1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Harris, Thomas Lake
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Harris, Thomas Lake
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HARRIS, THOMAS LAKE (1823–1906), American spiritualistic “prophet,” was born at Fenny Stratford in Buckinghamshire, England, on the 15th of May 1823. His parents were Calvinistic Baptists, and very poor. They settled at Utica, New York, when Harris was five years old. When he was about twenty Harris became a Universalist preacher, and then a Swedenborgian. He became associated about 1847 with a spiritualist of indifferent character named Davis. After Davis had been publicly exposed, Harris established a congregation in New York. About 1850 he professed to receive inspirations, and published some long poems. He had the gift of improvisation in a very high degree. About 1859 he preached in London, and is described as a man “with low, black eyebrows, black beard, and sallow countenance.” He was an effective speaker, and his poetry was admired by many; Alfred Austin in his book The Poetry of the Period even devoted a chapter to Harris. He founded in 1861 a community at Wassaic, New York, and opened a bank and a mill, which he superintended. There he was joined by about sixty converts, including five orthodox clergymen, some Japanese people, some American ladies of position, and especially by Laurence Oliphant (q.v.) with his wife and mother. The community — the Brotherhood of the New Life — decided to settle at the village of Brocton on the shore of Lake Erie. Harris established there a wine-making industry. In reply to the objections of teetotallers he said that the wine prepared by himself was filled with the divine breath so that all noxious influences were neutralized. Harris also built a tavern and strongly advocated the use of tobacco. He exacted complete surrender from his disciples — even the surrender of moral judgment. He taught that God was bi-sexual, and apparently, though not in reality, that the rule of society should be one of married celibacy. He professed to teach his community a change in the mode of respiration which was to be the visible sign of possession by Christ and the seal of immortality. The Oliphants broke away from the restraint about 1881, charging him with robbery and succeeding in getting back from him many thousands of pounds by legal proceedings. But while losing faith in Harris himself, they did not abandon his main teaching. In Laurence Oliphant's novel Masollam his view of Harris will be found. Briefly, he held that Harris was originally honest, greatly gifted, and possessed of certain psychical powers. But in the end he came to practise unbridled licence under the loftiest pretensions, made the profession of extreme disinterestedness a cloak to conceal his avarice, and demanded from his followers a blind and supple obedience. Harris in 1876 discontinued for a time public activities, but issued to a secret circle books of verse dwelling mainly on sexual questions. On these his mind ran from the first. In 1891 he announced that his body had been renewed, and that he had discovered the secret of the resuscitation of humanity. He published a book, Lyra triumphalis, dedicated to A. C. Swinburne. He also made a third marriage, and visited England intending to remain there. He was called back by a fire which destroyed large stocks of his wine, and remained in New York till 1903, when he visited Glasgow. His followers believed that he had attained the secret of immortal life on earth, and after his death on the 23rd of March 1906 declared that he was only sleeping. It was three months before it was acknowledged publicly that he was really dead. There can be little or no doubt as to the real character of Harris. His teaching was esoteric in form, but is a thinly veiled attempt to alter the ordering of sexual relations.
The authoritative biography from the side of his disciples is the Life by A. A. Cuthbert, published in Glasgow in 1908. It is full of the jargon of Harris's sect, but contains some biographical facts as well as many quotations. Mrs Oliphant's Life of Laurence Oliphant (1891) has not been shaken in any important particular, and Oliphant's own portrait of Harris in Masollam is apparently unexaggerated. But Harris had much personal magnetism, unbounded self-confidence, along with endless fluency, and to the last was believed in by some disciples of character and influence. (W. R. Ni.)