Olcott, Henry S.

Henry S. Olcott

Col. Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) was the cofounder and first President of theTheosophical Society and was among the first Westerners to become a Buddhist. A passionate reformer, he devoted his life to the renaissance of Buddhist culture in Southeast Asia. So greatly is his contribution valued in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) that February 17 is celebrated as Olcott Day. 

Olcott became interested in Buddhism around the same time as he began to study the esoteric traditions of the East. When he learned of British supression of Buddhism in Ceylon, he decided to go there to set things right. Arriving on the island, he immediately took refuge in the Buddha in a great public ceremony, thereby becoming officially Buddhist. Accompanied by other Theosophists, he moved slowly through the villages lecturing to many thousands in the open air, stirring them to fight for the rights of Buddhists He spent his spare time writing a Buddhist catechism, and elementary handbook along the lines of those used in the Christian churches. The book became a bestseller, went through more than forty printings, and was translated into more than twenty languages.