THE Memoir of Laurence and Alice Oliphant, by Mrs. M, O. W. Oliphant,1 has been eagerly expected, both on account of the social standing and great personal popularity of that extraordinary pair and the literary repute of one of them, and because of the restless curiosity, half sympathetic and half scornful, of the public mind concerning the novel form of mysticism with which their names are associated. The most interesting of all persons to his fellow-creatures to-day is the man who professes to have caught that lost clue to the unseen for which so many are anxiously groping, and still to shape his course along this increasingly difficult life of ours by faith and not by sight. There is a passage in the life of Darwin by his son which every reader of the book will remember ; and a good many, it would be safe to say, will long and clearly remember that passage only. It is where, in his latest years, the great naturalist confesses, with the candid humility which became him so nobly, to that progressive and finally almost complete atrophy of the æsthetic and spiritual perceptions which had accompanied the intense concentration of his faculties upon the business of scientific observation and induction? Once he had loved music and the plastic arts ; once he had believed in a personal God and a future life. Now he found himself powerless to love and believe thus ; hut why, he indirectly suggests, should a private incapacity, for which he can see a perfectly natural and sufficient cause, affect in any way the existence of a transcendent objective reality ? This last word of the gentlest of unbelievers, whose daily life had exemplified with peculiar beauty almost all the accepted “ fruits of the spirit,” seemed to reflect light from an unexpected quarter upon the helpless bewilderment of some who were suffering from a like disability, without perhaps having attained to a similar state of grace. There is, alas, no doubt as to the prevalence of the disease in question, and little as to its contagious character. But if it be in truth a disease, and not a lasting destitution, it may well be susceptible of cure, and Laurence Oliphant commands our attention as one of those who claim to have found a remedy.
There is no need to do more than briefly review the extraordinarily picturesque career of incessant change and adventure which brought Laurence Oliphant, at the age of thirty-five, to the seeming goal of all his worldly ambitions,— a seat in the British House of Commons, and an assured position in that fine world of London where he had hitherto shone merely as a passing visitor.
He was born in 1829, at Cape Town, Africa, where his father, Sir Anthony Oliphant, was then Attorney-General. His pedigree was good, but not specially brilliant. He came, as his kinswoman and biographer gracefully says, “of one of those plain Scotch families in whose absence of distinction so much modest service to their country is implied.” When about ten years old Laurence went with his mother to England, and was for two years in the private school of one Mr. Parr, at the end of which time he was provided with a private tutor in the person of a clever youth fresh from Oxford, and sent to his parents in Ceylon, his father having been appointed Chief Justice there. He was not yet thirteen, but his formal schooling was over. He had lessons in Ceylon, after a desultory fashion, along with the sons of Mr. Moydart, a Scottish neighbor at Colombo ; and from these and the good society he saw he learned all that a gentleman’s son absolutely needs to know. But the fact cannot be too strongly insisted on, whatever bearing it may be thought to have on his wonderful after career, that of mental discipline, in the ordinary acceptation of the term, he had simply none. Moral discipline he had, for his father and mother were both evangelical pietists of the old-fashioned Scottish type; not gloomy and severe, but strict and earnest, doing all in their power to stimulate in their only child the activity of a naturally tender conscience. The boy was very responsive to their appeals, bold and high-spirited, but artless, confiding, and affectionate, with that native grace of bearing which no teaching can better, — altogether, then as always, a most lovable creature. His relations with his parents were delightful, but especially so with his mother, whose incessant preoccupation about the soul of her brilliant son created no barrier between them ; whom afterwards, in the fullness of his manhood, he seems easily to have drawn along with him into the strange paths which he elected to tread ; and who was always more like an elder sister than a parent, for indeed, as Laurence himself used fondly to say, “ there were only eighteen years ” between them.
There was talk, when Laurence was about seventeen, of having him prepared for Cambridge ; but his father got a holiday at this time, a part of which he proposed to spend on the continent of Europe, in one of those leisurely tours in a big traveling carriage which move the thrall of the locomotive to hopeless envy; and the indulgent pair, having been assured by their sapient son that such a trip would be far more advantageous to him than the university, decided to take him along: so that then and there, as it proved, vanished his last chance for an academic course. He made a fitting début the next year in Rome (it was the memorable winter of 1847—48) in a far more congenial and less hackneyed career. He was in the thick of the mobs which drove the monks out of the Propaganda, tore the arms from the front of the Austrian Legation, and compelled the Princess Pamphili Doria to descend from her carriage and set fire to the symbols of despotism heaped up in the Piazza del Popolo. From these and similar adventures his good luck delivered the eighteen-yearold revolutionist without serious consequences ; and he returned with his parents to Ceylon, became his father’s private secretary with appointments to the comfortable amount of £400 a year, and was so far associated with him in his legal business as to lie able to boast in after time that he had been engaged in twenty-three murder cases before be was as many years old. He was the life of the colonial society, being a special favorite with the feminine portion thereof ; and he also found grace in the eyes of a native Indian prince, who halted at Ceylon on his way back from a visit to Lngland, and took Laurence in his suite for a tour through India, introducing him — almost first among Europeans — to the wild joys and unusual perils of an elephant hunt, which the youth describes with great gusto in his letters to the home circle in Ceylon. But he finds room even in these to answer his mother’s anxious inquiries about his spiritual state, remarking with admirable naïveté that it is not easy to practice self-examination upon an elephant, with a companion who is always talking or singing within a few feet: but it is otherwise in a palkee, which is certainly a dull means of conveyance, but forces one into one’s self more than anything.”
He returned to England at the close of 1851, and began eating his dinners ” in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, while society opened wide its arms to the wellconnected and fascinating youth, and a sincere sentiment of philanthropy allured him to try his hand and the power of his voice in the ever terrible slums.
But the course of legal study in London was too long and the ways of London lawyers were too slow for this young citizen of the world, who had also come out as an author by publishing some extracts from the diary which he had kept during his Indian expedition of the year before. He therefore decided, in the summer of 1852, to try the easier ordeal of an examination for the Scottish bar, which was rather a close corporation in those days, and numbered among its members a good many relatives and friends of the Oliphant family.
“ I have been introduced to all my examiners,” he writes, “ and have buttered them properly, and they look goodnatured enough. Robert Oliphant has been overwhelming me with kindness, introducing me right and left, propitiating my examiners, and puffing me splendidly as a colonial lawyer, a young author, and altogether an interesting young personage, that it would be folly to pluck for the want of a little smattering of Latin.”
His confidence was justified by the event, and he consoled himself for the dullness of Edinburgh society after London with the beauty of the place and its romantic associations. He felt a natural need of change in the autumn, however, and started with a young English sportsman, Mr. Oswald Smith, to go salmonfishing on the rivers of Russian Lapland, with ulterior designs upon the white bears of Spitzbergen. But their accoutrements having been confiscated at St,. Petersburg, or rather retained for a duty much larger than these wild huntsmen chose to pay, they decided instead on exploring the inland territory of Russia in Europe, with a view on Oliphant’s part to writing another book. Again chance favored him. They made their way to the Crimea, saw with their own eyes the lay of the land in that fatal peninsula, the fortifications in process of construction at Sevastopol, and all the vast military preparations going forward there ; so that a year later, when the conflict in the East had become inevitable, Oliphant’s little book, the Russian Shores of the Black Sea,, projected and produced in ja lete de cceur, became almost the only authority accessible concerning the configuration of the seat of war ; and Laurence was called to the councils of cabinet, ministers, and his opinions were asked— and freely and graciously given, we may be sure — on the most momentous questions of policy. He thought he should at once have received some important appointment in the East, but this did not immediately come, and in the interval he was fain to accept the offer of Lord Elgin to go as the private secretary of that accomplished nobleman on a special mission to the United States and Canada. It is curious to find this novice in diplomacy, who, by natural gifts and the accidents of his training, or absence of training, had so much in common with the typical son of the universal Yankee nation, characterizing American civilization with that peculiarly candid contempt which is always affected by the English swell. A facetious and very readable account of his Washington experience may be found in Laurence Oliphant’s Episodes in a Life of Adventure, from which it would indeed appear that the society of our national capital in those ante bellum days was, if anything, faster in its pace than it is now. But Lord Elgin’s methods were adapted to his environment, and his enemies used to say that the treaty which he went to negotiate was “ floated through on champagne.”
Abundant use was found for the same great political agent after the embassy had moved on to Canada, where Laurence, who had reconciled himself in a degree to the freedom of W estern manners, entered with much enthusiasm into the round of social gayeties wherewith the wily Lord Elgin surrounded all his goings. Yet the young attaché3 was not without searchings of heart on the score of these festive entertainments, and he tells his tender mother unreservedly what obstacles he found to spiritual progress in wine, woman, and song. We may love him for the rare ingenuousness of the avowals that his temperament,
“ though not precisely amorous,” was “ joyous,” and that he should not mind taking a good deal of champagne, in the way of business, if he did not like it so well. But when it comes to confiding misgivings of this nature to his chief in Quebec, we cannot wonder that the good-natured man of the world should have replied : “ All these comments of yours upon our proceedings distress me very much. After all, we are only amusing people; and if you have got anything to repent of, I wish you’d wait and do it on board ship.” The humor of this appealed to Lord Elgin’s secretary, and he duly reported it to his mother.
Laurence Oliphant returned to Europe in 1855, with his mind full of a new and original plan of campaign for the besieging armies in the Crimea. He was permitted rather than formally authorized to proceed to the East, and lay before Lord Stratford de Redcliffe this plan, of which the principal feature was coöperation with the forces of the native Prince Schamyl in the eastern Caucasus, and he also obtained a place as Times correspondent, His amateur strategy came to naught, though he never ceased to believe and aver that the whole course of the war might have been changed had his views been adopted. While the fighting blood in his veins, of which there was plenty, leaped at the sight of armies in action, and he did some gallant volunteer service, the dread realities inseparable from war, the incalculable anguish, the irremediable destruction, moved him as he had never yet been moved, and imparted a new and grave character to the perpetual undercurrent of his religious reflections. It has all done him good, lie thinks, and strengthened his faith. “ I feel ready for anything that God may see fit, — for disappointment, I hope, as well as success.”
He fell ill at last of that wasting Crimean fever which claimed more victims than the sword, and had to return to England early in 1856. There he amused his convalescence by standing for Parliament, contesting unsuccessfully the burghs of Stirling, for which he afterward sat. In the spring of that year he revisited America along with the famous Mr. Delane of the Times, made a tour of the Southern States with a view to writing a book on negro slavery, prophesied the desperate struggle which was to come five years later, as well as the disruption of the Union which was not to come, and wound up this particular “ episode in a life of adventure ” by joining the filibustering expedition of Walker to Nicaragua. I do not think that Laurence Oliphant’s biographer puts the case too strongly when she describes this latter feat as affording “ practical evidence of his extreme impatience with the as yet undetermined lines of his own life.” It calmed that impatience, no doubt, when a British squadron intercepted the vessel on which Oliphant had embarked, and the commander, who chanced to be Admiral Erskine, a distant cousin of his, took summary possession of the young man " as a British subject being where no British subject ought to be,” and " restored him to all the privileges of his rank,” whatever that may mean. The moral of all which,” Mrs. Oliphant pleasantly adds, " would seem to be that, when you have a habit. of getting into risky positions, the best thing in the world is to belong to a good Scotch family of ‘ kent folk ’ with relations in every department of Her Majesty’s service both at home and abroad.”But surely this is an inverted moral. W hy not say that if you belong to a family of kent folk it is better not to compromise them by getting into risky positions at all ?
But the witchery which Laurence Oliphant exercised over all those who knew him well, and the faith in his capacities which he inspired, prevailed over any passing mistrust of his “ steadiness ;" and the next year — 1857 —saw him on his way to China, once more as the private secretary of Lord Elgin. Their mission was delayed, and partially thwarted, by the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny. They surrendered the contingent of troops which had convoyed them to the East, and had to sit, as Laurence expressed it, “ kicking their heels ” in Hong-Kong, until a fresh detachment could he spared to accompany them.
During this period of inaction he fell again into his old ways of religious musing and speculation. Olipliant revolted from the phase of Christianity which he encountered in the English colony at Hong-Kong, — the “ worldly holiness ” of merchants and chaplains, and missionaries most of all. He freed himself completely at this time, or fancied that he did so, from the strait bonds of the evangelical creed in which he had been brought up, and to which, thus far, he had fitfully but sincerely striven to conform himself. Thorndale, or The Conflict of Opinions, fell in his way, a book long since outgrown, but a thoughtful work which did certainly mark one of the lower levels in the rising flood of rationalism. This ephemeral book seemed to the young seeker for truth a veritable revelation, and he was unspeakably touched and relieved when he found that his mother, to whom he had dreaded owning the change in his views, had also been much impressed by Tliorndale, and had sent it to him at the precise moment when lie was sending it to her.
His own peculiar simplicity and candor are in all that ho says in his private letters concerning ihe workings ol his mind at this time of transition ; but the depth of his experience, as well as the range of his researches, may be judged hy the fact that Longfellow was his favorite poet (he could not read Tennyson), and Theodore Parker his favorite theologian.
The evolution of theoretic heresy was interrupted by the exciting scenes which accompanied the bombardment of Canton ; and when, through the help of this crushing argument, the “mission ’ of Lord Elgin had been brought to a successful termination, we find our adventurer paying a flying visit with his chief to Japan, and being quite fascinated by his first glimpse of that unearthly paradise. In I860 he came back to Europe, turned up at Nice just at the critical moment of the cession of Nice and Savoy to France, espoused Garibaldi’s quarrel with Cavour, and did his best, but happily in vain, to incite both Niçois and Savoyards to an armed resistance against the new arrangement. His diplomatic associations had already procured him an introduction to Count Cavour, with whom he had the honor of dining at Turin, and it w ould be difficult to find, even in Laurence Oliphant’s own collected writings, a more striking instance of inadequate judgement than this on the one great creative statesman of our time, one of the few impassioned and absolutely selfless patriots of any time : “ A thick-set, solid man, with a large, square head and spectacles, an able, mathematical, practical sort of head, without chivalry, principle, or genius.” We are glad at least to be told of the casual agitator that he afterwards modified this opinion; and meanwhile he furnished some very entertaining articles to Blackwood, conceived in the spirit of the naive remarks that “ it is great fun to have another object in Italy than churches and picture galleries,” and that one “cannot stand by and see a good cause ruined, and such blackguards as the Emperor carrying all before him, without wagging a finger.”
A deeper sense of responsibility awoke in this impressionable being when, in June of 1861, he received for the first time an important diplomatic appointment, and was made chargé d’affaires at Yeddo. The unfortunate result of that first English mission to Japan is well known, but Oliphant behaved with great coolness and gallantry on the occasion of the night attack upon the English Embassy, and as he lay severely wounded on board the British gunboat Ringdove, in the stifling July heat, he experienced a peacefulness and exaltation of spirit which find affecting expression in the few lines he succeeded in scrawling to his mother with his bandaged fingers : “My only thought that night was for you. For myself I am glad ; it made me know I could face death, which at one time seemed inevitable. I found my creed or philosophy quite satisfactory.
I take everything as in the day’s work, and that is why, in one sense, I do not feel thankful like others. X have such a profound feeling of being in God’s hands, and having nothing to do with my own fate, that gratitude even would be presumption. ... It must all end ; one lias only to hold on and feel sure that f ile use and object of it all will be evident.”
Such words make one feel that the root of the matter was in him, even in his most dubious enterprises and lawless escapades. It is this which arrests a too easy criticism, and forbids one lightly to cavil at what came later. After three years more of piquant experience, meteor-like apparitions in London society, where he was always warmly welcomed, cruisings in the Mediterranean with the Prince of Wales, solitary rambles in the Abruzzi, in the Turkish provinces, in Polantl, then convulsed by the throes of its last revolution, where we find him lending the power of his generous lungs to the insurgents, as they raised their national anthem within hearing of the Russian camp, this modern knight-errant seems to have resolved to range himself once for all, and fulfill the expectations of his friends. After coquetting with several Scottish constituencies, lie was returned to Parliament for the burghs of Stirling. His place was found ; his innocuous wild oats were sown ; he had nothing now to do but help himself to the dainties of life and make the most of this world. Instead, lie renounced it.
I first be bad signally disappointed the prophecies of those friends who, accustomed to his vivid writing and his fluent and persuasive eloquence in private talk, had expected him to make a great figure in the House of Commons as an orator and debater. During the two years he sat there, he never opened his lips on any question of national or international policy. Afterwards he said that he had been forbidden to do so by the obscure teacher of whom he was already a secret disciple. He was, however, suffered to express himself in the pages of Blackwood, where he came out as a satirist of social follies and hypocrisies in Piccadilly, Fashionable Philosophy, and other contributions of a similar character. Writing of this kind, if done even tolerably well, is sure to amuse and he popular ; and Laurence Oliphant’s was far more than tolerable. But it was never superlatively good, and his biographer, we think, praises it excessively and without discrimination. He lacked somewhat of the literary touch ; he worked with a blunt instrument, and just missed oftentimes, through ignorance of books and imperfection of training, the effect at which he aimed so earnestly. His novels and satires are already unreadable. A little more skill, a better style and method, might have made them classic. He is at his best in statements of fact and tales of teeming incident which he tells without reflection or affectation, speaking freely and offhand, as a man of the world to men of the world. But his equipment of language was quite inadequate to render intelligible the visionary beliefs and metaphysical subtleties which occupied his later years, and those who most incline to accept as supernatural the origin of the message he had to deliver in Sympneumata and Scientific Religion have really most reason to regret his eminently unscientific habit of mind and the frequent confusion and difficulty of his utterance.
The apostle and director whose guidance Laurence Oliphant thus implicitly accepted was an American named Harris, originally a Swedenborgian preacher, some of whose printed sermons had fallen in Lady Oliphant’s way, and impressed her very much by their strain of artless and fervent piety, as early as when Laurence was in Italy. Harris was at this t ime lecturing and preaching in England, in provincial halls, dissenting chapels, wherever he could obtain a hearing for his views concerning the higher life. Afterwards he returned to his native land, and established at Broeton, on the shores of Lake Erie, a small community of his disciples, who were to exemplify his doctrines in their simple, self-denying, and laborious lives. The “ life,” Harris taught, was far more essential than the doctrine: it was to live a life of humble “ use.” not to adopt u creed of any kind, that he summoned the selfish children of men, and summoned them, as he claimed, by direct warrant from heaven. There were to be no distinctions of days or public religious services in his community ; nevertheless, its members were all understood to accept certain of the tenets of the so-called New Church, such as the duality of God. consisting of a union in one person of the masculine and feminine principles, in place of the trinity of the popular theology, a belief in the constant intervention in human affairs of both good and evil spirits, and, more distinctively, that the second coming of Jesus Christ is even now being accomplished in the world by means of a transfusion of his divine life into the bodily frame of his true disciples, the witness of whose conversion, or election, is a certain peculiarity of respiration, recognizable by other disciples, but by those alone. Mrs. M. O. W. Oliphant gives a striking account of the very interesting circumstances under which she herself first came to converse rather intimately with the subject of her memoir.
It was in the House of Commons, the night when Disraeli brought forward the very measure of reform on which the Gladstone ministry had lately been defeated, and when it became evident that the Liberal leader was preparing to oppose as a party measure what he had previously advocated on the lofty ground of principle. The upright and candid soul of Laurence Oliphant — a disinterested Liberal if ever there was one, and indeed always and most conspicuously disinterested in all things — revolted from the adroit jugglery of both famous leaders. He expressed himself sick of his part in so false a business, and, though he was very guarded in his manner of replying to certain inquiries of his kinswoman concerning his new spiritual teacher, she was less amazed than the world in general to learn, a few months later, that he had turned his back on all his advantages and prospects of promotion in England, and thrown in his lot with the colony on Lake Erie.
“ A man,” says Mrs. Oliphant, “ who thus abandons the world for religious motives is almost sure, amid the wide censure that is inevitable, to encounter also a great deal of contempt; yet had he become a monk, either Roman or Anglican, a faint conception of his desire to save his soul might have penetrated the universal mind ; but he did not do anything so comprehensible. He went into no convent, no place of holy traditions, but far away into the wilds, to ‘ live the life,’ as he himself said, to work with his hands for his daily bread, giving up everything he possessed. . . . On his arrival at Brocton, or, as it is formally called, Salem-on-Erie, the home of the community, he was plunged into the severest and rudest elements of life. Coming straight from Mayfair, he was sent to sleep in a large loft, containing only empty orange-boxes and one mattress, and he remembered arranging these articles so as to form some semblance of a room, His earliest work was clearing out a large cattle-shed or stable. He said, often, he recalled in a sort of nightmare the gloomy, silent labor for days and days, wheeling barrows of dirt and rubbish in perfect loneliness, for he was not allowed to speak to any one ; and even his food was conveyed to him by a silent messenger, to whom he might speak no word. Often, after this rough work was ended, and lie came home dead-beat at nine o’clock, he was sent out again to draw water for household purposes till eleven o’clock, till his fingers were almost frost-bitten.”
A two years’ novitiate was required of every new member of the community, during which tests of varying degrees of severity were imposed at the option of the “ master; ” and this period was apparently lengthened by a year in the case of those who came from the higher walks of life, and had to undergo a more complete revolution in their personal and mental habits. A year later — that is to say in 1868 — Lady Oliphant also repaired to Brocton, but she was very seldom allowed to see her son, and never to hold any private communication with him. For Harris arranged his disciples in “ ‘ groups of three or four persons to assimilate ; but if the magnetism of one was found to be injurious to another, Harris was aware of it at once, and instantly separated them. Any strong, merely natural affection was injurious.’
In such cases, all ties of relationship were broken ruthlessly, and separations made between parents and children, husbands and wives, until ‘ the affection was no longer selfish, hut changed into a great spiritual love for the race ; so that, instead of acting and reacting on one another, it could be poured out on all the world, or at least on those who were in a condition to receive this pure spiritual love,’ to the perfection of which the most perfect harmony was necessary, any bickering or jealousy immediately dispelling the influx and ‘ breaking the sphere. ”
All this looks to the uninitiated like a spiritual tyranny of the most ruthless and intolerable order. But both the neophytes, the restless citizen of the world and the delicate lady of over fifty, profess to have found amid their sordid and uncongenial surroundings — at least in these early days — an unprecedented calm and contentment of spirit, and to have relied with the happiest and most childlike faith on the loving purpose of their divinely illuminated leader. In 1870 Laurence was permitted to return to Europe, — his mother had not yet served her term, — and to resume his old manner of life. He came back in the highest health and spirits, hilarious as a schoolboy in the holidays, his faith in Harris and the excellence of his discipline quite unshaken, his personal graces unimpaired, and more fascinating than ever, if possible, to men and to women for the almost incredible character of his latest adventure.
He had sunk all his private means in Brocton, but he had a subsidy from the community sufficient to keep him, very •economically, until he could obtain remunerative employment of some kind which Harris should approve. It was the year of the great Franco-Prussian conflict, and Oliphant soon got a place as war correspondent of the Times, and was found to wield as ready and pithy a pen as ever. He renewed his engagement as Paris correspondent in 1871, and in Paris his mother was permitted to join him for a time. And there, too, alike for his joy and his doom, — as his co-religionists continue to affirm, — he met Alice Le Strange, the beautiful, accomplished, and singularly congenial being whom he made his wife.
On all sides there was great opposition to their union : from Miss Le Strange’s family, who were people of fortune and position, for perfectly conceivable reasons ; and equally on the part of the “ father ” in America, who seems to have dreaded above all things in his community the association and collusion of people of the world. In the month of June, 1872, the wedding ceremony was performed with all due conventionality at St. George’s, Hanover Square ; but soon afterwards the married pair, as well as Lady Oliphant, were recalled to America and sundered as widely as possible. The mother meekly resumed her habits of household drudgery in the Brocton settlement; the bride was bidden to go and support herself by giving music lessons in a rough mining village in California; the bridegroom received orders to attempt the seemingly whimsical task of “living the life ” and serving the interests of the community among the stockbrokers of New York.
All these behests were heroically obeyed ; the daily task was accepted, the pang of separation borne, alike by the sensitive and fragile women and the world-experienced man. His New York residence is supposed to have furnished Laurence Oliphant with the materials for his tale of Irene Macgillicuddy, and for the scathing Autobiography of a Joint-Stock Company which appeared in his old organ, Blackwood. There is no sign on the part of any of the three, for fully seven years more, of a doubt concerning the infallibility of the self-elected pope on Lake Erie, or a weakening of their allegiance to him. From this point onward, however, the story of the trio becomes so exasperating and even painful in its mystery, and so piteous in view of the tragic end appointed, that we lose heart and patience to relate it circumstantially.
In 1878 we find Laurence Oliphant again in Europe, full of the project of getting from the Turkish government a grant of land in Palestine, for the purpose of establishing a colony there, presumably on the principles of Brocton, and of Santa Rosa in California, where a new settlement had recently been started under the personal auspices of “ Father ” Harris, He even writes to The Athenaeum, with a mixture of sanguine simplicity and involuntary cynicism the like of which it would be hard to find, that the northern and more fertile half of Palestine is capable of immense development, and “ any amount of money can he raised upon it, owing to the belief which people have that they would be fulfilling prophecy and bringing on the end of the world. I don’t know why they are so anxious for this latter event, but it makes the commercial speculation easy, as it is a combination of the financial and sentimental elements which will, I think, insure success.” No grant was obtained from the Turks, but the results of Oliphant’s reconnoitering tour were embodied in his interesting book on The Land of Gilead. The mystic spell of the East took full possession of his soul, and eventually he decided to fix his own home among the simple German colonists of Haifa, on the Bay of Acre. But this was after his revolt, or emancipation, from Harris.
All these years the husband and wife had remained apart, and the former even confessed at one time to his biographer that Harris entertained doubts, notwithstanding the stern tests to which he had put them, whether the lady of his (Oliphant’s) choice were indeed his true mate, the partner of his spiritual breath, his “ sympneumatic ” soul. Happily this crafty suggestion had no effect, except perhaps upon their own faith in the arbitrary ruler of their destinies.
Late in the year 1880 Mrs. Laurence Oliphant was permitted to rejoin her husband in England. “ Their meeting made December June ; ” they were still one in heart and in self-devoted purpose ; henceforth, during the very short time that remained to them here, there was to be no shadow on their mutual confidence.
They passed the next winter together in Egypt, where Laurence Oliphant gathered the material for his book on The Land of Khemi. The next summer a great sorrow and a great shock befell them both. A rumor reached them from Brocton that Lady Oliphant was in precarious health. Laurence hurried to his mother’s side, and found her dying of cancer. The “ father,” as has been said, had now taken up his residence with his new colony at Santa Rosa, and those few sheep in the wilderness of western New York were deprived of the blessing of his immediate supervision. The faith of the mother and son, though much had already occurred to shake it, still sufficed to take them across the weary continent to the door of the mysterious being who had required and received so much from them both. There, however, —there seems no reasonable doubt about it, — they were refused not only aid, but even admission, except upon terms which neither could any longer accept. Two days later Lady Oliphant died, and her son, in great anguish of mind at the double loss and terrible revulsion of mind which overtook him, rent and cast away forever the bonds which had bound him so long.
A controversy is even now raging in the daily and weekly press of England concerning the circumstances which attended this painful rupture, and some disciples of Harris vehemently impugn the scrupulously mild and temperate statements of Mrs. M. O. W. Oliphant. But the defense of their idol is couched in terms which, to the outsider, seem strangely ambiguous; and there exists documentary evidence that, in his desperate determination to prevent Oliphant’s secession, Harris first applied to the wife in England for authority to shut her husband up in a madhouse, and then, upon her refusal, denounced upon both the rebels, for their disobedience, the untimely fate which too truly overtook them.
Fortunately, Laurence Oliphant found powerful friends among the world’s people in California, — as indeed he won such always and everywhere, — who served him loyally and efficiently at this sad crisis of his history. Chief among these was Mr. Walker, of San Rosario, who has lately interfered with much dignity and authority in the controversy above mentioned to correct certain misstatements on the part of Harris’s defenders. Through this gentleman’s exertions a portion of the property which both Laurence and Alice Oliphant had invested in Harris’s scheme was redeemed, and the site of the Brocton community was finally made over to them. They gladly assumed along with it, as their peculiar charge, the pathetic remnant who were still toiling in the old fields, forsaken of their guide; and several of these " dear Brocton people,” as Alice always called them, subsequently joined the Oliphants in Palestine, and became members of their modest household at Haifa. The most wonderful scene of all, perhaps, is that which “ends this strange, eventful history,” and which shows the faith of this pair in Harris’s original revelation, surviving their faith in the man, and in fact sustaining them to the last.
After their settlement in the East, there ensued for them a brief season of great outward peace and mutual contentment of soul. They lived simply and laboriously still, on terms of the frankest equality with their plain friends and co-religionists from over sea, and with the sturdy German peasant folk about them. Every passing European traveler was made welcome under their roof. They exercised the large and simple hospitality of the early world. They had stripped themselves of every factitious advantage without detriment to their personal attractiveness or the social charm in which they were so like one another, and so superior to most other people. Sometimes they received guests of great distinction. General Gordon, that other modern mystic, with whom Laurence Oliphant had so much in common, and whom he had met in China when both were young, halted with them in February, 1884, on his way to the accomplishment of his own final sacrifice. The two men, though differing widely on some points, discovered a deep mutual sympathy; partly, perhaps, as one of them archly suggested, “because each of us is considered one of the craziest fellows alive.” But we agree with Mrs. M. O. W. Oliphant that “to have heard those two crazy fellows talking, as they wandered by the edge of the sunlit sea, would have been something to remember.”
The heat of Haifa during the summer months proved so oppressive that a sort of lodge had to be built for the refuge of the colonists, in a Druse village, higher up on the slopes of Carmel; and there on those historic heights, on the 2d of January, 1886, Alice Oliphant died. Her slender strength had been fatally undermined by the severities of her life in the wild West, hut she succumbed suddenly to an attack of fever contracted on the shores of the Lake of Tiberias. In the last year of her life she had dictated to her husband, or rather the two had produced, by virtue of that “ marriage of true minds ” which constituted the main article of their spiritualistic creed, the singular but undeniably striking book entitled Sympneumata.
After his wife’s death and the blank days of uttermost desolation which immediately followed it, Laurence Oliphant enjoyed, as he believed, a fuller influx of her spirit than ever before; and it was under her supposed inspiration from the other world that, two years later, among the same hill solitudes where she had breathed her last, he wrote out that fuller and more formal exposition of his beliefs which is embodied in Scientific Religion. He had wished to call this book The Divine Feminine, but his publishers perceived objections.
This was Oliphant’s last work; the joint legacy to the world, as he firmly believed, of himself and his counterpart in heaven. He still traveled restlessly back and forth between England and the East, seeking, in the spirit of the primitive apostles, everywhere and by all means to disseminate the truth as he had received it. He even paid one more brief visit to America. But his bodily strength was visibly declining, and in November. 1888. he died in the house of one of the comrades of his youth, at Twickenham on the Thames. Three months before he had performed one of the most inexplicable and seemingly inconsistent acts of his eccentric career. He had contracted a second marriage with a daughter of the late Robert Dale Owen, who shared his visionary views, and nursed him in his last illness as only a wife could have done, but with a full understanding on both sides that this union of sad expediency was without prejudice to that spiritual first marriage of which the world had received such solemn attestation. The actual disciples of Harris presume to assert, as we have said, that both Laurence and Alice Oliphant died untimely because they denied the truth of his revelation, and thus cut themselves off from certain sources of life which are supposed to reside in the “father.” It is even claimed by some that Harris himself and those who truly keep the faith will not die at all. But we have seen that Alice was cut off by malarial fever, while Laurence’s malady was the same as his martyred mother’s, and no doubt inherited from her. Its course was rapid and singularly painless. The patient’s mind was always clear, his faith confident and happy. He reverted, at the very last, to the religious language of his earliest years, and died with such phrases upon his lips as have for ages been deemed conclusive of a simple Christian hope.
It is worthy of remark that in Oliphant’s case, as well as in Count Tolstoi’s and that of certain other of the more radical innovators of our day, we are driven back perforce to the first century of our era for anything like a near parallel to their course, or plausible clue to their position. Viewed in the light of the New Testament, the actions of these men seem not altogether strange, whatever we may think of their tenets. For Laurence Olipliant’s peculiar beliefs the reader is referred to his latest writings. He will find much hard and bewildering reading there, for the style is labored and obscure, and some remarkable reasoning, But he will also find an unflinching altruism and an ideal standard of morality: while the theory of the blended fatherhood and motherhood of God, as reflected in the new and closer union of true counterparts in married life, has unquestionably, as the biographer says, recommended itself to some of the best of people as a true revelation from heaven.
Were it indeed such, it could do no more at the outset than arrest the attention and claim the acceptance of a few good people. The Christian revelation itself did no more than this. But the testimony of Laurence Oliphant’s life is far less ambiguous than that of his books. He shrank from no sharpest test of moral sincerity. By nature one of the most pleasure-loving of mortals, he stopped at no sacrifice of ease, or wealth, or joy. He stultified himself in the eyes of the worldly no less by what he did than by what he wrote; nevertheless, his place is assuredly among those who have counted not their lives dear, so they might grasp the Highest Good. He followed, as some indeed in every age have done, the highest of known examples in choosing the " form of a servant,” and resolutely abiding by that self-denying choice. It doth not yet appear what the sons of God shall hereafter be, but if the amazing promises to those who have left houses and lands and kindred for the kingdom of heaven’s sake retain any lasting validity, or ever had any intelligible meaning, their fulfillment must be for such as he. Putting that celestial recompense quite out of the question, however, one is tempted to declare them sufficiently rewarded here it they are saved from spiritual atrophy ; if they retain, as this wayward, uncalculating, credulous, fallible, and yet faithful pair undoubtedly did, a happy faith in things divine, an open vision of the unseen.
It would he almost impertinent to praise the manner in which Mrs. M. O. W. Oliphant has executed her delicate and difficult task. Her great literary aptitude and experience, the keenness of her perceptions, the breadth of her charity, the mingled shrewdness and gentleness of her judgments, and her power, so many times exemplified as a sympathetic and eloquent yet discerning biographer, all pointed her out as the fittest person in the world to tell this extraordinary story. Her view of the prophet Harris appears to us the most charitable that the case permits, and essentially the right one. He was honest in the beginning, — a single-minded and devout fanatic. He was so still at the time when he obtained his despotic influence over the candid but impressionable mind of Lady Oliphant and her son. But his head was turned and his heart corrupted by the possession of unlawful power; while the assumption of a direct warrant from heaven was his first fatal falsehood, and the parent of many more.
Mrs. Oliphant is really so great a lady of letters, and we have all received so largely of her bounty, that we feel she has a sort of right to certain literary privileges and favorite solecisms of language ; and that it would be petty, if not unseemly, to cavil at her for sometimes confounding shall and will, for her supposed American use of the word allow for concede or admit, and for insisting upon writing diplomat as a masculine form of diplomate. Let us rather close this imperfect survey of what is at least the most suggestive and affecting book of an arid year with a significant passage from the author’s final summing up of her subject: —
“ The priests and martyrs of the old ages had even too much conscience of what they were doing, and never made light of the sacrifice ; but the nineteenth century has this advantage over its predecessors which we call the ages of faith. It is all for materialism, for profit, for personal advantage ; the most self-interested, the least ideal, of ages. But when, here and there, a generous spirit, emancipated from these bonds, rises above the age, his sacrifice is no longer marked with gloom, or made into an operation of pain; it is a willing offering,—more than willing, unconsidered, lavish, gay, the joyous giving up, without a backward look or thought, of everything for the love of God — except the love of man.”
- Memoir of the Life of Laurence Oliphant and of Alice Oliphant, his Wife. By MARGARET OLIPHANT W. OLIPHANT. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1891.↩