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
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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.
Sources
Cuthbert, Arthur A. The Life and World Work of Thomas Lake
Harris, Written from Direct Personal Knowledge. Glasgow, Scotland,
1908.
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.
———. The New Republic. Santa Rosa, Calif. Fountain
Grove Press, 1891.
Hine, Robert V. California’s Utopian Colonies. New Haven,
Conn. Yale University Press, 1966.
Kagan, Paul. New World Utopias. Baltimore, Md. Penguin,
1975.
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Harris, Thomas Lake
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Noyes, John Humphrey. History of American Socialisms. Lippincott,
1870. Reprinted as Strange Cults and Utopias of 19thCentury
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.