When it comes to spiritual texts, I’m a voracious reader. I’ve previously written here, and on my Pathos column Wake Up Call, about several of my favorites, including the works of Thomas Moore, Mirabai Starr and the Gnostic gospels.
And while I usually find value in virtually every book I read, one text that came up a little short for me was The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. Based loosely on the Law of Attraction, it seemed to me a faint echo of ideas I had read elsewhere from the likes of Ralph Waldo Trine and Charles F. Hannel.
With The History of New Thought, From Mind Cure to Positive Thinking and the Prosperity Gospel, author John S. Haller Jr. sets the record straight as to where much of the thinking behind The Secret and similar modern-day bestsellers originated. It all started with something called the “New Thought” movement.
New Thought was a distinctly American take on spirituality that came to light in the late-1800’s and early 1900’s. The movement represented a move away from traditional religion, and the strict Biblically-based teachings of the church, toward a new-found spirituality.
The founding father of New Thought is generally recognized as the great American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, a former Protestant pastor who himself had quit the church due to what he saw as the confines of the institution. As Heller points out, Emerson, and many of the New Thought leaders who were to follow him, came from religious backgrounds but had reached a similar conclusion:
Both the Bible and the pulpit had become less authoritative and therefore less weighty in their ability to direct individual thought and activity. No longer did the dogmatic accounts of endless punishment, election, and material resurrection carry the day.
So if the church and the bible were on the way out, who and what would fill the void? A plethora of newly minted free thinkers and philosophers with teachings built around “healing, self-discovery, and empowerment”. As Heller points out, the teachings of these new spiritual leaders were based on wisdom collected from many sources:
They saw no reason why God would speak only through a Moses or Paul and not through someone like Whitman or Emerson. The same applied to the lessons learned from Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Confucianism, which they considered as important as scripture.
The names of the New Thought leaders are many and due to the sheer number of personalities and philosophies, Haller is only able to briefly touch on the key players in the movement, including Hannel, Robert Collier and Elizabeth Towne. Yet, what he does tell us is often compelling and whets our appetite for learning more about these individuals.
Take this passage on the religious leader and author Horatio W. Dresser:
A devoted acolyte of Emerson, Dresser viewed individuality as an escape into greater freedom. It was a positive quality that, when augmented by self-reliance, humility, love, and the desire to attain a higher self, led to the Christ ideal made real…harmony of action between the Father’s will and the son’s will.
Or this summation of the philosophy of Trine, author of the spiritual classic In Tune With The Infinite:
One awakened God within not by trumpeting his or her accomplishments…but by choosing silence for short periods every day to contemplate God, by regarding wealth as a private trust to be used for the good of humankind, and by recognizing that character was the greatest power in the world.
Or this quote from Ernest Holmes, founder of the Religion Science movement:
We believe that heaven is within us and that we experience it to the degree that we become conscious of it…we believe in our own soul, our own spirit, and our own destiny; for we understand that the life of each of us is God.
As you can tell by these passages, New Thought was very much a “do-it-yourself” movement, based on the idea that everyone could access “the indwelling God”. This God was not found up high in the heavens as most people had been taught, but was “a universal spirit diffused over all of nature”. As Heller reports, the movement was truly groundbreaking in that it took God out of the church:
A new age had come, one in which human beings were privileged to hear the voice of God through silent prayer and inward illumination…human nature became the means through which God unfolded his plan.
Heller seems to genuinely admire the people in The History of New Thought and it comes through in his spirited, detailed reporting. On the flip side, he dismisses The Secret, Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life and related texts that have co-opted the New Thought message and transformed it into a system for personal gain.
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…New Thought’s legacy has been compromised time and again by its unsavory commercialism.
It raises the point, why go to an inferior secondary source to search for meaning and enlightenment, when you can access the real thing? Most of the original New Thought texts that are the basis for what became the New Age movement are still in print. Not sure where to start? There’s no better place to sample this revolutionary moment in American spirituality than Heller’s fine book.
A version of this post originally appeared in my Patheos column Wake Up Call on 2/24/13.