Thomas Lake Harris: A Strange Prophet

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Thomas Lake Harris: A Strange Prophet is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in Psychic Science in april 1928.

Thomas Lake Harris (1823-1906) was an Anglo-American preacher, spiritualistic prophet, poet, and vintner. Harris is best remembered as the leader of a series of communal religious experiments, culminating with a group called the Brotherhood of the New Life in Santa Rosa, California.

Thomas Lake Harris: A Strange Prophet

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When one finds that a philosophy is obscure, and when one fails after an earnest effort to get it clear, one may usually conclude that the teacher is also obscure and that the subject has not been clearly thought out. For some time I have endeavoured to get an understanding of Thomas Lake Harris, a mystic about whom there has been the utmost difference of opinion ranging from the Messianic to the diabolical. In my search for truth I have read much that he has written and I have carefully perused his "Life and World Work" by a devoted follower, Mr. Arthur Cuthbert, who claims to have shared some of the same psychic experiences. I have also studied "Sympneumata," written by Mrs. Laurence Oliphant and edited by her famous husband. Instead of clearing up obscurities this leaves them more obscure than ever. One earnestly wishes that the husband had expounded the matter, since he could write English, instead of the wife with her interminable and involved sentences which average about two to a page. Finally I read the view of Harris taken by the novelist, Mrs. Oliphant, who was Laurence's aunt, and who takes a very severe view of the American prophet. At the end of it all I find myself in the same perplexity as ever, and have no sure idea whether I am dealing with a megalomaniac ranter endowed with considerable worldly cunning, or with one who really had a breath of the divine afflatus — whether his philosophy was a cloud of words or whether he had an authentic message.

I am consoled in my indecision, and reassured as to my own judgment when I clearly see that the astute Laurence Oliphant, after twelve years of most intimate association, cannot answer for the real character of his associate. His famous pen-drawing of him in "Masollam" pictures a dual personality with two voices and two ranges of vision, and it ends with the words, "He might be the best or the worst of men." A short sketch of my impressions of this curious man and of his doctrines may be of interest to readers. Harris was born in Fenny Stratford in Buckinghamshire in 1828, and was five years old when his parents emigrated to the United States, settling in Utica, in the north of the State of New York. This region seems to have been to an extraordinary degree the centre of new religions or pseudo-religious impulses from that time onwards. Spiritualism, Mormonism, and, as I believe, Christian Science, all had their original springs in this geographical centre. Harris who was independent of each of these movements, was destined to make a very definite contribution of his own to the general spiritual urge and out-reach which was characteristic of the time and place.

His people were narrow Calvinistic Baptists, and at an early age Harris rebelled against their sour doctrines and accepted the wider and more charitable teaching of the Universalists. An officer has told me how upon his inquiring into the religion of a recruit the Sergeant answered, "'E calls 'imself a christadelphian, but to my mind 'e's little better than a 'eathen." Probably this was the view taken of the Universalists in those days of dogma. It was the nature of Harris to reject all dogmas, until he came to put forward some of his own. He was twenty years of age when he changed his religion, and he has left it on record that his dead mother appeared to him at that time and said, "My dear child, my poor child, you must all remember that God is the father of all men and that all mankind are your brothers."

He seems to have been a most eloquent preacher and soon won a considerable name, but the rather vague tenets of his new creed made him crave for something in the nature of concrete proof. Some chance of this was offered at this period by the use of Spiritualism, and in order to get clearer views upon the subject Harris paid a visit to Andrew Jackson Davis, who after some experiences as a hypnotic subject had finally become an inspired medium. The meeting and intercourse of these two men was certainly a notable event for in their different ways they were both remarkable characters, and each has a niche of his own in religious history. Harris was twenty-four at the time and Davis twenty,two most singular youths. Davis converted Harris to the idea of spirit intercourse and for some years Harris was an enthusiastic preacher and leader. Davis, however, had some peculiar 'amatory adventures, depicted in his "Magic Staff," and Harris, who professed a deeper regard for the marriage vow, was disillusioned and turned as violent an opponent as he had been a friend of the Spiritualistic movement. His attitude seems to have been supremely illogical for the ill-doings, granting that they exist, of any member of a philosophy cannot alter the facts upon which the Philosophy is founded. It would be as reasonable for an inquirer to discard Christianity in order to show disapproval of Judas. The fact remains, however, that Harris was seen no more on Spiritualistic platforms and that his voice was raised against all that he had supported. To anyone who is acquainted with the true tenets of this cult it must be obvious that he had never grasped their meaning and seemed to consider that an artificial hypnotism was essential to mediumship. His objections are mostly founded upon the supposition that one comes in contact with evil spirits. One may find plenty of evil spirits in the flesh, but one chooses one's company and one finds that it is not difficult to come into contact with the higher ones as well. This great fact Harris ignored and from that moment his life took a turn of its own, and he lost touch with any philosophy which is capable of clear expression, though this influenced strongly a small circle of followers.

He still ministered to a considerable church in New York, the congregation of which, including Horace Greely, must have been sorely exercised in endeavouring to keep pace with, or to understand the spiritual gyrations of their pastor. It was called the Independent Christian Church, and was still on universalist lines. He narrates that addresses which he delivered there came to him by what Spiritualists now call automatic writing, and that the purpose and ultimate effect of them was the redemption of destitute children — an admission which one would have supposed must modify his condemnation of spirit intercourse. At this period he was one of those who founded a colony called the Mountain Cave Association, which was dissolved after a short and not too honourable existence. It was this first experiment in communal life which no doubt suggested the larger developments to come.

It was at this time, about 1850, that Harris received according to his own account, a direct revelation from a majestic angel-man who turned his thoughts into a special channel. This tale of the direct apparition occurs in Swedenborg's first vision, in Smith's revelation of Mormonism, and in Davis' account of his experience in the hills near Poughkeepsie. Considering the recent close association with the latter seer it is not entirely impossible that Harris' vision may have been subconsciously suggested by what he had heard of the apparition seen by. Davis. The first fruits of. the new departure were a long poem of 6,000 lines which was completed in the extraordinary time of twenty-seven working hours, scattered over fourteen days. It may be said once for all that Harris in this and many subsequent poems, which were so copious that it is doubtful if any writer has ever composed so much, showed himself to be a true poet of a high order. Laurence Oliphant put him at the very top, and without being able to go so far as that, I should say that he stood very high. There are times when in his strong simplicity of phrase he reminds one of Blake, and there are times when his high spirituality touches the edge of Shelley. As an example of the former I would take:—

"Nine months I lay in a Lady's womb,
She folded me all in her laughing bloom,
She hallowed me while I filled and fed
From the nectar-wells of her mother-head."

As to the latter almost any page from his longer poems would illustrate my meaning.

Lyrical speech seems to have been his natural expression, which accounts for a certain rhythm and majesty 'in his addresses. A lady who knew him at that period wrote of him:—

"When in Utica he would come to my sitting-room of an evening and sitting down on a rather high chair — one which allowed him to swing his feet rhythmically, he would compose poetry by the mile — exquisite thoughts, exquisitely worded. My memories of those quiet hours are very beautiful. There was nothing impressive about his person then ; he was too thin, really lank, but his eyes were very full of thought and his voice had a rare charm. His poetic utterances were to me like views of sunset and sunrise which we enjoy internally but which we cannot remember."

This last sentence seems to me to be very good criticism,well observed and clearly expressed. The reason seems to be that it is all too transcendental and ethereal. When Tennyson discusses the deeper things of life there are constant touches which bring one back to human experience. Harris is off the ground all the time. There is no anchor by which one may attach him to the current life of man. Hence one reads, as the lady says, with admiration for the limpid verse and the lofty thought, and yet at the end there is little which has remained as part of one's own mental storehouse.

And now the time had come when Harris had to strike out a path of his own into the unknown, and a very vague and difficult path it is for anyone else to indicate — far less to follow. There is an objective side to it and there is a theoretical or dogmatic side. The objective side of this system lay in the assertion that by some system of breathing certain psychic results may be obtained, and the mind elucidated as to things divine. It is to be presupposed that such exercises of the diaphragm or solar plexus — for those are indicated as being physically involved — are concomitant with mental and spiritual efforts, otherwise the matter would be no more a sign of progress than results to be obtained by standing upon one's head. On the other hand one would suppose that if the mental and spiritual effort had been made the advance would be automatic and independent of physical exertions. However, the theory is as I have stated, and there are found other .witnesses, such as Mr. Cuthbert, who assert that they have themselves gone through the early stages of illumination as produced in this fashion. There are said to be seven stages in this advance by breath, each of them to be obtained by long and apparently painful effort. No one save Harris himself had ever attained the seventh, though all his followers, including his successive wives, three in number, were on various rungs of the ladder. The fact that Harris himself was supposed to have passed through the whole seven degrees was the basis for claims which must startle if not convince the general public, since it was seriously stated that the Christ was the only person who had ever done so much. The process, however, seems to have escaped the notice of the apostles since it is mentioned in no gospel, and Paul who gave so full a list of the spiritual gifts has said nothing on the subject.

At the same time it is a considerable body of evidence that by a certain control of the breath some exalted mental condition can be obtained. In Swedenborg's case the more shallow his breathing the more spiritual his frame of mind. Cataleptics appear not to breathe at all, and are from time to time buried alive in consequence, but the condition seems to go with remarkable enfranchisement of the spirit. The Hindus have reduced it to a system and claim similar results. I can remember in Canterbury, New Zealand, meeting some people who practised it, and who assured me that it is was not without danger, as the excursion of the soul leaves an empty house behind, which may attract a parasitic tenant. However, that may be, Harris's general claim meets with some support, though I know no proof that any high spirituality is necessarily associated with what would rather seem to be a curious physiological experiment. This Breathing phenomenon is, so far as I know, the only objective part of Harris's philosophy. We come, therefore, to its dogmatic side, which consists in the assertion of the dual sex in everyone, including the Creator. Bi-une is the word which covers the philosophy. So far is it pushed that even a name is given to this second personality, so that the Lady Jessa is associated with the Lord Jesus, and Harris himself is closely intertwined with the Lady Lily, to the not unnatural confusion of his earthly wives: So high is the Lady Lily that the whole celestial region after death is named Lilistan ! This dual internal mating is supposed to do away with the coarser processes of nature and to free mankind from the lustful morass in which he is accused of wallowing, but as Harris had not only wives but also children, it would appear that the higher path was not all-sufficing.

In that most incomprehensible book "Sympneumata," which might well be translated into common English, there is a disquisition upon the bi-une gods of old, in which Isis and Osiris, Hathor and Ra, Bel and Bilit, with many others, are duly paired. Considering the practical results of these old systems one would think that their teachings are rather to be avoided than followed. What is to be gained, or how would human life be elevated by our following hermaphroditic divinities? So far as the case is applicable to human beings it has, of course, that amount of obvious truth that a man does reproduce many of the qualities of his mother, and a girl may do the same by the father, and so each sex may manifest its presence in the composite result. There are also anatomical facts which correspond with the psychological unison. But when this is said one cannot see that much remains. The discussion of sex in connection with the Deity seems incongruous and repulsive, nor does Harris ever give any clear reason why such strange dogmas should be given to a world which is already sick of unproved assertions, and struggling hard to escape from wild faiths into a region of concrete proof. Had Harris ever really understood Spiritualism he would have realised that this concrete proof for which the whole intellect of the human race is yearning, may well be found in that direction.

There were some other peculiar beliefs in the Harris cosmogony. One was that the planets were inhabited by spirits, some superior and some inferior to those upon earth. There was a reaction between these beings and ourselves. Another was that fairies, or as he preferred to call them, fays, played a very important part in the development of man's spirit. That such creatures exist and that they play some lowly part in nature is held by many and is supported by evidence which will bear examination, but for the ambitious spiritual role here assigned to them there is no evidence at all, unless we extend the term "fay" to include those higher entities or angels who may reasonably he supposed to have some guiding influence in our lives.

Apart from obscure doctrines there was one side of the Harris System with which many of us would cordially agree. It was that we would do well to get back to the simple life. He founded successive communities for this alleged purpose, and the system adopted was called "The Use." The first colony was assembled in a farm house at Wassiac in 1861. In 1863 it moved to America, where it centred round a mill and a bank. In the latter institution Mr. Harris, the president, is depicted as spending much of his time. "Here the people come on business together and others would sit down and smoke and talk over their affairs and general politics, while the President himself would be frequently occupying one of the chairs in the midst of them and entering into full sympathy with them in a perfectly natural, ordinary, neighbourly fashion." It is a pleasant picture which Mr. Cuthbert draws, but somehow one wishes it was not a bank.

Just about this time a most amazing thing happened. The prophet had gone with his wife to England for the purpose of securing the publication of some of his works. While there he gave some lectures or sermons at the Steinway Hall. His ornate and rather inflated style of eloquence, which, like his poetry, is limpid and vaguely beautiful, attracted audiences, among whom was Lady Oliphant, the mother of the famous writer and diplomatist, one of the most rising men in England. She brought her son to hear the further lectures, and the views of the prophet struck some sympathetic mystic chord in their own bosoms. The idea of the simple community life with its dreamy religious background appealed strongly to natures which were weary of the empty ways of fashion, and unsatisfied by the unreasonable dogmas of the churches. They liquidated their business affairs, left their. homes and threw in their lot with the American community. This access of fresh strength and money enabled the Colonists to move to Brocton near Buffalo, where some large farms were taken and the whole project took on a more ambitious aspect.

Those who wish to see a critical and adverse view of the matter will find it in Mrs. Oliphant's life of her famous nephew. One can well understand that it was galling to the pride of a grand old Scottish family that their finest product should come under the complete sway of what seemed to them to be a very dubious American adventurer. How complete that sway was may be judged from the fact that the next ten or twelve years of Laurence Oliphant's life were spent in menial agricultural tasks, which included the selling of strawberries at the railway station to the passengers in the trains. There is, we must admit, something of beauty and of sanctity in this utilitarian age, that a man should humble himself for spiritual ends, and yet when one considers the exceptional gifts with which this particular man had been endowed, one doubts whether anything could excuse the diversion of his energies into a channel so useless to the world. Such was the complete subservience of the young Scot that he had with difficulty to get leave of absence from Brocton in order to act as war correspondent in the Franco-German war. Even more incredible he had to ask leave to marry, and after the marriage, was separated for a long time from his wife by orders of the autocratic prophet. It is amazing how any man of spirit could submit to such a position, and no adequate explanation of it has ever been given. It would seem that Harris held a fairly substantial hostage for Oliphant's behaviour in the fact that a large part of the latter's fortune was locked up in the Brocton property, which, however, was not held in the name of Harris, but in that of the community at large. Oliphant was not the only person of distinction in the little company, for there were several Japanese who had come, presumably on his recommendation, as he had made many friends in that nation during his diplomatic visit to their country. One of these Japanese afterwards became Ambassador at London and a second Ambassador at Paris, so that either the personality or the teaching of Harris must have had some very real attraction for intelligent followers.

The prophet, in spite of his seven stages of breathing and the agonies of spirit or of body which those stages represented, seems to have had a very human side in his complex personality. He enjoyed the good things of life, including a cigar and a glass of wine, while the heartiness of his laughter was proverbial. He had an excellent head for commercial affairs and he built a second bank, a hotel, a general store, a railway restaurant, and many other amenities in connection with his colony. Finally, finding a larger and more profitable field available he started a considerable vineyard at Fountain Grove in the extreme south of California, which no doubt still produces the raisins by which so many private stills mitigate the austerities of prohibition. One would have a fuller sympathy with these activities if they were not mixed up with strange religious jargon, so that it was actually claimed that. the wine from the vineyards contained within it "divine-natural vital substance."

In the midst of his worldly work Harris found time to write a great deal both of verse and of prose. Of the former I have already given my opinion. I cannot speak so favourably of the prose. Mr. Cuthbert in his "Life and World" devotes some seventy pages to quotations from what he calls "this great book," which was afterwards published as "The New Republic" and "God's Breath in Man." There may be an esoteric meaning to it all which gives it a special value to his followers, but on the face of it to an ordinary critic it would appear to be turgid stuff with no trace of greatness, and with a considerable tendency to both blasphemy and obscenity. I will confess that I am influenced in my judgment of Harris by this work, and that after reading it I cannot doubt that the man who wrote it had at that time an utterly unbalanced mind, and that as a guide he could only lead one to disaster. The man's life was many-sided however, and, as I have tried to show, there were other aspects of it and other literary productions which were less open to criticism.

The Laurence Oliphant episode came to an end after some twelve years of subjection. There is no record how the rift began, but both the writer and his mother had gradually become disillusioned. It can hardly be imagined that such writings as those alluded to above could fail to repel educated and sensitive minds. They may have found the worldly and successful prophet a very difficult person to the spiritual enthusiast who had originally led them into the wilderness. The parting was by no means friendly. Oliphant took legal processes in order to recover some portion of his property, while Harris in return tried to put Oliphant into a lunatic asylum. Eventually some part of the money was recovered and Oliphant moved away on his curious orbit, winding up at El Harja in Syria, where he spent his latter years. The fact that he allowed his wife to publish "Sympneumata" and that the book is adorned by many scraps of verse which, though-unacknowledged by the authoress, are clearly from the pen of Harris, show that in some respects his views about the prophet had not been changed.

There is little more to record of Harris, who dwelt for the most part on his Californian Estate, save that in his seventieth year he announced that he had passed his final stage of breathing and had thus reached what was claimed to be a unique position among mankind. He announced the event in the Sonoma Democrat and his statement is more definite than most of the cloud of words which obscure the subject. He wrote : "For the last two or three years I have been secluded most of the time in my mountain retreat working to the final solutions of the problems that opened in my discoveries of forty years ago. The final problem that faced me during these years was... how without passing through physical disease shall man practically embody and realise the resurrection... The alternative was success or dissolution. Success came as suddenly and pleasantly as when a deep-laden storm-tossed ship glides over the harbour-bar from the raging outside sea and swings at ease in a land-locked haven. I have passed through December. I am in May time... No more an old man of nine and seventy, but now renewed in more than the physical and mental powers of the early prime, my retirement is at an end... I leave the disposition of my honour to the slow but finally just unveilings of coming time. Each hour of my days must be devoted to labour of necessity and beneficence."

These brave words should have been the cry of the Centenarian. It was not destined to be. It was not, however, until he had reached the ripe but not extraordinary age of eighty-three that Thomas Lake Harris took leave of his Californian vineyard and journeyed on to Lilistan or whatever other sphere of the coming world he had earned by his strange mixed career. He has certainly left, behind him one of the most curious personal and religious problems with which I am acquainted.

Crowborough. August, 1927.