Chapter 8 – The First Organizations – A History of the New Thought Movement

Chapter 8
Horatio Dresser
A History of the New Thought Movement

THE first New Thought society with a regular leader and organization, in Boston, was the Church of the Higher Life, which was the outgrowth of a small beginning in Sunday services started by Mrs. Helen Van-Anderson in February, 1894. The object of these services, in Mrs. Van-Anderson’s words, was “to form a centre where words of cheer and friendly fellowship might be given and exchanged; also to make definite statements concerning Life Principles and their application to character and health building.” This was the gospel preached and practised by everyone so far as he or she understood. It was indeed glad tidings, and the joy of imparting was only equaled by the joy of receiving. From the little hall it was soon necessary to move into a large one, and from that to a still larger, Allen Hall, 44 St. Botolph Street. Seemingly without effort but with a strong impetus from earnest hearts, the little stream of influence has widened its banks and deepened its current, until it is now plainly on its way to the Great Sea.

“The Church of the Higher Life, as its name implies, stands for exalted living–that living which emanates from an earnest aspiration to know and do; to know the best there is to know, of God, humanity, the soul, the mind, the body–in short, of Life and how to live. This Church has no formulated creed. It leaves everyone to formulate his own. Its central and basic precept is that of the Great Master: ‘Love is the fulfilling of the Law.’ Its heart is warm, its vision open, its motive pure, its hospitality broad, its fellowship universal. Its enthusiastic members are many; their work is rich with the spirit of altruism and noble self-giving. It has a corps of fifty-two letter writers who volunteer to write cheerful words to invalids in distant homes or to any who for other reasons are shut in from fellowship with the outside world. These writers also send literature that will comfort, instruct and inspire such as need or desire the post-office ministry.

“It has a flourishing Young People’s Club called ‘The Arkeso’ (from the Greek, to assist) whose mission is to carry good cheer into hospitals, reformatories or private homes, and in every way possible, proffer an assisting hand and heart wherever they may be needed. It has a Benevolent Committee whose members carry the gospel of health and wealth to the poor and sick of their own community, and wherever else they are called. It has an Emerson Study Club, where teachers, preachers and students may find many a hard life-problem solved in the light of Emerson’s philosophy and far-reaching insight. It has mothers’ meetings where all questions pertaining to home and child government and education are freely discussed and expounded. It has spiritual training classes wherein there is a heartfelt exchange of profound experiences and the most earnest abandonment to thoughts and methods that will promote spiritual unfoldment. It has a healing service every Sunday for the benefit of those far or near who may desire its healing potency.” *

*Journal of Practical Metaphysics, Dec., 1896.

After a number of years Mrs. Van-Anderson resigned to begin similar work in other cities. Different speakers were engaged from Sunday to Sunday during two years, and later Rev. Lucy C. McGee became the minister. The organization, at present without a permanent leader, still exists, although its activities are limited to the Sunday services. This church is interesting to devotees of the New Thought since it was the first society of its kind, although having much in common with similar organizations that had an independent origin in the West and Middle West.

In the summer of 1894, Miss Sarah J. Farmer established at Eliot, Maine, the Greenacre Conferences. The conferences were established for the most part to promote interest in the great religions of the world, in accordance with the interest aroused at the World’s Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago during the World’s Fair, 1893. But their founder was deeply interested in the New Thought and was known as a leader of the movement. Greenacre naturally became the centre in the summer for those who were active in the New Thought gatherings in Boston and New York during the winter. Many of the mental-healing leaders from different parts of the country were heard at Greenacre, and Miss Farmer’s conferences set the example for New Thought meetings held elsewhere during the summer, notably the Jackson Lectures, organized by Henry Wood and other leaders at Jackson, N. H., in 1896; and at Oscawana, N. Y., where conferences were established by Mr. Patterson and other leaders.

At least a week was devoted to the New Thought each year at Greenacre, and in addition to the regular lectures smaller meetings or Sunday afternoon sessions in the large tent were led by New Thought speakers. On the camping ground, known as Sunrise Camp, disciples of the New Thought were located for the season, under the leadership of Mr. Frederick Reed, later secretary of the Metaphysical Club. During the summer of 1897 there was established a department of the conferences holding regular sessions throughout the season and known as The School of Applied Metaphysics. The teachers were Miss Ellen M. Dyer, the pioneer New Thought teacher and healer in Philadelphia, and Horatio W. Dresser, chairman. In 1898 this department was given up in favor of class-work by various leaders.

Greenacre continued to be a leading New Thought centre for several seasons. A number of the authors, notably Henry Wood and Mr. Trine, spent a portion of the summer there, and owed their growing interest in the direction of the New Thought partly to Miss Farmer’s leadership. Morning meditation meetings were held by followers of the New Thought. Those meetings were among the best that have ever been held and gave the impetus to establish similar work elsewhere. Miss Farmer’s spirit in her stronger years did much to establish people in a broadly tolerant way of thinking. Greenacre stood for the constructive spirit. Those who caught this spirit endeavored to make the New Thought no less broad, tolerant and constructive. Some of the leaders who took the initiative in organizing the Metaphysical Club gained their larger impetus from these conferences.

As indicated in her paper on “The Abundant Life,”‘ Miss Farmer approached the New Thought on its spiritual side. To her it was the same as Christianity at its best, also the same as the spirit which she found expressed by the Swamis who came from India to expound the Vedanta philosophy. Both Miss Farmer and the Swamis spoke in New Thought gatherings during the winter. This was the beginning of a common interest which endured for a number of years. Miss Farmer held that each speaker at Greenacre should have full and free hearing if he did not assail any other speaker. Hence the New Thought found expression, and the meditation meetings led by its devotees had direct influence upon the religious development of the mental-healing movement in later years. Greenacre continued to be a New Thought centre in part until its founder espoused Bahaism and other teachings not so directly connected with the New Thought.

The first New Thought society organized in Boston in 1894-95 as a result of Greenacre was called The Procopeia, with headquarters at 200 Huntington Avenue. The general announcement of this society was as follows: “It is not limited by any creed or dogma, either religious, ethical, or philosophical, but endeavors to seek and to give to its members the truth, wherever it may be found . . . By the recognition of the divinity of every human soul, and a belief in the unlimited possibilities of mankind through the understanding of truth and the love of good, we believe we shall be able to push forward and to progress. It is the aim of the Procopeia to provide suitable headquarters in Boston where the ablest leaders of progressive thought may have a responsive and sympathetic hearing, and where members of the Club may find inspiration and courage for the practical affairs of life.” This society was short-lived and its members eventually joined the Metaphysical Club, organized a few weeks later.

The organizing of the Metaphysical Club was the chief event in the history of the New Thought in Boston. The Club brought together some of the leaders of the mental-science period, such as Dr, Winkley and Mr. E. M. Chesley, who had been active in the Church of the Divine Unity and The Mental Healing Monthly. It helped to bring into formulation the larger tendencies of the New Thought as expressed, for example, by Henry Wood, Mr. Patterson, Mr. Trine and others. It aroused public interest in mental healing on the part of people of liberal religious belief. It also gave expression in part to the Greenacre spirit. Out of its activities came in the course of time the national organization and the international movement, in cooperation with leaders from New York and other cities.

The mental-science meetings had come to an end, there was no magazine devoted to mental healing published in Boston, and there was need of further effort in spreading the New Thought at the time the Club was called into being. Realizing the need for such a society, several of the leaders new and old called a meeting in behalf of the New Thought movement at the home of Dr. J. W. Winkley, 108 Huntington Avenue, in January, 1895. Besides Dr. and Mrs. Winkley, there were present Henry Wood, Mrs. abby Morton Diaz, Mr. Warren A. Rodman, Miss Catherine Hurd, Miss Elizabeth Hurd, Mr. Leonard Stone, and Mr. C. M. Barrows. Mr. Wood outlined a plan for organizing a metaphysical club, bringing forward cogent reasons for the existence of a society for the sake of popularizing the progressive thought of the day.

The meeting adjourned without action to a date a week later, when the following were present-in addition to those mentioned above, and with the exception of Messrs. Barrows and Stone: Miss Lillian Whiting, Miss Durgin, Miss Scott, Mrs. M. E. T. Chapin, Mr. and Mrs. E. M. Chesley, Mrs. J. A. Dresser, Horatio W. Dresser, Rev. Loren B. Macdonald, Miss G. P. Hayes, Mrs. L. P. Morrill, Mrs. Mary Burpee, and Mr. Frederick Reed.

These people organized themselves into the Metaphysical Club of Boston, with the following officers: Rev. L. B. Macdonald, a Unitarian minister, president; Dr. J. W. Winkley, vice- president; Mr. Frederick Reed, of the Greenacre Conferences, secretary. The purpose of the Club was stated as follows: “To promote interest in and the practice of a true spiritual philosophy of life and happiness; to show that through right thinking one’s loftiest ideas may be brought into perfect realization; to advance the intelligent and systematic treatment of disease by mental methods.”

The first public lecture was delivered by Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, March 28, 1895. Other lectures were given by Rev. Minot J. Savage, Professor A. E. Dolbear, and Hamilton Wright Mabie; and four social functions were held before the close of the season. The purpose of the first season was to attract and interest the public. Hence the lectures were of a general character and the speakers were well known in public life. It was not deemed wise to introduce the New Thought at first, but to lead gradually to it when the organization was well under way.

This was the first permanent New Thought Club, and it set the standard for such societies elsewhere . It was the first mental-healing society to put its special interests on a large basis with a view to reaching the world. It was the beginning of the activities which grew in the course of time into a world-wide movement. It led the way for the establishment of Centres, Circles, or other organizations with the same general interests in view, whatever the names attached to them. The fact that it came into existence was a sign that the mental-healing movement had passed out of its preliminary or experimental stage and was assuming the general characteristics which it was to continue to possess. Not many speakers were ready at first to extend the movement in the same way into other cities. But these were forthcoming in the course of time. Other societies sprang up in different parts of the country, on an independent basis. Other attempts were made to develop a national movement. But it was the movement which began in Boston that eventually succeeded. Out of it grew the effort to form a permanent international organization.

Mr. Wood maintained that the Club should be democratic, that it might even dispense with a president, although it was deemed prudent to elect a president. Rev. Mr. Macdonald, the first president, had taken an active part in the mental-science gatherings several years before. Afterwards, presidents were chosen from those more actively identified with the New Thought. Mr. Warren A. Rodman succeeded Mr. Reed as secretary, and when the Club established headquarters, with a library and bookstore, Mr. Rodman was the member in regular attendance. With the opening of the season in the fall of 1895, subjects directly pertaining to mental healing were introduced. Different leaders set forth the fundamental principles, as they understood them, and allied topics were introduced from time to time to show that these principles apply in various directions, not merely to mental healing but to social and religious questions. Occasionally there was a symposium led by four speakers on a subject such as this, “What is it that heals?” Sometimes a speaker of prominence was engaged, in order to attract the attention of the public. But the subjects bearing directly on the New Thought proved more interesting.

In October, 1898, The Journal of Practical Metaphysics, Horatio W. Dresser, editor, was established to represent the Club and its larger interests. Many of the leading essays read before the Club were published in the magazine, and its leading members were regular contributors. Some of these papers have been gathered into a volume, The Spirit of the New Thought, New York, 1917, to indicate the scope and value of the New Thought at the time it was assuming more definite form. Other speakers, notably Mr. Wood, gathered their essays into volumes of their own. Some of the papers also appeared in Mind, published by Mr. C. B. Patterson, New York. Among other periodicals widely circulated among New Thought people in this its formative period should be mentioned Universal Truth, Chicago, and Harmony, San Francisco.

The Club did not in the early years establish Sunday services, but the Church of the Higher Life met the need of all who desired a distinctive New Thought service. In accordance with the democratic principles on which the Club was based, no leader was made prominent over others, and in the early years the Club was concerned with its main interests. In concentration there was strength in those years. The New Thought began to attract more attention as a result of the Club’s activities, and it became prominent enough to be adversely criticized. Some of these criticisms with Mr. Wood’s answers are included in The Spirit of the New Thought.

Efforts were made from time to time to state more definitely what the New Thought is and what it stands for. One of these statements, adopted as the official exposition of the main principles which the Club represented, is printed in full elsewhere. *

*The Spirit of the New Thought. p. 215.

The statement of the purpose of the Club printed regularly in The Journal of Practical Metaphysics, reads as follows: “Organized to promote an active interest in a more spiritual philosophy and its practical application to human life. Its spirit is broad, tolerant and constructive, and its object an impartial search for truth. All who sympathize with these purposes, without regard to past or present affiliations of sect, party or system, are cordially invited to cooperate.” At; the time this statement was drawn up the executive committee consisted of Henry Wood, Mrs. Mary E. T. Chapin, Horatio W. Dresser, Miss Lilian Whiting, Waiter B. Adams, Miss Sarah J. Farmer, Mrs. Mabel B. Tibbitts. Dr. Winkley was treasurer, and Mr. W. A. Rodman secretary.

In another statement drawn up at this time, the following is given as the purpose of the Club: “The Metaphysical Club, while it has no dogma to urge and no sectarian basis to maintain is doing a work which is positive and progressive. It seeks truth and the unity and harmony which come from the understanding of truth. It sees no rival in the field, because the success of every organization with allied aims is recognized as a triumph of the great principles for which the Club stands. It does not ignore the marked and helpful developments resulting from the scientific study of the physical world, but aims to discover and utilize the harmony of laws and action between it and the metaphysical. It seeks the spark of infinitude in the seemingly finite, and seeks to fan it into a blaze that shall be the light of the world. It is therefore striving to bring into hearty cooperation all the individual potencies that have tended toward the high end which it has in view, believing that thus a resistless impulse might be given to the development of life on the highest attainable plane,” *

*Journal of Practical Metaphysics, October, 1896.

It will be observed that this statement takes one out into the open, in contrast with the tendency of Mr. Evans’s later subjectivism. In contrast with Christian Science, it admits the existence of the natural world and sees value in the scientific study of nature. It implies the philosophy of evolution, spiritually interpreted. This acceptance of the law of evolution was characteristic of Mr. Wood, who was for the most part the author of the above statement. In this acceptance the leaders of the Club concurred. Their type of New Thought is thus distinguished from that called Divine Science in so far as the latter denies that man ever learns or develops from experience.

The essayists constantly offered correctives of the narrower type of thought prevailing among those who had reacted against Christian Science but were not yet wholly free. Thus Mr. Wood read a paper entitled “Our Bodies,” in which he pointed the way to a larger way of thinking. In a paper entitled “Business and the Higher Life,” Mr. Rodman applied the leading principles in still another direction. Mr. E. A. Pennock, a Quaker by persuasion and among the first of the Friends to adopt mental healing, brought forward a paper on “A Physical Basis for Righteousness,” and in other essays connected the New Thought with current social problems. Mr. Pennock was at one time associated with the Ben Adhem House, Boston, the first social settlement in this country in which devotees of the New Thought took a prominent part. After the outbreak of the Spanish-American war, Mr. Wood contributed a paper on “War from the Metaphysical Standpoint.”

The magazine which had represented the Club was merged in The Arena, Boston, with the issue for December, 1898; with Mr. Paul Tyner, a New Thought writer, as editor, and Horatio W. Dresser, associate editor. The first combined number contained an essay entitled “The New Thought,” intended to interest a larger public. During the year 1899 The Arena was moved to New York, and it ceased to be a New Thought periodical. Dr. J. W, Winkley edited and published Practical Ideals, 1900-1912, as the representative periodical of the Boston movement.

Mr. Chesley, well informed in the history of thought, contributed various papers to the Club in which he traced the connection between its metaphysics and that of the past. Mr. Frank B. Sprague, author of Spiritual Consciousness, was a regular contributor to the magazines and to the meetings of the Club. Another leader who later became known as an author advocating a kind of modified Christian Science was Mr. Aaron M. Crane, author of Right and Wrong Thinking. Mr. C. B. Newbold’s All Right With the World should be mentioned as belonging to this period.

The organization of the Metaphysical Club, then, marks the enlargement of the mental-healing movement from the more local interests of mental science to the effort to extend the movement and make it national; Mental healing was still the chief interest. It was what gave the Club its being, and in the years when too many other subjects were introduced the Club was not so successful. The New Thought came directly from mental science, and hence it is explicable by the movement which went before and which dated from Quimby’s pioneer work in Maine. But interest in mental healing gave the disciples of the New Thought a point of view, a way of approaching all questions, a way of looking at life as a whole; it gave an impetus toward individualism, toward freedom; it implied religious liberalism; it implied idealism as a working or practical philosophy. Hence the special interest is related with all other interests, and we find the disciples of the New Thought advocating it as an all-inclusive program. If they sometimes made their work too broad and so lacked definiteness, if they sometimes claimed too much for their special interest, it was because their first desire was to gain recognition for their point of view, with sufficient emphasis to achieve results. The devotees were eager to show that the New Thought not only stands for a method of healing but for a philosophy, a positive or affirmative idealism; hence for religion, applied Christianity, the rediscovery of the gospel of healing. In the course of time, the New Thought as thus conceived became sufficiently known and recognized to make possible the successful representative movement of today.

The New Thought has been defined by Elizabeth Towne as “the fine art of recognizing, realizing and manifesting the God in the individual.” The first organizations were established to teach this fine art as applied to mental healing. Hence recognition of “the Christ within” was the cardinal principle. The later organizations have sought to make this fine art known in its relation not merely to mental healing but to the whole of life. Hence the New Thought has become a recognized phase of liberal Christianity throughout the world.

Chapter 9

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A History of The New Thought Movement

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