(1847-1929). Born Catharine Augusta Westcott July 6, 1847, at Newbury, Massachusetts; educated in Newburyport schools and by private tutors. As a child she would talk with her grandfather, Nathan Chase, mystic and Freemason, and his neighbor, John Greenleaf Whittier, of the White City she would build in the golden West. Pivotal was her encounter with “the horror and appalling insanity” of war in Virginia in 1861. Seeing soldiers straggling back from the Seven Days Battle, she went out to feed and comfort them. Her father was alarmed. Fearing that her impulsive, compassionate nature might lead her into harm, he enrolled her in the Villa Marie Convent in Montreal, Canada.
After leaving the convent, two unsuccessful marriages followed, both childless. Living in New York City, the plight of prisoners and conditions of East Side tenements weighed heavily on her. Early in 1887 she formed a “Society of Mercy” to visit hospitals and prisons. Next spring she married Philo B. Tingley, steamship employee and inventor, and from their West End Avenue home launched one philanthropy after another for those “worsted in the struggle for life. . . . I saw hardship as the result of vice and vice as the outcome of hardship. I realized that all our systems of helpfulness were totally backhanded.”1
In 1893 or ’94 William Q. Judge called on Tingley at her home. He had been impressed by her efforts for the destitute. She was unsatisfied, she told him; she wanted to get at the root of problems and prevent the degrading situations that imperil too many lives. Judge spoke about reincarnation, karma, and the divine spark within every human being. Tingley was deeply moved: this meant that no matter how depraved or severely handicapped physically, emotionally, or spiritually, every person has another chance to redeem himself, if not in this life, then in a future one. Her outlook underwent a profound change.
On October 13, 1894, Tingley joined the Theosophical Society (TS) and, about a fortnight later, the Esoteric Section. She worked closely with Judge. But only eleven months after delegates in convention declared “entire autonomy” for the American Section and elected him “President for life,” Judge died in March 1896.
Recognized as his successor by those closest to Judge, Tingley sought to shift the Society’s emphasis toward humanitarianism and strike anew the brotherhood note. First came the announcement of the founding of a School for the Revival of the Lost Mysteries of Antiquity (SRLMA); then on June 7, 1896, plans for a nine-month World Theosophical Crusade.
On June 13 Tingley and party sailed for England; their first public meeting set the tone by serving in the heart of the slums a “Brotherhood Supper” for over 300 of “the very poorest of the poor, each one having been personally invited by the Liverpool theosophists.” Throughout Britain and Europe public meetings were held and, where funds allowed, brotherhood suppers; thence, stopping in Athens to feed hundreds of Armenian refugees, on to Egypt, India where famine relief was instituted, Ceylon, New Zealand and Australia, to arrive in California February 13, 1897.
Ten days later at Point Loma, at a ceremony witnessed by nearly a thousand members, Tingley presided at the laying of the cornerstone of the SRLMA, stating that “the school will be international in character,” and that children would be taught the “laws of physical, moral and mental health. They will learn to live in harmony with nature. They will become compassionate lovers of all that breathes.”
In New York, the Society’s third annual convention reported growth in membership and progress in work for prisoners and children. In June, Tingley founded the International Brotherhood League (IBL) to sponsor various benevolent activities, such as homes for unwanted babies, and help for the needy, parolees, and victims of disaster. At the 1898 convention in Chicago, delegates voted to found the Universal Brotherhood organization, with The Theosophical Society in America as its publishing facility and the IBL for practical humanitarian work. Tingley was named Leader and Official Head of all departments, and the organization became known as the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society, abbreviated UB & TS. (In December 1929, under Gottfried de PURUCKER, the Constitution of the UB & TS was amended and the Society resumed its original name. To distinguish it from the Parent Society, it is referred to in the Encyclopedia as the Theosophical Society, Point Loma [now named the Theosophical Society, Pasadena]).
On February 13, 1900, Tingley transferred the International Headquarters of the UB & TS from New York City to Point Loma, California. That year, with five pupils she founded the Raja-Yoga School, a department of the SRLMA, and later an Academy and College, and in 1919 the Theosophical University. Tingley explained:
- The basis of this whole education is the essential divinity of man and the necessity for transmuting everything in his nature which is not divine. To do this, no part can be neglected. . . . The aim of true education is not to acquire a store of facts. . . . True education is the power to live in harmony with our environment and the power to draw out from the recesses of our own nature all the potentialities of character and divine life.2
An innovative feature of the Raja Yoga system was the inclusion of music, drama, and the arts as integral parts of the curriculum, starting with three-year-olds. All students played an instrument, sang in the choir, took drawing and painting, and participated in dramatic work, being early exposed to the Greek and Shakespearean dramas performed under Tingley’s personal direction at the Open-air Greek Theater she built in 1901. As a department of the School of Antiquity, the Raja Yoga schools were imbued with its ideals and objectives, which permeated every phase of the life and activities at Point Loma — philanthropic, dramatic, educational, musical, artistic, literary, publishing, and horticulture.
Tingley’s philanthropies continued until her death. In her schools in California, Cuba, Sweden, and Britain, hundreds of children had their tuition waived. Several contingents of children (many Spanish-American War orphans) were educated at Point Loma gratis, as also in Cuba at three Raja-Yoga Academies run by theosophic volunteers. But the steady drain of the Cuban work on Point Loma’s finances, coupled with health problems of several teachers, forced her eventually to close the Cuban Academies.
Work among prisoners was a lifelong concern; she fought against capital punishment and for humane treatment of inmates: reeducation and rehabilitation. The New Way (1911-1929), circulated free to prisoners, explained karma, reincarnation, and the divinity within in simple, appealing language. Tingley and her staff made regular visits to prisons, sometimes bringing the R€ja-Yoga musicians. A lover of animals, she battled also against vivisection.
Alongside her educational and humanitarian achievements must be placed Tingley’s labors for world peace. While acknowledging the constructive efforts of The Hague peace conferences, she believed the prevailing notion that periodic wars are inevitable, was morally twisted. To counter the growing fears in Europe of imminent war, in 1899 Tingley called three Universal Brotherhood Congresses: at Point Loma, Stockholm (a reception attended by King Oscar II), and Brighton, England. Her endeavors culminated when, on March 3, 1913, she founded the “Parliament of Peace and Universal Brotherhood,” and soon announced an International Theosophical Peace Congress at Visingsö, Sweden. This was held June 22-29, attended by some 2,000 European theosophists and admirers of Tingley’s humanitarian work. Twenty-four Raja Yoga College students had accompanied her, and on August 20 they sang at the Twentieth World Peace Congress in The Hague, Netherlands.
When World War I started in August 1914, Tingley immediately urged the membership in Germany and other European countries to be “international in spirit. . . . Those attacking and those attacked need our compassionate consideration.” On August 26, as president of the Parliament of Peace and Universal Brotherhood, she called for a “Sacred Peace Day for the Nations” to be observed in San Diego on September 28, 1914. On September 3, she telegraphed an appeal to President Woodrow Wilson to select a day for all people of every religion and race “to meet together on the level of their common humanity, . . . and as a loving tribute to the cause of Universal Peace.” She enlisted the support not only of the mayor and city council of San Diego, but also of governors and mayors throughout the US. The US Marine Corps from Camp Pendleton led the Peace Day parade.
Throughout the 1920s, Tingley continued her educational and philanthropic activities as part of her theosophical work. Throughout the US and Europe, Tingley’s theme was: there is no failure, all is tuition. Since every being is divine in essence, no power in heaven on earth can defeat the indomitable human spirit. She died July 11, 1929, while on a European lecture tour. Her many-faceted nature had attracted staunch supporters and harsh detractors. Autocratic, yet compassionate to a fault, this gifted woman — organizer, educator, orator, benefactor of prisoners and the forgotten poor — for 33 years as leader of one of the theosophical movements sought consistently to bring “Truth, Light, and Liberation to Discouraged Humanity.”
Katherine Tingley’s books include Theosophy: The Path of the Mystic, The Gods Await, The Wine of Life, and the compilation The Wisdom of the Heart.
- 1. Stevenson, Boston Herald, Sep 21, 1913.
- 2. Quoted by Kenneth Morris, “Lomaland — the Home of Theosophy,” in Katherine Tingley on Marriage and the Home, Interview by Claire Merton, Woman’s International Theosophical League, Point Loma, 1921, p. 36.
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