The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott
Indiana University Press (1996)
The New York Times denounced him as an “unmitigated rascal”. Others described him as a reincarnation of the Buddhist emperor Ashoka or perhaps Gautama Buddha himself. This book tells the spiritual odyssey of Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832 – 1907), friend to Madame Blavatsky and president-founder of the Theosophical Society.
Raised a Presbyterian in nineteenth century New York, Olcott embraced spiritualism and then theosophy before becoming the first American of European descent to make a formal conversion to Buddhism. Despite his repudiation of Christianity, Olcott’s life was an extension of both the “errand to the wilderness” of his Puritan ancestors and the “errand to the world” of American Protestant missionaries. Olcott viewed himself as a defender of Asian religions against the missionaries, but his actions mirrored theirs. He wrote and distributed tracts and catechisms, promoted the translation of scriptures into vernacular languages, established Sunday schools, founded voluntary associations, and conducted revivals. And he too labored to “uplift” his Asian acquaintances, urging them to embrace social reforms such as temperance and women’s rights. However one views his work, his legacy was a lasting one, and today he is revered in Sri Lanka as a leader of the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival and in India as a key contributor to the Indian Renaissance.
The White Buddhist
The First Scholarly Study of Olcott
“The first scholarly biographical study of [this] influential figure; its use of ‘creolization theory’ adds to ongoing conversations about how to understand contact, colonialism, and conversion.”
– Religious Studies Review
"Prothero’s study should interest not only scholars in the field but students of Asian religions and American religious history more generally.”
– Journal of American History
A Meticulous Story
“A meticulous story of a very colorful subject. In the process, [Prothero] assists the understanding of religious pluralism in our current age.”
– Church History