New History of New Thought

New History of New Thought November 8, 2012

John S. Haller Jr.’s The History of New Thought helped me understand a subject that has always vexed me.

Several years ago, I read Catherine Albanese’s magisterial A Republic of Mind and Spirit, which presents “metaphysical religion” as a commonly omitted branch of American religious history. “Metaphysical religion…” she argues, “is at least as important as evangelicalism in fathoming the shape and scope of American religious history.” [Partly following the lead of Jon Butler, she also identifies a “liturgical” form of religiosity in the “state-church/mainstream-denominational tradition” (catholic and Catholic). Metaphysical branches of religion, by contrast, privilege the unity between the divine and human mind, theorize a correspondences between the human, material world and a spiritual universe, and believe that a flow of divine energy from above to below has the potential to heal both physical and spiritual illnesses. Albanese placed all sorts of groups under the umbrella of metaphysical, from early Mormons to Christian Science to New Age practices.

One of the things on my long academic to-do list is to reread Republic of Mind and Spirit. When one is used to thinking about American religious history in terms of evangelicalism, mainline Protestantism, Catholicism, and secularism, it can be hard to wrap one’s mind around all of the movements that she classifies as metaphysical, and few of them are easy to grasp with only a superficial encounter.

Thus, I was grateful to get a copy of John Haller’s The History of New Thought from the Patheos Book Club. Haller is quite correct, in my view, to see many aspects of popular religious culture today as at least partly indebted to nineteenth-century New Thought. In the middle of that century, “a handful of spiritually minded entrepreneurs attracted to the recently discovered “sciences” of neurology, mesmerism, and phrenology sought to graft themselves to a mixture of liberal Christianity, transcendentalism, Spiritualism, and Swedenbourgianism.” [I’ve long found Swedenbourg a particularly fascinating figure — can anyone recommend a first-rate biography?] In a sense, Arminian evangelicalism, early Mormonism, transcendentalism, and spiritualism were all strong reactions against a somewhat decaying Calvinism.

Haller’s book has several virtues. The first chapter is a splendid chronicle of pseudo-scientific healing movements and their leaders from Franz Mesmer to Andrew Jackson Davis. I’ve never read an account that connects the dots along the way so succinctly and clearly.

I also appreciate the way that Haller treats the debasement of New Thought ideas (debasement if one takes Swedenborg or Emerson as a starting point rather than phrenologists and Spiritualists) in the twentieth century. “Shorn of any pretense to piety,” contemporary New Thought’s writers and lecturers “continue to cash in on the public’s demand for spiritual instruction and revelation,” offering access to the ‘secrets’ and ‘keys’ to success and self-healing.” Witness The Secret or The Celestial Prophecy. Anyone interested in the rise of the evangelical prosperity gospel or of therapeutic forms of evangelicalism more generally would find much grist for reflection in Haller’s book.

The diversity of American religious history always staggers me. So much to learn.

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