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Notable Theosophist:

L. Frank Baumn
 
[From American Theosophist 74 (1986:270-73)]
 


JOHN ALEGO

© 2004 Online Teosofiska Kompaniet Malmö

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Lyman Frank Baum (1851-1919) is best known as the author of the popular children’s book The Wizard of Oz, on which the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland was based. Mainly through that movie, Baum’s story has become one of the most widely known and best loved of all modern fairy tales.

Although Frank Baum is famous primarily for that one book, he wrote a good many other children’s stories, including 13 additional Oz books; a variety of other fairy tales, short stories, and verses; and several series of girls’ and boys’ books (published under various pseudonyms). Also, because of the popularity of The Wizard upon its publication in 1900, Baum converted it to the stage, and it became a highly successful musical play on Broadway, inspiring a number of similar works (such as Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland).

As a young man living in New York State, Baum authored, produced, and acted in a play, The Maid of Arran, with which he toured from Canada to Kansas. He gave up that theatrical career, however, when he married Maud Gage, because her mother took a dim view of acting as a livelihood for a son-in-law. Thereafter, for brief intervals, he ran his family’s axle-grease company; moved to Aberdeen, South Dakota, where he operated a store called Baum’s Bazaar; edited a weekly newspaper, the Saturday Pioneer; worked as a reporter for a Chicago newspaper; became a traveling salesman; was instrumental in founding the National Association of Window Trimmers; and edited a magazine for the trade, The Show Window. Subsequently, he made motion pictures and pioneered the use of special effects for films based on his children’s stories. Baum’s genius, however, was as a teller of stories for children--initially for his own four sons. He was a devoted husband and a doting father.

Such facts about Baum’s life are widely known. What is not so well known, however, is Baum’s interest in theosophy. Michael Patrick Hearn, one of the best of Baum’s biographers, has made the most extensive, and virtually the only, acknowledgment of that interest:

His son Frank admitted the author’s interest in Theosophy, but also reported that the elder Baum could not accept all its teachings. He firmly believed in reincarnation; he had faith in the immortality of the soul and believed that he and his wife had been together in many past states and would be together in future reincarnations, but he did not accept the possibility of the transmigration of souls from human beings to animals or vice versa, as in Hinduism. He was in agreement with the Theosophical belief that man on Earth was only one step on a great ladder that passed through many states of consciousness, through many universes, to a final state of Enlightenment. He did believe in Karma, that whatever good or evil one does in his lifetime returns to him as reward or punishment in future reincarnations.... He believed that all the great religious teachers of history had found their inspiration from the same source, a common Creator. [72-73]

 

Although he did not join the Theosophical Society for some years, Baum seems to have believed in the central Theosophical concepts. It is not clear which Theosophical teachings Baum “could not accept”; possibly that reservation means only that Baum did not consider every idea that had been advanced by individual Theosophists to be Theosophical--a reservation that most of us would still want to make. Baum’s belief in the basic ideas of Theosophy has thus been recognized, even though it has not been widely publicized. What has not hitherto been known, however, is that Baum became a member of the Theosophical Society, as did his wife, Maud, and his mother-in-law, Matilda Gage.

In the early membership rolls of the Society, there are entries recording the application for membership of Lyman F. Baum and Mrs. Maud G. Baum, of Chicago, Illinois, on September 4, 1892. They were admitted on the same day to the Ramayana Theosophical Society upon the recommendation of Dr. W. P. Phelon and M. M. Phelon. William P. Phelon was a prominent early member and one of the organizers of the American Section in 1886. The Baums’ permanent diplomas (or membership certificates) were issued by the parent organization on December 5, 1892. Baum’s mother-in-law, Matilda Joslyn Gage, had joined the Society seven years earlier, when she was living in Fayetteville, New York. Her application and admission to the Rochester Theosophical Society are dated March 26, 1885; she was recommended by Josephine W. Cables and E. M. Sasseville.1

It is likely that Baum learned about theosophy from his mother-in-law, a remarkable woman who was an active figure in the woman’s rights movement and other social causes throughout her life. She was coauthor, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, of the three-volume History of Woman Suffrage, and was one of the prominent early members of the National Woman Suffrage Association (Wagner, Declaration 2, 20).

In view of her concern for human equality and rights, it is not surprising that Matilda Gage was attracted to Theosophy. She valued it not only because it provided a philosophical basis for equality and social action, but also for some of its other teachings, such as reincarnation, which she explained to one of her grandchildren living in Edgeley, North Dakota:

There is one thing I want you to remember first of all: This is that what is called “death” by people is not death. You are more alive than ever you were after what is called death. Death is only a journey, like going to another country. You are alive when you travel to Aberdeen just as much as when you stay in Edgeley, and it is the same with what is called death. After people have been gone for awhile, they come back and live in another body, in another family and have another name. [Cited by Wagner, “Dorothy,” 6.]

Frank Baum supported his mother-in-law in her work for woman’s rights, and he learned many things from her, including Theosophical ideas. While he edited the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, he wrote a series of articles called “The Editor’s Musings.”2 Before he joined the Society, in the first issue of the paper under his editorship (January 25, 1890), he wrote about the insecurity many Christians felt about the challenge of other religions and about a growing aspiration for knowledge outside the church. He wrote sympathetically of the Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, and Christ, and he introduced his readers to Theosophy:

Amongst the various sects so numerous in America today who find their fundamental basis in occultism, the Theosophist[s] stand pre-eminent both in intelligence and point of numbers.

The recent erection of their new temple in New York City has called forth the curiosity of the many, the uneasiness of the few. Theosophy is not a religion. Its followers are simply “searchers after Truth.” Not for the ignorant are the tenets they hold, neither for the worldly in any sense. Enrolled within their ranks are some of the grandest intellects of the Eastern and Western worlds.

Purity in all things, even to asceticism is absolutely required to fit them to enter the avenues of knowledge, and the only inducement they offer to neophytes is the privilege of “searching for the Truth” in their company.

As interpreted by themselves they accept the teachings of Christ, Budda, and Mohammed, acknowledging them Masters or Mahatmas, true prophets each in his generation, and well versed in the secrets of nature. But the truth so earnestly sought is not yet found in its entirety, or if it be, is known only to the privileged few.

The Theosophists, in fact, are the dissatisfied of the world, the dissenters from all creeds. They owe their origin to the wise men of India, and are numerous, not only in the far famed mystic East, but in England, France, Germany and Russia. They admit the existence of a God--not necessarily a personal God. To them God is Nature and Nature God.

We have mentioned their high morality: they are also quiet and unobtrusive, seeking no notoriety, yet daily growing so numerous that even in America they may be counted by thousands. But, despite this, if Christianity is Truth, as our education has taught us to believe, there can be no menace to it in Theosophy.

A month later in the Saturday Pioneer (February 22, 1890), Baum turned to writing about fiction with occult and mystical themes. He dealt with Bulwer Lytton, one of H. P. Blavatsky’s favorite writers, to whom she often referred; H. Rider Haggard, especially his novel She; and Mabel Collins, whose Idyll of the White Lotus and Light on the Path were already Theosophical classics.

A few months later in the same periodical (April 5, 1890), Baum wrote about mediumship and elementals. Mediumship was a subject of intense interest in the late nineteenth century (as witnessed by the fact that Olcott and Blavatsky met at a séance). Baum’s explanation of mediumistic phenomena, while perhaps partly his own interpretation, owes a great deal to Blavatsky. She attributed many of the apparent marvels of the séance room to the activities of elemental beings attracted to the medium. Baum’s interpretation of mediumship is certainly derived, directly or indirectly, from HPB.

    

The foregoing articles show that while he was editing the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer Baum had a considerable interest in Theosophy, occultism, and related subjects--an interest that he was not reluctant to write about. However, in spite of his keen interest, he did not join the Theosophical Society in 1890.

It was two years after writing these pieces in the Saturday Pioneer that he actually joined, and for a considerable time thereafter he sustained his Theosophical interests. His niece, Matilda Jewell Gage, who still lives in Aberdeen, South Dakota, visited the Baums after they moved from Chicago to San Diego, California. She remembers that her famous uncle and grandmother both were interested in Theosophy and Theosophical literature.3

Further evidence for Baum’s involvement with Theosophy is found in his children’s books, especially The Wizard of Oz. Although readers have not looked at his fairy tales for their Theosophical content, it is significant that Baum became a famous writer of children’s books after he had come into contact with Theosophy. Theosophical ideas permeate his work and provided the inspiration for it. Indeed, The Wizard can be regarded as Theosophical allegory, pervaded by Theosophical ideas from beginning to end. The story came to Baum as an inspiration, and he accepted it with a certain awe as a gift from outside, or perhaps from deep within, himself.

Frank Baum was one of the most notable yet unknown Theosophists of the turn of the century and was our first and perhaps greatest Theosophical writer for children.

 

 

The Wizard of Oz on Theosophy

L. Frank Baum
 

Lyman Frank Baum (1851-1919), author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and prototype of the Wizard himself, joined the Theosophical Society along with his wife, Maud Gage, on September 4, 1892. Their membership records are in the archives of the Theosophical Society with headquarters in Pasadena, California (kindly made available by Grace F. Knoche and Kirby Van Mater).

The Baums joined the Society while they were living in Chicago, about eight years before he published what was to become the best-known American children’s book. But Frank knew about Theosophy earlier than that, doubtless first learning of it from his mother-in-law, the noted feminist, Matilda Joslyn Gage, who herself had joined the Society on March 26, 1885. Not only did Frank Baum know about Theosophy, but he also wrote about it more than two years before he joined the Society and ten years before he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

For fourteen months (January 25, 1890, to March 21, 1891), Baum published and edited a South Dakota weekly newspaper called The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer. Baum frequently contributed to the paper a feature he called "The Editor’s Musings." The following is that feature from the very first issue of the newspaper under his editorship. It shows, not only his knowledge of Theosophy, but the Theosophical frame of mind with which he viewed the world.

The Editor’s Musings

 [The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, January 25, 1890]

The age of Faith is sinking slowly into the past; the age of Unfaith becomes an important problem of to-day. Is there in this a menace to Christianity? This unfaith is not the atheism of the last century. It is rather an eager longing to penetrate the secrets of Nature--an aspiration for knowledge we have been taught is forbidden.

* * *

Many ages ago Budda came to enlighten the civilization of the East.

The pure and beautiful doctrines he taught made ready converts, and to-day his followers outnumber those of any other religion.

To the fierce and warlike tribes of Arabia, Mohammed appeared. His gentleness and bravery tamed their fierce natures. They followed him implicitely, as millions of their descendants follow him still.

Confucius with ready sophistry promulgated a "religion of reason."

His works are to this day the marvel of all intelligent people; his myriads of disciples have never wavered in their faith.

The sweet and tender teachings of Christ, together with the touching story of his life, have sunk deeply into the hearts of those nations which rank highest in modern civilization.

In their separate domains all these religions flourish to day. Their converts are firm and unflinching, their temples cover the land, and each in its own way sends praises to a common Creator--a Universal God.

* *

Yet in every nation there is a certain element in society which acknowledges no religion and is bound by no faith.

* *

Amongst the various sects so numerous in America today who find their fundamental basis in occultism, the Theosophist stand pre-eminent both in intelligence and point of numbers.

The recent erection of their new temple in New York City has called forth the curiosity of the many, the uneasiness of the few. Theosophy is not a religion. Its followers are simply "searchers after Truth." Not for the ignorant are the tenets they hold, neither for the worldly in any sense. Enrolled within their ranks are some of the grandest intellects of the Eastern and Western worlds.

Purity in all things, even to asceticism is absolutely required to fit them to enter the avenues of knowledge, and the only inducement they offer to neophites is the privilege of "searching for the Truth" in their company.

As interpreted by themselves they accept the teachings of Christ, Budda and Mohammed, acknowledging them Masters or Mehetmas, true prophets each in his generation, and well versed in the secrets of Nature. But the truth so earnestly sought is not yet found in its entirety, or if it be, is known only to the privileged few.

* * *

The Theosophists, in fact, are the dissatisfied of the world, the dissenters from all creeds. They owe their origin to the wise men of India, and are numerous, not only in the far famed mystic East, but in England, France, Germany and Russia. They admit the existence of a God--not necessarily a personal God. To them God is Nature and Nature God.

We have mentioned their high morality; they are also quiet and unobtrusive, seeking no notoriety, yet daily growing so numerous that even in America they may be counted by thousands. But, despite this, if Christianity is Truth, as our education has taught us to believe, there can be no menace to it in Theosophy.


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