New Thought: The Real Genesis of “Positive Thinking”

By John S. Haller, Jr.

Amid the numerous religious and secular positive thinkers today who have commodifided empowerment and self-discovery, the term New Thought is curiously absent from their discussions. Instead, we find a myriad of labels and trademarks (i.e., Rick Warren’s “Purpose Driven Life”) that are marketed for personal gain. Today’s “science” of cheer and self-discovery carries a price tag best represented in Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret (2006) and sold through television celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Montel Williams, and Ellen DeGeneres. These recently discovered “keys,” “laws,” “steps,” and “secrets” to health and happiness are little more than plagiarisms of ideas first identified in the nineteenth and early twentieth century works of New Thought celebrities Wallace Wattles, William Walker Atkinson Elizabeth Towne, Prentice Mulford, Robert Collier, and others.

The concept known as positive thinking, widely embraced within American culture, is rooted in the works of numerous New Thought writers—past and present. Whether referring to Ralph Waldo Trine’s What All the World’s A-Seeking; Or the Vital Law of True Life, True Greatness, Power, and Happiness (1896), Charles B. Newcomb’s All’s Right with the World (1899), Elizabeth Towne’s How to Grow Success (1904), and Orison Swett Marden’s The Miracle of Right Thought (1910), or, more recently, to Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Anthony Robbins’ Awaken the Giant Within: How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical , and Financial Destiny! (1992), and Deepak Chopra’s Creating Affluence—Wealth Consciousness in the Field of All Possibilities (1993), to name just a few, the arguments are remarkably alike. Simply stated, too many people settle for less, believing that the luxuries and comforts of the world are beyond their capacity to either want or achieve. But the limitations, these authors explain, are in ourselves. God wants all of his creatures to have the good things of the universe. There is no poverty and no want in the Creator’s plan. While we are not forced to grovel, many choose poverty due to their own fear and worry. Nevertheless, we can all be achievers who build with our thoughts. We can all be practical dreamers whose minds reach out to create and produce what our ideals and ambitions seek. For these writers—both those who consider themselves New Thoughters and those who preach from outside its global tent, positive thinking is not only a method of thinking, but a way of living. When the spirit in the individual becomes one with God, lives are changed. The individual becomes master of his or her kingdom. The silent affirmation of the individual enables the full realization of one’s wants and dreams.

Today, these jeremiads of mind-body healing or self-empowerment fall under headings such as New Age, esotericism, spiritualism, self-help, auto-suggestion, affirmation, etc. All, however, reflect the principles of New Thought, even in cases where the authors themselves do not appear to have intended it. While many of today’s celebrity writers and speakers journey into this positive thinking mode as ordained ministers making use of church and church-affiliated colleges, institutes, syndicated television programs, infomercials, conferences, CDs, Internet sites, and blogs, an even greater number choose secular routes that carry a similar inspiring world vision minus a personal Creator.

For more about The History of New Thought, visit the Patheos Book Club.

John S. Haller, Jr. is an emeritus professor of history and medical humanities at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He has written more than a dozen books on subjects ranging from race to sexuality and the history of medicine. His most recent books include The History of American Homeopathy and Swedenborg, Mesmer, and the Mind/Body Connection. He is former editor of Caduceus: A Humanities Journal for Medicine and the Health Sciencesand, until his retirement in 2008, served for eighteen years as vice president for academic affairs for Southern Illinois University. He lives in Carbondale, Illinois.


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