The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
—JOHN MILTON, PARADISE LOST
It began as the bleakest of Christmases at the Wattles home. In the Indiana winter of 1896, the family patriarch, Wallace, a rake-thin Methodist minister with a passion for Christ’s defense of the poor, had been away in Chicago at a conference of social reformers. A Christian socialist, Wallace D. Wattles was already irritating the more-conservative members of his episcopate, some of whom were eyeing his dismissal. Back home in LaPorte, Indiana, his family had no money for a Christmas tree; all they could muster was an evergreen branch decorated with a few smudgy tallow candles and strung with popcorn. Gifts were meager—the family had spent the last of its holiday savings on a cuff box that waited for Wattles under the branch.
“Finally Father came,” his daughter Florence recalled. “With that beautiful smile he praised the tree, said the cuff box was just what he had been wanting—and took us all in his arms to tell us of the wonderful social message of Jesus.” It was a critical turning point for Wattles. In Chicago, he had met a radical minister named George D. Herron. An ardent purveyor of the “social gospel,” Herron had gained national prominence using the message of Christ to condemn the cruel mechanisms of an economic system that sent children to work in cotton mills. He impressed upon Wattles that Christ’s vision of social justice must be at the heart of the pastorate’s mission.
For Wattles, it was the final stroke in a spiritual philosophy he was developing himself. The minister had been imbibing metaphysical ideas that were bubbling up around him and combining them with his own experiments into the creative powers of the human mind. As Wattles saw it, man was a prisoner to outer circumstance only to the degree that he was a prisoner of inner circumstance. Free the mind, he concluded, and outer circumstance would follow. If the mind—this magical, ethereal “thinking stuff” that molded the surrounding world—could be properly harnessed, there was no limit to what a man could achieve.
A Science of God
America in the late nineteenth century was suffused with influences from Spiritualism, Mesmerism, and Theosophy. Each, in its own fashion, imbued the nation’s spiritual culture with the conviction that divine mysteries existed not at the top rung of a cosmic ladder but within the settings of ordinary life.
And ordinary life was undergoing remarkable changes. As the nineteenth century closed, the fruits of modern science appeared everywhere: telegraphs, motor engines, electricity, and automated production. In medicine, Pasteur’s germ theory was explaining illnesses that for years had resisted understanding. In biology, Darwin had theorized a gradual order in the development of all forms of life. In politics, Marx had classified economics as a matter of “science,” in which inevitable outcomes could be foreseen. In psychology, Freud had begun to codify childhood traumas that triggered adult neuroses, and hypnotists (more-respectable versions of Mesmerists) claimed the power to alter behavior through autosuggestion and conditioning. Caught in this onrush of currents, intellectual leaders from all walks of life—academia, clergy, business—reasoned that scientific principles were applicable to every aspect of existence. Why couldn’t there be a “science” of success, or even a “science” of religion—that is, a protocol of definable, rational steps that would produce a desired result?
Inspired by the possibilities, a group of religious thinkers and impresarios formed a loosely knit spiritual movement around this “scientific” religious concept. Thoughts, they argued, could be seen to manifest into actual events, such as health or sickness, wealth or poverty. They claimed Ralph Waldo Emerson as their founding prophet: “We know,” the Concord mystic wrote in 1841, “that the ancestor of every action is a thought.” The Bible, in their reading, seemed to agree, particularly in the Proverb: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” In an enthused leap of reasoning, the movement that came to be known as New Thought maintained that the individual’s creative mind was one and the same as the creative force called God. As such, a person could literally think his dreams to life. It was America’s boldest—and most influential—attempt at what religious scholar John B. Anderson called “a practical use of the occult powers of the soul.”
Like most religious movements, New Thought had its earliest beginnings in the experience of a single individual. In the early 1830s, a clockmaker named Phineas P. Quimby noticed that his tuberculosis seemed to ease whenever he took a rejuvenating carriage ride in the Maine countryside. A small man with intense, piercing eyes, Quimby discovered that when his spirits lifted, so did his illness. He began hearing news of Mesmerism as it was spread by the young Frenchman Charles Poyen, who visited Bangor, Maine, in 1836. Two years later, Quimby attended another Mesmerist lecture, delivered in Belfast, Maine, by a Massachusetts physician named Robert Collyer. Where Poyen’s style had been hesitant and retiring, in a language that was never fully his own, Collyer came across as a formidable and convincing presence. Quimby grew fascinated with the similarities between Mesmerist healings and his own experience. He began to study the practice and soon developed the ability to Mesmerize subjects of his own.
Like Andrew Jackson Davis before him, Quimby possessed little in the way of formal education. He was self-schooled and gave no appearance otherwise. One Belfast citizen wrote in admiration to a friend, “Mr. Quimby is not an educated man, nor is he pretending or obstrusive; but I think if you should take occasion to converse with him you will discern many traces of deep thought and reflection.…” Quimby’s lack of formal schooling, while a mark of his genuineness to some, later became a point of harsh criticism.
In another parallel to the life of the Poughkeepsie Seer, Quimby toured New England in the early 1840s with a seventeen-year-old boy named Lucius Burkmar, whom Quimby would put into a trance state. From this state, Burkmar diagnosed and prescribed folk cures for diseases. Stories abounded of Burkmar’s abilities. But Quimby eventually grew convinced that it was neither Burkmar’s powers to mentally scan the human body nor his herbal-tea remedies that were curing people: rather, it was the boy’s ability to change their beliefs about their illnesses. The mind itself was where the actual cause—and cure—seemed to rest. Disease, Quimby reasoned, “follows an opinion.” By 1859, Quimby developed a philosophy of “mental healing” and began using it to treat patients himself, without a Mesmeric trance or clairvoyant intermediary. When a man was sick, he explained, “I affirm that the disease is in his belief and his belief is in error.” While Quimby focused primarily on the mind’s curative abilities, he increasingly came to view the subconscious as an extension of the Divine power, through which a person could, with the proper training and understanding, create outer circumstance. “Man’s happiness,” he later wrote, “is in his belief.” And he meant it in the most literal sense.
Quimby’s ideas quickly found influence. One of his earliest followers was religious thinker and writer Warren Felt Evans. When the men met in around 1864, Evans had already left the Methodist ministry to pursue the ideas of the Swedish mystic–scholar Emanuel Swedenborg. Evans was one of the first American metaphysical writers to use the term “New Age” to herald a dawning era of mystical awareness, as he did in his 1864 book, The New Age and Its Messenger. The “messenger” was Swedenborg.
Quimby’s ideas made innate sense to people who had studied Swedenborg’s theory that cosmic laws corresponded to and affected the qualities of the human soul. For Quimby, these cosmic laws were Christian laws, their action was summoned through one’s thoughts, and their power extended to all forms of experience. Like Evans, some of Quimby’s earliest supporters were American Swedenborgians willing to make the leap to this bold philosophy that they believed was implicit in the work of the Swedish seer. Evans’s books, such as The Mental Cure in 1869, helped spread Quimby’s ideas beyond New England. But a far greater apostle already sat at the master’s feet.
In 1862, Quimby had begun to treat a patient named Mary Glover Patterson. She later remarried and took the name by which she is remembered in religious history: Mary Baker Eddy. Eddy proved an extraordinary, if contentious, proponent of spiritual healing. Far and above any of Quimby’s other patients or students, Eddy codified a theology around the “doctor’s” core ideas. She called it Christian Science—a term Quimby himself had used. Eddy’s philosophy at once overlapped with Quimby’s and sharply diverged from it. Rather than extolling the agencies of the human mind, she believed in the need for its eradication. The “mortal mind,” steeped in malevolence and illusions, needed to be overcome by the universal “divine mind,” the one true and absolute reality. Eddy denied the reality of disease, evil, and physical matter itself as mere human perversions, or “an illusion of material sense,” as she later wrote in her masterwork, Science and Health.
After Quimby died in 1866 (the mind healer was just sixty-four), Eddy, whose own health had been suffering, briefly cast about for a new mentor. Finding none to answer the call, she soon decided to build her own spiritual-healing religion, with herself at its helm. With a degree of absolutism that she may have later come to regret, Mrs. Eddy (as followers called her) dismissed her old mentor Quimby as little more than a backwoods Mesmerist, at times depicting the unschooled man as one step above a carnival performer. Quimby’s followers retaliated. They pointed out that Eddy had published articles heaping adoration upon the mental healer even after his death, when she eulogized him in a Lynn, Massachusetts, newspaper as one “who healed with the truth that Christ taught.” Eddy countered that, even if she had written such things, it must have been under the thrall of the “illiterate” Quimby’s Mesmeric powers.
For every lash that Eddy directed at Quimby’s memory, she was tougher on her own disciples. In the 1880s, Eddy cut off student after student who attempted innovations or referred to insights of their own. A wrong word in a pamphlet or journal could earn immediate dismissal. In this way, Eddy became the mother—or, as some came to see it, the stepmother—of New Thought, fostering an offspring that she never wanted. When Eddy’s beautiful and articulate younger student Emma Curtis Hopkins made passing reference to her own intimacies with the Divine power in The Christian Science Journal, which she edited for Eddy in the mid-1880s, the church leader drummed her out of the movement.* Hopkins was locked out of the Christian Science ladies’ dormitory in Boston where she had lived. Forced to rely on her own resources, Hopkins relocated to Chicago, where she hung out a shingle as an independent instructor of Christian Science. Widely read and strikingly intelligent, Hopkins became known within mental-healing circles as the “teacher of teachers,” influencing an extraordinary range of the movement’s key lights in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
But Mrs. Eddy would have no comparisons between Christian Science and the more freewheeling Hopkins philosophy, with its openness to Theosophical and occult ideas. By the early 1890s, after fighting off a range of factional splits and internal challenges, Eddy succeeded in copyrighting the term Christian Science, suing anyone who used it without her permission. Searching for alternate names, practitioners and teachers outside the Eddy camp used terms like Divine Science, Mental Science, and the Science of Right Thinking. The last term came from the nation’s doyenne of inspirational poetry, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who is best known for her 1883 lines: “Laugh and the world laughs with you; Weep and you weep alone.” Wilcox, a combination of social-reform activist, occult explorer, and Hallmark-style homilist, was an early student of Emma Curtis Hopkins.
Eventually one term gained dominance: New Thought. It may have entered the culture through Emerson, who wrote in his essay “Success” in 1870: “to redeem defeat by new thought, by firm action, that is not easy, that is the work of divine men.” In 1887, a capitalized reference to New Thought appeared in a pamphlet, “Condensed Thoughts about Christian Science,” written by another Swedenborgian, William Henry Holcombe. By 1894, New Thought became the title of a Massachusetts mental-healing magazine. And in 1899, the gavel fell on a “New Thought Convention” in Hartford, Connecticut. The movement had found its name.
As for Eddy’s Christian Science, it continued on its own way, attracting hundreds of thousands of members. Throughout the late nineteenth century, the nation had no standard system of medical licensing, and some doctors persisted in prescribing dangerous and painful treatments, like bloodletting or the ingestion of mercury. For many Americans, Eddy’s message of spiritual healing represented a gentler (and ultimately safer) alternative. Flush with members, the Eddy movement purchased magnificent properties on which it built enormous, stately churches, many of which dot America’s eastern cities today. But Eddy placed her metaphysical movement squarely within the folds of the nation’s orthodox Christian congregations, much like the new religion of Mormonism. Christian Science would tolerate no individual experimentation, nor would it seek to move with the times. To guard against future heresies, in 1895 Eddy forbade sermons in her churches, instead requiring that weekly passages from Scripture and her 1875Science and Health be uniformly recited from each pulpit on Sunday mornings, not by pastors but by rotating “Readers.”
Although New Thought gave rise to its own thriving network of metaphysical churches—under the names of denominations such as Unity or Religious Science—it became a kind of antireligion, its borders porous and open to every idea and individual (including many who retained membership in mainline churches), and its philosophy adaptable to a wide range of viewpoints. Ironically, or perhaps inevitably, New Thought is a term that few Americans would hear after World War II. Its ideas were so widely adopted—a sociological study of the 1950s found that most inspirational literature published in America between 1875 and 1955 had some kind of New Thought bent—that the source itself became obscured. Secularized elements of the New Thought philosophy successfully vied for influence with the more religiously inspired variants. In the 1930s, nonreligious figures like Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People) and Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich) rode the wings of New Thought to worldwide fame. The popularity of mind-power philosophy hit its peak in the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 megaseller, The Power of Positive Thinking, which reached into churches and living rooms across America. As will be seen, Peale, an orthodox and politically conservative Protestant minister, brought an entirely mainline, Christian emphasis to what started as a mystical philosophy.
The Secret of the Ages
From a psychological perspective, New Thought’s founders were shrewd observers of human nature. They intrinsically understood how to get along well in organizations and at work. Indeed, during the movement’s rise, more and more Americans were taking jobs inside large companies—where they often struggled to find their way. New Thought literature displayed an innate grasp of the can-do, upbeat attitude required to succeed in the new world of corporate America. And to many Americans—at least, measured by book sales—it came as a help.
New Thought’s popularity coincided with a time when the idea of “getting ahead” began to play on the American psyche. And if New Thought displayed one unmistakable aim in the twentieth century, it was success. Not necessarily the inner sort described by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay “Success,” which extolled the quiet certainty of self-determinism. However much New Thoughters liked to cite Emerson as their founding prophet, they had more worldly priorities. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, New Thought volumes—and fresh ones arrived by the bushelful—abounded, with subject headings like: “how to pray and grow rich”; “a success mind-set”; “why you cannot fail”; “your infinite power to be rich”; “the secret of getting well”; “the magic law of tithing”; and so on. Slowly and inexorably, New Thought replaced the clean-living credo of American success—early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise—with an enticing new principle: He who believes he can, can.
The metaphysical dimensions of New Thought could seem so magical, so unrestrained in their promise of limitless potential, that a 1920s best seller by publisher Robert Collier deemed New Thought The Secret of the Ages. Many of the movement’s most popular writers and sermonizers reimagined worldly acquisition as the very exercise of God’s will. In their hands, it was as if the entire object of Transcendentalism—that is, the transcendence of earthly bonds and distractions—had been turned on its head. And here New Thought’s sense of ethics and seriousness as a religious movement fell open to question: What was to finally separate this philosophy from being anything other than a tool for pursuing one’s most random drives and selfish wants? Was this the end point of American religious innovation—the vaunted “secret of the ages”?
On this question hung the dilemma of Indiana minister Wallace D. Wattles. Although his books became central to a twenty-first-century New Thought revival and served as the major influence behind the blockbuster book and movie The Secret, the social-gospel advocate had wanted the “occult powers of the soul” to serve a different end than worldly gain. It wasn’t that he eschewed New Thought’s emphasis on wealth-building—indeed, he embraced such aims in his 1910 guide, The Science of Getting Rich. But there was a critical difference in Wattles’s approach, one overlooked by those who later embraced his work: Wattles believed in using mind power to wipe away barons of industry and overthrow the prevailing social order. In The Science of Getting Rich—which a century later rode a new wave of popularity to best-seller lists—he wrote the following, with his concluding emphasis in the original:
You are to become a creator, not a competitor; you are going to get what you want, but in such a way that when you get it every other man will have more than he has now. I am aware that there are men who get a vast amount of money by proceeding in direct opposition to the statements in the paragraph above, and may add a word of explanation here. Men of the plutocratic type, who become very rich, do so sometimes purely by their extraordinary ability on the plane of competition.… Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan, et al., have been the unconscious agents of the Supreme in the necessary work of systematizing and organizing productive industry; and in the end, their work will contribute immensely toward increased life for all. Their day is nearly over; they have organized production, and will soon be succeeded by the agents of the multitude, who will organize the machinery of distribution.
If his more-careful readers detected a tinge of socialist language there, they were right. Wattles saw New Thought as a means to the kind of leisurely socialist utopia that enthralled readers of Edward Bellamy’s futurist novel Looking Backward. Writing in the same year in his lesser-known A New Christ, Wattles envisioned a marriage of New Thought—America’s homegrown success philosophy—and Christian socialism:
As we approach socialism, the millions of families who are now propertyless will acquire their own beautiful homes, with gardens and the land upon which to raise their food; they will own horses and carriages, automobiles and pleasure yachts; their houses will contain libraries, musical instruments, paintings and statuary, all that a man may need for the soul-growth of himself and his, he shall own and use as he will.
It was as though Karl Marx had imbibed the mother’s milk of American metaphysics. Within Wattles there existed a struggle to unite two mighty currents that were sweeping early-twentieth-century America: social radicalism and mind-power mysticism. Was it possible, as Wattles dreamed, that these movements could be united into one radical whole? Could there be a revolution by mental power?
“Do Not Talk About Poverty”
By the time he emerged as a New Thought leader, Wattles had already been forced to resign from the Methodist pastorate. He had gone too far in his social radicalism, at one point insisting that churches should refuse monetary offerings from businessmen who profited from sweatshop labor. After 1900, he became active in the more liberal environs of Quakerism. And while Wallace gained allies in mind-power circles—particularly his trailblazing publisher, Elizabeth Towne, a Massachusetts suffragist who ran his work in her New Thought magazine, Nautilus—he suffered conflict in that world too.
New Thought emphasized the idea of action from within and discouraged emphasis on politics or the travails of outer life. Too much notice of tragedy, poverty, or injustice, so went the New Thought gospel, served only to perpetuate such things. Hence, Wattles could sound at war with himself. In one stroke he urged readers, “Do not talk about poverty; do not investigate it, or concern yourself with it,” and at other times he spoke passionately before audiences of the squalor of Chicago tenements and the hopelessness of immigrant children living there. He admiringly quoted from the social-reform journalism of Elbert Hubbard, who had exposed child-labor abuses in turn-of-the-century cotton mills. Hubbard, as it happened, was another success prophet with a taste for social protest.
Hubbard was famous for his 1899 motivational essay, “A Message to Garcia,” in which he extolled the can-do heroics of a U.S. soldier during the Spanish–American War. Business leaders loved it. Yet Hubbard lost his life while hoping to end another war. In 1915, Hubbard and his wife, Alice, a suffragist and New Thought enthusiast, died with nearly 1,200 civilians when a German U-boat torpedoed the passenger ship Lusitania in the waters off Ireland. Hubbard had boarded the ship in New York on a self-styled peace mission to Europe, where he had declared plans to interview the German kaiser and inveigh against the carnage of the Great War. “Big business is to blame for this thing,” wrote the motivational hero before he left, “let it not escape this truth—that no longer shall individuals be allowed to thrive through supplying murder machines to the mob.”
Even the most popular New Thought prophet of the day, Ralph Waldo Trine, harbored a passion to unite mysticism and social reform. Trine gained a legion of followers through his 1897 mind-power book, In Tune with the Infinite. It was the book that every New Thought minister and writer seemed to have read and borrowed from. Industrialist Henry Ford kept copies in his office and would press it on guests. But beneath Trine’s placid, almost priestly exterior beat the heart of another social radical. A 1902 profile in the New Thought magazine Mind said Trine believed in the cooperative ethos of socialism and that he planned to write a book “from the viewpoint of a socialist who is such because of his New Thought philosophy.”
It is not clear that Trine ever wrote such a book, but something very close appeared under his byline in 1910: Land of Living Men. While Trine’s In Tune with the Infinite had assumed a gentle, folksy tone emphasizing gratitude and generosity, Land of Living Menshowed surprisingly different colors. In it, the New Thought pioneer called for “a great people’s movement to bring back to the people the immense belongings that have been taken away from them.” Trine advocated busting up monopolies, striking for higher wages, and placing essential utilities and industries into public hands. This was one book that Henry Ford didn’t give to his friends. Indeed, Land of Living Men seemed to make little impact at all on Trine’s followers. By 1928, Trine was an honored guest in Ford’s office, where he engaged in an almost fawning interview with the automaker. Their conversation was turned into a popular book, Power that Wins, which ranged from Ford’s love for avocados to his belief in reincarnation. Whatever Trine’s innermost commitments, he would never again be seen—nor succeed as—a political Jeremiah. But Wattles went in the opposite direction and became ever more public about his political passions.
“We Were Robbed”
In 1911, in what was to be Wattles’s last book, The Science of Being Great, he offered tribute—probably the only one in all of motivational literature—to the Socialist Party of America leader Eugene V. Debs, a fellow Hoosier who later went to federal prison for opposing U.S. entry into World War I. “Debs loves men,” Wattles explained. “It is a great thing to love men so and it is only achieved by thought.” Taking inspiration from Debs’s presidential campaigns, Wattles embarked on a journey almost unheard of in New Thought circles: He made upstart bids for public office, each time on the Socialist Party ticket. In his home state of Indiana, he first campaigned for Congress in 1908, and, after losing, he ran the next year for mayor of the town of Elwood. During his 1909 mayoral campaign, the delicate-framed man stood before 1,300 striking workers during a heated showdown at a local tin mill and pledged them his support. Though he made only a token showing in the congressional race, he ran a surprisingly close second for mayor.
Wattles’s daughter, Florence, a budding socialist orator in her own right, insisted that the mayoral vote was rigged and the election had been stolen. “They voted not only the dead men in the cemeteries, but vacant lots as well,” twenty-three-year-old Florence said in her 1911 address to a socialist convention in Kokomo, Indiana. “We were robbed of the election, but in 1912 we will carry the election. Mark that. And we’ll get the offices too. We mean to do it through a thorough and completely effective organization.”
On the stump, Florence exuded the same sense of biblical justice as her father—the man who told of the social gospel and the metaphysical powers of the mind. With Florence at his side, her spirits fresh and ready for a fight, anything seemed possible. Yet within a week of Florence’s speech, Wattles was dead. Though his writings had extolled the curative powers of the mind, he had always been physically frail. His health collapsed on February 7, 1911, when he died of tuberculosis at age fifty while traveling to Tennessee.
The Fort Wayne Sentinel, knowing the local author and organizer mostly as a political figure, noted “he was one of the best known socialists in Indiana.” And, almost as an afterthought, “He also wrote several books on scientific subjects.”
The Reluctant Organizer
Though Wattles and his contemporaries never succeeded in joining metaphysics to social protest, the question lingered whether New Thought could become a morally convincing move ment. After Wattles’s death, there emerged one unique figure who seemed to hold the answer. Ernest Holmes, a short, rotund Yankee, journeyed from Maine to Los Angeles to spread his version of the New Thought gospel. For a time, his Religious Science, or Science of Mind, movement held the promise of growing into the great American metaphysical faith for which many yearned.
In actuality, the last thing Holmes wanted was to start a religion. From his early days on the metaphysical speaking circuit in the 1910s until his death in Los Angeles in 1960, Holmes mounted a plaintive resistance against enthusiasts who transformed his mind-power philosophy into a network of churches replete with textbooks, rule-making bodies, and enough factional splits and infighting to fill a New Thought version of I, Claudius. At the founding ceremonies of an ornate church in Los Angeles months before his death, Holmes looked out over the crowd and said, “This church was not my idea.”
Whatever the reluctance of its founder, the Science of Mind movement, known more formally as the United Church of Religious Science, became the last—and in some ways the most influential—of all New Thought denominations. Other ministries had come earlier and claimed more members, such as the Unity School of Christianity based in Kansas City, Missouri. But none had a figurehead like Ernest Holmes. Not only did Holmes devise a fully fleshed-out theology, but he also inspired the most formative self-help philosophy of the twentieth century: the “power of positive thinking” of author–minister Norman Vincent Peale. In the end, Holmes proved a mighty catalyst, though his fame would trail far behind his influence.
The Problem of Evil
Born in 1887 in a dingy Maine farmhouse and never formally educated, the young Holmes devoured works on religious philosophy, physics, and the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He grew particularly enamored of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” which stoked Holmes’s belief in the creative potential of the human mind.
Moving from New England to Venice, California, the vibrant Holmes and his brother and intellectual partner, Fenwicke, began filling lecture halls as early as 1916 with their metaphysical lectures. California was experiencing boom times, and its residents, migrants from all parts of the nation, were ready to take in new ideas. Roundish and twinkle-eyed, Holmes exuded an unlikely charisma—as well as a shrewd command of different spiritual philosophies and religious systems. He spoke with clarity and total confidence, rarely using notes. “As a speaker, a lecturer,” Norman Vincent Peale recalled, “he was able to put together spontaneously a talk as airtight as a lawyer’s brief, no loopholes, no perceived errors. It all held together.”
The young metaphysician’s following grew as he performed “treatments”—or mind-power healings—on guests at the office where he worked as a purchasing agent for the city of Venice. After travels to New York and other cities, where Holmes tested his message among different listeners, he molded his ideas into a philosophy called Religious Science. (This proved an ill-fated choice of words that in later decades served to confuse his movement with the more visible and entirely unrelated religion of Scientology.)
Holmes’s command of Scripture and Yankee foursquare style seemed, at least in his person, to nudge New Thought away from its fixation on personal gain. The greater struggle for Holmes, in his writings and lectures, was to consistently wed what was fundamentally a success-driven philosophy to a Christian ethic. Like his contemporaries, Holmes believed that the human mind was at one with what is called God and that it possessed the same creative power. As such, he reasoned, this power was intrinsically good. “Evil,” Holmes wrote in his 1929 The Bible in Light of Religious Science, “… has no reality behind it or actual law to come to its support.” It was similar in approach to the Unity writer H. Emilie Cady, who claimed, “Apparent evils are not entities or things of themselves. They are simply an absence of good.… But God, or Good, is omnipresent, so the apparent absence of good (evil) is unreal.”
Most purveyors of New Thought described evil as darkness in a room once the light—or the God Law—had been closed out. But, unlike the Transcendentalists in their study of the cycles of nature, these enthusiasts made no allowance for the inevitability of night following day. They made no room for the balance of life and death, illness and health, that Emerson depicted in the essays they claimed as their inspiration. Nor did New Thought acknowledge Emerson’s disdain for self-centered prayer. (“Prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft,” he wrote in “Self-Reliance.”) Hence, the movement embraced those portions of Transcendentalism that spoke to affirming mental power, and ignored other complexities.
And here we reach the ultimate dilemma of this most popular of American metaphysics. Unable to come to terms with questions of tragedy or catastrophe in what believers considered a self-created world, New Thought lapsed into circular reasoning or contradiction. In one beat, Holmes described evil or illness as illusory. Yet in the next he cautioned: “The law [of mental creativity] is no respecter of persons and will bring good or evil to any, according to his use or misuse of it.”
Even the movement’s central concept—the Law of Attraction—could appear jerry-rigged. This spiritual “law” had its origins in the work of Andrew Jackson Davis, though he never quite intended for how it came to be used. In 1855, writing in Volume IV of another of his massive treatises, The Great Harmonia, Davis coined the term Law of Attraction to describe the human soul’s affinity for different spheres of the afterlife. Remade by New Thoughters—and later resurfacing as the catchphrase of The Secret and numerous motivational best sellers—the Law of Attraction meant that whatever a person or group of people dwelled upon in their thoughts would manifest in events good or bad, joyous or catastrophic, in their earthly lives, presumably whether one was a slave or a wealthy slaveholder, a person of robust health or a sickly child. Coming from a movement based in hope and limitless potential, such thinking could seem like a naively cruel calculus. While outcroppings of New Thought would appear in other nations, including South Africa and Japan (The Secret was made in Australia), this way of reasoning confined the philosophy largely to an American middle class, where the security of life was a relative given.
In what may have been a bitter irony of his life, the intellectual Holmes was on surer ground in carrying out the practicalities of building a ministry than in confronting the ultimate questions of human suffering. By the time of Holmes’s death in 1960, his robust movement encompassed more than a hundred congregations with more than one hundred thousand formal members. Indeed, Holmes’s legacy is considerable: His textbook, The Science of Mind, continues to sell thousands of copies a year; acolytes of his ideas number among the nation’s most popular inspirational writers and speakers (such as Tony Robbins and Marianne Williamson); and his United Church of Religious Science—along with a closely related offshoot called Religious Science International—actively ordains new ministers and practitioners.
Holmes did successfully bridge the gap between New Thought as a loosely conceived idea and an organized religion. Yet he also lived long enough to see his movement marred by factional splits and infighting, and he often seemed happier delivering a lecture or completing a book than contending with the demands of organizational life. Just before Holmes’s death, a student and protégé, Obadiah Harris, whom Holmes had handpicked to preach at some of his leading churches, came to the mentor’s bedside. Harris had to confess that he was leaving the movement to find his own path. “I wish I could go with you,” the teacher replied.
Behind the Power
That might be the coda of Holmes’s career but for his broadest, if least known, achievement. The driving principle behind all the self-help movements of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries appeared in the title of Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 The Power of Positive Thinking. Raised in the Midwest, Peale was placed in charge of an ailing and shrinking congregation on Manhattan’s East Side during the Great Depression. Within twenty years, however, the Protestant minister reached into every corner of America—and many corners of the world—with his manifesto proclaiming the transformative power of positive imagery and self-affirmation. His philosophy was core New Thought, though couched in terms to which the churchgoing public could easily relate. Peale eschewed references to “magic laws” or “secrets of the ages,” instead emphasizing traditional prayer, Bible reading, and a healthy self-image. Nevertheless, careful readers might have wondered at the Mesmeric tone of the minister’s ideas about “the emanation of prayer power,” specifically that “the human brain can send off power by thoughts and prayers. The human body’s magnetic power has actually been tested.”
In his thousands of articles, lectures, books, and homilies, Peale shared innumerable stories from his life, but he revealed relatively little about his influences or how he related to the spiritual and intellectual trends around him. He went further, however, in a remarkable and overlooked interview given in 1987, six years before his death, to the magazine Ernest Holmes had started, Science of Mind. In it, the best-selling minister recounted the direct influence he found in his older contemporary. Peale recalled that when he worked as a cub reporter at a Detroit daily newspaper in the early 1920s, a tough-talking editor spotted his “paralyzing fear of inadequacy.” As the minister recounted, “He took me aside and handed me a book, Creative Mind and Success, by Ernest Holmes.” It was Holmes’s second book, written in 1919.
“Now I want you to read this,” the editor told him. “I know this fellow Holmes. I’ve learned a lot from him, and so can you.” And what did Peale learn? “Love God, love others, you can if you think you can, the proper control and use of the human mind, drop your limited sense of self and gain true Self-Reliance.” Holmes’s slender volume of essays and affirmations changed everything for Peale, who entered Boston University’s School of Theology soon after finding it. “There is no question in my mind that Ernest Holmes’s teachings had helped me on my way,” he said.
Three decades later, the ideas that Peale had discovered in that short book—clearly broadened by his own life experiences—formed the basis for the most influential self-help philosophy of the twentieth century. While Peale was gracious in tone and lavish in praise when asked about Holmes in 1987, the minister otherwise appeared to go little out of his way to credit the California mystic. Biographies of Peale, including his personal memoirs, make no mention of Ernest Holmes. Ten years after Peale’s death, a staff member conducting a tour of the minister’s headquarters in upstate New York had never heard the name.
* The Journal is not to be confused with The Christian Science Monitor, which Eddy started in 1908 in response to the “yellow journalism” of the day and, in particular, its attacks on her. The Monitor remains one of Eddy’s finest legacies as a sober and independent source of news.