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"The Charlatan of the Gulf Islands" : Brother XII and progressive occult discourse in the history of British Columbia Klang, Amanda

Abstract

The post-war 1920s and 30s were decades of uncertainty in the world, where a resurgence of popular interest in mysticism, magic and other "occult" spiritual practices coincided with the growth of extreme political movements. Between 1927 and 1933, a man known as Brother XII ran a notorious spiritual commune in southern British Columbia, which he identified as the spiritual center of the world. Believing that the destruction of human civilization was immanent, Brother XII claimed that he would shield the survivors and foster a New Age of enlightenment. However, his community soon dissolved amidst sexual and financial scandal, which the popular press eagerly documented. The story of Brother XII has dramatic appeal but also offers insights to scholars of BC history. Whether he knew it or not, in exhorting a group of world-weary spiritual idealists to retreat to the remote wilds of Vancouver Island, Brother XII — otherwise known as Edward Arthur Wilson — was re-articulating a well-worn pattern of intersecting spiritual and political utopianism projected onto community life in British Columbia. In fact, underlying Wilson's dream of a new world was his own radical critique of mainstream society, which was founded on the progressive, occult tradition of theosophy. Wilson's ideals supported extremes of vision. On one hand these included an egalitarian ideal of gender equity and sexual freedom, and on the other, a proto-fascist, anti-Semitic diatribe. Wilson's preoccupation with sex and race also echoed themes that shaped the history of British Columbia, where socially transgressive behavior could exist unchecked, and racial hierarchies were a defining feature of everyday life. This study of Brother XII contributes to a growing body of historical scholarship that is re-assessing the significance of nineteenth- and twentieth-century alternative spiritual movements and arguing for their centrality to the project of modernity. It also argues that the man that has been long dismissed as a kooky footnote in the history of BC actually reveals something important about the intersection of the political and the spiritual in the early twentieth-century world of British Columbia.

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