Chapter 1 – The New Age – A History of the New Thought Movement

Chapter 1
Horatio Dresser
A History of the New Thought Movement

THE great war came as a vivid reminder that we live in a new age. We began to look back not only to explain the war and find a way to bring it to an end, but to see what tendencies were in process to lead us far beyond it. There were new issues to be met and we needed the new enlightenment to meet them. The war was only one of various signs of a new dispensation. It came not so much to prepare the way as to call attention to truths which we already possessed. The new age had been in process for some time. Different ones of us were trying to show in what way it was a new dispensation, what principles were most needed. What the war accomplished for us was to give us a new contrast. As a result we now see clearly that some of the tendencies of the nineteenth century which were most warmly praised are not so promising as we supposed.

We had come to regard the nineteenth century as the age of the special sciences. We looked to science for enlightenment. We enjoyed new inventions without number, such as the steam-engine, the electric telegraph, the telephone, and our life centered more and more about these. But the nation having most to do with preparation for the war was the one which made the greatest use of the special sciences. Modern science was in fact materialized for the benefit of a military party. As a result of our study of the war many of us are now more interested in higher branches of knowledge than in the special sciences. We insist that science is for use, and we reserve the right to say what that use shall be. We have lost interest in science not explicitly employed for moral ends.

Again, we called attention to the nineteenth century with great pride as the age of the philosophy of evolution. We put our hopes in that philosophy. We expected it to explain the great mysteries. We wrote history anew, we issued new text-books, and in a thousand ways adapted our thought to the great idea of gradual development. But while the new philosophy accomplished wonders for us in so far as it showed the reign of law, the uniformity of nature, the immanence of all causality, it deprived us of our former belief in the divine purpose. Taken literally, it led us to regard nature as self-operative. We had to work our way back to the divine providence. We realized that evolutionism was simply a new form of materialism. We carried forward from the nineteenth century into the twentieth many great problems of life and mind not yet solved. The philosophy of evolution has come to stay, but not even in the form of Bergson’s interpretation is it satisfactory.

We also looked upon the nineteenth century as the period of development of idealism. The modern movement, beginning in Germany, spread to England and the United States, and we witnessed a most interesting form of it in our transcendentalism. This movement, in brief, emphasized Thought as the cardinal principle. It sought to explain all things by reference to this Thought. It found the starting-point as well as the meaning in the Idea, The outward world was regarded as a mere phenomenon in comparison. This movement had permanent contributions to make to our thought. We associate the name of Emerson with its spiritual meanings. But most of its theoretical teachings seem far removed from our practical thought today. We no longer try to spin the world out of the mere web of Thought. We need a new idealism to replace that of Fichte and Hegel. We are suspicious of mere speculation. The idealism of the last century is already mere matter of history.

The nineteenth century was also the epoch of religious liberalism. Throughout the century Unitarianism accomplished a great work. The liberalizing tendencies spread into all denominations. We take many ideas as matters of course nowadays for which the great leaders of the time of Theodore Parker and James Martineau had to contend at the risk of intellectual martyrdom The liberalism of the early part of the century had a destructive work to do before the freer thought of the day could assimilate the teachings of modern science and give us our present constructive faith. It requires decided effort on our part today to put ourselves back to the time when narrowing dogmas still ruled the human mind, when it was customary to pray for divine intervention, to believe in miracles as infractions of law, and to draw lines of rigid exclusiveness around the ecclesiastical sect to which one happened to belong. The history of liberalism is so comprehensive that it is always a question nowadays what we mean when we use the term. To be liberal is to be of the new age. The real question is, what is the goal of liberalism? The answer which a disciple of the New Thought would give should be understood in the light of a long struggle for the right to employ mental healing, a struggle which went on almost apart, independently of the warfare waged by Unitarianism upon the old doctrines and dogmas.

As in the case of the philosophy of evolution, we have had religious liberalism long enough with us to realize that it has a sting to it. For the less enlightened, the smaller minds among liberals, freedom of religious thought developed according to the tenets of the new or higher criticism imported from Germany. Undertaking to explain how the Bible came into being, with the variations and errors of texts, the imperfections of language, the conflict of opinions due to the fact that the books of which the Bible consists were brought together by other hands long after the supposed writers flourished, the critics proved too much and exemplified a habit of judging by the letter. Biblical criticism became destructive and had much to do with the weakening of faith still apparent among us. If we say that the new age is the epoch of belief in the spiritual meaning of the Scriptures, we must qualify it by saying that the greater work remains to be done. Devotees of the New Thought have freely interpreted the Bible for themselves. What is needed is a spiritual science of interpretation to offset the destructive work which the age accepted without knowing what it believed.

The great century that has passed also witnessed the coming of spiritism in its modern form. In retrospect we are now able to say that behind all that was misleading in the new movement there were certain great truths which the world needed. Old ideas of death have been overcame, the spiritual world has been brought nearer, and larger views of the human spirit have been generally accepted. Out of the new interest came psychical research as an endeavor to put the phenomena of the whole field of spiritism on a scientific basis. The results have been meager and slowly attained. But the movement has been educational. Its positive results are discoverable in what we have been led to think. Although the whole field lies somewhat apart from that of the New Thought, the mental-healing movement has profited by it. Spiritualism is a protest against the materialism of the nineteenth century. It is one of the signs of the times. We have been gradually coming to know what spirit-return means, what a genuine message from the other life would be. What we want is a better philosophy than that which psychical experiences ordinarily seem to imply.

Psychology in the sense in which we now employ the term did not exist when the New Thought movement began. We are now so accustomed to the psychological point of view of every subject of public interest that we forget how recent it is. Modern science in general had to come first, then the theory of evolution, with the attempt to explain mental life on a biological basis, and the gradual transfer of interest to the inner life. The terms “suggestion,” “subconscious,” and the other words which we employ so freely are very new indeed. The old intellectualism in psychology prevailed for the most part throughout the nineteenth century. When a psychological laboratory was established at last it was in behalf of a physiological point of view, and like many other theories imported from Germany we have still to estimate the physiological theory in its true estate. In the end it may seem as far from the truth as the idealism and criticism which we are in process of examining anew. If psychology is a sign of the times we may well remind ourselves that the end is not yet. For there are many rivals in the field. The implied psychology of the New Thought is essentially practical and decidedly unlike that mental science which holds that the inner life is wholly determined by the brain. For the devotee of mental healing the mind is what actual success seems to prove it to be in the endeavor of the soul to conquer circumstance. It is well to study the history of mental healing without regard to the psychology of the laboratories.

The new age began in part as a reaction against authority in favor of individualism and the right to test belief by personal experience. By acquiring the right to think for himself in religious matters, man also gained freedom to live according to his convictions. Inner experience came into its own as the means of testing even the most exclusive teachings of the Church. The seat of authority was found by some in human reason, by others in what the Quakers call the inward light. Thus inward guidance led the way to another and more spiritual phase of liberalism. The Emersonian idea of self-reliance is an expression of this faith in the light which shines for the individual within the sanctuary of the soul. After the mental-healing movement had been in process for half a century its devotees saw in Emerson a prophet of the ideas for which they had been laboring in their own way, each within the sphere of his experience. This emphasis on inner experience is a sign of our age, but it took us a long while to read the signs.

Now that we have passed into the social period we are able to appreciate the individualism of the nineteenth century. It was of course necessary for man to win the right to think for himself, to test matters for himself, and to become aware of his subjective life in contrast with the objective. Man had to plead for salvation as the individual’s privilege. He was eager to prove that the individual survived death, that a spirit could return and establish its identity. He also had to contend for the freedom of the individual in contrast with the tendency of evolutionism to regard man as a product of heredity and environment. Our whole modern view of success has grown up around a new conception of the individual. We have pleaded for man the individual in manifold ways since modern science made us acquainted with the theory of physical force, its laws, processes, and conditions. But in the twentieth century we have taken a long step beyond the individualism with which the modern liberal movement began.

The present is the dawning age of brotherhood. It marks an advance not only beyond the theoretical idealism which emphasized Thought as the only reality but beyond all types of theory in which stress is placed upon the subjective. We have come out into the open again after the age-long endeavor to acquaint man with the inner life. We penetrated the inner world to gain new insights, to acquire the psychological point of view, to discover the psychical, to learn about suggestion and the subconscious. We had to learn that all real development is from within outward according to law
Today we are engaged in applying our new discoveries. The history of the New Thought is for the most part the record of one of several contemporaneous movements in favor of the inner life and the individual. We can understand it now because our age has given us the contrast. To follow that history intelligently is to see in it an effort for knowledge and power which we now take as matter of course. Each of us has in a measure come to hold the present social point of view because those who went before earned for us the right to individual salvation, gave us the inner point of view.

It was the war more than any other event of our century which gave us the contrast through which we now understand the subjectivism of the nineteenth century. The war made us aware that we had traveled very far. It showed us the widespread social tendency of our age. It was the greatest objective social struggle the world has witnessed; for never was the autocrat. the mere individual so effectively organized as in this “last war of the kings.” Yet never was there such a social protest against every right which the mere individual takes unto himself in his effort to impose his ideas on the world.

As a result we now see plainly that all true peace is social. Our nation was brought out of its isolation into prominence as a world-power to secure this larger, lasting peace. As a result we realize that justice is social. We are all pondering over the nature of social justice. We are aware that this is the great issue, now that we have turned from the war as an external enterprise to interpret the warfare of the classes. We are pleading for moral and spiritual considerations as eagerly as before. But we see that, strictly speaking, the moral and spiritual are neither subjective nor objective: they are social. Hence we look for every clue that points toward cooperation and brotherhood. We are passing beyond the old competitive spirit. The nations have been brought close by working for a common end. Never before has the world witnessed such a spirit of service.

This growing awareness of the intimacy of relationship of the individual with society has increased with us in line with the newer thought of God as immanent in the world, as the resident cause of all evolution. Our thought of God has become practical, concrete. This newer conception of God also belongs with the desire of the modern man to test everything for himself, to feel in his own life whatever man claims to have felt in the past that exalted him. Thus the practice of the presence of God follows as a natural consequence of the newer idea of man. The liberalism which set man free from the old theology left him free where he could turn to all the first-hand sources of religion for himself.

In a practical sense of the word we may say that the new age is witnessing a return to the original Christianity of the Gospels. The great work of religious liberalism in the nineteenth century consisted in freeing the world of theologies which we need never have believed. The war has brought us to the point where we can begin to appreciate what kind of social reform Christianity would have ushered in if it had been tried. The original teaching was social in the larger, truer sense. It called for brotherhood. It came to establish peace. It came that all men might have life and have it more abundantly. The spirit of the new age counsels us to return to the Bible as the Book of Life. It assures us anew that that which is spiritual must be spiritually discerned. It puts the emphasis on conduct, on the life. It came to minister to the whole individual. Only through social salvation can we begin to attain its fulness.

Granted the clues which our century affords us, we see clearly that the founders of Christian theology made a serious mistake when they divided the individual, assigning the problems of sin and salvation to the priest and neglecting the individual in the larger sense in which Jesus Christ ministered to him. Our age is giving the whole individual back to us. It is like a new discovery, this modern view of man as interiorly abounding in resources and outwardly social, a brother to all mankind. The last century witnessed the rediscovery of the inner life. The present is witnessing the rediscovery of man the social being. We are prepared at last to consider the question of health as at once individual and social. We had to understand man the social being before we could begin rightly to minister.

The original Christianity was a gospel of healing in which the problems of sin and disease, of the individual in his relation to society, were not separated. The values of this gospel as a religion of healing were lost to view for ages. Our age has disclosed them anew. The mental-healing movement came into being to make these values clear. Its pioneers had to contend for recognition amidst universal unfriendliness. They had to begin their work several generations ago that we might enjoy its benefits today. Some of the devotees had to stand for very radical views in order to attract attention. Thus Christian Science so-called had an office to perform in contrast with the materialism of the age. Extremes beget extremes. Our part is to discern the neglected truths, as old as the hills, but covered over with doctrines and dogmas.

As a reaction against the materialism of the nineteenth century in favor of the original gospel of healing, we can hardly follow the history of the New Thought without reminding ourselves of the age as a whole against which it was a protest. But it would be easy to overestimate the influence of the environment in which the mental-healing movement appeared. A practical protest headed by people who work in a quiet way to relieve human ills is very different from an intellectual protest such as religious liberalism. A practical protest cannot be explained by reference to ideas alone. It is a protest in behalf of life. It is an appeal to conduct. It becomes known by  its fruits long before it has a theory to give to the world. Its leaders educate themselves, not by going through the schools and assimilating the prevalent teachings, but by turning away to experiment for themselves.

When the new theories have at last been promulgated, we can look back and trace resemblances in history as a hole. But the new theories when propounded were probably far more out of accord with the generation in which they appeared than in harmony with it. The new views were for our own age, and that age had not come. We cannot in reality explain these views either by heredity or by reference to environment. The true explanation calls for a return to the idea that there is a purpose in creation. The new development began early enough so that it would be ready when needed.

In so far as the mental-healing movement began as a protest this protest or reaction was made in a particular way, very different from that of the reaction which gave us modern liberalism. Medical science was so far inferior to its present estate that it is difficult for us to put ourselves in sympathetic imagination back in Mr. Quimby’s time, in 1840, to see why he spoke of physicians as “blind guides leading the blind,” as “slave-drivers” compelling the sick to enter a bondage worse than that of slavery in the South. We need to divest the mind of very nearly every explanatory idea we now employ in order to account for the vigor of that reaction. The spirit of the new age was there potentially, but it was merely potential. Mr. Quimby was far from being aware of it. He was simply a pioneer investigator. Matters which we now understand by reference to psychology were still in such a crude state that people believed in a mysterious magnetic fluid by which a mesmeriser could put a subject into a curious state called “sleep.” Nothing that a mental healer would call promising had yet appeared. Disease was apparently an “entity” that attacked man from without. Whatever man may once have known about the influence of mind upon the body had been forgotten. Never had a pioneer so few paths to follow.

In retrospect, knowing the new age as we now do, we know of course that there were clues which might have been followed. There were books which Mr. Quimby could have read in which he might have learned the laws of the intimate relationships of mind and body. It seems natural for us to protest against medical materialism. We take it for granted that any one who is in search of health will try to find help in any direction that is promising. The gospel of healing in the original Christianity is so plain to some of us that we wonder how anyone could have missed it. But Mr. Quimby knew nothing about it. He had no psychological knowledge. The only defensible view concerning his relation to the new age which we can maintain is that the new light was shining in the inner world and anyone who was sufficiently free from his age to turn to it might be enlightened, even though he were uneducated as education is commonly understood in the world.

What we shall understand the new age to mean in this the spiritual sense of the word is this shining of a new light which cannot be accounted for by reference to anything external. To try to explain it by studying the tendencies of the age as matters of material or intellectual history would be to try to explain the higher by the lower. All real causes are spiritual. New leaders appear when they are needed. A new work begins in the fitness of time according to the divine providence. To understand the causes we need a measure of the same enlightenment. The true verifications are those of experience. Unless you are willing to seek light and test the principles in question for yourself you may not expect to understand. The new age bids us go to the sources for ourselves. Those sources are discoverable through the inward light, by the aid of intuition, through appreciation of the spiritual meaning of the Scriptures. The life comes before the doctrine. It is the fruits which indicate the value. Hence Mr. Quimby said that the sick were his friends. Those who had been restored to health by spiritual means were convinced that there was a great truth in the new method of healing. All the early healers, writers and teachers were healed in the new way, and the ideas were put forth on the basis of experience.

In following the history of the New Thought we are therefore concerned with practical life. The intellectual movements of the new age do not explain its practical tendencies. We cannot account for the New Thought unless we learn the sources of the gospel of healing, without which the New Thought in its present forms would not have come into being.

Chapter 2

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A History of The New Thought Movement

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