Brotherhood of New Life
Brotherhood of New Life
Portland, NY
Return to Chautauqua County Gen Web page.

HARRIS, THOMAS LAKE (1823-1906), Brotherhood of the New Life founder.
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 (*Chautauqua County, NY) on the shore of Lake Erie. Harris
established there a winemaking 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 Ohphant's own portrait of Harris in
Masollam is apparently unexaggerated. But Harris had much personal
magnetism, unbounded self-confidence, along with endless fluency, anti to
the last was believed in by some disciples of character and influence.

** Emanuel Swedenborg
Scientist, Philosopher, Politician and Theologian
Swedenborg's theological works form the basis of the Swedenborgian Church
or, as it is sometimes called today, The Church of the New Jerusalem.
Although he never intended a church denomination to be founded or named
after him, a society was formed in London 15 years after his death. This
1787 organization eventually spawned the present General Convention of
Swedenborgian Churches

SOURCE - Dolores Davison, 2003