The Power of Positive Thought
And how it continues to harm us
Before I get into this next piece, I quickly want to say thank you. The response to this launch has been humbling and gratifying, and I appreciate it so immensely. In particular I appreciate the comments and thoughtful feedback you’ve provided already. My last article felt rushed to me, because it was, so I wanted to step back and provide some context. In thinking about what would be helpful I returned to something I wrote while getting a degree at Union Theological Seminary but have never published before. I went through and edited it considerably, and I hope you find it both accessible and interesting. This one is longer as well, so take as much or as little as you like and feel free to leave the rest.
And, if you’re wondering why a lefty Jew is writing about Christianity, it’s because I want to be clear eyed about this historically dominant religion’s effect on our society and on the world. There’s no denying its importance, and I think a lot about what led it to be so powerful and what response we can and should have to such a force. Soon I’ll get more into other arenas, but for now my hope is that the following piece contextualizes some of my thinking and my process around religion and culture in the U.S., as it relates to my last piece, and here as it relates to some major societal issues like individualism, conspiratorial thinking, and pseudoscience. As always feedback is more than welcome, and thank you for being a part of this!
We begin in the wake of the Civil War, when millions and millions of Americans were reeling from the devastating scale of death and loss across this country. As people tried to return to some sort of normalcy after the war, or to build a new life entirely, another, unexpected variable came into the picture—a wave of scientific progress. On the surface, this progress meant that despite the country being nearly torn in half, the economy could bounce back at a remarkable rate. Some people could repair old lives, and others could start fresh, even as many struggled with the sabotage of Reconstruction and the exploitation of racial capitalism. All told this meant upheaval, urbanization, soaring inequality, and disruption. As science and reason were used to invent new technologies, and further capitalists’ profits, this wave of change also brought religion into question.
At the time, questioning religion primarily meant Christianity, and questioning Christianity primarily meant questioning Protestantism, the affiliation of approximately 60% of Americans in the Reconstruction era. Protestantism in the United States covered a wide range of beliefs, but despite its countless denominations it was still a unifying force that went hand-in-hand with “American-ness” for many U.S. Protestants, and therefore much of the population. This required a degree of orthodoxy, in accordance with the identity formation that needs an “in-group” and an “out-group.” Of course Catholics were initially out, but as notions of progress took root in the minds of a wider and wider swath of the population, it became clear that Catholicism was not the only threat to Protestant America. Secularization, heresy, and strange combinations thereof were not only winning people over, they were threatening foundational beliefs. Clergy began to fear that mixing reason and religion might erode faith in faith itself. Particularly when combined with the grandiose approach to individualism that proliferated in the young country, melding reason with religion could produce the notion that humanity was somehow divine. In the 19th century a growing number of Christians began to believe not just that there was the spark of God within each person, but that people could transcend the natural and enter the realm of the supernatural. Among mainstream clergy this was thought to threaten the masses’ relationship to God, and to Christianity as a whole, yet it thrived and multiplied regardless.
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One of the origins of this line of thinking was Unitarianism. Springing up in early 19th century New England, “Unitarians spoke of the moral human nature, our rational capacity, our freedom to choose or to reject the doctrines taught and the promises offered by the Christian Religion” (Gaustad and Schmidt 158). This attitude alarmed the Congregationalists who dominated New England both religiously and politically because it contradicted the fundamentals of Calvinism and called into question not just faith, but core ideas upon which the denomination built its worldview. If people were free to reject concepts like the Trinity then nothing was sacred, nothing was safe from change. On the other side, Unitarians were responding to Congregationalism’s resistance to change and expressing a desire for religion to progress along with the supposed advances of science and reason. And they struck a chord. Although the movement itself remained within Congregationalism, and only grew considerably in eastern Massachusetts, “its influence grew out of all proportion to its numbers” (Ibid. 159). And although this influence is most well known through the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, the way Unitarianism’s influence reverberated through cults and ideologies on the fringes of the Church had a major, long-term influence on Christianity and society more broadly.
A clear line runs from Unitarianism to the folks we know as Positive Thinkers. Unitarianism helped create a fertile soil in New England for the ideas of a man named Phineas Quimby, in particular. Quimby has been labeled the discoverer of something called the “mind-cure remedy” (Meyer, 34), and is thought of as the “central figure and prophet” of the Positive Thought movement (Jenkins, 54). Early in his career Quimby was a doctor who approached mental healing with a vaguely scientific approach, using the power of placebos and hypnosis. But over time he took these concepts to their logical extremes. His successes led him to conclude that, “his patient’s belief in the efficacy of the remedies played the decisive role. The cure was mental” (Meyer, 34). This idea proliferated, and found an immensely receptive audience. It lent a sense of scientific credibility to the belief that the individual is all-powerful, and was picked up by Warren Felt Evans, among others. Evans, who had reportedly been cured by Quimby himself, wrote on the blending of science and religion. In The Divine Law of Cure he stated, “When philosophy and religion are combined into a harmonious unity, each adds power and influence to the other. All religion should be made scientific, and all science religious” (Evans, 382). These ideas were well received; much of the country was eager for a synthesis of science and religion. The new approach took religion, the traditional source of knowledge, and allowed it to blend with science, the new, ascendant source. Tradition, and the attendant comfort that came with it, need not be abandoned. It could be reconciled with science and reason. But, that wasn’t enough for some mind-cure thinkers—they wanted to create a new religion entirely.
Mary Baker Eddy was another who claimed to have been healed by Quimby, and she proceeded to claim his legacy. It was she who took mind-cure in the direction of a “fully and tightly organized, exclusive denomination” (Meyer, 39), which many denounced as a cult, a confidence scheme, or both. But believers clearly thought otherwise, and their numbers grew at an astonishing rate. The first chartering of a Church of Christ (Scientist) occurred in 1879, and just half a century later their numbers were estimated at 269,000 (Jenkins, 54). But after that the period growth slowed, possibly because of the extreme positions taken by Baker, such as matter itself not existing, or that the mind could cure anything so adherents should not seek medical help, or because no one could quite replace her “charisma as author of a holy book and brilliant talents as organizer and administrator.” (Meyer, 39-40) The cult, or sect, which appeared to be mushrooming in the late 19th and early 20th century, declined rapidly and its numbers are now estimated at only 50,000 (Siewers). But, the basic idea it promoted did not disappear. The mind-cure concept, far more than the specific beliefs of Christian Science, remains deeply embedded in our culture.
The route mind-cure took into the mainstream was not just through one centralized denomination. Instead, a wide range of schools and churches and institutes, which together composed the “New Thought” movement, promoted positive thinking (the power of positive thoughts to cure or bring success) to millions of Americans. Despite the number and variety of groups, “The schools were at one on fundamentals, in their optimism, and the belief in the divinization of humanity. A healthy mind and body were to be achieved by recognizing the oneness of our human lives with the life of God” (Jenkins 55). These basic tenants proved extremely popular, and no one proved that better than Unity. Using mass marketing and distribution techniques, the Unity School gained hundreds of thousands of adherents, with their primary publication alone reaching 200,000 subscribers in 1954 (Meyer, 42). Yet this only accounted for a small fraction of the millions influenced by these ideas, be it first or second hand. As the ideas gained popularity, and as the profits to be made in distributing them grew clearer, two things happened. The first was that the message became less tied to the original fundamentals, and many writers, “made no effort to argue their case beyond the argument that if one believed, one’s belief would work,” or most expansively they began to guarantee, “a promise unlimited” (Meyer 43). The second is that these ideas became a threat to the church. They contradicted key aspects of church doctrine, “Most pernicious, the new sects denied original sin and believed that humanity could progress to a higher spirituality or even perfect unassisted by Christ or grace” (Jenkins, 60). Few people embodied this ethos as well, or spread it as effectively, as Ralph Waldo Trine. His writings, read by millions, helped expand New Thought from just mind cure to a doctrine preaching practically unlimited power and potential. In his work In Tune with the Infinite he writes, “If you are particularly desirous for anything that you feel is good it is good and right for you to have… simply hold the thought that… you can attain what you desire” (Trine, 385). Ultimately, Trine declared that New Thought could do “anything” for you, a sweeping statement which told people that if they got good enough at focusing the power of their minds they could get anything they wanted.
Trine and others promised people the world, and said it wasn’t hard to come by. This promise was so very appealing. At the same time, it threatened the church immensely. So, in order to cope with this danger, some Protestant churches decided to absorb as much of New Thought as possible, subsuming what was appealing while steering people away from the dangerous elements, if they could. By the mid-20th century a number of mainline thinkers and clergy were incorporating positive thinking into their writings, and, “More generally, like the two major parties the old denominations began absorbing the issues raised by the ‘third-party’ mind-cure groups” (Meyers, 44). One notable and clear example of this absorption comes from Norman Vincent Peale, a Methodist minister turn Dutch Reformed pastor. His writings show how the power New Thought granted the individual needed only the slightest revision to be repackaged as a partnership with Jesus, rather than a “divinization” of the human being. In You Can Win, he writes, “From it [religion] you can draw a power beyond anything you have ever experienced, a power sufficient to overcome any weakness, carry any burden, conquer any sin. Through a surrendered faith in Christ and a daily intimate spirit with him you can win over adversaries which formerly seemed too great for the human spirit to bear” (Peale, 392). This was a masterful stroke. Peale grants people the vast powers promised by New Thought, while saying these abilities do not stem from Christ, not the human mind. Not only does this move allow Protestantism to absorb the most appealing aspect of New Thought, it does so in a way that helps return humanity to its rightful place in the hierarchy of Christianity, making it amenable to the church. Peale’s message was that you can indeed have the world, just through Christ rather than positive thinking.
Some of the modern inheritors of New Thought are ideas like “The Law of Attraction” found in books like The Secret. This outlook is almost a direct copy of the ideas found in Trine and others. These modern writers continue to preach that if you really want something, and focus on it, it will come to you. Similarly, the concept of “manifesting” is immensely popular today, discussed and memed by millions, much like the concepts in the Law of Attraction ecosystem. There is no declaration of communal solutions to the systemic problems we face, simply the raw will and thought of the individual believed to be sufficient to combat problems caused by vast, interconnected systems. Much of this happens at a low-level, not taken overly seriously, but the combined effect of these ideas, widely proliferated, is an outlook that glorifies the willpower of the individual, ignoring systems of oppression or dismissing them as obstacles to be overcome through sufficient individual exertion. Of course the history of individualism itself is much lengthier than the history of New Thought, but positive thinking is one of the influences supporting this belief system.
We could go on about the many manifestations of this type of thinking in the world today. We all encounter them in our daily lives, and hopefully recognize them for what they are. For now, I just hope to leave you with this: the many sources of harmful individualism that tells us our success is entirely of our own making also insinuate that our problems are of our own making, and that those problems stem primarily from our own thinking, or our lack of faith. All this lets capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and other oppressive systems off the hook. Some U.S. Protestant denominations absorbed much of the Positive Thought described above, as dominant paradigms often do, but they could not absorb it entirely, and they could not absorb it without changing. So, we now have a more individual-centric Protestantisms, as well as a strengthened and rampant individualism outside the church, supported by an array of pseudo-science and pseudo-spirituality from assorted other sources. This insidious individuality is strong and difficult to combat because it’s given a lot of us the delightful, deadly illusion that we are in control. And we have a lot of collectivism to build both ideologically and materially out in the world to do in order to overcome this ideology. So let’s get to it.
Thank you for reading this lengthy tome! I hope some of my approach is slightly clearer, and I hope to keep clarifying and expanding my understanding, while ideally contributing to yours as well. For now, thank you for reading, and for supporting this effort. In time I hope to deepen our understanding of what some of our underlying cultural struggles might be, and also turn to highlighting and lifting up some of the powerful and beautiful spiritual and religious movements and organizations doing great work at the intersection of leftist politics and faith, whether they be Christians, Jews, Daoists, Earthseed adherents, or something else entirely. Simultaneously I plan to get into what other folks are doing and have done to combat individualism, strengthen communities, build the left, and change culture using tools and politics that are not necessary tied to religion or spirituality at all. Thank you again, and be well.
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Barrington, Arthur H. Anti-Christian Cults. Hansenbooks, 2017.
Gaustad, Edwin S., et al. A Documentary History of Religion in America. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018.
Gaustad, Edwin S., and Leigh Eric Schmidt. The Religious History of America. HarperOne, 2009.
Meyers, Donald. The Positive Thinkers. Pantheon Books, 1980.
Siewers, Alfred. “How Christian Science Became A Dying Religion.” The Federalist, 16 Apr. 2019, thefederalist.com/2019/04/11/christian-science-became-dying-religion.