Sinnett, Alfred Percy
(1880-1921). Vice-President of the Theosophical Society (TS) 1880-88; acting President for four months in 1907. Sinnett was born on January 18, 1840, probably in London since he went to school in Camden, London, England. There is little detail recorded about Sinnett’s parents except that his mother, Jane Fry, married Sinnett’s father in 1825.
Sinnett is a notable figure in the history of the Theosophical Society for a number of reasons, most importantly the exchange of letters that took place between him and certain Masters or Mah€tmas, in particular the Masters KOOT HOOMI and MORYA. The correspondence began in 1879 and continued until 1886. The letters from the Masters, which contain a great deal of teaching about the Ancient Wisdom, were edited by A. T. Barker and published in 1923. A later revised edition was edited by Christmas HUMPHREYS and Elsie Benjamin and published in 1962; a further chronological version, arranged and edited by Vicente Hao Chin, Jr. using the chronology developed by Virginia Hanson and George E. Linton, was published in 1993. The letters contain a large amount of teachings about the Ancient Wisdom called theosophy. Sinnett was also a witness of some of the phenomena produced by Helena P. Blavatsky.
Sinnett’s early life was difficult. His father died when he was but five years of age and his mother had to provide for the family. There were three sisters and two brothers, but none of these did well except Ellen who married a wealthy man.
Sinnett was educated at the London University School in Gower Street as an exhibition student. He initially became apprenticed in mechanical drawing, but soon left that vocation and found employment as assistant sub-editor on the staff of the London newspaper the Globe. At this time Sinnett fell in love with a German girl who spurned his advances and left England for Germany. This seems to have so upset him that he neglected his work and as a consequence lost his job. He later became a leader writer for The Manchester Guardian before returning to London in 1864. In 1865 Sinnett was appointed editor of the Hong Kong Daily Press, returning to England via Japan and America in 1868 with savings amounting to about £800. It appears that Sinnett, while in Hong Kong, acquired a knowledge of the gambling game of poker which he popularized in England. During a short stay in the U.S., he visited the Mormons in Utah and had an interview with Brigham Young.
Sinnett married Patience Edensor on April 6, 1870, in Notting Hill and obtained a position as editorial writer for The Evening Standard which improved his financial position.
In the middle of 1872, Sinnett was offered the editorship of The Pioneer, an Indian English language newspaper, which offer he accepted, and the Sinnetts took up residence in Allahabad. In 1875 the Sinnetts returned to England where he visited a number of spiritualist séances. These were conducted in the house of a woman medium called Guppy and Sinnett wrote in his diary:
- The physical phenomena were overwhelming and precluded any conceivable theory of imposture. My conviction concerning the reality of spiritualistic phenomena was then firmly established and never shaken. (quoted in Reader’s Guide to the Mahatma Letters, p. 251).
They returned to India the same year and on May 16, 1877, a son, called Denny, was born. Blavatsky thought that Denny would be an influence for good, but he died of tuberculosis in 1908 after an undistinguished life.
Toward the end of February 1879, Sinnett published a letter in The Pioneer newspaper drawing attention to the arrival in India of the two principal founders of the Theosophical Society and asking for information regarding their work. The Sinnetts first made personal contact with the Theosophical Society when they were visited by H. P. Blavatsky and Henry S. Olcott, at Allahabad, on December 4, 1879, and both Sinnetts joined the Society on December 26, 1879.
In October 13, 1880, Sinnett wrote his first letter to the Master Koot Hoomi which he followed with a second one two days later. K. H. replied to the two letters on October 17 and so commenced a correspondence which continued until March 1886. These letters were eventually published in December 1923 under the editorship of A. T. Barker and have remained in print ever since. The letters were not intended for publication and their appearance in print aroused quite a lot of dissension in theosophical circles. These letters disclose the fact that the Masters found Sinnett to be not the easiest person with whom to collaborate. At times Koot Hoomi was quite trenchant in his criticism. For instance, in Letter 43 (February 1882) he accused Sinnett of “blindness” and “a tinge of selfishness.”
In 1883 Sinnett was forced to resign as editor of The Pioneer, apparently because his Indian sympathies did not find approval on the part of the proprietors. However, Sinnett received a generous settlement from the publishers and the Sinnetts returned to London that year with about £8,000, a substantial sum in those days. In 1885 Sinnett joined the London Lodge. Also in 1885 H. P. Blavatsky had begun work on The Secret Doctrine and Sinnett suggested that she sell it outright to a publisher, but she refused to do so. Since 1883 a group had been meeting under the leadership of Sinnett, studying the more esoteric aspects of the Ancient Wisdom. This group included a number of important personalities including Francesca ARUNDALE, Anna KINGSFORD, Charles W. LEADBEATER, William CROOKES, and Frederick MYERS of the Society for Psychical Research. Although Sinnett was, from time to time, very critical of the administration of the Theosophical Society, he does not appear to have been a very astute person where money was concerned. Seeking to invest his capital in a newspaper with the object of securing a post as editor, he advertised in the Athenaeum and received a reply from a man called Bottomley who swindled Sinnett out of his entire savings.
In January 1884 the Sinnetts, now ensconced in a new London home, were the center of much theosophical activity. An entry in Sinnett’s Autobiography (p. 40) throws much light on his relationship with the Founders at this time:
- [Blavatsky] arranged to come to Europe, accompanied by Colonel Olcott — much to my regret as I foresaw trouble in connection with their presence in London.
In 1886 Sinnett wrote his book, Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky, and although Blavatsky did help him by providing information, the work does contain a number of errors of fact which have been pointed out by later writers. During this year the proprietors of The Pioneer wished to establish a London office for The Civil and Military Gazette and The Pioneer. They offered Sinnett the position which he accepted and retained for some two years at an annual salary of £500.
The sometimes stormy relationship between Blavatsky and Sinnett came to a head in 1888 with the publication of her book The Secret Doctrine. This work contradicted some of the views in his Esoteric Buddhism. He could not tolerate this and for a time he alienated himself from most of the leaders of the Theosophical Society.
In 1888 Blavatsky formed The Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society which Sinnett refused to join. In June 1890 Blavatsky, after some discussion with H. S. Olcott, formed a European Section of the Theosophical Society and, in a gesture of reconciliation, appointed Sinnett as one of its advisory council.
As mentioned previously, Sinnett’s time in the Theosophical Society was not always tranquil; he was a person of strong opinions regarding the management of the Society. At the time he was President of the London Lodge, he differed strongly from Blavatsky’s policy. The latter did not approve of the class distinction that then ruled British society and believed that the Theosophical Society should be open to all who approved of the objects, whereas Sinnett was of the opinion that membership ought to be restricted to the “upper-classes.” Later he disapproved of the direction that such members as C. W. Leadbeater and Annie Besant seemed to be taking the Society. Typical of this conflict were his actions when, in 1907, President Olcott passed away and Sinnett assumed the management of the Society. He refused to permit Besant to manage Adyar, considering her to be “misled by the Dark Powers” and that the teaching was “all in the air” (Ransom, p. 340). Also, in 1907, Sinnett issued a statement in which he maintained that opinions held by many members belonged to the mythology of the theosophical movement. The gist of this statement was critical of the idea that Blavatsky was the chosen instrument of the Masters and that she was sent to inaugurate the Theosophical Movement. Contrast this with a comment he made in a letter to the Bombay Gazette (April 4, 1882) which states, “I was already sure, when I wrote The Occult World, that the Theosophical Society was connected, through Madame Blavatsky, with the great Brotherhood of Adepts I described. I now know this to be the case, with much greater amplitude of knowledge.” Besant asked him, in view of these opinions, to resign as Vice-President, which he did. Boris de Zirkoff, the compiler of H. P. Blavatsky’s Collected Writings, wrote in a footnote (CW XII:241), “It is obvious from the context of this communication from the Mah€-Chohan, and from other statements in The Mahatma Letters, that the main purpose intended to be achieved at the time was to counteract Sinnett’s and Hume’s merely intellectual grasp of the teachings and their unfounded admiration for the achievements of occidental science, as contrasted with the higher spiritual objectives of the Movement which its real founders had in view.”
Sinnett resigned from the Theosophical Society in March 1909 and formed the Eleusinian Society out of what was previously the London Lodge. His wife Patience died in 1909. Sinnett returned to the Theosophical Society in 1911 at the request of his Master to whom he was devoted, and the President, Annie Besant, invited him to become Vice-President; he accepted and disbanded the Eleusinian Society, reforming the London Lodge which was attached directly to Adyar.
Shortly before Sinnett died at the age of 81 on June 27, 1921, Besant was instrumental in raising £5,000 to assist Sinnett in his declining years, but he did not survive long to enjoy the gift.
Apart from Blavatsky, Sinnett was a one of the earliest writers about theosophy (see list of publications below). His books, based on much of the information contained in the Mah€tma Letters, were largely responsible for popularizing theosophy in the English speaking world at the end of the eighteenth century.
The Occult World, 1881; Esoteric Buddhism, 1883; Karma, (a novel) 1885; Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky, 1886; Occult Essays; The Occult World Phenomena and the Society for Psychical Research, 1886; The Growth of the Soul; The Early Days of Theosophy in Europe, 1922 (Pub. Post.); United, (a novel) 1886; Married by Degrees, (a play) 1911; In the Next World, 1914.
Cranston, Sylvia. The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Helena Blavatsky. Tarcher/Putnam, 1993.
Hanson, Virginia and George E. Linton. Readers Guide to the Mahatma Letters. TPH, 1972.
Jinar€jad€sa, C., ed. The Golden Book of the Theosophical Society: A Brief History of the Society’s Growth from 1875-1925. TPH, 1925.
Ransom, Josephine, compiler. A Short History of The Theosophical Society. TPH, 1938.
Theosophist, The (various issues).
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