The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott

Prothero, Stephen. The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Stephen Prothero’s The White Buddhist details the contributions of Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) to Buddhism and Hinduism, examines his work within the broader context of American Protestantism’s encounter with Asian religions, and draws from the linguistic theory of “creolization” to interpret Olcott's approach to Oriental faith and religion. Olcott’s importance in history comes as president-founder of the Theosophical Society (1875) and as an important leader of the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival (early 1880s) and the Indian Renaissance in India (late 1880s through the 1890s). However, rather than write a general biography, Prothero focuses on the adult life of the American Presbyterian-turned-theosophist/Buddhist, portraying him as a lifelong reformer—stemming from his liberal Protestant heritage—and as a culture broker between East and West, whose efforts to reform and unify Buddhism (plus Hinduism and other Oriental faiths) resulted in its “Protestantization” and ultimately met with suspicion and qualified success. <p> Prothero contends that Olcott’s “creole” faith evidenced the deep grammatical structure of Protestantism, the lexicon of Buddhism, and the accent of theosophy. This means that, while he could speak the language of Buddhism, the underlying presuppositions of his faith were rooted in his Protestant heritage of primitivism, equality, optimism, activism and reform, even though Olcott characteristically renounced Christianity as an evil religion. Theosophy, rather than Buddhism, served as his first love. In the end, Prothero argues, Olcott’s unwitting imperialist approach toward his adopted faith was no different than that of many of the Christian missionaries he attacked for, like them, he sought to assimilate Asian Buddhism into American Protestant categories.

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Harvard Divinity School