William Quan Judge: A Biographical Sketch

By Kirby Van Mater

William Quan Judge is a towering figure of the early theosophical movement. In 1875, at the age of 24, he was a co-founder of the Theosophical Society with H. P. Blavatsky and Henry S. Olcott, He continued to work ardently for its cause for the next 20 years, until his death in 1896. As the leading theosophical official in America from 1886 to 1896, he guided the Section so that it became the most vigorous in the Society, with the largest effective membership. He relentlessly pursued his high vision for the Society's work in the world: humanity's great need for a new perspective on itself and the universe. Judge was born in Dublin, Ireland, on April 13, 1851, to Frederic H. Judge and Alice Mary Quan. His mother died giving birth to her seventh child, and his father decided in 1864 to emigrate to New York with six children. Judge studied law while living with his father, who soon died. At 21 Judge became a US citizen and in May 1872 was admitted to the bar. He married Ella M. Smith, a school teacher, in 1874 and they lived in Brooklyn until 1893 when they moved to New York City.

Judge's father had been "deeply interested in Freemasonry," and Judge was interested in religion, magic, and Rosicrucianism.

In 1874 thought of looking up spiritualism & finding Col. Olcotts book "People from the Other World," [published in March 1875] I wrote him asking for the address of a medium. He replied that he did not then know but had a friend Mme Blavatsky who asked him to ask me to call. I called at 46 Irving Place New York & made her acquaintance. — Letter from WQJ to Sarah W. Cape, October 1891[3?]; photocopy, Archives, Theosophical Society, Pasadena. Documents not otherwise referenced are in the TS Archives, Pasadena.

The time between meeting HPB in 1875 and the publication of Isis Unveiled in 1877 was a truly remarkable one for Judge. He was active in the formation of the Theosophical Society, and studied with and learned from HPB while she lived in New York. He later wrote Damodar K. Mavalankar — a headquarters staff member in India and disciple of one of Blavatsky's teachers — that HPB as mediator had made possible "the glorious hours spent in listening to the words of those illuminated Ones who came often late at night when all was still, and talked to H. S. O. and myself by the hour." (Damodar and the Pioneers of the Theosophical Movement, Sven Eek, Theosophical Publishing House, India, 1965, p. 47.)

But after signing the contract for publishing Isis Unveiled HPB announced that she must go to India as she always said she would. Unlike Olcott, Judge was in no position to go with HPB because of obligations to his wife and little daughter. He was extremely upset, and did not visit HPB for about a year, but the breach was healed before she left for India. During this period, or perhaps a few months later, Judge lost his daughter from diphtheria. This was a severe blow and he later wrote Olcott in India that "often there is much sorrow and longing in my heart after the little one gone away." ("Letters of W. Q. Judge," The Theosophist (52:4), January 1931, P. 211.)

After HPB and Olcott left America, Judge became involved in various speculative business ventures because, as he wrote Damodar in March 1880, "I am now striving to accumulate money enough to be able to go there [India], independent of circumstances, and leave my wife with enough, or take her if she will come." (Damodar, Sven Eek, p. 48.) General Abner Doubleday describes this period:

I accepted the position [of President ad interim] at the earnest request of H.P.B., intending to rely principally on Judge for counsel and assistance; but Judge thought he had found a mining locality in Venezuela where many valuable leads could be easily worked. He went to Campana Venez. leaving me ignorant and inexperienced as I was to run the Society without knowing anything of the individuals, that composed it.
Judge returned after a time poorer than he was and in distress because his long absence had destroyed his law business. I now hoped he would be able to devote more attention to the T. S., but he got an offer to go to Mexico, left us suddenly. The enterprise whatever it was failed there too, and he again returned discouraged. — Report by Abner Doubleday to Elliott Coues, President of the American Board of Control (1885-6).

In Venezuela Judge contracted Chagres fever, a lingering disease from which he never fully recovered. By 1883 his ventures in South America had left him penniless with a large debt and no law practice. He gradually liquidated these debts over most of the course of his life. In 1883, he picked up his theosophical work again, and was instrumental in founding the Aryan Theosophical Society of New York City (the word Aryan in Judge's time was in good repute, having reference to the people of Aryavarta [India], a Sanskrit word meaning "abode of the noble ones.") To arouse public interest he held meetings — and although in the beginning the only person there, he conducted them as though there were a great audience.

Judge had continued corresponding with Damodar, and on the back of Damodar's letter of June 11, 1883, was a message: "Better come M. . ." (The original of WQJ's letter in reply to Damodar's letter, on the back of which M sends his message, is in the Archives of the Theosophical Society, Adyar; Damodar's letter is missing.) By 1884 Judge felt able to move to India, although just how he adjusted his financial problems and provided for his wife's support is not known. Early in that year he went to England where he visited the Sinnetts, Arundales, and other London members, then joined HPB and Olcott in Paris. Judge was eager to move on to India, but Olcott and HPB felt he ought to stay with them a while. At first Judge hesitated, not realizing that his immediate task was to help HPB on what was to become The Secret Doctrine.

In India, meanwhile, the relationship between Alexis and Emma Coulomb and the Council at Adyar reached a critical point. HPB had first met Mme. Coulomb in Cairo in the early '70s, where she assisted HPB, who was without funds after having been shipwrecked. Years later when the Coulombs arrived penniless in Bombay, they appeared to HPB for assistance. She vainly sought to find them employment, and eventually invited them to Adyar to work temporarily at the headquarters. They soon made themselves indispensable in the physical working of headquarters, and she let them stay. A crisis arose shortly before HPB left for Europe in 1884, when she prevented Mme. Coulomb from defrauding a devoted member of 2,000 rupees. After HPB's departure, the Coulombs' relationship with the Council in charge steadily worsened, and the couple was finally asked to leave. About this time the Coulombs approached The Christian College Magazine of Madras with an offer to supply for a price "damaging information" on HPB and the Theosophical Society.

Learning of the gravity of the situation at the Adyar headquarters, Judge continued on his journey to India armed with all the authority and encouragement that could be given him. Olcott, as President-Founder, provided him with two documents: one, bestowing upon him "power to abolish the Board of Control in India constituted by me [Olcott], if he shall see fit, and in every way to act for me in any part of the World as President, as he sees fit and as he may be advised in the usual course"; and a second, reappointing him "Joint Recording Secretary and Treasurer of the Theosophical Society, with authority to exercise the functions of those offices in Asia." Before Judge departed he received the following message from Master M:

As I expect to see you ere long in Adyar, let me impress you well with the fact that much of the Society's future welfare and whitewashing depends on your tact discretion & zeal. As you sow so will you reap. It is the infatuated conduct of some of the "Board" — & its consequences that developed themselves in well foreseen reverses. . . .

Go then & save the Cause by saving the Society. Fear naught I will see you helped. Henceforth you are to be the third in the duad Work all three heart & soul for better & for worse.

In Bombay Judge wrote Olcott on July 15 that the Indian members were untroubled by the Coulomb affair and so he could address many theosophical groups on his way to Adyar. He finally arrived there on August 10 and on September 11 the first installment of the attack on the Society and HPB appeared in The Christian College Magazine (Two-part article titled "The Collapse of Koot Hoomi" by George Patterson, The Christian College Magazine, September and October, 1884). During this period Judge had not visited HPB's quarters containing the "shrine" through which messages were sent and received from the Masters, though he had asked Damodar about it several times. After HPB had departed for Europe the Coulombs had tried to make the shrine and room walls appear as if faked messages had been passed into the shrine through trapdoors and sliding panels. Judge describes the state of HPB's rooms as they appeared when first he visited them:

I found that Mr. Coulomb had partly finished a hole in the wall behind the shrine. It was so new that its edges were ragged with the ends of laths and the plaster was still on the floor. Against it he had placed an unfinished teak-wood cupboard, made for the occasion, and having a false panel in the back that hid the hole in the wall. But the panel was too new to work and had to be violently kicked in to show that it was there. It was all unplaned, unoiled, and not rubbed down. He had been dismissed before he had time to finish. . . . All these things were discovered and examined in the presence of many people . . . . — "Madame Blavatsky in India. A Reply to Moncure D. Conway," The Arena (5:28), March 1892.

Judge originally intended to spend considerable time in India, but after the shrine was burned in the fall of 1884 and after the October number of The Christian College Magazine had been published, he suddenly departed for America, giving no reason for doing so. Later in a letter to HPB he says, "Now as to me will you ask. . . . How does he explain the meaning of his message through you that I 'showed intuition by leaving India'?" (February 5, 1886). (The Letters of H. P Blavatsky to A. P Sinnett, 1925 (reprinted 1973), pp. 313-14.)

The effects of the last seven years of trial, for that they truly were, on Judge's physical being were obvious to A. E. S. Smythe on the steamer to New York: "He looked old and pallid and had I been told his age was 33 I would have said it was 20 years out." ("William Quan Judge," The Canadian Theosophist [20:2], April 15, 1939, p. 35.)

On his return to New York, Judge joined the law firm for which Olcott's brother worked. He continued to earn his living until the last two years of his life, when his health became so poor that he was supported by the American TS. Once reestablished in law, Judge put his energies into promoting theosophy. He revitalized the New York work, reorganizing it under its original Charter and name, "The Aryan Theosophical Society of New York," held regular meetings, started a theosophical lending library, and launched the printing of inexpensive literature.

In April 1886 Arthur Gebhard and Judge founded The Path magazine, with Judge as editor and Gebhard as business manager. This later became the official organ of the American Section TS. Practicing law during the day, he worked at home far into the night, as at first he had to write almost every article himself under various pen names.

The American work at this time was run by a Board of Control established by Olcott in 1884 while in London. Professor Elliott Coues had been elected President of the Board on July 4, 1885. In March 1886 Judge questioned HPB about ambiguous telegrams he had been receiving from various parts of the United States that were allegedly signed by her, and asked her to write him saying she had not sent them. A month later he wrote Olcott more fully, reporting that the Board had appointed Coues "Censor of the . . . American Society for Psychical Research," and noting that Coues did nothing but organize "a Gnostic Branch which has never held a meeting and to which he talks about astral bells, bodies & what not," writing members everywhere to join it. Then

one day comes a telegram to our place of meeting commanding the Aryan Branch to close its doors, admit no one, & listen in the silence for the astral bells — in the name of KH and HPB. It was addressed to the Soc'y. . . . Needless to say I am not a fool & didnt comply. — T.S. Letter Copying Book 1A, p. 60.

Coues then tried to form a second New York branch behind Judge's back, and Judge protested to the Board. Coues' moral character had also been called into question, and Judge had reason to believe that the mysterious telegrams came from him. Judge had demanded privately that Coues resign as President, and appealed to Olcott to change the Board before the next convention in order to straighten matters out.

Olcott devised a nonconfrontational solution by abolishing the Board of Control both at Adyar and in America. He cabled Elliott Coues to postpone the July 5, 1886, convention at Rochester, New York, and await instructions which were on their way, but Coues held the regular convention of the Board of Control anyway, reading Olcott's cabled instructions. By letter Olcott had directed that a convention be called to elect an American Section General Council as that portion of the TS General Council resident in America. This 1886 convention was finally held in October and, though Coues was not present, resolved that the Board of Control be dissolved and a new body be formed in which all Branches were to be represented, and a single officer would serve as General Secretary and Treasurer. W. Q. Judge was elected to fill that office in the newly established American Section of the General Council (Minutes of all American conventions in 1886 are entered in "Records Book," pp. 19-32). The publication of The Path beyond doubt had made Judge known to the Branch presidents and members of the TS in America. The differences between Coues and Judge continued until Coues was expelled from the Theosophical Society, June 22, 1889, by the Executive Committee of the American Section.

Under Judge's guidance, moves were made to unite in thought and action the membership scattered across the United States. With himself at first as primary speaker, he eventually placed three full-time traveling lecturers in the field to aid struggling groups and to support established centers. The Path, leaflets, and specialized small magazines were regularly circulated among the membership, keeping them in touch with one another and with the headquarters in New York. Local speakers were encouraged to start new centers in nearby communities. With only about a dozen Branches in 1886, by 1896 there were over one hundred.

HPB and Judge continued their close relationship. In a letter to him of October 3, 1886, she wrote:

The trouble with you is that you do not know the great change that came to pass in you a few years ago. Others have occasionally their astrals changed & replaced by those of Adepts (as of Elementaries) & they influence the outer, and the higher man. With you, it is the NIRMANAKAYA not the "astral" that blended with your astral. Hence the dual nature & fighting.

In HPB's letter to Judge as General Secretary of the American Section, dated April 3, 1888, to be read to the American Convention at her request, she called Judge "the heart and soul" of the TS in America, saying that "It is to you chiefly, if not entirely, that the Theosophical Society owes its existence in 1888." (Second Annual ConventionApril 22-23 [1888], American Section of the Theosophical Society, Sherman House, Chicago, Illinois; reprinted in H. P. Blavatsky to the American Conventions 1888-1891, p. 3.) Again, in a letter dated London, Oct. 23, 1889, concerning Judge and the American work, she spoke of him as "part of herself since several aeons . . . the Antaskarana [bridge] between the two Manas(es) the American thought and the Indian — or rather the trans-Himalayan — Esoteric Knowledge."

By 1887 members had asked Judge if esoteric work might be established, and he wrote HPB in May suggesting such a move. She said to wait. Some time early in 1888 or perhaps late 1887 HPB had a conversation with Master KH about the general state of the TS, and he told her that although the TS work by Olcott at Adyar ran like a machine, it was "a soulless corpse" and that matters had reached such a point that the Masters' influence upon the TS was not possible, and they had let it go. (Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom, First Series, transcribed and compiled by C. Jinarajadasa, Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, India; 5th ed., 1973, Letter 47, pp. 100-103 [6th ed., 1988, Letter 60, pp. 125-7].) HPB's response in 1888 was to propose an Esoteric Section based on the original lines set forth by the Masters. When Olcott learned of HPB's intention to found an inner section of the Theosophical Society, he hastened to London to keep her from doing so at any cost, leaving Bombay August 7. If it had not been for the intervention of Master KH, perhaps the Society would have divided at that time. One day out of Brindisi on board the steamer Shannon, Olcott received a letter from Master KH covering the following points:

To help you in your present perplexity: H. P. B. has next to no concern with administrative details, and should be kept clear of them, so far as her strong nature can be controlled. But this you must tell to all: — With occult matters she has everything to do. We have not abandoned her; she is not "given over to chelas." She is our direct agent. I warn you against permitting your suspicions and resentment against "her many follies" to bias your intuitive loyalty to her. . . .
I have also noted, your thoughts about the "Secret Doctrine." Be assured that what she has not annotated from scientific and other works, we have given or suggested to her. Every mistake or erroneous notion, corrected and explained by her from the works of other theosophists was corrected by me, or under my instruction. It is a more valuable work than its predecessor, an epitome of occult truths that will make it a source of information and instruction for the earnest student for long years to come. — Ibid., Letter 19, pp. 46-7 (6th ed., 1988, Letter 19, pp. 48-9).

In London HPB and Olcott issued a joint announcement about the formation of an Esoteric Section in the October and November issues of Lucifer, 1888, to the effect that an inner section of the work was to be started under HPB's direction, "to be organized on the ORIGINAL LINES devised by the real founders of the T. S." After The Secret Doctrine was published in November, HPB invited Judge to London (Olcott was again at Adyar). Together they drew up the Preliminary Memorandum and Rules of the Esoteric Section. Judge thereafter conducted the Esoteric Section in America as Secretary to HPB, and in December HPB appointed Olcott as sole official representative of the ES for Asiatic countries, but he soon relinquished the post.

In 1889 members of the Aryan Branch TS purchased a press and type, and secured the services of a member to operate it. Aside from pamphlets, etc., the first publications included three small magazines for members, Patanjali's Yoga Aphorisms (1889), Judge's Echoes from the Orient (1890), his recension of the Bhagavad-Gita with introduction and footnotes (1890), Letters That Have Helped Me (1891) and The Ocean of Theosophy (1893). In 1895 Judge estimated that a half million flyers had been printed by the Aryan Press.

After HPB's death in 1891, William Q. Judge and Annie Besant jointly headed the Esoteric Section. As American General Secretary and later, in addition, as Vice-President of the TS, Judge continued to concentrate on the American work. He spoke on theosophy at the Parliament of Religions at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, and the following year at the Religious Parliament of San Francisco's Mid Winter Fair. After the December 1891 convention at Adyar, Colonel Olcott's health became such that he was unwilling to hold office longer and he resigned his position as President of the Theosophical Society on January 21, 1892. Judge notified the Section and other General Secretaries of this move and, as their yearly conventions came due, their deliberations reflected the views of their membership in regard to the presidency. At the Sixth Annual Convention in America on April 24-5, Judge was duly elected to succeed Henry S. Olcott as President of the TS; the Convention further resolved that Colonel Olcott be asked to revoke his resignation (Sixth Annual Convention Report, 1892, p. 19).

The same year Judge went to London to attend the Second Annual Convention of the European Section, July 14-15. G. R. S. Mead, the European General Secretary, announced that the European members were almost unanimously in favor of Judge as President, and needed only confirmation by the convention. He also reported the request of the American members that Olcott reconsider his resignation. However, Olcott's May 25th reply to the American resolution was taken by the European delegates as final — that he would not reconsider and Judge was elected President.

A letter from Bertram Keightley, General Secretary in India, addressed to the European Convention stated that the action of the American Convention asking Colonel Olcott to reconsider was unanimously and enthusiastically endorsed. As to the nomination of Judge they would follow the American action if Europe did also. Olcott, however, being deeply moved by requests to continue as president, did reconsider and, on the 17th of August 1892, withdrew his resignation (Seventeenth Anniversary of The Theosophical Society, Adyar, Dec. 27th, 28th, & 29th, 1892, p. 2). He remained president until his death in 1907.

Judge had always been sensitive to the Masters' influence. He received messages from them, at times in his own handwriting, at other times in theirs (See W. Q. Judge to A. P. Sinnett, Aug. 1, 1881, and to HPB, Feb. 5, 1886, in The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky to A. P. Sinnett, pp. 312-14). There were, however, those who accused him of sending fraudulent messages. In 1894 Olcott, Besant, and various members charged Judge with "misusing" the Mahatmas' names and handwriting on letters to others, a charge which apparently arose from their not realizing that the Masters often use chelas, such as Blavatsky and others, to communicate their messages in the Masters' handwriting. Olcott asked Judge to retire from all TS offices, but Judge cabled: "Charges absolutely false. You can take what proceedings you see fit; going London July." They met in London as planned, and though advised by Judge and others that they could not legally hold such a trial without creating a dogma as to the existence of Masters, they tried to do so. The case was dismissed, and Besant stated that the charges had been blown out of all proportion by other parties and that she never doubted that Judge had in fact received the Masters' messages.

The attack, however, was continued after a disaffected English official, Walter R. Old, handed over to the editor of the Westminster Gazette, London, papers from the so-called "Judge case" that Olcott had entrusted him with. Judge was again slandered at the 1894 annual convention at Adyar and Besant renewed her charges. Consequently, in an effort to protect Judge against further onslaughts, the delegates to the 1895 annual convention of the American Section, while recognizing Olcott as President-Founder, declared "complete autonomy from Adyar and elected Judge President of the Theosophical Society in America for life, an action supported by groups of members in other Sections. Thereupon Olcott canceled the membership of all individuals and withdrew the Charters of all Branches supporting Judge.

Judge continued his theosophical work, but years of ceaseless labor, combined with the effects of Chagres fever, finally took their toll. William Quan Judge died March 21,1896, just short of his 45th birthday. His last words were: "There should be calmness. Hold fast. Go slow."

Claude Bragdon, American architect, writer, and theosophist, sums up the man:

No figure rises out of the dim limbo of that recent, though already distant past, with a more engaging presence than that of this handsome Irish-American, and I venture to say that in a movement which has been a forcing-house for greatness, no one developed such power, such capacity, such insight, in so short a space of time — when the pressure was put upon him — as Judge.
There is abundant evidence, aside from the best evidence of all — the fruitfulness of his labors — that he was under the direct guidance of the Masters. One Adept wrote of him, "when the presence is upon him, he knows well that which others only suspect and 'divine'." In the same letter he is referred to as the one "who of all chelas suffers most and demands, or even expects, the least." He was a man of exquisite sympathy and gentleness; stern with himself, he was lenient toward others. Mr. Keightley has said, "Judge made the life portrayed by Jesus realizable to me." He was that rare and beautiful thing, a practical mystic. One of his last messages to his intimate band of followers was that they should learn, by actual experience, that occult development comes best, quickest and safest, in the punctilious fulfillment of the small duties of every day. Episodes from an Unwritten History, pp. 24-5

(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1996. Copyright © 1996 by the Theosophical University Press)

Sunrise Back Issues Menu