The Hermetic Legacy of the Brotherhood of Light Lessons, From Ancient Times to the Brotherhood of Light

The Hermetic Legacy

Corpus Hermeticum
First Latin edition of the Corpus Hermeticum, translated by Marsilio Ficino, 1471 CE.

The Church of Light continues a tradition that has gone through many phases in its two-thousand-year history. Hermeticism flourished in second century Egypt, and its earliest known texts are in Greek. Its central figure, Hermes, is an amalgamation of the Greek God Hermes (the planet Mercury) with the ancient Egyptian god Thoth. He is called Hermes Trismegistus, or thrice-great Hermes, for his mastery of three fields of study: astrology, alchemy, and magic. The Corpus Hermeticum is the collection of sacred texts that define early Hermetic teachings. Although it became extinct as a religion, the philosophy and science of Hermeticism survived as a current influencing the history of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

The Greek manuscript of the Corpus Hermeticum was rediscovered in 1460 and translated into modern languages becoming a major influence on the Renaissance. This rediscovery and new influence is called Hermeticism, which thrived in 16th century Christian Europe. Hermetic teachings went back underground in the early 17th century when scholars concluded that the Corpus dated from the early Christian era rather than hundreds of years earlier. However, recent scholarship has found increasing evidence of Egyptian roots of the Hermetic teachings.

Nag Hammadi Library
An excerpt from the famous Nag Hammadi Library, a collection of early Christian Gnostic writings and non-Christian Gnostic, hermetic and philosophic texts.

Discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1947 revealed a formerly unknown text, On the Ogdoad and the Ennead. Gilles Quispel concludes that this text proves “that the Hermetic believer was initiated into several grades before transcending the sphere of the seven planets and the heaven of the fixed stars (the Ogdoad.) Then he would behold the God beyond and experience Himself. It is now completely certain that there existed before and after the beginning of the Christian era in Alexandria a secret society, akin to a Masonic lodgeThe Way of Hermes, 11.. “Documentary evidence of the Hermetic teachings go back two thousand years, but their legendary roots go to a more distant past.

According to the oral tradition of the Church of Light, in the year 2,440 B.C. a group separated from the Egyptian theocracy. This group, the name of which translated in English is called The Brotherhood of Light, evolved as a secret society and has subsequently exerted a beneficial influence upon Western civilization.

Akhenaten and Family

The 18th Dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten (1353-1356 B.C.) single-handedly restructured Egyptian religion into a monotheistic, stellar-based faith. Akhenaten’s controversial new religion focused on the solar disk, or Aten, as the symbol of all-encompassing Creator Spirit expressing as the trinity of life, light, and love. In art Aten was generally depicted as a solar disk from which extended rays with hands holding the ankh or symbol of life giving force. Akhenaten’s religious revolution was to break with the corrupt priesthood, and establish for its devotees a personal relationship with God. Part of his religious reform included moving the royal court from Thebes to his new capital known as Akhetaten, ‘The Horizon of the Sun’, today called Tel-el-Armana. Akhenaten’s attempts to establish a new civilization with political, artistic, and religious reform was not to survive his demise. Upon his death, Egyptian society returned to the norms it had followed prior to his reign. Much of the architectural infrastructure created during his sovereignty was defaced or destroyed during the period immediately following his death. The stone blocks from his construction projects were recycled by subsequent pharaohs into temples and tombs. All attempts were made to eradicate evidence of his rule. Adherents of his teachings had to go underground.

Claudius Ptolemy
Claudius Ptolemy

The Greeks ruled Egypt for nearly 300 years, during which they absorbed both Egyptian and Chaldean sources of knowledge and incorporated them into their systems of philosophy, mythology, astrology, and medicine. The mystery school system of the Greeks, such as the Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries, evolved from their contact with the Egyptian fraternities. Astrology as we know it in the West was first systematized by Claudius Ptolemy in second century Egypt. This place and time continues to sound the keynote for the Church of Light teachings, but the nineteenth century British Empire was the setting for their rediscovery.

Nineteenth Century Adepts

The Church of Light is a renewal of the Hermetic tradition as a religion, with grades of initiation modeled on the original three fields of study: astrology, alchemy, and magic. It continues the work of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, founded as an organization in England in 1884, but derived from adept acquaintances who met in Egypt around 1870. Connecting these phases was Max Theon, a spiritual guide of the HBofL not directly involved in its public work. The nineteenth century roots of the Church of Light include Spiritualism and Theosophy, as well as Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry.

Emma Hardinge Britten was the preeminent Spiritualist historian of the 19th century and also a founder of the Theosophical Society in 1875. In Art Magic and Ghost Land (both published 1876) she described the activities and teachings of a brotherhood of adepts called the Orphic Circle who explored mesmerism, mediumship, and magic. Although the historical basis for her narrator Chevalier Louis remains mysterious, near the end of her life Britten identified him along with Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Philip Henry Stanhope, and the astrologer Zadkiel (Richard James Morrison) as members of the Orphic Brotherhood, and there is much evidence such a group of occult investigators did operate in 1830s-40s England.

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, had encountered a group of acquaintances in Egypt around 1870 that she later called the Brotherhood of Luxor yet identified as Oriental Rosicrucians. During the mid-1870s Britten and Blavatsky worked together in New York and endorsed each others’ claims to links with secret brotherhoods. After 1884 Britten lived in England and opposed the Theosophical Society’s new directions while supporting the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor’s work to offer what the original TS had intended, instruction in practical occultism within the framework of a secret society. The Church of Light has roots in the work of adept acquaintances of both Britten and Blavatsky, but doctrinally is more harmonious with Britten’s views, especially on the subject of reincarnation.

Max Theon
Max Theon

Max Theon, the spiritual leader of the HBofL was born Louis Maximilien Bimstein, son of a Polish Jewish rabbi. He had worked with Blavatsky in Egypt around 1870 but thereafter his whereabouts are undocumented until the establishment of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor in England in 1884. In 1885 Theon married Mary Chrystine Woodroffe Ware who later became known as Madame Alma Theon. The couple moved first to Paris and later to Tlemcen, Algeria. Together the Theons influenced numerous students, the most famous of whom was Mirra Alfassa Morriset, who was to later become the companion of Sri Aurobindo at his ashram in Pondicherry, India. Mirra was known as ‘The Mother” at the ashram, and the teachings which had been transmitted to her through Theon became an integral part of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy.

Theon made frequent trips from Algeria to France to aid in the work of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor on the European continent. While Theon was the Grand Master of the HBofL, his disciple, the Scottish occultist Peter Davidson (1842-1916), was the visible head of the order. In order to expand the Brotherhood’s influence in the Western Hemisphere, Davidson immigrated to the United States. He settled near Loudsville, Georgia, where he founded a utopian, agricultural commune not unlike Findhorn in his native Scotland.

Thomas H. Burgoyne
Thomas H. Burgoyne

Theon and Davidson were joined by Thomas H. Burgoyne, who under their auspices, offered correspondence courses on practical occultism and the Hermetic tradition beginning in 1884 with the establishment of the HBofL. The HBofL sought coexistence with the Theosophical Society and claimed many Theosophists as members, but it was viewed as a rival organization. In 1886, Theosophical Society leaders led a smear campaign against the HBofL . Their action damaged the HBofL’s support in Great Britain and in 1886 Davidson and Burgoyne departed for America.

Davidson spent the rest of his life in the mountains of north Georgia, while Burgoyne’s pilgrimage led to the coastal mountains of California. The Church of Light descends directly from the work of Burgoyne but equally honors the memory of Peter Davidson and their teacher Max Theon. Davidson published and distributed the teachings of Max Theon for over 20 years, during which Theon’s readership was largely French as his publications were entirely in French after his relocation to Algeria. The “mouvement cosmique” was the vehicle of his later teachings, recorded primarily in the journal “La Revue Cosmique.” Davidson seems to have met the American Rosicrucian seer Paschal Beverly Randolph, who died in 1875, on his last trip to England, and the HBofL teachings draw upon his writings on practical occultism.

Although the Egyptian roots of Hermeticism in more remote antiquity remain mysterious, and the Akhenaten connection is known only through legend, the Brotherhood of Light name points to more recent sources than those of Egyptian legend. The Brotherhood of Light lessons draw on Rosicrucian, Kabbalistic and Masonic roots of the Church of Light, and the name Brotherhood of Light appears in two secret societies of 18th and 19th century Europe. The Fratres Lucis (Brothers of Light) or Ritter des Lichts (Knights of Light) was founded in 1780 or 1781 by Hans Heinrich con Ecker und Eckhoffen as the offshoot of a German Rosicrucian group, the Gold and Rosy Cross, known for “elaborate rituals and a special interest in practical and spiritual alchemy,” which went out of existence in 1793. As a fringe Masonic order renamed the Asiatic Brethren, the Fratres Lucis was a “channel for the influence of Jewish esotericism on the occult Freemasonry of Europe” in the words of historian Joscelyn Godwin, The Theosophical Enlightenment, 120-23.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s initiation into Rosicrucianism was possibly through an Asiatic Brethren lodge in Germany that survived underground into the 1840s. The incorporation of Kabbalistic teachings with Rosicrucianism and Masonry that was seen in the late 18th century in the Fratres Lucis reappeared in the late 19th century in another Brotherhood of Light. This group was formed in England by Francis Irwin in 1873 through crystal-gazing encounters with the spirit of Cagliostro, who dictated the group’s rituals and mythical history. Its membership overlapped with various other English occult brotherhoods, and its objects were focused on astrology. Thus the name “Brotherhood of Light lessons” reverberates with allusions to a diverse array of predecessor groups and teachings to which the Church of Light is related in various ways. The same 19th century adept or seeker might be simultaneously a Kabbalist, a Freemason, a Rosicrucian, a Theosophist, an astrologer, and a Spiritualist. The degrees of the HBofL reflected both Rosicrucian and Masonic origins. All these streams of inspiration flowed into the Church of Light in the 20th century.

Twentieth Century: the Brotherhood of Light Lessons

Early Church of Light Quarterly and Rising Star publications tell some of the recent history as follows…

Captain Norman Astley traveled extensively as an officer in the British army and studied occultism in India. His contact with the Brotherhood led him to study with Theon in England. Astley’s work as a surveyor brought him to Carmel, California, where he eventually settled upon his marriage to Genevieve Stebbins. In New York Stebbins was a teacher of the Delsarte system and best known for her book titled The Delsarte System of Expression published in 1885. Decades later Stebbins would translate the writings of Paul Christian on tarot from the French. These would become the ‘admonitions’ used by C. C. Zain in The Sacred Tarot. While in Carmel, California, Burgoyne lived with Astley and Stebbins, who assisted him in finding twelve earnest students who were willing to contribute $5 a month to support Burgoyne as he gave the teachings in the form of lessons.

The support of the Astleys and other students afforded Burgoyne the time needed to pursue his writing. Every morning he would leave the Astley’s home in Carmel with his pony and travel to a wild cove on Point Lobos to commune with nature and write.

Burgoyne, a natural seer, and amateur naturalist published articles in 1887 and 1888 on the tarot and other subjects in The Platonist edited by Thomas M. Johnson. The private subscription lessons which he produced here were ultimately compiled into The Light of Egypt, Vol. I. Burgoyne would later take up residence in Humboldt County where he died in March 1894.

Burgoyne received enormous support from the Denver, Colorado lodge of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor of which he was the original secretary. At considerable personal expense, Dr. Henry and Belle M. Wagner, two other members of the lodge, funded the printing of The Light of Egypt, Vol. I., which underwent four editions and was translated into French. Burgoyne was to pass from the physical plane before The Light of Egypt; Vol. II was placed in print. The Wagners and Minnie Higgins contributed to the completion of that volume, which was printed in 1900. Henry and Belle M. Wagner wrote and published A Treasure Chest of Wisdom and Belle M. Wagner wrote Within the Temple of Isis, which was published by Astro-Philosphical Publishing Company in 1899.

The Brotherhood of Luxor in Denver was governed by a council of three, which consisted of an astrologer, a seer, and a scribe. In the spring of 1909, upon the death of Minnie Higgins, Elbert Benjamine was called to Denver to assume her position as astrologer on the council. It was at this meeting, held on the second floor of the home of the seer, Mrs. Anderson, that the Brotherhood attempted to convince Elbert Benjamine that he should take up the mission of preparing a complete system of metaphysical education that would enable the public to become familiar with the Religion of the Stars. Theon’s wife Alma had died in 1908 and he wrote to the Wagners that it was time to discontinue the HBofL in its current form. Benjamine consented in April of 1910 to commence the daunting assignment of writing the Brotherhood of Light Lessons. Subsequently, the Denver lodge of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor closed its doors to membership in 1913.

Elbert Benjamine
Elbert Benjamine

The Brotherhood of Light teachings were written between March 21, 1914 and February 20, 1934 by Elbert Benjamine under the pen name of C. C. Zain. Benjamine chose to use a pseudonym in order to keep the work separately identified from the writings he published under his own name. During this time he received tremendous support from the members of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. Of particular support were Captain Norman Astley and Genevieve Stebbins-Astley, who he visited in their Carmel home on numerous occasions, and with whom he enjoyed lengthy and encouraging correspondence. Benjamine moved to Los Angeles in 1915. The Brotherhood of Light opened its doors to the public on November 11, 1918. From 1918 to 1932 the Brotherhood of Light functioned as a fraternal order, printing and distributing the teachings and conducting public classes at the Los Angeles headquarters. Benjamine wrote the lessons primarily working from his humble home atop a hillside overlooking downtown. The lessons were originally written one at a time and published in mimeograph form. Over time they were rewritten and placed in bound format.

On November 2, 1932 the Brotherhood of Light closed its doors and incorporated as The Church of Light. It was determined that the Brotherhood could better promote the Religion of the Stars as a religious non-profit. The three founders were Elbert Benjamine (C. C. Zain), who served as President of the organization until his demise on November 18, 1951; Elizabeth D. Benjamine, who served as Secretary-Treasurer until her death in 1942; and Fred Skinner who served as Vice-President until his passing in 1940.

Elbert Benjamine was born Benjamin P. Williams in the small town of Adel, Iowa, December 12, 1882. His family remembered his birth because this was the year a comet flashed across the sky. Benjamin P. Williams would later change his name to Elbert Benjamine upon moving to Los Angeles in order to protect his family. His father was a doctor and a deacon in the Disciples of Christ Church and Benjamine’s interests in occultism and astrology were frowned upon in his community. Benjamine’s desire was to be a naturalist. As a boy he spent every free hour in the woods observing the habits of wild things, an enthusiasm which would continue his entire life. He later held the position of president of the Southern California Nature Club for 25 years and was responsible for the establishment of a bird sanctuary in Los Angeles.

The mission of Zain’s writing is centered on a nine-point plan to ensure the citizens of the world Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear, Freedom of Expression, and Freedom of Religion. To obtain these freedoms he taught that the individual should become familiar with the Facts of Astrology, the Facts of Extra-Sensory Perception, the Facts of Induced Emotion and the Facts of Directed Thinking. The moral code is “Contribute Your Utmost to Universal Welfare.” Within the first half of the 20th century, B. of L. teachings were distributed around the world. The works of C. C. Zain have impacted the lives of thousands of students of occultism.

In his day, Elbert Benjamine was a unique leader. He worked as a commercial fisherman, lumberman, cowboy, and ranch foreman in order to make the money he needed to take time off to pursue his work on the lessons. He opposed hero worship and cult-like behavior. He discouraged members from taking any of his writings on blind belief, but rather to subject them to rigorous testing of their own. Church of Light members are given freedom of conscience and encouraged to study as many things about religion, science, and the mysteries as they can and then draw their own conclusions. Elbert had been informed by the Brothers that he should have everything completed by 1950. Elbert Benjamine passed from the physical plane on November 18, 1951.

The Church of Light preserves the twentieth century Brotherhood of Light lessons. But above all we are a twenty first century spiritual community focused on finding practical applications of this body of wisdom. Recognizing the time-bound limitations of all systems of belief, we seek to experience the timeless truths that will continue to inspire humanity into the future.