Dumb Moments In History: When Rich Weirdos Hand-Picked The Next Jesus
History's had no shortage of would-be messiahs. Someone in your neighborhood is on the verge of either starting a cult or just muttering to their dog about how they're the chosen one. But it's rarer for someone to declare a stranger a savior, and it's rarer still for that stranger to destroy the beliefs built around him. That takes us to the 1800s, when religions were popping up in America like streaming services named Snuhzum and Quoobles are today.
In 1875, Helena Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in New York City. A self-educated Russian aristocrat, Blavatsky had bummed around Europe and the Middle East while becoming involved in the spiritualist movement, the then-trendy practice of performing seances to consult the dead for advice, religious guidance, and to just generally see what was up on the other side. Blavatsky then went to America and worked as a spirit medium, where she received both acclaim and accusations of fraud. High-profile hoaxes would eventually destroy spiritualism but, at its peak, millions of Americans and Europeans -- including celebrities like Arthur Conan Doyle -- were believers. And it was far more complicated than just "People in the 1800s were easily duped," as spiritualism attracted a lot of women who found that their opinions on their own rights were suddenly taken seriously once ghosts began backing them up.
So in an era already open to new religious ideas, Blavatsky had both fans and experience when she decided to share her... unique worldview. Theosophical beliefs are a mishmash of contemporary science, western philosophy, eastern religions, and a Brandon Sanderson on meth cosmology that would need several confusing books to properly explain. But it was how a lot of Americans were introduced to ideas like karma and reincarnation, and there's a clear line that connects Theosophy to the New Age movement to your Facebook friends who insist they have some crystals that will clear up your asthma.
Theosophy had tens of thousands of adherents, ranging from serious devotees to celebrity dabblers like Thomas Edison. Blavatsky argued that every major religion contained some element of truth, and she made that argument in books that were based on her invented travels to Tibet and that liberally stole from earlier occult works. For today, all you need to know about is her idea of a World Teacher, a supposed being from a higher plane of existence that routinely takes human form to guide the development of our species. Blavatsky speculated that our Teacher previously popped down in guises that included Confucius, Plato, Seneca, and Jesus, and in 1909 the Theosophical Society claimed to have found Jesus 2.0.
Let's provide some more context, because otherwise claiming to have found the reincarnated Christ just sounds weird. In 1880, Blavatsky moved to India to establish a new Theosophical lodge. And while "White woman explains India's own religious beliefs to the locals" is normally just the basis of an obnoxious spring break, she attracted supporters who appreciated her interest in Hinduism at a time when British authorities were trying to suppress local beliefs to spread Christendom. Blavatsky eventually returned to Europe and died in 1891, but between Theosophy's charity work and their advocacy for Indian independence they became part of the local landscape. So it wasn't entirely insane when one of Theosophy's top leaders saw a boy hanging around the beach near their compound and declared "Whoa, check out the aura on that kid! We've got the guy who's going to usher in a golden age right here, folks."
The teenage messiah was Jiddu Krishnamurti, and the man making that declaration was Charles Webster Leadbeater. Leadbeater had been a well-respected Anglican priest who, in 1883, learned about Theosophy and eventually left the Church of England to join the Society. There he wrote, taught, lectured, and handled much of the administrative work, which was no small task. Maybe his self-proclaimed clairvoyance helped.
In 1906 Leadbeater had, wait for it, a sex scandal involving teenage boys. Officially, he only told boys in the movement struggling with puberty that there was nothing weird about jerking off, but there were also (unproven) accusations of abuse. Regardless of what really happened, Leadbeater was kicked out... and then welcomed right back a year later, after the Society's president died and a power struggle followed. The new president returned Leadbeater to the fold, but had to field a wave of resignations and the creation of a splinter group over the decision.
So in 1909, when Leadbeater pointed at Krishnamurti and said, "Hey, that's humanity's new lodestar," the Society began grooming Krishnamurti for messiah-hood. They educated him, gave him a strict exercise regimen, taught him western norms, and shaped his public image, while Leadbeater gave him a special "mystical" education and wrote the biographies of his past lives. Including the one he lived in ancient Atlantis. So, not the healthiest environment for a teenager to grow up in. Krishnamurti, despite some hints at teenage rebellion, mostly went along with this. It helped that his father had been a Society member, but if you were an impoverished 14-year-old and someone said "You are the chosen one, our lives are now dedicated to making yours great, here's a bunch of free stuff" like you were a goddamn video game protagonist, well, you'd probably go along with it too.
Some Theosophists were, shall we say, suspicious that their supposed savior was a teenage boy spotted by a man rumored to fancy teenage boys, and an angry Indian press argued that the Society had crossed from sympathizing with Hinduism to exploiting it. It didn't help that believing Theosophists used the British authority they'd previously criticized to gain custody of Krishnamurti and his brother, Nitya, over their father's protests. Despite these scandals they released writing under Krishnamurti's name and, as he grew older, had him tour the world, speak to crowds, and take on more responsibilities within the Society.
But messiahdom isn't all fun and praise. Time constraints forced Krishnamurti to abandon a budding romance, and he became disillusioned with the Society's internal politics. In 1922, he and his brother were moved to California, where Krishnamurti was finally able to experience some freedom from his duties. Then, in 1927, long-standing health problems claimed Nitya's life despite assurances from Theosophical leaders that he was too important to Krishnamurti's mission to die, and Krishnamurti began to have doubts. In 1929, 20 years after he was declared the reincarnation of Christ, he announced what we'll paraphrase as "This is stupid, I'm out." He left Theosophy and returned the money and property that had been donated in his name, which included giving up a Dutch castle. If we had a castle you'd have to force us out with swarms of angry wasps.
How does someone who spent two decades thinking they were destined to be humanity's savior cope with not being the Chosen One anymore? Better and with fewer empty whisky bottles than you'd expect, as the whole affair made Krishnamurti famous enough that he could keep writing and speaking about his own ideas. He became pals with Aldous Huxley, David Bohm, and Indira Gandhi, he spoke at the UN, and he found himself under surveillance by the FBI for his pacifism. He had his critics, and some of his beliefs remained... odd, but his philosophical efforts were generally legitimate, and he advocated for peace and social progress until he died in 1986. Unsurprisingly, his strongest stance was that no form of organised belief should be trusted over one's own intuition. There's still a society promoting his work today and, in an even greater endorsement, the Internet has produced "8 Jiddu Krishnamurti Quotes That Will Help You Reach Inner Peace."
Leadbeater denounced Krishnamurti, declared that the coming of the next great World Teacher had gone horribly wrong, and moved to Australia to promote Theosophy until his death in 1934. As for Theosophy itself, Krishnamurti's departure decimated its ranks, another leadership vacuum caused further problems, and then the advent of World War II dealt the death blow to its status as a mainstream movement. A Theosophical Society still exists today, but they have fewer members than most niche fetish subreddits. Supposedly, a new World Teacher is kicking around London, waiting for the right time to speak.
Theosophy played a large but obscure role in America's religious landscape, as it's credited with introducing many (white) Americans to everything from Buddhism to astrology while mushing it all together into a vague spiritual soup. So that's the story of how an accused sex offender who picked the next Jesus for a society founded by an 1800s charlatan is the reason your aunt is really into buying overpriced books on energy healing from Gwyneth Paltrow.
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