Historical Humanists- Besant, Annie Wood

“The position of the atheist is a clear and reasonable one. I know nothing about God and therefore I do not believe in Him or it. What you tell me about your God is self-contradictory and is therefore incredible. I do not deny “God,” which is an unknown tongue to me. I do deny your God, who is an impossibility. I am without God.”
— Annie Wood Besant

Annie Wood Besant was a prominent Theosophist, women’s rights activist, writer and orator.

Early life
Annie Wood was born in 1847 in London and married in 1867 in Hastings, Sussex to 26-year-old, clergyman Frank Besant, younger brother of Walter Besant.

The marriage lasted six years, they seperated in 1873. Her husband was given sole custody of their two children. She fought for the causes she thought were right, starting with freedom of thought, women’s rights, secularism (she was a leading member of the National Secular Society alongside Charles Bradlaugh), birth control, Fabian socialism and workers’ rights.

Her most notable victory in this period was perhaps her 1888 campaign for improved health and safety conditions for workers in matchstick factories. At the time, the matchstick industry was an immensely powerful lobby, since electric light was not yet widely available, and matches were essential for lighting candles, oil lamps, gas lights, etc. (Only a few years earlier in 1872, lobbyists from the match industry had mananged to get the British government to change its planned tax policy.) Besant’s campaign was the first time anyone had successfully challenged the match manufacturers on a major issue, and was seen as a landmark victory of the early years of British Socialism.

Besant was a prolific writer and a powerful orator. In 1889, she was asked to write a review on The Secret Doctrine, a book by H.P. Blavatsky. After reading it, she sought an interview with its author, and in this way, was converted to Theosophy.

Soon after becoming a member of the Theosophical Society she went to India for the first time (in 1893). After a dispute, where William Quan Judge, leader of the American section was accused of falsifying letters from the Masters, the American section split away. The remainder of the Society was then led by Henry Steel Olcott and Besant and is today based in Chennai, India and is known as the Theosophical Society Adyar. Thereafter she devoted much of her energy not only to the Society, but also to India’s freedom and progress. Besant Nagar, a neighborhood (near the Theosophical Society) in Chennai is named in her honor.

Together with Charles Webster Leadbeater she investigated the universe, matter and the history of mankind through clairvoyance. The two became embroiled over Leadbeater’s advice to young boys to masturbate. At the time such advice was highly controversial. He had to leave the Theosophical Society over this in 1906. In 1908 he was taken back into the fold through the agency of Besant, who had been elected president of the Theosophical Society in 1907 upon the death of the previous president Henry Steel Olcott.

Up until Besant’s presidency, the society had as one of its foci Theravada Buddhism and the island of Ceylon, where Henry Olcott did the majority of his useful work. Under Besant’s leadership there was a decisive turn away from this and a refocusing of their activities on “The Aryavarta”, as she called central India. Besant actively courted Hindu opinion more than former Theosophical leaders. This was a clear reversal of policy from Blavatsky and Olcott’s very public conversion to Buddhism in Ceylon, and their promotion of Buddhist revival activities on the subcontinent (see also: Maha Bodhi Society).

Soon after Besant’s inheritance of the presidency, in 1909, Leadbeater discovered Jiddu Krishnamurti on the private beach that was attached to the societies headquarters at Adyar. Krishnamurti had been living there with his father and brother for a few months prior to this. This discovery started years of upheaval in the Theosophical Society in Adyar, as the boy was proposed as the incarnate vessel for the Christ. Jiddu Krishnamurti and his brother Nitya were brought up by Theosophists from that moment on, with a subsequent lawsuit filed by his father.

Eventually, in 1929, Krishnamurti ended up disbanding the Order of the Star of the East, which had been founded to support him and of which he had been made the leader. This destroyed Besant’s spirit, as it went against her ideals.

Later years
She tried to accommodate Krishnamurti’s views into her life, but never really succeeded. The two remained friends, though, until the end of her life. Annie Besant died in 1933 and was survived by her daughter, Mabel.

She is the Great-Grandmother of Andrew Castle a television presenter and former professional tennis player and the Great-Aunt of Justin Besant, a popular Canadian jazz-funk pianist.

“No philosophy, no religion, has ever brought so glad a message to the world as this good news of Atheism.”

“Never yet has a God been defined in terms which were not palpably self-contradictory and absurd; never yet has a God been described so that a concept of Him was made possible to human thought.”

“The position of the atheist is a clear and reasonable one. I know nothing about God and therefore I do not believe in Him or it. What you tell me about your God is self-contradictory and is therefore incredible. I do not deny “God,” which is an unknown tongue to me. I do deny your God, who is an impossibility. I am without God.”

“If my interlocutor desires to convince me that Jupiter has inhabitants, and that his description of them is accurate, it is for him to bring forward evidence in support of his contention. The burden of proof evidently lies on him; it is not for me to prove that no such beings exist before my non-belief is justified, but for him to prove that they do exist before my belief can be fairly claimed. Similarly, it is for the affirmer of God’s existence to bring evidence in support of his affirmation; the burden of proof lies on him.”

“For centuries the leaders of Christian thought spoke of women as a necessary evil, and the greatest saints of the Church are those who despise women the most.”

“This coarse and insulting way of regarding woman, as though they existed merely to be the safety-valves of men’s passions, and that the best men were above the temptation of loving them, has been the source of unnumbered evils.”


Historical Humanists- Besant, Annie Wood — 2 Comments

  1. Thank you, Timothy. When I first did these, and as I have continued to add to the collection, I was amazed at how many previously unknown people had taken a truly brazen (and often dangerous) stand in the times in which they lived. Right on the heels of that thought came a larger one: if we still know about so many people from centuries past, how many others are completely unknown, though they did the same? Suppression is a powerful tool for both church and state. Many people, almost certainly took similar stands and were never heard from again.

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