Phineas Parkhurst Quimby & the Dawn of New Thought

Phineas Parkhurst Quimby & the Dawn of New Thought February 16, 2022



In my view there are two great American original religions. One is the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-Day Saints, perhaps better known as the Mormons.

The other is New Thought. While people who write about New Thought give it a hundred mothers and fathers, I think we can actually start with Phineas Quimby. While there are others that came before, the way he put it together seems to earn him the title as a critical founding parent.

Phineas Parkhurst Quimby was born in Lebanon, New Hampshire, on this day, the 16th of February, in 1802. Phineas’ father was a blacksmith. He received negligible education before being apprenticed to a clockmaker. While lacking a formal education, he seems to have read widely, and he was clearly brilliant. He eventually held several patents.

However, what makes him important to me and, well, to anyone interested in religious studies and particularly American religious studies started with his contracting tuberculosis.

He quickly felt that medicine as it was available to him was woefully inadequate to his needs. He began to reflect on the nature of illness and cure. Based upon observations of people and how minds and bodies seemed closely connected, his initial feeling was that the mind was somehow central to the questions of health.

Then he heard some lectures from the French mesmerist Charles Poyen. Not much later he heard Robert H Collyer speak. He began to feel the principles behind mesmerism could provide the key. Putting what he learned from these two teachers together and adding in his own reflections Quimby began to develop a philosophy of life and health. Soon he began a lecture tour of his own. The subject of his talks was simple. He declared that illness and health were intimately connected with one’s beliefs. And he began proscribing cures to what ails.

In 1859, Quimby opened an office to practice his new psychosomatic medicine in Portland, Maine.

He died on the 16th of January, 1866. He was 63. In between those years he created something very American.

Among those attracted to his theories and practices were Annetta and Julius Dresser and Mary Baker Eddy. After Quimby’s death Annetta and Julius began teaching the “Quimby System of Mental Treatment of Diseases” while Mary Baker Eddy began the Church of Christ, Science, the Christian Science movement.

The Encyclopedia Britannica tells us:

Although not religious in the orthodox sense, he believed he had rediscovered the healing methods of Jesus. He became a controversial figure when Mary Baker Eddy, who had sought him out for treatment and had been for a time a disciple, denied that her discovery of Christian Science was influenced by him.

And, of course Mary Baker Eddy’s attempts at excorsing her early relationship with Quimby, writing him out of her biography, only turned scholarly attention to Quimby’s place at the center of her thinking about mind and body and its relationship. I think it fair to say Quimby’s influence is mostly felt through the movement that followed Eddy in the many New Thought religious communities such as Unity and Religious Science (the principal organization now renamed the International Centers for Spiritual Living) and other organizations within or adjacent to the International New Thought Alliance.

Returning to Annetta and Julius, the Dresser’s son Horatio, a Swedenborgian minister who would earn his doctorate at Harvard, became the first historian of the movement that begins with Quimby. While he didn’t coin the term summarizing the collective of perspectives, he normalized it as New Thought. Dr Dresser would also provide a seven point summary of Phineas Quimby’s teachings:

1. The omnipresent Wisdom, the warm, loving Father of us all, Creator of all the universe, whose works are good, whose substance is an invisible reality.

2. The real man, whose life is eternal in the invisible kingdom of God, whose senses are spiritual and function independently of matter.

3. The visible world, which Dr. Quimby once characterized as “the shadow of Wisdom’s amusements”; that is, nature is only the outward projection or manifestation of an inward activity far more real and enduring.

4. Spiritual matter, or fine interpenetrating substance, directly responsive to thought and subconsciously embodying in the flesh the fears, beliefs, hopes, errors, and joys of the mind.

5. Disease is due to false reasoning in regard to sensations, which man unwittingly develops by impressing wrong thoughts and mental pictures upon the subconscious spiritual matter.

6. As disease is due to false reasoning, so health is due to knowledge of the truth. To remove disease permanently, it is necessary to know the cause, the error which led to it. “The explanation is the cure.”

7. To know the truth about life is therefore the sovereign remedy for all ills. This truth Jesus came to declare. Jesus knew how he cured and Dr. Quimby, without taking any credit to himself as a discoverer, believed that he understood and practiced the same great truth or science.

Dr Dresser also collected much of Quimby’s thinking in two books, Health and the Inner Life: An Analytical and Historical Study of Spiritual Healing and Theories and The Quimby Manuscripts.

Writing from an outsider, although not unsympathetic perspective, William James noted in his Varieties of Religious Experience, which I found at Wikipedia explains New Thought:

“...for the sake of having a brief designation, I will give the title of the ‘Mind-cure movement.’ There are various sects of this ‘New Thought,’ to use another of the names by which it calls itself; but their agreements are so profound that their differences may be neglected for my present purpose, and I will treat the movement, without apology, as if it were a simple thing.

“It is an optimistic scheme of life, with both a speculative and a practical side. In its gradual development during the last quarter of a century, it has taken up into itself a number of contributory elements, and it must now be reckoned with as a genuine religious power. It has reached the stage, for example, when the demand for its literature is great enough for insincere stuff, mechanically produced for the market, to be to a certain extent supplied by publishers – a phenomenon never observed, I imagine, until a religion has got well past its earliest insecure beginnings.

“One of the doctrinal sources of Mind-cure is the four Gospels; another is Emersonianism or New England transcendentalism; another is Berkeleyan idealism; another is spiritism, with its messages of “law” and “progress” and “development”; another the optimistic popular science evolutionism of which I have recently spoken; and, finally, Hinduism has contributed a strain.

“But the most characteristic feature of the mind-cure movement is an inspiration much more direct. The leaders in this faith have had an intuitive belief in the all-saving power of healthy-minded attitudes as such, in the conquering efficacy of courage, hope, and trust, and a correlative contempt for doubt, fear, worry, and all nervously precautionary states of mind. Their belief has in a general way been corroborated by the practical experience of their disciples; and this experience forms to-day a mass imposing in amount.”

Personally I am fascinated with the connections to Transcendentalism, and perhaps through them, Platonism. And certainly, again likely through the Transcendentalists, Idealism. But, I’m especially interested in that Hindu thread. Sadly, all beyond the scope of this small note.

All this said, while both Mormonism and New Thought, as I noted at the beginning, are genuine American religions, I think that through various forms including some “mainstreaming” through “positive thinking” and the “prosperity gospel,” it is New Thought that has become a current that has had the greatest influence.

And, for good or, probably and ill, it all begins with Mr Quimby…

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