The Theosophical Society in America

Part II: Recalling the Beginnings

by Joy Mills

Originally printed in the SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2007 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Mills, Joy. "Part II: Recalling the Beginnings." Quest  95.5 (SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2007):

When I entered the national president's office that morning in July 1965, as the first woman to hold the office of president of the American Section, there was one document on the desk which, as I read it, both challenged and inspired me. That document was the portion of the Kern Foundation Trust Agreement which opened the door for grants to be made to the Theosophical Society in America, the Krotona Institute of Theosophy, and possibly (based on certain criteria) to the Happy Valley School in Ojai, California. The opportunities for creative new programs that would carry the theosophical message to an ever wider audience; the possibilities that appeared to open before us as we were encouraged by Herbert Kern's words in that document; the future that seemed to beckon us to move forward in ways we had not dared to dream of in the light of our limited resources: these—the opportunities, the possibilities, an amazing future—constituted the challenge embodied in the Kern Foundation Trust Agreement.

So, where to begin? Recalling many conversations with Herbert Kern during his later years, long before I knew of his intent to establish a foundation that would so benefit the Society, I proposed to the National Board of Directors that our first request should be for funds to begin a program of publishing high-quality paperbacks, available at a modest cost, that would bring Theosophy to a larger audience than had ever been possible before. This meant subsidizing the actual cost of publishing such books and undertaking an advertising program to make our literature known on a national scale never before attempted. Theosophical literature, books, in particular, had been one of Herbert Kern's deepest passions. This I knew from those informal conversations with him, and he had even spoken of the need to have basic Theosophy available in paperback at a price that the average person could easily afford.

With the unanimous agreement of the Board of Directors, I then developed a proposal based on what it would cost us to publish at least two titles during the coming year as well as advertise them in the trade journal, Publishers Weekly, and in some of the better mass-circulation magazines. A Kern Foundation Programs Committee was established, with John Kern as a member and Helen Zahara, who, after eight years as head of the Australian Section, had recently joined our American headquarters staff, as coordinator of the Kern Foundation Programs. At that moment in time, none of us, I certainly least of all, had any idea how those programs would multiply, expand, develop, and reach into every area of the American Section's work.

When we received word that our first grant application had been approved and the funds for a new publishing program would be forthcoming, I suggested to my colleagues on the staff that we might find a suitable name for this new program, one that would distinguish us from other paperback publications on the market. So began a number of brain-storming sessions as we tried out one idea after another, until one day, during our afternoon tea-time, I said casually, "Let's call them Quest Books." I went on to say that as Theosophists are inquirers, on a quest for wisdom, such a name seemed most appropriate. There was unanimous agreement and so "Quest Books" was born! The year was 1966.

To record the full story of the birth and early years of Quest Books would take a sizeable volume, in addition to which would have to be added various other projects for which grants were requested as we began to visualize the expansion of theosophical activities. In that same year, 1966, a World Congress of the Society was held in Salzburg, Austria, hosted by the European Federation of Theosophical Societies. With our new publishing program in its infancy, we called for an International Publishing Conference to be convened as part of the World Congress and while the American Section financed my participation in the Congress, the Kern Foundation aided in subsidizing the participation of several of our key workers. We discussed possibilities of collaboration with the publishing programs undertaken by the English Section (London) and at Adyar. It was at that time, too, that by mutual agreement, we changed our name from the Theosophical Press to the Theosophical Publishing House with the title page of all publications, whether produced by Wheaton, London, or Adyar, carrying the names of all three publishers to indicate the international scope of our publishing program. At the same time, of course, each of the publishing houses would maintain its own independent structure and operation.

Not all of the programs initiated with Kern Foundation support during those early years proved completely successful, but it was only with that support that we could venture into new areas. For example, with grant assistance we initiated Quest Films, with two award-winning films being produced by professional film companies. A grant for a Writers' Fellowship Program enabled us to encourage new writers to produce works of a contemporary nature. Under that program, we turned to a member who was already an accomplished writer and journalist, Howard Murphet, and asked that he write easily readable biographies of H. S. Olcott and H. P. Blavatsky. As a result, the books, Yankee Beacon of Buddhist Light (originally titled Hammer on the Mountain) and When Daylight Comes, were produced and published.

Again, it would take a major volume to document the development of program after program which received Kern Foundation grant support, and many wonderful stories could be told as we adventured onto untrodden ground in those early years, each program calling on us to extend our capacities to meet our obligations in fulfilling our commitment. As the Quest Books program expanded, there was an urgent need for more staff and more space at our National Headquarters. So, at the Summer Convention of 1968, just two years after the launching of Quest Books, and with the full and unanimous support of the National Board of Directors, I inaugurated a campaign to build the second major structure—a building that would house our rapidly expanding publishing house as well as provide accommodations for our enlarged staff on the headquarters estate. And for this, funds from the Kern Foundation could not be made available, since the Trust Agreement specifically forbade grants for "brick and mortar." This meant the members had to provide the funding if we were to continue on the road on which we had embarked with our publishing program and the many other programs that had, in one way or another, become spin-offs of Quest Books.

So it was that in 1969, just three years after the Quest Books program had begun, we laid the cornerstone of the Theosophical Publishing House building. The members had risen to the challenge of providing the funds and the Kern Foundation aided us in such ways as they could within the framework of Herbert Kern's Trust Agreement.

And now, without lengthening this story further by indulging in further recollections, let me use the example of the way in which the members of the American Section responded to the call for funding the construction of the publishing house building to remind today's members of their responsibilities in maintaining the essential work of their Section. Two aspects of the Kern Foundation's Trust Agreement should be especially noted. The first has just been mentioned: funds are not available for "bricks and mortar," and while in more recent years the Sellon Charitable Trust has become available to assist with some major work in connection with the Headquarters two major buildings, it is ultimately the responsibility of the members to see that our National Headquarters is maintained in the best condition possible. As one who presided over the work of the American Section for nine years, which included those exciting and eventful years when the Kern Foundation became operative, I know only too well that buildings age and need continual attention and it is the contributions of the members, donations large and small, given out of love and devotion to the work of the Society, that make possible the maintenance of the beautiful physical plant which houses that work.

The second aspect of the Trust Agreement which I recognized on that July day in 1965 when I first read the document is simply that the grants from the Kern Foundation were intended as "seed" money for programs that would extend and expand the work of making Theosophy better known in the world. As I have related above, I have omitted mention of the fact that at the same time that we were venturing into new areas, the normal work of the Society through its various departments—Membership, Library, Information, etc.—was going forward, financed as it had always been, by the dues and contributions of its members. For it was Herbert Kern's view, as I well knew, that consideration in the disbursement of grants would be given to those organizations whose members showed a willingness to support their own organizations. So it is that we must always do our part to see that the "seed" money is nourished and added to by our own contributions. There is not one department of the Theosophical Society in America that has not been impacted by the generous grants from the Kern Foundation; the inception of Quest Books alone, for example, brought increased work for staff in Membership, Information, Library, Administration, and every other department at the National Headquarters. The same has been true at the Krotona Institute of Theosophy, where grants for our educational programs—through the School, the Library, and the Bookshop—have increased the work load of all who work and serve at this vital center.

It is always true that for those to whom much is given, much is also demanded. In Letter 140 of The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, written in 1886, H. P. Blavatsky wrote: "Make your activity commensurate with your opportunities." Note she did not say our activities were to be measured by our resources, whether human or financial, but by our "opportunities." The opportunities that still lie before us in bringing the theosophical perspective to bear on human and world problems, in transforming the consciousness of humanity and in birthing an era of peace and genuine brotherhood, are greater today than at any time in the history of our planet. United we can do much; let each one do their part to ensure that the Theosophical Society as a whole meets the challenges we collectively face.