Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (August 2, 1832 – February 17, 1907) was an American military officer, journalist, lawyer and the co-founder and first President of the Theosophical Society.
Olcott was the first well-known person of European ancestry to make a formal conversion toBuddhism. His subsequent actions as president of the Theosophical Society helped create a renaissance in the study of Buddhism. Olcott is considered a Buddhist modernist for his efforts in interpreting Buddhism through a Westernized lens.
Olcott was a major revivalist of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and he is still honored in Sri Lanka for these efforts. Olcott has been called by Sri Lankans “one of the heroes in the struggle of ourindependence and a pioneer of the present religious, national and cultural revival.” More ardent admirers have claimed that Olcott as a Bodhisattva
Olcott was born in 1832 in Orange, New Jersey. Henry was the oldest son of six children born to a Presbyterian businessman Henry Wyckoff Olcott and his wife Emily Steel Olcott. As a child, Olcott lived on his father’s New Jersey farm.
During his teens he attended first the College of the City of New York and then Columbia University, where he joined the St. Anthony Hall fraternity, a milieu of well-known people, until his father’s business failed during 1851. Unfortunately, he had to leave the university since his father could not afford the tuition.
In 1860 he married Mary Epplee Morgan, daughter of the rector of Trinity parish, New Rochelle, New York. They had four children, two of which died in infancy. Olcott was the agricultural correspondent for the New York Tribune and The Mark Lane Express from 1858 to 1860, and he sometimes submitted newspaper articles on various other subjects. He also published a genealogy of his family that traced him back to Thomas Olcott, one of the founders of Hartford, Connecticut in 1636.
He served in the US Army during the Civil War and afterward was admitted as the Special Commissioner of the War Department in New York. He was later promoted to the rank of Colonel and transferred to the Navy Department in Washington, DC. He was well respected, and in 1865 when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Olcott assisted in the investigation. In 1868 he became a lawyer specializing in insurance, revenue, and fraud.
In 1874 he became aware of the séances of the Eddy brothers of Chittenden, Vermont. His aroused interest motivated Olcott to commission an article from the New York Sun, allowing him to investigate the Eddy Farms. His article was popular enough that other papers, such as theNew York Daily Graphic, ran it. His 1874 publication of People from the Other World began with his these early articles concerning the Spiritualist movement.
In 1874, while writing this series of articles, Olcott met Helena Blavatsky when both of them visited the Eddy farm. His foundational interest in the Spiritualist movement and his budding relationship with Blavatsky helped foster his development of spiritual philosophy. Olcott official conversion to Buddhism is considered the first American Buddhists. Olcott once described his adult faith as “pure, primitive Buddhism,” but his was a unique sort of Buddhism.
Olcott continued to act as a lawyer during the first few years of the establishment of the Theosophical Society, in addition to being the financial supporter of the new religious movement. In early 1875 Olcott was asked by important Spiritualists to investigate an accusation of fraud against the mediums Jenny and Nelson Holmes, who had claimed to materialize the famous spirit control Katie King (Doyle 1926: volume 1, 269-277).
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