Chapter 7 – The New Thought – A History of the New Thought Movement

Chapter 7
Horatio Dresser
A History of the New Thought Movement

THE term New Thought is more comprehensive than any other that has been applied to the mental-healing movement. The term itself has often been criticized, and some attempts have been made to give it up. It has come to stay, however, and may well be accepted in the widely representative sense in which it is at present employed. Like other terms, it had a natural history implying changes in human interests. From the first the mental-healing movement was a protest against old beliefs and methods, particularly the old-school medical practice and the old theology. Quimby set the example in this direction and his followers continued the protest. Evans believed that Swedenborg was the “messenger” of a new age, and he saw in Quimby’s teaching an expression of a new spiritual philosophy of life resembling Swedenborg’s doctrine on its practical side. Later, he emphasized the rebirth of idealism as an expression of the new age, pointing out the need for a “new mode of thought.” Another devotee of Swedenborg, Dr. Holcombe, was the first writer in the mental-science period to employ the term “New Thought,” capitalized, to designate the new teaching in the sense in which the term is now used. In his pamphlet, Condensed Thoughts about Christian Science, 1889, Dr. Holcombe says, “New Thought always excites combat in the mind with old thought, which refuses to retire.”

There is no line of demarcation, then, between the earlier terms and “New Thought.” Nor can one say that mental science abruptly ceases and New Thought begins. After 1890, devotees of mental healing acquired the habit of speaking of the new teaching as “this thought” in contrast with the old theology. Thus in time the term came into vogue in place of mental science, and writers like Dr. Wolcombe began to give up using the term “Christian Science” when they wished to show that they did not mean Eddyism. Then in 1894 the name “New Thought” was chosen as the title of a little magazine devoted to mental healing, published in Melrose, Mass. The term became current in Boston through the organization of the Metaphysical Club, in 1895. At about the same time it was used by Mr. C. B. Patterson in his magazine, Mind, New York, and in the titles of two of his books, New Thought Essays and What is the New Thought? Henry Wood also used the term in the title of his New Thought Simplified. Later, a magazine bearing the name New Thought was issued in Chicago. W. W. At kinson also gave popularity to the term in his New Thought Magazine, since named Advanced Thought. *

* Note, also, The Heart of the New Thought, by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Chicago, 1902.

In England the term Higher Thought was preferred at first, and this name was chosen for the Higher Thought Centre, the first organization of its kind in England. This name did not, however, represent a change in point of view, and the movement in England has been similar to the therapeutic movement elsewhere. The term mental science was employed by Judge Troward in the title of one of the earlier books widely read in England and the United States, The Edinburgh Lectures on Mental Science. The term Higher Thought was also adopted as the name of a periodical issued for a time in Wisconsin. In Boston the name Higher Life was chosen for the first New Thought church. The name Circle of Divine Ministry came into vogue in New York City and in Brooklyn, to designate a centre devoted to mental healing, lectures, silences, lending libraries, and social gatherings of people interested in the movement. This name later gave place to New Thought Centre and was practically the equivalent of the name, Home of Truth, as employed in California by Mrs. Militz.

In the West, notably in Denver and San Francisco, the accepted name for several years was Divine Science. This term originally stood for a modified or reformed Christian Science, with certain points of resemblance and some contrasts with the term New Thought as used in Boston and elsewhere. The peculiarities disappeared after a time, and this term as recently employed by Rev. W. John Murray, author of The Astor Lectures, New York, 1917, editor of The Gleaner, and leader of Sunday services in New York and Philadelphia, is now a synonym of New Thought. Mr. Murray has popularized the expression, “The New Thought of Man, The Larger Thought of God.”

In Kansas City, the name Practical Christianity came in time to stand for the whole branch of the movement under the leadership of The Society of Silent Unity and the Unity School of Christianity. This is perhaps the best of all terms for the movement on its spiritual side. This name might be applied, for example, to the movement originating in the West and using the term Home of Truth. It is preferable to the name metaphysical healing, a term which has stood for a more abstruse interpretation of the movement. The term metaphysics, strictly speaking, applies to a technical system of philosophy, and only by explanation is it to be understood as the name of a practical movement.

By common consent, the term New Thought has been more and more used to designate the entire mental-healing movement, including those phases of it, such as Practical Christianity in Kansas City, to which the term was not originally applied, and even though objections to the term have been made. By the term, New Thought, therefore, we understand all phases of the mental-healing movement, including “reformed Christian Science” and Divine Science.

The early writers and teachers looked to the same sources as those of the mental-science period. Some began with Christian Science, then branched out freely, adopting their own terms, and teaching classes. Their students in turn began to teach and to found little centres of their own. In the course of time, teachers and students tended in the common direction since known as New Thought, and so unity came about. Others owed their impetus to a mental science healer and the reading of books on mental science and Prentice Mulford’s pamphlets. A common idealistic basis was later discovered through acquaintance with leaders who had reacted against Christian Science, and so again there was a tendency towards unity.

The newer writers were not ordinarily so well informed as Mr. Evans and Mr. Barrows, and they did not indicate the sources of their ideas. Thus it became customary for any writer to set forth the New Thought as he apprehended it without reference to mental science and its forerunners. This neglect of the courtesy usually shown by one writer to others may be explained by the fact that these writers wished to avoid any special claims such as those put forward by the author of Science and Health, and because it was generally believed that anyone could develop the therapeutic ideas for himself. As a result, however, it Is difficult to give the natural history of books on the New Thought. The reader is often left with the impression that the author claims to have discovered all the contents of his book. The general public is sometimes mystified, too. Thus when the death of Mr. Patterson occurred, the New York papers referred to him as “the founder of the New Thought movement in America,” although his work did not begin until 1887, and although he shared with others his pioneer work in Hartford and New York. Again, writers like Henry Wood and Ralph Waldo Trine, who had not been mental healers or teachers but who were interested to make their own expression of the ideas passing current, also came into the field. The work of such writers is partly explained by what went before. Hence we may presuppose the mental-science period. But these writers also contributed to the movement. Thus new variations of the general teaching were all the time appearing, and the movement itself passed through several changes.

In contrast with the mental-science period, the writers who restated the New Thought at the time the organizations were coming into being gave attention to psychological principles then in vogue, and the terms “subconscious mind” and “suggestion” became widely popular. Hence the practical teachings became more intelligible, and the general public was less inclined to ridicule mental healing. More effort was made to trace out the psychological factors of the silent treatment. More use was made of the idea of affirmations and denials adopted for the sake of making the general principles directly practical. Thus suggestion or affirmation came to be recognized as the common factor in all types of mental healing.

There was still a tendency to use rather abstruse terminology, borrowed from Christian Science or developed by the early leaders of Divine Science. Thus God was still referred to impersonally as “Principle,” and vague statements were made concerning the identity of God “with all being,” statements which if taken literally implied pantheism or mysticism. This habit grew out of the effort to formulate a “science of sciences” or “science of Being” to take the place of Christian Science. It fostered speculation, and implied an aloofness from the world of fact, a tendency to overlook the lessons of experience. The affirmations or suggestions were often based on this “metaphysical” science, instead of on the concrete principles of the Christian life. Although the teachers of this type of mental-healing theory frequently quoted the Bible and interpreted it in Sunday-school lessons, they made no use of the directly practical clue to the “science of life and happiness” which Mr. Quimby saw in the teachings of Jesus. But this tendency to abstractions has been waning. The practical values of New Thought have survived, and in time the abstruse “science of Being” will disappear,

In contrast with the mental-science period, there was also a strong tendency to individualism which made it difficult to organize the New Thought as a national movement. This was partly due to the fact that some of the leaders emulated Mrs. Eddy and drew a little circle of followers around them, with their own magazines, their own books, and organizations; and partly to the fact that the New Thought was a protest against authority. The reaction had to be radical to be effective. Some of the leaders persisted in their radical independence to the end. Others yielded for the sake of cooperation and the promulgation of the general. principles. The effort to organize the movement as a whole was at one time almost halted by this individualism. But the radicalism was overcome, the National New Thought Alliance became duly recognized and the harmonious national organization became international.

Again, an element of optimism was introduced. This belief in the goodness of life, the emphasis on and quest for the good in all things was implicit in the movement from the beginning. But the newer writers brought out this faith more clearly and made optimism a prominent element of the New Thought. The “old thought” was undeniably pessimistic, it dwelt on sin, emphasized the darkness and misery of the world, the distress and the suffering. The new dwelt on life and light, pointing the way to the mastery of all sorrow and suffering. This optimism has since been one of the most characteristic features of the New Thought.*

* See Handbook of the New Thought, p.10; The Spirit of the New Thought, p. 137.

The quest for freedom also became more explicit. The old theology held man in bondage. Conventional society was in many respects an obstacle. Too much stress had been placed on heredity and environment, so the New Thought writers contended. Man is by divine purpose, by birth, and his true human inheritance, free. He must come forth and “claim his freedom,” the true freedom of his inner or spiritual nature. He should take his clue from the ideal, not from the actualities of his natural existence. He should rely on himself, develop his inner powers, believe in his own experiences and intuitions. This thought was frequently expressed in two periodicals widely popular at one time, Freedom, edited by Helen Wilmans, and Eleanor Kirk’s Idea, edited by Mrs. Ames.

A new emphasis was put on “the law of attraction.” It was pointed out that just as disease in its physical expression corresponds to the inner state which caused it, so in general man’s outward conditions express the inward life. The inner state was regarded as the centre of attraction, drawing its like. To change or improve one’s conditions, one must then change the inner centre, adopt a different attitude, make other and better affirmations, look out on life with more optimistic expectations. This emphasis on inward attraction also implied the belief that what we attract we need, that what comes we should accept with the realization that it is for our good. This was another way of saying “all is good.”

Implied in this principle of attraction and essentially one with it is the belief in mental attitudes as fundamental. One should become aware that life is to a large extent what we make it by our attitude toward it. Learning how we have generated our ills and created our misery, we should profit by the lesson, turn about and adopt an attitude making for success. We should not only anticipate the good, look for success, a long and happy life; but actively adopt an attitude habitually making for health, freedom, prosperity. If we fail in life, our own attitude is at fault. When we succeed, it is because our attitude was affirmative. We may adopt whatever attitude we will. The future is in our hands, so the New Thought leaders assure us.” *

* See, for example, Mrs. Gestefeld’s How We Master Our Fate.

Again, the word “realization” came into vogue to signify the method by which affirmations were to be made effective, that they might give an impetus to the subconscious mind, might generate an attitude making for success. To realize is not merely to repeat a formula but to make it your own, enter into it vividly, dynamically, productively. To realize the value of an affirmation is to grasp the implied truth or law, to think it out, enter into its spirit, assimilate its life. This is partly accomplished through reasoning, partly through silence or meditation. To “enter the silence” thus became the favorite expression among disciples of the New Thought. *

* See Lessons in Truth, by H. Emilie Cady, p. 111.

To carry out the above principles is, in brief, to realize the superiority of the spirit over the flesh, to triumph over circumstance, agreeing with Emerson that “the soul makes circumstance.” Just how this shall be done will depend of course upon the individual. If one starts with some of the abstractions mentioned above, one may try to “demonstrate” in a way at variance with fact and with the world.” That is, one may try to affirm ideas which have no connection with reality. In this case there will be a fall from the heights of theory, as in the case of so many who have ceased to become Christian Scientists and have gradually rediscovered the world. But if one starts with the given spiritual situation in which one is placed, interpreted in the light of what one believes to be the divine ideal, then one may learn that the process of triumphing over the flesh is already in operation. Thus when Henry Wood says, “Pain is friendly,” he means that one may transfer one’s attention by entering into the benefits, the good implied in the present experience, and so rise above the pain, overcome it, show the triumphant power of the spirit. Very much depends, therefore, upon one’s way of taking this endeavor to “demonstrate over” circumstance.

Much also depends upon the conception of the inner or higher self, for the claims in its behalf depend upon the type of the individual making the affirmation. Mr. Wood makes clear the implied principles as generally accepted by disciples of the New Thought in a paper read before the Metaphysical Club, entitled, “To What Extent is Self-Healing Practicable?” Mr. Wood says, “A thought in any direction makes it easier for the next one to follow it. Like a meadow brook, thinking wears channels. When concentrated, it wears them rapidly. The nature of faith would be plainer, if it were defined as the firm affirmation of ideas. We need not be discouraged if the resolvent power of thought does not at once melt down the solidified walls of man-made limitation which ages have erected. It is everything to find the principle, and make a start in the right direction. Every true mental healer will gladly welcome the time when all so recognize the divinity within that no aid from without is needed. He does not claim to heal, except by helping to put the right occupant upon the throne. He helps his brother to help himself. He will tell you that normal healing is self-healing, or rather consists in the attainment of a condition where there is harmony with environment. The time is to be hastened when everyone shall know, not only the objective Lord, but the divinity that is within him. The supreme healing consciousness is that of a felt oneness with the Universal Omnipotent Spirit.

“What about practical exercises, and how shall one begin? Erect a mental gymnasium, and utilize every silent and unoccupied hour, whether of day or night, when awake, in swinging the dumbells of concentration upon high ideals. Affirm their presence now, though they are not yet in visible expression. Remember that thought leads and manifestation follows, so such an order is perfectly logical and scientific. Turn about and face physical sensation, as a mental habit, until it is measurably vanquished, instead of tamely falling before it.

“The real fall of man consists in his servitude to his own morbid creations. Did God ever create disease? But even disorder and pain, when rightly interpreted, may be regarded as only specters that prowl in the basement of our own nature to drive us higher.

“Having shut the door of your unseen gymnasium against the outer world, in the name of your divine sonship claim all good as present and filling you. Such a habit soon begins to color the everyday consciousness. May I hint at a few ideals as suggestive, in the first person singular, and say that repetition is the law which makes them graphic.

“I am soul and spirit.
“I am at one with the Universal Good.
“Harmony, love, strength and wholeness are with and in me.
“I rule the body and delight in it as a holy temple.
“I rightfully claim the control of all my powers, mental and physical.
“Another ideal: I love everybody. Note the fact, that antagonism is worse than malaria.

“If such claims were made in the name of the lower and detached selfhood, it would seem presumptuous, but their very object is to identify the conscious ego with the higher and divine selfhood. * On that plane there can be no exclusiveness or selfishness. Unlimited good belongs not only to all, but to each. in that delectable atmosphere everyone owns everything,”

* Quimby’s term was “the scientific man.”

We may regard the writings of Henry Wood as representative of the more rational expression of the New Thought.” Mr. Wood’s books were widely read at the time the New Thought was emerging from the mental-science period. He was one of the first writers to take up the subject because of personal interest in mental healing, in contrast with interests in the world of affairs. After a successful career in business in early life, Mr. Wood suffered from a nervous breakdown and was pronounced incurable by the best physicians. Treated with success by several mental healers, he became deeply interested in studying the implied principles and methods. Accordingly, he gave up other pursuits and devoted the remainder of his life, during twenty years, to spreading the new ideas by means of his books and through the financial aid which he gave to the societies and publications devoted to mental healing.

Mr. Wood may in fact be called the first New Thought philanthropist. Saying, “I have found something which the world needs and I must i give it out,” he began to publish books on the subject shortly after he had proved the principles for himself. He gave his books very freely to libraries and to people who might perchance take an interest in them. He encouraged editors and publishers of magazines devoted to the subject by subscribing liberally and distributing copies of the newer periodicals. He also wrote a great many letters in answer to questions addressed to him by readers of his books, suggesting in each case that these inquirers try the new method for themselves.

Mr. Wood worked actively in this kind of propagandism until his death, which occurred March 28, 1909. He was the first to take the lead in spreading the new ideas through publicity, in contrast with the work of healing and teaching classes, as carried on by leaders who had not felt the impulse to spread the movement and organize it. He was also the first to adopt fiction as an added means of reaching the public, and in his Edward Burton and Victor Serenus,* stories with a purpose, he tried to interest a much wider public in the new therapeutic ideas. To his efforts more than to the work of any other leader may be attributed the success of the first New Thought organization in Boston.

*This book was dramatized and given a performance in a Boston theatre. The play was not, however, a success. It was probably the first New Thought drama.

Mr. Wood was fond of saying that when the possibilities of mankind were in a measure realized, each man would be his own priest and physician, Deeply religious by nature, he lived according to his theory that the individual has a right to maintain priestly relations with his God without ministerial agency. Shortly before his death, in response to his wife’s suggestion that he might possibly desire the presence of a clergy man, he said, “I need no intermediary.” His publishers say of him, “He passed away as he had lived, honorably, reverently, and peacefully. ”

Mr. R. C. Douglass, himself a New Thought leader, well acquainted with most of the leaders of the movement in recent years, says of him, “Among New Thought writers he stands as a distinctly representative man, whose reasoning is always characterized by fairness, and comes from a heart of integrity. Like a true philosopher, he is always dealing with principles . . . I have before me his book entitled, The New Old Healing. Here he is dealing only with principles, which underlie all spiritual healing, showing that health, happiness and prosperity are the fruit of a well-balanced scientific mentality. He would have men understand that healing is merely the adjustment of the mentality to principles of truth. This is what constitutes a man a prophet.

“Most truly we live at the dawning of a philosophic age, and Henry Wood is a prophet heralding its coming. . . . He makes it clear that the teachings of Jesus Christ and his wonderful healings rest on the fundamental basis of a spiritual philosophy. The clear province of the New Thought school of writers and teachers is not the abrogation of any Christian principles, but rather to give a better interpretation of those principles, consonant with truth, righteousness and health. . . That man is a noble spiritual being may be set down as Mr. Wood’s major premise.”

Mr. Wood did not claim originality for any of his views, but called the attention of his readers to their own resources, especially to intuition as the power of realizing the divine presence and attaining truth in one’s own right. Most of the leading books on mental science were published before his Ideal Suggestion, Boston, 1894, and on these he was dependent to some extent, although using his own terms and putting the matter as it appealed directly to him. He once told me that the first great thought that came to him, as a means of verifying the therapeutic principle for himself was the affirmation, “God is here.” That electrical sentence disclosed a new world for him. Profiting by its power over him, and seeing the advantage of concentration upon a single definite thought, he wrote his book, which consisted of preliminary chapters explaining the therapeutic principles; and then a series of pages with an “ideal suggestion” in large type on the left-hand page and an explanatory paragraph on the opposite page. “God is here” was one of these affirmations. “Pain is friendly,” another. Each was calculated to impress a helpful thought on the mind through silent realization or spiritual meditation.

Later, Mr. Wood carried out the same idea. by establishing a room under the auspices of the Metaphysical Club of Boston known as the “silence room,” where one could sit “in quietness and confidence” contemplating a painting on the opposite wall symbolizing spiritual truth, with various ideal suggestions to be chosen by the devotee according to need. Mr. Wood brought forward his book on ideal suggestion at the opportune moment. Suggestion was becoming a magic word, soon to be very popular and to be adopted even by the scientific psychologists, always conservative when it is a question of any gift made by mental therapeutists. The word “ideal” was coming to have new significance in view of what Evans and other leaders in the mental-science period had said. Mr. Wood happily combined the two words and gave the New Thought a more definite turn. In his New Thought Simplified, published several years later, Mr. Wood made further application of the same principle. The leaders of the Unity movement in Kansas City made great use of the same idea, and for many years an ideal suggestion has been printed on a page by itself in Unity. The custom of holding meetings for meditation at noon became general throughout the mental healing world.

The writings of H. Emilie Cady, especially Finding the Christ in Ourselves and Lessons in Truth, published by the Unity group, Kansas City, should be mentioned as among the books most widely read when the New Thought was taking shape in its present form. Thought, later called Unity, and The Life, edited by A. P. Barton, Kansas City, were among the most widely read magazines. Mrs. Helen Van-Anderson’s The Right Knock, and The Journal of a Live Woman, belong with the influential books of that period. Among Mr. Whipple’s books The Philosophy of Mental Healing was best known. Mr. Trine’s influence on the movement dates from the publication of his first book, What All the World’s A-Seeking, 1896.

It can hardly be said that the writers of this period were original in the sense in which originality is usually understood. Coming after the period when the mental-healing ideas had begun to be popular, and when the newer psychology was becoming widely known, their part was to restate mental science in their own way, to make it popular, and to show its application in manifold directions. Out of their efforts came the first organizations and the first churches. They were among the best of the New Thought leaders and their work led the way to the national movement and the international New Thought Alliance.*

*On the general significance of the New Thought movement, see Mr. Chesley’s essay in The Spirit of the New Thought, p. 37. The essay by Miss Nannie S. Bond, p. 155, is from the point of view of a patient. On the New Thought today, see the summary, p. 241. The Handbook of the New Thought, New York, 1917, contains critical estimates of the movement. The Spirit of the New Thought contains an historical bibliography. Nautilus, edited by Elizabeth Towne, Holyoke, Mass., contains lists of books from time to time, also news items from the various societies and centres. Master Mind, edited by Mrs. Militz, Los Angeles, Cal., contains the news of the month in Homes of Truth and other New Thought organizations.

Chapter 8

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A History of The New Thought Movement

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