Book Review
By Jean B. Crabbendam
Colonel Arthur L. Conger by Alan E. Donant, Theosophical University Press, Pasadena, 1999; ISBN 1-55700-139-1, 32-page booklet, $5.00. Full text online.

This concise biography is a highly recommended addition to the history of the theosophical movement that throws new light on the man who became the fifth leader of the Theosophical Society. Arthur Conger, Jr., was born in 1872 in Akron, Ohio, to well-to-do parents, eminent citizens ambitious for this second son. It was during his years at Harvard University that he found theosophy, which gave him a lifetime desire to study, live, and spread its teachings. He attended theosophical meetings in Boston and Cambridge where he met Margaret Loring Guild, his future wife, who later became known for her chronology of the Mahatma and Blavatsky letters to A. P. Sinnett. He made many friends who shared his interest in Oriental religions, good books, and music — he was an accomplished organist.

After graduation Conger announced his determination to work for theosophy, and his parents were devastated. Both had visualized him as a Christian minister, and to pacify them he dutifully enrolled in a seminary. While there he continued his musical studies with composer Edward McDowell, who treated him like a son, including him in a family trip to Switzerland in 1895. During his second year, however, school authorities discovered he was active in theosophic circles and ordered him to stop. Instead, he resigned and went to work at the Theosophical Society's headquarters in New York City in 1896. He stayed at the headquarters for two years and formed a friendship with Katherine Tingley that deepened through the years.

His parents' displeasure with his devotion to theosophy ultimately led him to choose a military career, as they cut him off financially in April 1898. He joined the army during the Spanish-American War and served with distinction in World War I in the Department of Intelligence. General George C. Marshall later referred to him as one of the "best minds in the army," and his Harvard 50th Anniversary Class Report described him as:

Our foremost army officer, with a training based on a study of the Classics and of oriental religions and practice in musical composition; military historian; adept in the acts of friendship and foreign diplomacy; well-deserving servant of our country.

The major portion of the biography deals with the period beginning in the 1920s when Colonel Conger reconnected actively with theosophy, while serving in the army both in the United States and in Europe. After his retirement from the army in 1928, he and his wife lived in Takoma Park, Maryland, near Washington, DC, where they held study groups and welcomed all seekers and inquirers to their home. Katherine Tingley died in 1929, and her successor, G. de Purucker, asked his old friend Conger to run for president of the American Section in 1932, which he did with success. However, he had developed a severe case of Parkinson's disease for which there was then no adequate treatment, so he was forced to resign in 1933. When his health improved, he was reelected in 1939 and held the presidency of the American Section till his election as Leader.

Several years before Dr. de Purucker's sudden and unexpected death in 1942, he had given instructions to the members of his Cabinet about choosing a new Leader without relying on preconceived ideas or plans. Should no Leader appear in three years, they must elect one. Only after three years did Colonel Conger come forward. The days surrounding his election were emotional and chaotic, as Donant documents. I remember well when Colonel Conger came to the Covina headquarters in 1945. My younger sister and I were students at Theosophical University and very new theosophists. We were confused and astonished at the furor his candidacy aroused in some of the staff, most of whom we knew well, though it was easy to see why they doubted. Here was an elderly man, wheelchair bound, and his speech affected by advanced Parkinson's, a complete contrast to their former eloquent and physically dynamic leader. However, when we learned of the vile accusations his opponents were making against Colonel Conger and of their efforts to influence negatively as many members as they could, we joined those who supported him. A passage in The Mahatma Letters states that the greatest weakness of most Westerners is their habit of judging everything by appearance and adds that the pulp of an orange is inside the rind, and that within the homely, encrusted shell of an oyster lies the pearl.

The storm eventually subsided, and the public work and publishing program received particular emphasis in Colonel Conger's efforts to turn the Society "from the receiving end to the giving end of theosophy." He issued a three-volume set containing the minutes of Purucker's meetings with esoteric students, The Dialogues of G. de Purucker, and shortly before his death closed down the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society. Sometimes it is difficult to let go of the familiar status quo, yet invariably decay sets in without the inflow of fresh impulses. Colonel Conger ushered in new attitudes and methods, thereby permitting needed change.

Reading Alan Donant's booklet brought to mind many personal recollections of Colonel Conger. A few months after my marriage in 1946, my husband and his brother were sent to do theosophical work in New York City without financial backing. I had a small income from a stock investment and sent most of it to them. One day a dear friend told me she had unintentionally run up a large bill and asked me to help her out, which I did. It left me penniless, and that night I lay awake a long time worrying about how I could earn some money. The next morning when I picked up my mail, I found a card from Colonel Conger. It purported to be congratulations on my marriage (although he had been our best man) as well as a belated wedding gift. Enclosed was a $100 check, a lot of money in those days! On several other occasions he also seemed attuned to my thoughts and feelings.

In his last year he began moving the headquarters in stages from Covina to the Pasadena area, where it remains and where his guidelines hold fast. In October 1950, Colonel Conger and his immediate staff moved to the Pasadena headquarters, my husband and myself among them. On February 21 we all knew Colonel was dying, and household members gathered by his bedside. I chose to sit in a nearby room, listening to the softly playing music on the classical radio station. Shortly after midnight, suddenly — whoosh — a strong current came from Colonel's room. As it passed over my head it paused and dipped, a final blessing, before sweeping out the north window. I lost ever after all fear of death, for I had felt the vibrant joy of his soul as it sped to its inner home. I also sensed the reality of entities and spheres invisible to our mortal eyes and incomprehensible to our mundane minds.

Colonel Conger's fervent hope, like Blavatsky's, was that the 21st century would allow the ancient wisdom to spread widely and awaken the hidden spiritual qualities in increasing numbers of people, for only the effort and will of enlightened individuals can help loosen materialism's tenacious hold. We therefore salute Colonel Conger and all like him who devote their lives to the welfare of humanity, an arduous choice but spiritually supreme.

(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Theosophical University Press.)


Sunrise Back Issues Menu