Harris, Thomas Lake (1823-1906)
Harris, Thomas Lake (1823-1906)
Spiritualist mystic, poet, medium, and religious reformer. He was born at Fenny Stratford, England, May 15, 1823, and moved to the United States as a child. He became a Universalist minister at age 20 and was one of the small band of enthusiasts who gathered around Andrew Jackson Davis after the publication of The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Relations, and a Voice to Mankind in 1847.
In the same year Harris formally withdrew from the Universalist church and went on a lecture tour to spread the knowledge of the new revelation. On his return he broke off relations with Davis over his sexual views and behavior. Davis had associated with a married woman whose husband was still living and taught that if married partners discovered that they were no longer adapted to each other they ought to separate and seek truer affinities. Although Harris and Davis became reconciled after Davis married the woman in question, they never again worked together.
Harris became pastor of the First Independent Christian Society of New York. In 1851 he joined the Apostolic Circle at Auburn, New York, under the leadership of J. L. Scott, a Baptist preacher. Scott, a trance speaker, had come to believe that he was the chosen vessel of St. John. Harris's imagination was fueled by messages coming through a Mrs. Benedict, the official medium of the movement, stating that St. Paul was expected to communicate and that Harris might be the fortunate mouthpiece. He went to Auburn and in joint editorship with Scott published a new periodical, Disclosures from the Interior and Superior Care of Mortals.
The Mountain Cove Community was founded soon afterward. The faithful band of settlers yielded themselves and all their possessions to Scott, the "perfect medium." Harris did not join the community. When dissent arose and a break was threatening, however, Scott went to New York and induced Harris to come to the rescue. Because Harris prevailed upon several men of property to follow them, the crisis was averted. There were now two "perfect mediums," and Harris, as the representative of St. Paul, assumed directing influence. His autocratic rule did not last long, however, and after a revolt developed, he left for New York to preach Spiritualism at Dodworth Hall, then the headquarters of the movement.
During November and December 1853, in a state of trance or inspiration, he dictated his first great poetic composition: An Epic of the Starry Heavens. According to Arthur A. Cuthbert's biography, the poem germinated in Harris's subconscious three years and nine months before its dictation, and its 6,000 lines were delivered in 21 sittings from November 24 to December 8, 1853, in 26 hours and 16 minutes. Cuthbert also recorded that Harris was, from his earliest childhood, a remarkable poetical improvisatore. In proof of this he quotes a letter from Richard M'Cully's The Brotherhood of the New Life (1893), which states: "When in Utica he would come to my sitting room of an evening, and sitting down in a rather high chair, he would compose poetry by the mile; and it was really poetry—exquisite thoughts exquisitely worded."
An Epic of the Starry Heavens was followed by The Lyric of the Morning Land and A Lyric of the Golden Age, both similarly dictated in a state of trance. Of the former, a poem of 5,000 words of great beauty, Harris claimed entire ignorance in his conscious state. He spoke and sang it during parts of 14 days in about 30 hours. It was finished by August 4, 1854. A Lyric of the Golden Age reflects the higher ideals of the British romantics— Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and others—whom Harris actually claimed, along with Dante, as his inspirers.
In view of such impressive performances, Harris aspired to be the leader of the Spiritualist movement. Rebuffed, his attitude underwent a singular change. He professed to be the champion of Christianity versus Spiritualistic Pantheism and published his Song of Satan, in which the communicating spirits, with the exception of those who visited Harris's "Sacred Family," are declared to be demons in the worst sense of the word. Yet apparently he himself was not immune to the influence of these demons. In his life work, Arcana of Christianity (1857), he complains of obsession in writing: "It was resolved upon by Evil Spirits that my physical existence should be destroyed, the demon, by name Joseph Balsamo, planned a subtle scheme to bring to bear upon the enfeebled physical system the magic of the Infernal World."
Fairies occupied a large place in Harris's esoteric system. There is a long discussion of them in the Arcana under the title "The Divine Origin of the Fay." He claimed constant intercourse with fairyland and poured forth a number of communications in which the "Little Brothers" playfully called him "Little Yabbit." The publication of Harris's own following, The Herald of Light (1857-61), was called "a journal of the Lord's New Church" and was almost entirely written by Harris.
In 1859 he announced to his congregation in New York that the spirits had entrusted him with the mission of going to England and preaching there. He arrived in May 1859, and, in inspirational addresses of striking eloquence, preached his mystic Christianity in both London and various provincial centers. In his first sermon he presented "in bold relief the danger of Spiritualists giving themselves up to production of physical phenomena, and allowing their minds to be held captive by the teachings of the low forms of Spiritualism." The Morning Advertiser interpreted the sermon as "an extraordinary and triumphant exposure of Spiritualism."
In his History of the Supernatural (1863), William Howitt waxes eloquent in paying great tribute to Harris's oratorical mastery:
"His extempore sermons were the only realisation of my conceptions of eloquence; at once full, unforced, outgushing, unstinted and absorbing. They were triumphant embodiments of sublime poetry, and a stern unsparing, yet loving and burning theology. Never since the days of Fox were the disguises of modern society so unflinchingly rent away, and the awful distance betwixt real Christianity and its present counterfeit made so startlingly apparent. That the preacher was also the prophet was most clearly proclaimed, by his sudden hastening home, declaring that it was revealed to him that the nethermost hells were let loose in America. This was before the public breach betwixt North and South had taken place. But it soon followed, only too deeply to demonstrate the truths of the spiritual intimation."
Laurence Oliphant, a brilliant writer and politician, and Lady Oliphant, his mother, the widow of the former chief justice of Ceylon, came under Harris's influence during his stay in England. Oliphant was a man of varied career. He had been on various diplomatic missions, was private secretary to Lord Elgin during his vice-royalty of India, was secretary of legation in Japan, was special correspondent of The Times in Crimea, and was a member of Parliament for the Stirling Burghs in 1865. During his two years of parliamentary life he observed unbroken silence in obedience to Harris's influence.
In 1867 Harris decided to impose a more severe probation. Oliphant disappeared from London and was not seen until 1870. He was summoned to the United States to work as a manual laborer at "The Use," the theo-socialistic community and the headquarters of Harris's own movement, the Brotherhood of the New Life. Harris had founded the community in 1861 on a small farm near Wassaic, New York. The Holy Ghost (i.e., the "Divine Breath") was expected to descend in seven stages upon the members of this community. It appears, however, that Harris and subsequently his wife were the only ones who attained the seventh stage. The practice of "open breathing," a form of respiration to bring the divine breath into the body, resembles pranayama or yoga breathing.
In 1863 The Use moved to Amenia, about four miles from Wassaic, where a mill was purchased and the First National Bank of Amenia was founded under Harris's presidency. This site was soon given up for a settlement in Brockton, on the shore of Lake Erie, which was bought largely with Lady Oliphant's money. Laurence Oliphant was ordered to report to Brockton, and the first task he was assigned was to clean a stable. According to Frank Podmore, the stable must have been of Augean dimensions, because Oliphant was engaged in it for many days in absolute loneliness, sleeping in a loft that was furnished with only a mattress and empty orange boxes. His meals were brought to him by a silent messenger. He was rarely allowed to see his mother, to whom he was very much attached.
After a period of probation, Harris allowed Oliphant to go out into the world. During the Franco-Prussian war Oliphant acted as correspondent for The Times but always held himself in readiness to return if Harris summoned him. He met his future wife in 1872. Harris withheld his consent to the marriage and only agreed when the woman placed all her property in his hands. After the marriage had taken place, the couple were summoned to Brockton. Oliphant's wife was assigned to housework, and Oliphant was quickly dispatched to New York to labor for the community as director of a cable company. For years husband and wife were kept apart. For a period of three years Oliphant was not even allowed to see his wife. During that time Mrs. Oliphant was sent out of the community penniless and alone to earn her living.
In 1880 Harris permitted their reunion in Europe, after his community had migrated to Santa Rosa, California. The grape and wine culture that they had begun in Amenia was developed to a profitable industry in the new settlement.
In the meantime Oliphant's mother was reported to be dying. Laurence went to bid her farewell. When she died, the spell in which he was held by Harris was broken. He charged Harris with fraud and, with the help of friends, recovered a considerable part of his fortune.
Nevertheless, until the end of his days in December 1888, Oliphant persisted in the belief that Harris had genuine psychic powers. Harris's hold on his followers was very strong. They implicitly believed him when in 1891 he announced that he had discovered the elixir of life and had thereby renewed his youth. Consequently, when he died March 23, 1906, his disciples refused to believe in his death and only acknowledged the fact three months later.
Harris, Thomas Lake. Brotherhood of the New Life: Its Fact, Law, Method, and Purpose. Fountain Grove, Calif.: Fountain Grove Press, 1891.
——. An Epic of the Starry Heaven. New York: Partridge & Britten, 1854.
——. A Lyric of the Golden Age. New York: Partridge & Britten, 1856.
Kagan, Paul. New World Utopias. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin, 1975.
Noyes, John Humphrey. History of American Socialisms. Lippincott, 1870. Reprinted as Strange Cults and Utopias of 19th-Century America. New York: Dover, 1966.
Schneider, Herbert Wallace. A Prophet and a Pilgrim, Being the Incredible History of Thomas Lake Harris and Laurence Oliphant: Their Sexual Mysticisms and Utopian Communities. New York: Columbia University Press, 1942.
Swainson, William P. Thomas Lake Harris and His Occult Teaching. London: William Rider & Son, 1922.