Thomas Lake Harris

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For other people named Thomas Harris, see Thomas Harris (disambiguation).
Thomas Lake Harris
Born 15 May 1823 (1823-05-15)
Fenny Stratford, Buckinghamshire, England
Died 23 March 1906 (1906-03-24)
Home town Santa Rosa, California, USA
Successor Nagasawa Kanaye
Religion Swedenborgian

Thomas Lake Harris (May 15, 1823 – March 23, 1906) was an American mystic, spiritualistic prophet and poet.


Early life[edit]

Harris was born at Fenny Stratford in Buckinghamshire, England. 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 questionable character named Andrew Jackson Davis (1826-1910). After Davis had been publicly exposed, Harris established a congregation in New York.


About 1850 Harris 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. Harris was able to compose verse in his head and dictate it in essentially finished form. This talent supported his claim that he was in mental contact with spirit entities such as "The Lily Queen." It also led to the leadership of a small religious cult to whose members received Harris's regular revelations from the Beyond.


Harris founded in 1861 a commune, or utopian religious 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 twenty Japanese from Satsuma Province, some American ladies of position, and most prominently by Laurence Oliphant with his wife and mother. The community — the Brotherhood of the New Life — decided to settle at the village of Brocton, New York on the shore of Lake Erie. Its nature was co-operative rather than communistic, and farming and industrial occupations were engaged in by his followers, numbering at one time about 2,000 in the United States and Great Britain

In Brocton, Harris established a winemaking industry. In reply to the objections of teetotallers, Harris 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 bisexual, 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.

Later years[edit]

Harris took part of the community to Santa Rosa, California, where he created the Fountain Grove community in about 1875. For a time in 1876 Harris discontinued public activities, but issued, to a secret circle, books of verse dwelling mainly on sexual questions. In 1891 he announced that his body had been renewed, and that he had discovered the secret of the resuscitation of humanity. He also made a third marriage, and visited England intending to remain there. However, Harris 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. He was succeeded by Nagasawa Kanaye, who led the sect until his death in 1934.

Dissension and influence[edit]

The Oliphants broke away from the sect in about 1881, charging Harris 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 practice 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.

The utopian ideals promoted by Harris had significant influence among his Japanese followers. These included:

  • Arai Osui, who initially transmitted Harris's ideas to Japan.
  • Hatakeyama Yoshinari (1843–1876), later president of Tokyo Kansei Gakko.
  • Ichiki Kanjuro - commonly known as Mitsumura Junzo (1842–1919), later an admiral in the Japanese navy.
  • Samejima Hisanobu (1846–80) later ambassador
  • Yoshida Kiyonari (1845–91), later ambassadors
  • Nagasawa Kanaye (1852–1934), Harris's California lieutenant who acted as developer and manager of the community's 2,000 acres (8 km2) of vineyards near Santa Rosa. He also succeeded Harris and acted as leader of the brotherhood until 1934.

Harris's community left a significant stamp on the history of Santa Rosa and today that part of town is still called Fountaingrove, the round barn that was part of the winery of Harris's protege, Kanawe Nagasawa, still dominates the area, and there the street, Thomas Lake Harris Drive, is named for him. A local park and lake were recently named in Nagasawa's honor.

Publications and sources[edit]

Harris published a book, Lyra triumphalis, dedicated to A. C. Swinburne. His teaching was esoteric in form, but has been considered a thinly veiled attempt to alter the ordering of sexual relations.

A good deal of the verse published by Harris in more than 40 volumes had what we would call today science-fictional themes. He depicted interplanetary empires, imperial cities entirely covering planets, and the "ancient astronaut" myth, in which space travellers help early humans with agriculture, technology and spiritual development.[citation needed]

The Path (Vol. VI, February, 1892, pp. 346–47) printed the article “The Brotherhood of the New Life” by W. Q. Judge stating that the “The Brotherhood of the New Life” has nothing in common with the Theosophical Society. Judge was a follower of Helena P. Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy.

The authoritative biography from the side of his disciples is the book Life by A. A. Cuthbert, published in Glasgow in 1908. Containing language common to Harris's sect, it also contains some biographical facts as well as 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.


  • Wisdom of Angels (1856)
  • Arcana of Christianity (1857)
  • Modern Spiritualism (1860)
  • God's Breath in Man (1891)
  • The Wisdom Of The Adepts: Botherhood of The New Life -- Esoteric Science in Human History. (1884) Private Printing. Reprint - (1975) AMS Press, Fountain Grove, Calif. ISBN 0-404-10721-4