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Laurence Oliphant (1829 – 23 December 1888) was a British author, international traveller, diplomatist and mystic. Best known for his 1870 satirical novel Piccadilly, he spent a decade in later life under the influence of the spiritualist prophet Thomas Lake Harris.


Early life

Laurence Oliphant was the son of Sir Anthony Oliphant (1793-1859). At the time of his son's birth, Sir Anthony was attorney-general in Cape Colony, but was soon transferred as Chief Justice to Ceylon. He spent his early childhood in Colombo where his father purchased a home called 'Alcove' in Captains Gardens, subsequently known as Maha Nuge Gardens. Sir Anthony and his son Laurence have been credited with bringing tea to Ceylon and growing 30 tea plants brought over from China - the tea was grown on the Oliphant Estate in Nuwara Eliya.[1] The boy's education was of the most desultory kind, the most successful part belonging to the years 1848 and 1849, when he and his parents went on a tour of Europe. In 1851 he accompanied Jung Bahadur from Colombo to Nepal. He passed an agreeable time there, and saw enough that was new to enable him to write his first book, A Journey to Katmandu (1852).

In "The Question of Palestine: British-Jewish-Arab Relations, 1914-1918 By Isaiah Friedman", Laurence Oliphant's involvement with the Sultanate of the Ottoman empire clearly extends beyond 1888. The differing accounts are difficult to reconcile.

The bar

From Nepal he returned to Ceylon and thence to England, dallied a little with the English bar, so far at least as to eat dinners at Lincoln's Inn, and then with the Scottish bar, so far at least as to pass an examination in Roman law.

Travels (1853-88)


Russia, Canada, Circassia

He was more happily inspired when he threw over his legal studies and went to travel in Russia. The outcome of that tour was his book on The Russian Shores of the Black Sea (1853).

Between 1853 and 1861 he was successively secretary to Lord Elgin during the negotiation of the Canada Reciprocity treaty at Washington, and the companion of the Duke of Newcastle on a visit to the Circassian coast during the Crimean War.

China and Japan

Oliphant was Lord Elgin's private secretary on his expedition to China and Japan. In 1861 he was appointed first secretary of the British legation in Japan under Minister Plenipotentiary (later Sir) Rutherford Alcock, and might have made a successful diplomatic career if it had not been interrupted, almost at the outset, by a night attack on the legation, in which he nearly lost his life. He permanently lost the full use of his hand. It seems probable that he never properly recovered from this affair.

He arrived at Edo at the end of June 1861. On the evening of 5 July a night attack was made on the legation by xenophobic ronin. His pistols in their locked travelling box, Oliphant rushed out with a hunting-whip, and was attacked by a Japanese with a heavy two-handed sword. A beam, invisible in the darkness, interfered with the blows, but Oliphant was severely wounded, and sent on board ship to recover. He had to return to England after a visit to Korea, where he discovered a Russian force occupying a secluded bay, and obtained their withdrawal.

See Lawrence Oliphant's Narrative of the Earl of Elgin's mission to China and Japan, 1857-8-9 (2 volumes), 1859 (reprinted by Oxford University Press, 1970) {ISBN 978-0196410043}


He returned to England and resigned the service, and was elected to parliament in 1865 for Stirling Burghs.

Oliphant did not show any conspicuous parliamentary ability, but made a great success by his vivacious and witty novel, Piccadilly (1870). He fell, however, under the influence of the spiritualist prophet Thomas Lake Harris, who about 1861 had organized a small community, the Brotherhood of the New Life, which at this time was settled at Brocton on Lake Erie and subsequently moved to Santa Rosa, California.

Brocton, Paris, Brocton

Harris obtained so strange an ascendancy over Oliphant that the latter left parliament in 1868, followed him to Brocton, and lived there the life of a farm labourer, in obedience to the imperious will of his spiritual guide. It was part of the Brocton régime that members of the community should be allowed to return into the world from time to time, to make money for its advantage.

After three years this was permitted to Oliphant, who, when once more in Europe, acted as correspondent of The Times during the Franco-German War, and spent afterwards several years at Paris in the service of that journal. There he met, through his mother, his future wife: Alice le Strange daughter of the late Henry Styleman le Strange of Hunstanton, Norfolk. Oliphant married Alice at St George's, Hanover Square, London on 8 June 1872.[2]

In 1873 he went back to Brocton, taking with him his wife and mother. During the years which followed he continued to be employed in the service of the community and its head, but on work very different from that with which he had been occupied on his first sojourn. His new work was chiefly financial, and took him much to New York and a good deal to England. As late as December 1878 he continued to believe that Harris was an incarnation of the Deity.

Palestine, England, America

By that time, however, his mind was occupied with a large project of colonization in Palestine, and he made in 1879 an extensive journey in that country, going also to Constantinople, in the vain hope of obtaining a lease of the northern half of the Holy Land with a view to settling large numbers of Jews there (this was before the first wave of Jewish settlement of the Zionists in 1882). This he conceived would be an easy task from a financial point of view, as there were so many persons in England and America anxious to fulfill the prophecies, and bring about the end of the world. In this period, with financial support from Christadelphians and other Christian and Jewish individuals in Britain Olipant collected funds to purchase land and settle Jewish refugees in Galilee.[3][4]

In 1882, he took Naftali Herz Imber (later known as the author of the Hatikvah lyrics) as his secretary.

He landed once more in England without having accomplished anything definite; but his wife, who had been banished from him for years and had been living in California, was allowed to rejoin him, and they went to Egypt together.

In 1881 he crossed again to America. It was on this visit that he became utterly disgusted with Harris, and finally split from him.


He was at first a little afraid that his wife would not follow him in his renunciation of the prophet, but this was not the case, and they settled themselves very agreeably, with one house in the midst of the Templers' German Colony in Haifa, and another about twelve miles off at Dalieh on Mount Carmel.

It was at Haifa in 1884 that they wrote together the strange book called Sympneumata: Evolutionary Forces now active in Man, and in the next year Oliphant produced there his novel Masollam, which may be taken to contain its author's latest views with regard to the personage whom he long considered as a new Avatar. One of his cleverest works, Altiora Peto had been published in 1883.

In December 1885 an attack of fever, caught on the shores of Lake of Tiberias, resulted in the death of his wife on 2 January 1886, whose constitution had been undermined by the hardships of her American life. Oliphant was too unsteady with fever to attend her funeral and unable to comprehend the magnitude of the tragedy that had befallen him.[5] He was persuaded that after death he was in much closer relation with her than when she was still alive, and conceived that it was under her influence that he wrote the book to which he gave the name of Scientific Religion.

England again

In November 1887 he went to England to publish that book. By the Whitsuntide of 1888 he had completed it and started for America. There he determined to marry again, his second wife being Rosamond, a granddaughter of Robert Owen the Socialist. They were married at Malvern, and meant to have gone to Haifa, but Oliphant was taken very ill at York House, Twickenham, and died there on 23 December 1888. His obituary in The Times said of him, "Seldom has there been a more romantic or amply filled career; never, perhaps, a stranger or more apparently contradictory personality".


Although a very clever man and a delightful companion, full of high aspiration and noble feeling, Oliphant was only partially sane. In any case, his education was ludicrously inappropriate for a man who aspired to be an authority on religion and philosophy. He had gone through no philosophical discipline in his early life, and knew next to nothing of the subjects with regard to which he imagined it was in his power to pour a flood of new light upon the world. His shortcomings and eccentricities, however, did not prevent his being a brilliant writer and talker, and a notable figure in any society.

In fiction

The Difference Engine, a steampunk novel by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson presents Oliphant as an agent of British intelligence operating in London.

See also

External links


  1. ^ "Reference to Sir Anthony Oliphant and the introduction of Tea to Ceylon". Retrieved 2009-08-07.  
  2. ^ Laurence Oliphant by Anne Taylor OUP 1982
  3. ^ The Christadelphian Magazine, Birmingham 1884,1886
  4. ^ Abstract: Laurence Oliphant's interest in the development of Jewish settlement in Ottoman Palestine preceded his interest in the plight of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. While his intensive involvement in these matters is well known, especially in modern Israel, the fact that the funds for his largesse were contributed by the Christadelphian Brotherhood has not previously been published. The present article brings to light material from the archives of this sect, and thus, too, the motivation behind these efforts. Amit, Thomas Laurence Oliphant: Financial Sources for his Activities in Palestine in the 1880s Palestine Exploration Quarterly, Volume 139, Number 3, November 2007 , pp. 205-212(8)
  5. ^ Laurence Olipahant by Anne Taylor OUP 1982
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
James Caird
Member of Parliament for Stirling Burghs
1865 – 1868
Succeeded by
John Ramsay


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