of her, two hugely important and formative experiences that would shape all her subsequent thinking were awaiting her in the mystic culture of India, recently under British Rule and the new country of North America, which had claimed its independence from the Empire little more than a century before.
A Violent Marriage
We must not forget that had Alice stayed at home, then she might well have faced a very unhappy future, chattled against her will in marriage to an industrialist of her grandfather's choosing (both her parents died when she was still young and she was taken into the care of her grandparents). In her time, we must recall, women were still considered the property of their parents and then their husbands. They had little chance of decent employment and so were financially dependent on a 'good marriage'. They could not vote, could not study at university or enter the professions. Both the church and the state equally regarded them as inferior beings and responsible for 'the fall from grace'. They were dominated, controlled, patronized and ill-treated.
The missionary work that she embarked upon was one of the few lines of work available to a single woman that could take her away from the immediate influence of her family.
I think it can be hard for us to imagine just how long and dangerous a journey she was undertaking, we who are so used to international flights, luxury hotels and the whole world speaking our English language. The journey would have been arduous, dirty and fraught with perils. Not only must we admire the young Alice 's strength of character and courage but the power of her will to do, as she saw it, some good in the world.
At the same time, I think we can be reasonably sure that she was equally motivated by her burning desire to become more than merely another anonymous Victorian lady and escape the oppressive regime of her childhood home.
In India, she encountered the mysticism and the religious ideologies of Hinduism and Buddhism Whilst she was there in order to convert these people to her orthodox Christian faith, she found herself deeply impressed and influenced by the powerful mysticism of eastern culture and practice. Even as she continued to preach the gospel her inner thoughts were occupied with the mystery and wonder of these more ancient traditions. She would later take many of the ideas and images that she encountered in India during this time and weave them together with her own Christian tradition, via the theosophical movement, to create her own religion of the new age.
However, even as these seeds of spiritual change were being sown in the young Alice's life, she had an experience that would catalyze their final growth. She met and married a handsome young man, himself also working as a missionary and evangelist and training to be an Episcopalian minister.
This man was Walter Evans. He was both good-looking and full of fiery zeal for the gospel. He won Alice's heart very quickly and when she left India she left as a married woman and did not return to England but followed him home to North America.
They had three children and at first Alice seemed content enough to support her husband's ministry and keep house . However, the marriage soon became fraught with difficulties. Walter began to show a darker and more dangerous side to his character. He had a wild and sometimes uncontrollable temper that could flare up without warning. Verbal abuse and rage soon turned to physical abuse against his wife. When finally Alice suffered injury at his hands - he knocked her hard down a flight of stairs in a fit of anger - she realized that for her own safety and that of the children she would have to leave.
Of course, as we have already seen and understood, leaving a husband in those times was no easy task. Fortunately for her she was now in the new world, in America. It can hardly be said that the situation for women was much different - even in a case of divorce, which was rarely granted, the law in most States dictated that the husband had custodial rights over the children as they were still considered to be his property. Indeed, he could even sell them into servitude. The mother had no rights. However, with increasing prosperity and the consequent lack of need to use children as cheap labor, a new romanticized view of childhood was beginning to develop and a greater sympathy was being felt for the relationship of the children and the mother as their natural source of succor. There was no guarantee that this view would be taken. Such decisions varied considerably from State to State and from judge to judge. Fortunately, at this time Alice was living in California, which even then was a progressive State.
However, Alice was not only courageous and determined but knew that her husband would not pursue his rights under the law. As with most abusers, he was essentially a weak man and incapable of living with his own 'sin'. There is little clear information to be had about the divorce that followed but we can safely assume that the evidence against Walter was overwhelming to have permitted it at all. Not only that, but he was removed from his ministry, assigned to another church and ordered to pay a monthly allowance to Alice and the then still very young children. The allowance was not much but the principle of the case was one of the first in a changing social trend in the west.
|Womens' Sufferage was a movement|
very close to Alice Bailey's heart.
Image: public domain.
Walter Evans was sent to Montana and Alice remained in California. However, Walter did not honor the payments and for the first time in her life, Alice experienced real poverty. At one point, she regularly denied herself food so that her children would at least have something to eat. Eventually, she found work in a sardine canning factory which afforded her just sufficient income to sustain her family, but still in considerable hardship.
This was, undoubtedly, the low point of her life. Yet it was in the alchemical furnace of this poverty and struggle that she was to undergo a transformation in her thought and belief that would send ripples of influence out through the entirety of western society.
Alice Bailey said..."I call you to no organizational loyalties, but only to love your fellowmen, be they German, American, Jewish, British, French, Negro or Asiatic."
The Secret Doctrine
By 1915 Alice was meeting regularly with a circle of friends she had come to know who were all involved with the new 'theosophical movement' that had been instigated by the powerful and charismatic Russian psychic and occult teacher, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, known to her followers simply as Madame Blavatsky. There is no need to go into any detail regarding the actual teachings of the so-called 'Secret Doctrine' as it is no more than the usual fluff that typifies this kind of delusion. Namely, a group of supernatural masters guiding the world to the fulfilment of a cosmic plan through a series of secret teachings available only to the initiated. The importance of the 'Secret Doctrine' for our purposes is simply in the power of its influence on the life and thought of Alice Bailey.
A symbol of the Theosophical Society
of which Alice Bailey was an influential member
for a number of years.
Image: Free Art Licence
She found in the teachings of Madame Blavatsky a clear doorway out of her orthodox Christian belief which enabled her, because of the delicious subjectivity of occult practice with its reliance on personal experience as the measure of truth, to exercise her natural creativity in the invention of her own religion. Her restrictive upbringing and her violent marriage - demonstrating the social oppression of the orthodox teaching and the inherent violence of its patriarchal expression - had caused her great upset and turned her away once and for all from the conventional churches.
In the Theosophical Society and The Secret Doctrine she found a form of spirituality that could embrace all that she had loved about Indian mysticism and one that would give her an acceptable context and value system for her hallucinatory episodes. She could talk freely about them in theosophical circles as they were interpreted rather in the same way as in primitive shamanic cultures, as visionary experiences of spiritual value. However, one of the most potent attractions for Alice must surely have been that the Theosophical Society was one whose leader and figurehead was a powerful woman to whom all the men deferred.
Whilst for many, the Theosophical Society represented the end of the spiritual road, for Alice Bailey, it was only the beginning. All such movements soon develop their own heterodoxy and once more Alice's independence and revolutionary thinking could not be contained. Inspired as she was by the leadership of Madame Blavatsky, Alice was not cut out any more to be a follower. The only way she could ultimately resolve the pain and conflict of her childhood and early life was to put herself in the position of leader. So there were many struggles to come and a new love story, that would finally lead to the foundation of her own organization - one which, as we shall soon see, continues to have a profound influence on international politics even to this day.
Rejection and Revelation
More and more Alice immersed herself in the life and work of the Theosophical Society, undertaking a detailed and practical study of the teachings set out in the The Secret Doctrine of Madame Blavatsky. Eventually she became a member of the Society and even began to teach within the outer circles of the order. Then in the year 1917 her ex-husband was re-commissioned and seconded to a parochial role in Europe. At that point the responsibility for the maintenance payments (a responsibility that Walter Evans had wholly ignored) was transferred to his bishop in California. This meant that finally, Alice received a monthly payment of $100 deducted from the priest's stipend at source and honored by the bishop himself. That's equivalent to about $1700 in today's money. This was not a princely sum but it was sufficient to be life-changing for Alice.
Almost immediately, she resigned from her work in the sardine factory and relocated to Hollywood with her children. There, they set up home as near as she could manage to the headquarters of the Theosophical Society.
By the following year, Alice had been inaugurated into the higher circles, taking a full role in the esoteric activities of the group and having both say and influence in the organizational and political aspects of the Society. Part of this initiation involved her being admitted for the first time into the 'Shrine Room' or temple at the Theosophical Society's headquarters.
Upon entering the room, she claimed to have immediately recognised the figure of a man whose portrait hung on one of the walls. This man was identified as 'Master Koot Hoomi' - one of the 'spiritual guides' supposedly relaying the teachings of the Secret Doctrine to Madame Blavatsky. Alice claimed with certainty that this was the same man who had appeared to her in her vision when she was fifteen years old and told her that she had been marked out for special divine work in the world. Of course, at that point she had already gained some respect among the gullible and credulous followers of the Society and so her statement was not challenged. Add to that the understanding that all these 'masters' are entirely fictitious 'supernatural beings' and it would in any case have been hard to disprove the statement. It is a typical illogical contortion of religious thinking that because something cannot be disproved it must be true! It was only later, when Master Hoomi started telling Alice things that Madame Blavatsky and her successor Annie Besant didn't like, that doubt was cast on the veracity of her experience.
However, Alice quickly became disillusioned with the internal organization and teachings of the inner circle, regarding them as highly restrictive, elitist and old-fashioned. She soon became aware, as she tried to battle from within in order to change the Society and make it a more open, inclusive entity, that the members would not budge an inch. Once more she found herself challenging an orthodoxy that was supported by a rigid and inflexible hierarchy. And this time, at its head was a cult figure, Madame Blavatsky herself. Alice's involvement with the Society was becoming less welcome and it is probable that Blavatsky saw her presence as a direct threat to her own overarching authority.
In the year 1919, she encountered another member of the movement with whom she then went on to work directly. This man was Foster Bailey, whom she soon married. He was a gentle soul who shared her social and political concerns as well as her spiritual beliefs. He seems to have admired and respected her. At last she had found a relationship in which she could be happy and indeed Foster was a devoted and good husband to her and continued her work and supported her legacy until his own death in 1977.
Together they endeavoured to bring about radical changes in the Theosophical Society, constantly striving for egalitarian reform, increased transparency and accountability and greater formal recognition of the external political work implied by the Society's proclaimed supernatural mission.
However, at the 1920 Annual Conference of the Society, under the direction of Madame Blavatsky herself, a cabal of the central leadership led by Annie Besant ran a smear campaign against the couple which resulted in them losing their roles within the executive.
Alice Bailey said...When discussing the matter of race, which was central to her view of 'spiritual evolution' she wrote that people of color (the used the term 'negroes') were marked by a propensity for "physical activity motivated by the desire for satisfaction of some kind, and by a shallow "wish-life" or desire nature, and almost entirely oriented towards the physical life." She might have wanted equality but not for all. I can't find any way of reading that except as pure, unadulterated racism.
'The Great Invocation' - Written by Alice Bailey
Not surprisingly, Alice used this rejection as a form of liberation and grasped the opportunity to form her own leadership with both hands. However, in order to carry some members of the Theosophical Society with her to create the foundation of her new movement; she would need to claim some authority over and above her own thought or personal ambition.
In the same way then that Mohammed claimed authority for his teachings from the Archangel Gabriel, Moses claimed the authority of Yahweh for his ten tribal regulations and New Age gurus claim the authority of any number of ‘hidden masters’ it was no surprise that Alice Bailey was visited by a mysterious invisible entity going by the handle of Master Djwahl or better known simply as ‘The Tibetan.’ A personal note, at this point: All these beings are rather conveniently hidden it seems to me; in caves or the tops of misty mountains or on ‘the astral plane’ or anywhere else they cannot be collared for rational questioning!
Alice said that she had been chosen by this master to reveal The Plan and bring about the return of Christ on Earth. He was to dictate to her and she was to write down his words and disseminate the teachings as widely as possible.
So her life as a writer began. She would have made a brilliant author of fantasy fiction but given her state of mental health and history of hallucinatory experiences, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that she was entirely honest in believing these books to have been communicated to her by a spiritual being. The fact that there is nothing new in any of them and they represent a simple ‘cobbling together’ of bits and pieces of philosophy and practice from a range of pre-existent supernatural belief systems and some expressions of her own wish-fulfilment, is perhaps neither here nor there. Any working writer will happily concede that her prolific output of legible, grammatically correct and published prose is an enviable achievement in its own right.
Alice and Foster (who was proving not only to be a kind and gentle husband but a loving stepfather to the three children) moved to New York and after their final ejection from the Theosophical Society - on the urging of Annie Besant, who by this time had assumed the mantle of Madame Blavatsky and in Alice’s view, perverted the core teachings of Theosophy into something she could no longer support – and set up their own Arcane School. Undoubtedly Alice saw herself, as do all these people, as promoting truth and goodness through a divinely ordained ministry.
Alice Bailey said...In the summer of 1946, Alice Bailey made a prophetic statement, declaring that Christ would return in an aeroplane (presumably to America) from a secret hiding place on Earth where he has been since his last appearance. She said that one of his first actions would be an appearance on international TV! Sadly, she wasn't able to tell us which network. If he pops up on cable, I guess we might miss him.
The Arcane School was formally established in 1923 and still used Blavatsky’s ‘Secret Doctrine’ as its core text. This new school embodied Alice’s fundamental political views in its organization. Entry was open to all and it was run on an entirely non-profit basis. Of course, Alice’s private income was supplemented by her husband’s earnings and ever-increasing book sales. Alice also undertook a form of counselling service which she offered without charge. The primary work of the Arcane School was to disseminate information, publish books on the secret teachings (rendering them, arguably, a deal less secret but let’s not quibble over that) running a correspondence course and self-promotion and marketing of the school itself.
The United Nations was in part founded
on principles expounded by Alice Bailey
and her organization, the Lucis Trust
reputedly continues to play a role
in its decision-making.
Source: public domain
At the same time, Alice founded an organization of greater world significance that was named the International Goodwill Movement. By 1939 this movement had cells in nineteen different countries around the world. The idea behind this movement was to promote goodwill between persons and nations. This mission was one that Alice considered essential to preparing the way for The Plan to be fulfilled and for ‘the Christ’ to return to Earth.
These groups were guided by messages that she ‘received’ from the hidden masters and it will not surprise anyone to discover that the messages from these masters were remarkably in accordance with her own political, social and spiritual agenda.
She campaigned vigorously for the rights of women, for reformation of the education system including free schooling for all children, for the rights of immigrants in America and for an end to religious intolerance.All good stuff in principle but sadly skewed by her emphasis on her supernatural beliefs. She taught her followers that all these good things could be brought to pass by the recitation of a prayer that had been ‘given’ to her by the masters. It was styled rather grandiosely as ‘The Great Invocation’. Members of the organization were instructed to meet together in groups of three to recite the prayer and that by this means, the masters would be able to retake control and prepare the earth for the return of Christ and goodwill and peace among men. Consequently, whilst true that later followers would be moved to act in a more concrete fashion to bring about socially beneficial change, Alice herself made very little direct impact, her efforts remaining largely ideological rather than practical.
The End and The Beginning
Alice Bailey continued to run her school and her movement steadily grew. During the next ten years she wrote and published some twenty-five volumes of work, all of which are still in print and available today. It makes for pretty predictable and uninspiring reading in the light of our times but as a personal achievement on her part it can only be admired.
When we consider her background, her upbringing, her depression, psychosis, disastrous first marriage and struggles to make sense of the suffering and injustice in the world, we can only conclude that even if many of her notions were wildly off the mark, she managed to not only survive, but build a credible life, inspire others and show a level of sheer grit and determination that would put many of her critics to shame.
After many years of ill health, Alice Bailey died peacefully at her home in New York on December 15th, 1949 at the age of 69 years.
However, let us not leave the story there. Her death was not the end. It was really only the beginning of her influence. After all, the efforts of a woman such as Alice Bailey cannot be considered to end with her last exhalation of breath. We have come to know something of her as a person, her motives and the course of her extraordinary life but her story does not exactly end there. To do justice to her, we should take a moment more to look at her legacy - and also to hear from some of her critics about aspects of her life and opinion that have not yet been mentioned here and that many of her followers would like us to ignore.
Alice Bailey said...When speaking about the Jewish people she wrote that, as a race, they "embody the characteristics of materialism, cruelty and a spiritual conservatism, a separative, selfish, lower concrete mind." No wonder Adolf Hitler became such a great fan. The lady sure had a dark side.
The Dweller On The Threshold - Rock Music Inspired By Alice Bailey
Alice Bailey's Legacy And Her Critics
In what ways, outside her prosaic and rather predictable contribution to the body of 'occult teaching', did Alice Bailey leave a lasting legacy in the world? Whilst there can have been little real merit or value in her supernatural activities, despite that distraction, she was clearly a woman of immense character and dedication, driven by a fierce and unwavering desire to find the truth and help the world to achieve justice, equality and peace.
What a shame that she thought that such things could be acheived by mystic mumblings and psychic hokum. What a force for real good she might have been had all that intellectual force, strength of will and admirable character been directed to practical work and real educational activities. And of course, had she been able to overcome the unpleasant prejudices of her time against Africans and Jews, which was pretty nasty stuff. Still, it is only further testimony to this woman's extraordinary nature, that despite all the esoteric carry-on and deep-rooted racism, she has left a legacy that - and you can judge for yourself whether it be for good or ill - continues to impact upon our world.
- Founded The New Age Movement - a multi-billion dollar industry.
- Contributed to the ideology that led to the formation of the UN
- Promoted women's rights
- Wrote 25 books. Even if you think they're full of mumbo-jumbo, it's still some achievement)
- Founded the Lucis Trust (formerly the Lucifer Trust) which has upset a lot of fundamentalist Christians but wields quite a bit of political influence and gives hours of paranoid pleasure to conspiracy theorists
- Inspired several rock songs, including 'Dweller On The Threshold' by Van Morrison
Alice Bailey's critics point out...
- Her supernatural beliefs were just a load of baloney
- She was psychologically unbalanced
- She was racist and anti-Semitic
- She didn't actually DO anything
I know what I think and whilst I've gone out of my way to leave this piece riddled with ambiguities, you may be able to guess in which camp I stand at the last analysis:
I think she was an extraordinarily interesting person whose true potential was distorted by personal suffering and the prejudices and ignorance of her time. But what I think isn't the important factor here. You have come with me on this journey, you have all the information before you. I thank you truly for your company and I hope you've enjoyed the ride but the question now is:
What Do YOU Think?