Sepia Saturday: Occult

James Morgan Pryse (left), with HPB in a "bath-chair" and her private secretary G.R.S. Mead
Having nearly exhausted my own family history, I have begun making inroads on my wife’s.

I was soon pleased to discover that one of her great-uncles, James Morgan Pryse (Jr.), was somewhat of a celebrity, being a prolific occultist author and a confidant of no less than the (in)famous Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Who was this Pryse fellow? Read on!

    The Pryze family lived in Tredegar, in Monmouth Co., Wales. The patriarch, whose name may have been the easy-to-remember Pryze Pryze, had a son, David, who married one Gwynfed Morgan in 1821. The couple had three children, including James Morgan Pryse, who was born April 15 (my own birthday!), 1826. Gwynfred reportedly died in 1832, and around 1838, David emigrated to America with his children, where he (or the immigration folks) changed his surname to Pryse. He eventually settled in Ohio, and died soon after in 1842.
    James Sr.
    James Morgan Pryse (Sr.) became “a preacher of some repute,” roaming Ohio, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. Aside from his Presbyterian leanings, he also peculiarly belonged to the Welsh order of Druid Bards. You can take the man out of Wales, but you can't take the Celtic mystic out of the man. Reportedly he often published his writings in both English and Welsh, in Presbyterian-related newsletters or journals. On May 19, 1848, he married Mary Morgan (1825-1903) in Ravenna, Ohio. They had several children, one of whom they named, with little effort, James Morgan Pryse Jr. Before his father died, in 1891, Junior was taught the legends of the Druids along with the Presbyterian doctrines. Giving up studying law for a perhaps more ethereal career in journalism, he moved frequently during his early adulthood; he even helped to create a Utopian colony at Topolobampo, Mexico, that allegedly influenced urban planning ideas of Ebenezer Howard; and from his home in New Jersey, James edited the colony’s periodical.
    The dashing James Jr.
    James moved to Los Angeles and in 1886 joined the Theosophical Society. Soon he was one of its most active members; he was so active that he moved once more, to New York, to work for the society's Aryan Press. In 1889 he moved yet again to London at the request of Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the society’s cofounder, where he worked with her to found HPB Press. Blavatsky asked him to publish her Esoteric Instructions.
    HPB and a gaggle of her more mystic cohorts
      In 1894, following Blavatsky's death, the restless Pryse moved to Ireland to work for the Irish Theosophist. There he wrote the book The Sermon on the Mount, the first of a series of theosophical treatments of the Bible and Christian theology. In 1895 Pryse returned to New York to work with William Quan Judge, the head of the American Theosophical Society, which had broken with the international theosophical movement. After Judge's death the following year, Pryse uncharacteristically stayed put in New York and became involved with the Theosophical Society of New York, a branch which had broken with Judge's successor, Katherine Tingley. Pryse's next books were published by that society's Theosophical Publishing Co. In one of these, Apocalypse Unsealed, Pryse published the secret key to decoding the esoteric meaning of the book of Revelation
      After 15 years in New York, Pryse returned to Los Angeles, where he wrote what many consider his most important text, The Restored New Testament, a theosophical translation of the New Testament. While continuing his affiliation with the larger Theosophical Society and writing articles for its periodicals, he led independent gatherings in Los Angeles. In 1925 he founded the Gnostic Society (possibly the first modern group to describe itself as Gnostic) with six people who met in his home to discuss his metaphysical interpretation of Christianity. The society disbanded soon after Pryse's death on April 22, 1942, but has been revived
     A good many of Pryse’s works are still available on Amazon if you're sufficiently intrigued.

    Alas, there are few photos of Pryse, but a fair number for Blavatsky, who frankly was more photogenic, if rarely able to keep her hands from her own throat.





    Blavatsky Archives


    1. She certainly could look right through you.

    2. This is an absolutely fascinating post. I don't have any family history nearly as interesting! Not even close. Your post really does make me curious about all of this. I'm not sure I agree with you that Blavatsky was more photogenic than Pryse though.

    3. How intriguing. Blavatsky is actually quite odd-looking, and was perhaps self-conscious about her somewhat pudgy face, caused by the Bright’s disease from which she was a sufferer. I wonder if this accounts for the slightly protruding eyes too.

    4. The way Blavatsky has her hand on her face in so many pictures is intriguing. In a way, James Jr.'s "look" seems to express the same emotions. They both look skeptical to me.

    5. A tremendous post. I wonder how much of this you knew before researching your wife's relatives.

    6. What a fascinating lineage! I bet you have had a great time doing the research. Great job!

    7. Now that is just so interesting, every bit of it from that first eye-catching photograph with the bath chair right the way through to the end. The news that you are starting to investigate a new family is good news to your followers.

    8. I'm definitely intrigued. I'm on my way to Amazon right now. I remember passing the Theosophical Society building in Los Angeles often and wondering about it. What an interesting family you have!

    9. Hi all, thanks for the comments...I was so fascinated by this information that I've now checked out a Blavatsky bio from the library. I had known about her but the familial connection was a surprise. And Pryse is not the only in-law with psychic connections either...stay tuned.

    10. I'm always amazed by the distances people travelled for moves considering the infrastructure of the day. Today we'd think little of crisscrossing the country, but when you think back on the job it would be to move long...oy! I'm guessing he travelled light and did not have a moving van following him.

      Fascinating post.

    11. A terrific mini-history of both family and philosophy. I'm intrigued by the "bath chair". I looked it up on Wikepedia to learn more, and it is a very curious adult-sized pram.