The American Quest for Health, Wealth, and Individual Power, Part II

Home » August 2022 » The American Quest for Health, Wealth, and Individual Power, Part II

by L. Carlos Lara

In Part 1 of this article, I wrote about an in-depth research and discovery I made regarding one of the most familiar, yet at the same time, one of the most mysterious psychological processes utilized today. I am referring specifically to the notion and the power of positive thinking.

Whatever we may say against or in favor of this idea, the positive thinking movement in 2017 is a multi-billion-dollar industry, which rides the crest of an overarching mantra that preaches that positive thoughts create and transform reality. What I was most surprised to learn from this study was that positive thinking is a uniquely American idea, which had its beginnings in 1820.

Furthermore, I learned that positive thinking was first known as the thought movement, then later as mind cure and owes its development to a woman and the church she established in 1879. The history behind this movement is most unusual and contains a diverse cast of characters. In this Part 2 and conclusion I will highlight some of its key figures and the important parts they played in the development of this unique way of thinking.

(My main text for this part of the article is taken primarily from the book, The Positive Thinkers: Religion As Pop Psychology From Mary Baker Eddy To Oral Roberts, by Donald Meyer, PhD. Copyright 1965, 1980)1

Animal Magnetism

We begin to trace this history with the intro- duction of an unusual procedure. To see it all correctly, keep in mind that at the beginning of the 19th century, psychology, psychiatry, neurology, and even medicine were all fields in their infancy. All these were thought of as dubious practices performed by either quacks or butchers. One strange German doctor/showman/scientist by the name of Friedrich Mesmer2 furthered the lack of credibility with his strange demonstrations in Paris using something he called animal magnetism.

Mesmer theorized that there was an energetic connection between all animate and inanimate objects in the world and his demonstrations showed that the use of magnets influenced both the body and the mind in his subjects, bringing about peculiar sensations and even health cures. The practice became known as mesmerism.

But after Mesmer’s death in 1815 closer scrutiny of his practices by several of his contemporaries revealed that nothing actually came from the mag- nets, instead everything came from the subject and took place in the subject’s imagination from within the mind. It was really a form of hypnosis.

Nevertheless, Mesmer’s groundbreaking discovery spawned countless numbers of “wannabe” psychic practitioners including one Phineas P. Quimby3, who is actually known as the founder and discoverer of the thought movement in America.

Phineas P. Quimby

Quimby was a self-educated handyman from Belfast, Maine who repaired clocks for a living. His greatest passion was in thinking deeply about the psychological exotica that circulated the New England communities during the early 1800s. Since he was a semi-invalid and had lots of time off from work, Quimby would attend various esoteric lectures on things such as spiritualism, hydrotherapy, and mesmerism just to fill his days.

He first learned of hypnotism in a live presentation 1827 by a French lecturer visiting Portland by the name of Charles Poyen.4 In 1838 he began experimenting with hypnosis, first on others and then himself. He documented everything he did and eventually perfected the art. In a few years Quimby cured himself. By the 1860s he had become well known in the Portland area as a mesmerizer and healer.

One thing about Quimby—he was modest enough to say that he did not invent his trade nor was he performing miracles, “a defense against making myself equal with Christ.”5 But his observations taught him that the healing was all mental. As his reputation grew, he discovered that patients responded just as well to cheap remedies as well as to the more expensive and complicated. This meant that the patient basically believed in the efficacy of the remedies themselves that Quimby would prescribe. For this reason, Quimby soon gave up on hypnosis altogether in favor of mental suggestion pure and simple. By transitioning to this approach in his procedures the thought movement was born.

The more Quimby practiced his trade the more he cultivated the power of thought in connection to healing and pushed it further into the realm of metaphysics. Quimby died in 1866 and his notes were not published until 1921. But in 1862, four years before his death, he met with a sickly woman by the name of Mary Baker Eddy and cured her. That one event changed the direction of the thought movement and Mary Baker Eddy’s destiny.

Mary Baker Eddy

Mary Baker Eddy6 was born in 1821 in a village in New Hampshire into a strict Protestant family. From early childhood she was prone to mood swings and depression, brooding constantly over religious issues mostly having to do with heaven and hell. She especially despised the scriptural doctrine of predestination.

Eddy married at age 23 and was tragically widowed when her young husband died of yellow fever while she was still carrying an unborn infant in her womb. She soon remarried in 1853 to a doctor of dentistry and spent years moving from village to village while slipping in and out of severe depression. Her husband’s dentistry business failed, and he was captured during the Civil War leaving her all alone and in poverty. It was at that time that she came to Portland seeking help from Quimby.

Once Quimby cured Eddy she enthusiastically became his disciple. She studied all of his written notes and spread his reputation to everyone she came in contact with. She was happy for once in her life—she was cured. After returning to her husband again in Massachusetts, her father died in 1865 and then she learned of Quimby’s death in 1866. That year she suffered a serious fall on an icy road and became crippled and emotionally worse off than ever. According to her memoirs “it was then she discovered the Science of Divine Metaphysical Healing,”7 and cured herself.

From then on her mind became fixed on the one single goal of taking this healing message, which she believed was divine, to the world. She began teaching its principles and attracting large numbers of students. Soon she had an entourage. As she continued her teaching, she gained a personal strength of mission and a determined purpose to write a book of her healing techniques. When the book did finally come out in 1875 it was hardly noticed, but her fame kept growing, advanced by the testimonies of her converts. By this time the thought movement was being referred to as “mind cure.” In 1879 she and her followers chartered The First Church of Christ Scientist in Boston, Massachusetts and the direction of the new religion changed forever.

Notably, and so unlike Quimby’s modest stance, Mary Baker Eddy never stopped her disciples from equating her as an equal to Christ. This was a criticism that rose up against her after her death and especially after Quimby’s notes were published exposing her plagiarism of Quimby’s writings. Mary Baker Eddy died in 1910 amidst church schisms and turmoil until a central church board regained control.

Although in serious decline presently, the Church of Christ Scientists initially grew rapidly hitting its pinnacle in the 1930s with an estimated 270,000 converts. It became the most conspicuous and pervasive form of the mind cure movement and was known as the fastest growing church in America after WWII. By the mid-1950s there were 2300 organized Christian Science churches and societies in the United States—10,000 practitioners of Christian Science therapy and hundreds of reading rooms. It is best known for its newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor8, which has won 7 Pulitzer Prizes between 1950 and 2002.

Mind Cure’s Leading Wholesaler—The Unity School

Charles Fillmore and his wife Myrtle commenced teaching mind cure as an enterprise in Kansas City and produced a small publication called Modern Thought in 1889. They had both been initiated into mind cure in Christian Science classes in 1887, but never joined Mrs. Eddy’s church. Both had been healed and thought of their particular work as that of expounding a practical Christianity directed to all church denominations. Thus Unity9, as their particular brand of teaching and healing was called, was to be a “school” not a new church. The idea was so well received that soon after Unity’s inception the flood of books and magazines came pouring out and the public gobbled them up. Many of these publications were written for and were attracting businessmen.

Freelance writers taking notice of all of this reading excitement created a geyser of mind cure writings directed at members of mainline denominational churches. By the 1930s many of these authors began to push the envelope of mind cure and enlarge what Quimby had begun as a focus on health in a very narrow sense, into unlimited areas with unrealistic promises. This opened the floodgates for even more “how to” books on success thinking directed at salesmen with book titles such as The Law of Success and How To Sell Your Way Through Life, and Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill.

Another expert of psycho-success during these times was Claude Bristol who wrote The Magic of Believing in 1948, which quickly went through 17 printings. Drawing heavily on the thought movement, mind cure, Christian Science, Unity and other religious science teachings he claimed no religious affiliation at all. His only claim was that the magic of believing was itself all that religion was. Faith was believing. You need only wish and it’s yours.

But it was Dale Carnegie who taught America how to develop a million dollar smile in his classic book “How To Win Friends And Influence People.” Like all mind cure writers before him, he too quoted and touted mind cure’s greatest proponent, William James10. James, known also as the father of Psychology, was always careful to keep his distance from the mind cure religious philosophy, but often stated that everyone should “act as if,” from which Carnegie developed the belief that a smile was all that was necessary in order to feel happy.

Norman Vincent Peale

By the 1920s mind cure faced a new situation. The old-line Protestant churches were beginning to respond and compete by embracing the new therapeutic psychology into their own outreach programs. They too started deliberately incorporating mind cure notions into their presentations of faith. By 1936 Norman Vincent Peale11, a Methodist ordained minister serving a historic Reformed church in New York’s lower Fifth Avenue, organized the first Religious-Psychiatric Clinic. Peale’s approach made mind cure more respectable and more focused on positive thinking in order to deal with the anxieties of modern man. But even he went further by saying, as all other mind cure proponents before him had said, that positive thinking power was divine.

By 1955 Peale’s influence over the American public was extensive encompassing massive national circulation of magazines, books, church journals and radio broadcasts. He was a powerful motivational preacher. He set out to prove that he was right about this new form of religion by publishing the testimonials of those who professed that positive thinking had worked for them in much the same way Mary Baker Eddy had done.

Yet the push back from the very conservative religious groups against Peale’s message was just as pervasive. They argued that Peale had turned Protestantism into a form of cheap grace. They questioned the compatibility of religion and psychology and the confusion that mind cure had brought into churches in pursuit of health. They claimed psychology appealed only to the mind of man and fed the self thereby creating an extreme form of self-centeredness. Donald Meyer seemed to agree with this assessment. (As a side note, Norman Vincent Peale was Donald Trump’s minister and family friend. He performed the wedding between Donald Trump and Trump’s first wife Ivana.) Nevertheless, Norman Vincent Peale brought positive thinking into the limelight and gave it the widespread popularity it has today.

Oral Roberts

Meyer was quick to point out that patrons of itinerant charismatic evangelists and healers were usually individuals from poor farming families. In other words, the preacher came to them and preached on their home turf. Due to their poor schooling and economic circumstances, they found the power displays of spiritual healers and their use of “glossolalia” (the speaking in tongues) particularly attractive. At age 17 Granville Oral Roberts12 entered the field of traveling preachers in 1935 serving Holiness and Pentecostal churches in small towns across Oklahoma.
Roberts commenced healing in 1947 in circus sized tents packed with people. But he also spent time building his organization by establishing ties with wealthy Tulsa businessmen and promoting heavily using magazine publications, books, letters, and “anointed handkerchiefs” that went out by the thousands in response to requests. Roberts was not only a very charismatic evangelist but was a great organizer and fundraiser. He put together a radio network and began using television extensively. In 1962 he began work on a university and in 1968, Roberts, the son of a Pentecostal preacher, stunned all of his followers when he joined the Methodist Church in Tulsa.

In 1971 Oral Roberts got his wish when the University was established complete with a medical school and by 1977 a hospital was added. Known as The City of Faith, Donald Meyer believed that this entire complex demonstrated Robert’s unique way of underwriting spiritual healing by combining it with education and medical science.

Billy Graham

Billy Graham13 is set distinctly apart by Meyer from the rest of the personalities in the mind cure movement for several reasons. First of all, Graham was neither a healer nor a positive thinking motivational preacher. Graham was a Christian evangelist ordained as a Southern Baptist minister. He is principally known for his worldwide Billy Graham Crusades, which began in 1947 and continued until 2005 where he preached to audiences in 185 countries. He has been consistently named as one of the most admired men in America and is known as a spiritual advisor to Presidents.

Graham’s message to audiences was simple— “the end is near.” If you sought signs to prove the message, Graham could easily point to the evidence of decadence, breakdown, and corruption all around. Some of the signs contained embarrassing implications such as Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon who owed his Presidential victory to Protestants urged on by Graham. In fact, Meyer believed Nixon’s fall exposed the narrowness of Graham’s social imagination.

But Donald Meyer chose to end his masterful book on the Positive Thinkers with Billy Graham in order to specifically highlight the struggles of mainline denominations that became visible at the peak of Graham’s career. Whereas Protestant religion and the denominational churches had actually given rise to the mind cure movement in the 19th and 20th centuries, now all of them were losing members, money, and seminary candidates. From Meyer’s perspective the erosion was having a direct effect on human beings, and it was being translated into the shape of the nation. All those structures of hope, thought, and community that people depended on for centuries were now giving way to widespread staggering insecurity and fear.

As Graham’s career wound to a close, a new form of social, political, and economic liberalism and yes, even feminism was taking over the country. Numerous large denominational congregations of 5,000, 10,000 and even 20,000 members whose pulpits had been filled with generations of men with thirty, thirty-five and even forty years of service were now being occupied by women. It’s as though the mind cure movement, which started with a woman, had come full circle.

From this point it is not difficult for us to trace the path into our 21st century. As we have already seen in Part 1 of this article positive thinking is alive and well and its two leading proponents in the marketplace are Joel Osteen and Tony Robbins. Given the fear and instability of the masses that has since multiplied with many believing the nation is on the verge of collapse, the future bodes well for the positive thinking industry.

For those readers who would prefer an alternative way to view all of this and to reconfirm to themselves that the world has never been right about anything, Donald Meyer culminates the meaning of these former times by quoting St. Augustine from the 4th century. In his book, The City of God, written at the time the Roman Empire was falling, Augustine’s admonition to the faithful remnant was “not to let mere history undermine them. Rome may fall, but they would be saved.”

1. The Positive Thinkers: Religion As Pop Psychology from Mary Baker Eddy To Oral Roberts, by Donald Meyer, Copyright 1965, 1980, Pantheon Books, New York, NY
2. Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer, Article Description from Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia,, June 30, 2017
3. Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, Article Description from Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia,, June 30, 2017
4. Charles Poyen, The Positive Thinkers, By Donald Meyer, Chapter 2, Page 34
5. The Positive Thinkers, By Donald Meyer, Chapter 2, Page 33
6. Mary Baker Eddy, Article from Wikipedia the Free Encyclopedia,, June 30, 2017
7. Divine Metaphysical Healing, The Positive Thinkers, By Donald Meyer, Chapter 2, Page 38
8. The Christian Science Monitor, Article from Wikipedia the Free Encyclopedia,, June 30, 2017
9. Unity, The Positive Thinkers, By Donald Meyer, Chapter 2, Page 40
10. William James, Article from Wikipedia the Free Encyclopedia,, June30, 2017
11. Norman Vincent Peale, Article from Wikipedia the Free Encyclopedia,, June 30, 2017
12. Oral Roberts, Article from Wikipedia the free Encyclopedia,, June 30, 2017
13. Billy Graham, Article from Wikipedia the Free Encyclopedia,, June 30, 2017
14. The Positive Thinkers, By Donald Meyer, A Reckoning for 1980-Conclusion, Page 340