Revisiting the Origins of the New Thought Movement in America
(SOURCE) “The Power of Positive Thinking” is a term which has become with synonymous with today’s self-help cult which operates on the general belief that our thoughts create our reality. We have all faced those difficult situations in the past where we have been encouraged by those around us to “stay positive” or to “not lose hope” and things will, consequently, “get better” sooner or later. What we often fail to realize, as does the person making such pronouncements, is that such statements are so commonplace in our modern society because it is such a deeply ingrained way of thinking that makes up an important part of our cultural heritage. American history is replete with stories of religious groups who came to the United States in order to either escape persecution in their native homeland or simply carried their religious and philosophical views across the Atlantic as they came to America to seek some sort of financial gain. What is often overlooked in this historical epoch of the American nation are those groups which fell far outside the mainstream of American religion.
One such movement that should be revisited is that of the New Thought Movement. Wouter J Hanegraaff has noted that “when the French Mesmerist Charles Poyen embarked upon a lecture tour through New England in 1836, he discovered to his surprise that the subject which had been occupying his countrymen for decades was still virtually unknown to his American audience.” Since then it has grown to become one of the largest and most influential systems of thought in American religion and philosophy. The relative lack of knowledge on the subject stems largely from the fact that it is a system of thought that is largely unsystematic in nature. The underyling premise, that thought creates reality, provides the undergirding for modern New Age thought and esotericism which has grown more mainstream decade after decade since the 1960s.
Having no definite origin has most likely contributed to the lack of a centralized ideology within the movement. Its coherence and lasting effect is best seen in the influence it has had on various religious groups in Americna history. It can be partially seen as a counter-culture feminist movement in that its early leaders such as Emma Curtis Hopkins, Myrlte Fillmore, and Nona Brooks served as the early backbone of the movement. It emerged among a variety of religious groups and thinkers such as the Unity Church, Religious Science, and the Church of Divine Science. Its later influences included groups like Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science movement which has somehow survived into the present despite scandals and question about the movement’s psychological and physical impact on its members, especially young children born into the movement. As one article notes, “The earliest identifiable proponent of what came to be known as New Thought was Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-66), an American philosopher, mesmerist, healer, and inventor. Quimby developed a belief system that included the tenet that illness originated in the mind as a consequence of erroneous beliefs and that a mind open to God’s wisdom could overcome any illness.”
It was later in the 1890s and from there onward that the movement became one associated more and more with printed media. A plethora of self-help books emerged in the early part of the twentieth century and became the basis for conventions where adherents could get together and learn to better fine-tune the powers of the mind or meet others who were also interested in the esoteric aspects of the movement. Throughout the twentieth century, New Thought was assimilated into mainstream religious thought more and more until it eventually became commonplace and, to some extent, accepted fact. It has since made its way into mainstream Christianity as non-denominational Christian groups like Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston Texas can be counted on to faithfully preach the power of positive thinking on an almost weekly basis. Positive thinking, it seems, has become a truly “American” thing to do.