“A thousand kisses darling”: Sex, scandal and spirituality in the life of Charles Webster Leadbeater – I
This essay started off as a lecture presented at Treadwells Bookshop of London in February 2008, as part of LGBT History Month.
The Theosophical Society was one of the most influential esoteric movements of the Twentieth Century, not only in terms of its role in formulating many concepts that remain popular in contemporary occult and new age ideology, but also in shaping the modern world as we know it. In this series of posts, I will examine the sex scandals that dogged the career of one of the Society’s most infamous members, Charles Webster Leadbeater, a prolific author and lecturer, who was hailed by his followers as one of humanity’s most advanced adepts, yet at the same time, denounced by others as “a sex-pervert.”
Charles Webster Leadbeater (1854-1934) is without doubt one of the most influential occultists of the twentieth century. His writings – ranging from the cartography and nature of the astral planes, the occult nature of thought, and his book The Chakras have all helped to establish the parameters of contemporary occult discourses. Many of his books have remained in print continuously since their initial publication, and his works have outlasted the Theosophical Society itself as an influence on contemporary esoteric thought.
Leadbeater was enormously popular as a writer and lecturer during his lifetime, and was one of the first occultists to use the medium of radio to promulgate his ideas. However, beyond the content of his works, Leadbeater also bequeathed on contemporary occultism, the notion of the unassailability of ‘occult experience’ – that certain types of occult experience – such as those which are linked to ‘inner-planes’ or astral contacts, are not open to question or cross-examination – particularly if the individual asserting the veracity of those experiences is also claiming (and receiving) status as a practised occultist.
The Leadbeater sex scandals are relevant to contemporary occulture in several ways. From a historical perspective, the origin of the ‘links’ made between homosexuality and ‘black magic’ which often appear in occult theories of sexuality in the early twentieth century can be traced directly to these events. The scandals also highlight the ambiguities and tensions inherent in the discourses emerging in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century between sexuality, gender and spirituality – between idealised representations and actual practices – discourses that continue, to various degrees, to shape the contemporary occult milieu. The scandals also illustrate the complex relationship between power, authority, status and legitimacy within an occult organisation with respect to sexual acts. In particular, it shows how sexual acts are reframed and reinterpreted within the context of occult ideologies. Specifically, it seems, that sex ‘isn’t sex’ when it occurs within the framework of particular occult discourses that relate to training and initiation – and particularly when an individual who is accorded a high status is able to decide what is best for those in a subordinate position of power. The potentiality for abuse here is obvious – as indeed it was for many of those who were aware of the scandals as they emerged at the time.
A rising star
Charles Webster Leadbeater was first initiated into the Theosophical Society (TS) in 1884. He spent a few years in obscurity, working for the Buddhist Theosophical Society in Ceylon at various educational projects such as organising schools. His occult career however, took off when, after returning to England, he met Annie Besant 1 for the first time, in 1890.
By 1894, Leadbeater was a popular lecturer and was regularly appearing alongside other prominent Theosophists in various journals. 1894 also saw the publication of the first of his many books and pamphlets – The Astral Plane – which was, according to the Master K.H.- “a landmark for the intellectual history of humanity”. 2
In 1897, Leadbeater wrote a series of articles for the Theosophical magazine Lucifer entitled “Our Relation to our Children” in which he gave forth his views on parenting, children, and their education. In this series he asserted that although he himself had no children, he had a close relationship with children throughout his life – as a Sunday school teacher, clergyman, and headmaster of a large boy’s school. Thus he wrote from experience, not mere theorising. Leadbeater criticised the educational system in general, and public schools in particular. Children should be treated as individuals in their own right, and given firm but gentle discipline. Not only is the physical environment of the child important, but also the psychic atmosphere; that children can be unwittingly harmed by negative thoughts emanating from their parents or friends. Whilst parents of course, could only see the physical growth of their children, Leadbeater, as a highly-skilled clairvoyant, claimed to perceive, and guide their inner development. Parents who had not developed astral vision (which meant pretty much everyone apart from Leadbeater and possibly Mrs Besant) should therefore accept the advice and the guidance of one who had developed these gifts. Thus Leadbeater styled himself as an occult paediatrician. The training and inner development of children became one of Leadbeater’s specialities.
The 1906 scandal breaks
In January 1906 Mrs Besant received a letter from a Mrs Helen Dennis, Corresponding Secretary of the Inner Section of the American Theosophical Society, detailing charges of “immoral sexual practices” made against Leadbeater, in respect of two boys – Robin Dennis and Douglas Petit – who had travelled with Leadbeater on his American lecture tours.
Mrs Dennis’ Charges were threefold:
1. That he was teaching boys given into his care habits of self-abuse
2. That he does this with deliberate intent – under the guise of occult training or with the promise of increased manhood
3. That he has demanded in at least one case, promise of the utmost secrecy
In support of her allegations, Mrs. Dennis gave the testimonies of two mothers (one being herself) outlining how the boys had – under parental questioning, admitted that Leadbeater had taught them “practices of self-abuse”. One of the boys said that Leadbeater had told him that “it would make me grow strong and manly” whilst the other, admitting the facts of Leadbeater’s immoral conduct apparently had said: “Mother, I think that was the worst part of the whole thing, somehow he made me believe it was Theosophical.”
Mrs Dennis’ letter was countersigned by Alex Fullerton (General Secretary of the American Section of the TS – who himself later became the focus of a Theosophical sex scandal) and other officers of the American TS. They pledged that the matter should be kept secret, but demanded that there should be an investigation by the British Section, followed by prompt action.
Mrs. Besant’s letter in response to Mrs. Dennis stressed her certainty of Leadbeater’s “good faith and pure intent” but did say that she disagreed with the “advice he has in rare cases given to boys approaching manhood.” She explained that Leadbeater had given “the advice” in three or four cases, believing that “it would save the boys from worse peril”. She also asserted that given Leadbeater’s occult status, the charges were “an impossibility.”
How so? Theosophists believed that celibacy was a requisite for occult development. Theosophists were urged to resist the surrender of “the divine nature to the animal nature” and there was an explicit link made between continence and occult development. Many Theosophists were also social purity campaigners. and Theosophical publications published material relating to social purity concerns, such as Lucy Re-Bartlett’s Sex and Sanctity and Edith Ward’s The Vital Question: An Address on Social Purity. Charles Johnstone, writing in the Irish Theosophist for example, wrote a long essay explaining “why lust is but a disappointment to be overcome.” When Mrs. Besant joined the Theosophy Society, she had destroyed unsold copies of her Malthusian work The Law of Population and replaced it with Theosophy and the Law of Population 3 which advocated complete sexual abstinence.
The Theosophical emphasis on chastity also reflected wider social attitudes about chastity and moral purity that appeared in many guises. Some feminists, for example, saw celibacy as a positive step towards women’s autonomy from men – or at least from the notion that men’s sexual desires were uncontrollable and frequent intercourse was medically necessary for men.
Theosophists believed that sexual desire needed to be disciplined before the development of occult powers could begin. Leadbeater himself had repeatedly written about the need for celibacy as a prerequisite for spiritual progress. There was also a widespread belief that sexual intercourse was harmful to the development of psychic powers. Spiritual progress, Theosophists believed, required a sublimation of sexual energy, a transformation of the base into the purer and higher forms of creativity. Sexual incontinence was very much viewed as a ‘social evil’. 4
The argument that Mrs. Besant more-or-less stuck to throughout the entire period of the scandals – was that since Leadbeater was an adept, his actions could not possibly be sexual in intention. Therefore his accusers were mistaken, or there was a conspiracy afoot to impede the work of the TS on earth.
In the next part of this series I’ll discuss the further unfolding of the 1906 scandal and its consequences.
Joy Dixon Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in England (The John Hopkins University Press, 2001)
Joscelyn Godwin The Theosophical Enlightenment (State University of New York Press, 1994)
Alex Owen The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in late Victorian England (University of Chicago Press, 1989)
Alex Owen The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern (University of Chicago Press, 2004)
Gregory Tillett The Elder Brother (Routledge Kegan and Paul, 1982)
Peter Washington Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon: Theosophy and the Emergence of the Western Guru (Secker & Warburg, 1993)
Gregory Tillett’s Charles Webster Leadbeater: A Biographical Study website
- Annie Besant (1847-1933) – when she and Leadbeater first met she was General Secretary of the Esoteric Section of the TS. She became president of the TS in 1907, a position she held until her death. Prior to joining the Theosophical Society in 1890 Besant had been a well-known political firebrand, a member of the Secular Society, the Fabian Society and the Social Democratic Federation. She edited a literary magazine and campaigned for women’s rights. In 1877 she was tried under the Obscene Publications Act, together with Charles Bradlaugh, for distributing a pamphlet on birth control, and in 1888 played a leading role in the Bryant & May Matchgirl’s Strike.
- K.H (or Koot Hoomi) – one of the secret Masters from whom the TS took its direction. The Master, according to Leadbeater, was so impressed by this work that he asked for it, in order to deposit it in the “Museum of Records of the Great White Brotherhood.
See C. Jinarajadasa, Introduction, The Astral Plane
- Annie Besant’s The Law of Population (1878) was first serialised in The National Reformer and later published as a pamphlet. According to the 1882 edition it had sold 40,000 copies in the first three years of publication.
- “Society is honeycombed with diseases which, directly and indirectly, spring from the general abuse of the creative function; by an extraordinary reversal of facts, continence is regarded as unnatural instead of natural, and the demand of the sex instinct for constant gratification is looked on as normal instead of as abnormality evolved by habitual excess, Doctors know the suffering and the misery wrought under marriage sanction by unbridled incontinence; faced by the sex passion in unmarried lads, they bid them resort to the women of the streets, and thus increase the evil heredity; statesmen vainly try by Contagious Diseases Acts to minimise the ruin both of men and women; solitary vice is becoming more widespread, and is the deadly peril which teachers in schools are forced continually to face, against which they ineffectually strive.”
Annie Besant, A Letter to Members of the Theosophical Society November 1908