Leadbeater was born in Stockport, Cheshire, in 1854. His father, Charles Sr., was born in Lincoln and his mother Emma was born in Liverpool. He was an only child. By 1861 the family had relocated to London, where his father was a railway contractor's clerk. From a young age, he had a strong conviction for a loving God and a belief in eternal life.
"But I knew that there was a God, that He was good, and that death was not the end of life. Even at that age I was able to deduce from these certainties that all must somehow be well, although so often things appeared to be going ill."
In 1862, when Leadbeater's was eight years old, his father died from tuberculosis. Four years later a bank in which the family's savings were invested became bankrupt. Without finances for college, Leadbeater sought work soon after graduating from high school in order to provide for his mother and himself. He worked at various clerical jobs. During the evenings he became largely self-educated. For example, he studied astronomy and had a 12-inch reflector telescope (which was very expensive at the time) to observe the heavens at night. He also studied French, Latin and Greek.
An uncle, his father's brother-in-law, was the well-known Anglican cleric William Wolfe Capes. By his uncle's influence, Leadbeater was ordained an Anglican priest in 1879 in Farnham by the Bishop of Winchester. By 1881, he was living with his widowed mother at Bramshott in a cottage which his uncle had built, where he is listed as "Curate of Bramshott". He was an active priest and teacher who was remembered later as "a bright and cheerful and kindhearted man". About this time, after reading about the seances of reputed medium Daniel Dunglas Home (1833–1886), Leadbeater developed an active interest in spiritualism.
His interest in Divine wisdom or Theosophy was stimulated by A.P. Sinnett's Occult World, and he joined the Theosophical Society in 1883. The next year he met Helena Petrovna Blavatsky when she came to London; she accepted him as a pupil and he became a vegetarian.
Around this time he wrote a letter to one of the world's Ascended Masters, Master Kuthumi, asking to be accepted as his pupil. Shortly afterward, an encouraging response influenced him to go to India; he arrived at Adyar in 1884. He wrote that while in India, he had received visits and training from some of the "Masters" that according to Blavatsky were the inspiration behind the formation of the Theosophical Society, and were its hidden guides. This was the start of a long career with the Theosophical Society.
During 1885, Leadbeater traveled with Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907), first President of the Theosophical Society, to Burma, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). In Ceylon they founded the English Buddhist Academy, with Leadbeater staying there to serve as its first headmaster under very austere conditions. This school gradually expanded to become Ananda College, which now has more than 6,000 students and has a building named for Leadbeater.
After Madame Blavatsky left Adyar in 1886 to return to Europe and finish writing The Secret Doctrine, Leadbeater stayed on to work at the Theosophical Society headquarters. It was during this time at Adyar that he was visited by the Master Kuthumi who suggested some techniques in Kundalini yoga to help him develop clairvoyant abilities. After 42 days of strenuous effort, he reputedly attained astral consciousness while still in the waking state, which, according to Theosophical literature, is the ability to perceive the vibrations of the next highest state of matter above the physical plane.
But this was only the beginning of his training. He continued for a full year of what he described as the hardest work he had ever known under the instruction of Master Djwal Kul who would show him all kinds of thought forms on the higher planes and then ask him to identify what he saw.
“Unquestionably it is hard work, and the strain which it imposes is, I suppose, about as great as a human being can safely endure; but the result achieved is assuredly far more than worth while, for it leads directly up to the union of the lower and the higher self and produces an utter certainty of knowledge based upon experience which no future happenings can ever shake.”
In 1889, Sinnett asked Leadbeater to return to England to tutor his son and George Arundale (1878–1945). He agreed and brought with him one of his pupils, Curuppumullage Jinarajadasa (1875–1953). Although struggling with poverty himself, Leadbeater managed to send both Arundale and Jinarajadasa to Cambridge University. Both would eventually serve as International presidents of the Theosophical Society.
After H. P. Blavatsky's death in 1891, Annie Besant, an English social activist, took over leadership of the Theosophical Society along with Colonel Olcott. Besant met Leadbeater in 1894. The next year she invited him to live at the London Theosophical Headquarters, where H.P. Blavatsky died in 1891.
Leadbeater wrote 69 books and pamphlets during the period from 1895 to his death in 1934, many of which continued to be published until 1955. Two noteworthy titles, Astral Plane and the Devachanic Plane (or The Heaven World) both of which embodied careful research into the realms the soul passes through after death…and which were so unique in the history of the society that the Masters of Wisdom asked for the manuscript of Astral Plane to be sent to the museum of history in the Himalayas.
"for the first time among occultists, a detailed investigation had been made of the Astral Plane
as a whole, in a manner similar to that in which a botanist in an Amazonian jungle would set to work in order to classify its trees, plants and shrubs, and so write a botanical history of the jungle. For this reason the little book, The Astral Plane, was definitely a landmark, and the Master as Keeper of the Records desired to place its manuscript in the great Museum."
Highlights of his writing career included addressing topics such as:
The existence of a loving God
The Masters of Wisdom
What happens after death
Immortality of the human soul
Karma or the Law of Consequence
Development of clairvoyant abilities
The nature of thought forms
He also became one of the best known speakers of the Theosophical Sociey for a number of years and served as Secretary of the London Lodge.
In 1906, critics were angered to learn that Leadbeater had given advice to some boys under his care that encouraged masturbation as a way to relieve obsessive sexual thoughts. Leadbeater acknowledged that he had given this advice to a few boys approaching maturity who came to him for help. He commented, "I know that the whole question of sex feelings is the principal difficulty in the path of boys and girls, and very much harm is done by the prevalent habit of ignoring the subject and fearing to speak of it to young people. The first information about it should come from parents or friends, not from servants or bad companions."
The negative reaction to Leadbeater's advice by some members of the society can be seen in light of the confusion and ignorance that surrounded discussions of masturbation during the period. In Victorian England such ideas and practices were considered shocking and unacceptable. Amid this atmosphere of fear, several members of the Theosophical society asked for Leadbeater's resignation. The society held proceedings against him in 1906 of which Annie Besant, president of the society, later stated:
"The so-called trial of Mr Leadbeater was a travesty of justice. He came before Judges, one of whom had declared before hand that 'he ought to be shot'; another, before hearing him, had written passionate denunciations of him, a third and fourth had accepted, on purely psychic testimony, unsupported by any evidence, the view that he was grossly immoral, and a danger to the Society..."
Charges of misconduct that went beyond the advice he admitted to giving were never proven. However, to save the society embarrassment, he resigned. In later years, he was also accused of hand-to-genital contact with a pre-pubescent male, and concerns about physical sexual contact with other boys who lived with him were also voiced, though not proven in a court of law. In 1922 he was accused of having been found in bed with Oscar Kellerstrom, the son of a Liberal Catholic priest, although lack of solid evidence meant that no charges were brought.
Olcott died in February 1907 in Perth, Australia. Annie Besant, after a political struggle, became president of the society. By the end of 1908, the International Sections voted for Leadbeater's readmission. He accepted and came to Adyar on 10 February 1909. At the time, Besant referred to Leadbeater as a martyr who was wronged by her and by the Theosophical Society, saying that "never again would a shadow come between her and her brother Initiate".
In 1909 Leadbeater "discovered" fourteen-year-old Jiddu Krishnamurti on the private beach attached to the headquarters at Adyar. Jiddu was able to use that beach as his own father was working for the society and living on the grounds. Leadbeater believed Krishnamurti to be the "vessel" for the indwelling of a concept known as World Teacher, whose imminent appearance he and many Theosophists were expecting. Like Moses, Siddhartha Gautama, Zarathustra (Zoroaster), Jesus of Nazareth, and Muhammad ibn 'Abdullah, the new teacher would reputedly divulge a new religious dispensation.
Leadbeater assigned the pseudonym Alcyone to Krishnamurti and under the title "Rents in the Veil of Time", he published 30 reputed past lives of Alcyone in a series in The Theosophist magazine beginning in April 1910. "They ranged from 22,662 BC to 624 AD ... Alcyone was a female in eleven of them."
Leadbeater stayed in India until 1915, overseeing the education of Krishnamurti; he then relocated to Australia. During the late 1920s, Krishnamurti disavowed the role that Leadbeater and other Theosophists expected him to fulfil. He disassociated himself from the Theosophical Society and its doctrines and practices, and during the next six decades became known as an influential speaker on philosophical and religious subjects.
Leadbeater moved to Sydney in 1915. He was responsible for the construction of the Star Amphitheatre at Balmoral Beach in 1924. While in Australia he became acquainted with J. I. Wedgwood, a Theosophist and bishop in the Liberal Catholic Church who initiated him into Co-Masonry in 1915 and later consecrated him as a bishop of the Liberal Catholic Church in 1916.
Public interest in Theosophy in Australia and New Zealand increased greatly as a result of Leadbeater's presence there and Sydney became comparable to Adyar as a centre of Theosophical activity.
In 1922, the Theosophical Society began renting a mansion known as The Manor in the Sydney suburb of Mosman. Leadbeater took up residence there as the director of a community of Theosophists. The Manor became a major site and was regarded as "the greatest of occult forcing houses". There he accepted young women students. They included Clara Codd, future President of the Theosophical Society in America, clairvoyant Dora van Gelder, another future President of the Theosophical Society in America who during the 1970s also worked with Delores Krieger to develop the technique of Therapeutic touch, and Mary Lutyens, who would later write an authorized Krishnamurti biography. Lutyens stayed there in 1925, while Krishnamurti and his brother Nitya stayed at another house nearby. The Manor became one of three major Theosophical Society sites, the others being at Adyar and the Netherlands. The Theosophical Society bought The Manor in 1925 and during 1951 created The Manor Foundation Ltd, to own and administer the house, which is still used by the Society.
It was also during his stay in Australia that Leadbeater became the Presiding Bishop of the Liberal Catholic Church and co-wrote the liturgy book for the church which is still in use today. The work represents an adaptation of the Roman Catholic liturgy of his time, for which Leadbeater sought to remove what he regarded as undesirable elements, such as (in his view) the blatant anthropomorphisms and expressions of the fear and wrath of God, which he regarded "as derogatory alike to the idea of a loving Father and to the men He has created in His own image." "If Christians", he wrote, "had been content to take what Christ taught of the Father in heaven, they would never have saddled themselves with the jealous, angry, bloodthirsty Jehovah of Ezra, Nehemiah and the others – a god that needs propitiating and to whose 'mercy' constant appeals must be made."
Thus the Credo of the Liberal Catholic Church liturgy written by Leadbeater reads:
"We believe that God is Love and Power and Truth and Light; that perfect justice rules the world; that all His sons shall one day reach His Feet, however far they stray. We hold the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of man; we know that we do serve Him best when best we serve our brother man. So shall His blessing rest upon us and peace for evermore. Amen."
Previously Leadbeater had written on the energies of the Christian sacraments in The Science of Sacraments: An Occult and Clairvoyant Study of the Christian Eucharist, one of the most significant works of Christian esotericism. In his prologue to the latest edition of this book, John Kersey refers to the Eucharist proposed by Leadbeater as "a radical reinterpretation of the context of the Eucharist seen within a theological standpoint of esoteric magic and universal salvation; it is Catholicism expressing the love of God to the full without the burdens of needless guilt and fear, and the false totem of the temporal powers of the church."
Leadbeater remains well-known and influential in New Age circles for his many works based on his clairvoyant investigations of life, including such books as Outline of Theosophy, The Chakras and Man, Visible and Invisible dealing with, respectively, the basic principles of theosophy, the chakra system, and the human aura.
His writings on the sacraments and Christian esotericism remain popular, with a constant stream of new editions and translations of his magnum opus The Science of the Sacraments. His liturgy book is still used by many Liberal and Independent Catholic Churches across the world.Dreams (What they are and how they are caused) (1893)
Theosophical Manual Nº5: The Astral Plane (Its Scenery, Inhabitants and Phenomena) (1896)
Theosophical Manual Nº6: The Devachanic Plane or The Heaven World Its Characteristics and Inhabitants (1896)
The Story of Atlantis (with William Scott-Elliot) (1896)
Our Relation to Our Children (1898)
Thought Forms (With Annie Besant) (1901)
An Outline of Theosophy (1902)
Man Visible and Invisible (1902)
Some Glimpses of Occultism, Ancient and Modern (1903)
The Christian Creed (1904)
The Inner Life (1911)
The Perfume of Egypt and Other Weird Stories (1911)
The Power and Use of Thought (1911)
The Life After Death and How Theosophy Unveils It (1912)
A Textbook of Theosophy (1912)
Man: Whence, How and Whither (With Annie Besant) (1913)
Vegetarianism and Occultism (1913)
The Hidden Side of Things (1913)
Occult Chemistry (1916)
Australia & New Zealand: Home of a new sub-race (1916)
The Monad and Other Essays Upon the Higher Consciousness (1920)
The Inner Side Of Christian Festivals (1920)
The Science of the Sacraments (1920)
The Lives of Alcyone (With Annie Besant) (1924)
The Liturgy According to the Use of the Liberal Catholic Church (With J.I. Wedgwood) (Second Edition) (1924)
The Masters and the Path (1925)
Talks on the Path of Occultism (1926)
Glimpses of Masonic History (1926) (later pub 1986 as Ancient Mystic Rites)
The Hidden Life in Freemasonry (1926)
The Chakras (1927) (published by the Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Illinois, USA)
Spiritualism and Theosophy Scientifically Examined and Carefully Described (1928)
The Noble Eightfold Path (1955)
Messages from the Unseen (1931)