The Roots of the New Spirituality: New Thought, Emerging Worldviews 15

In the previous article, we noted that the Gaian worldview exists in both secular/scientific & philosophical/religious versions. The latter of these, known as Gaianism, sees the Earth as a superorganism of which we are a minor part, but to which we have responsibilities. Although there are variations in Gaian thought, it is for all practical purposes a form of pantheism. It also connects into various forms of Neo-Paganism and ideas from the New Spirituality, a broad and amorphous movement that runs counter to institutional religion. Future articles will examine Neo-Paganism. In this article, we will begin our examination of the New Spirituality.

Phineas Parkhurst Quimby

Although New Spirituality draws from a wide range of traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Native American Spirituality, and Western occult practices, it is rooted in New Thought, a movement which grew out of the work of Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866). Quimby was a mesmerist and a magnetizer—that is, he practiced an early form of hypnotism and believed that much of what he did was caused by animal magnetism, the flow of magnetic fluid around the body. Along with giving traveling demonstrations of mesmerism, Quimby began healing people on the premise that disease is caused by false beliefs and that by correcting those beliefs the body could be healed.

Quimby was harshly critical of ministers and churches, and after his death his followers turned increasingly away from theism toward pantheism. These groups believed that God is Infinite Intelligence and constantly evolving and developing. The base of reality is spirit, not matter, and thus we are primarily divine spiritual beings. Our mental state manifests itself in our daily experiences—in other words, our thoughts create our world.

This idea leads directly to the Law of Attraction so popular in New Spirituality thinkers today: negative thoughts attract negative conditions to our lives, and positive thoughts positive conditions. As a result, New Thought teachers emphasized creative visualization, such as the use of strong mental images to promote healing, psychological or social wellness, and the use of affirmations to create a positive mindset which would then produce positive results in the external world.

Not surprisingly, given its metaphysical assumptions, some promoters of New Thought began incorporating Hinduism into their thinking early in the movement. For example, the Pacific Coast Metaphysical Bureau (now known as the Home of Truth) began spreading the Hindu teachings of Swami Vivekananda in the 1880s. This turn to Asian thought would become a consistent element of movements that grew out of New Thought over the next century and beyond.

New Thought and Christianity

While some groups incorporated Asian ideas into New Thought, others blended with Christianity. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, was treated by Quimby and studied with him for a time. She eventually disavowed his teaching, particularly on hypnotism, on the grounds that only the Divine Mind heals, and hypnotism was a means of controlling others. Given how closely her ideas follow New Thought, however, she was clearly influenced by ideas derived directly or indirectly from Quimby.

New Thought’s influence also shows up in Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking. Although Peale was not a full proponent of New Thought, his book popularized New Thought methodologies for creating a better life for yourself through the use of affirmations from Scripture repeated ten times daily, visualizations, eliminating negative thoughts from your life (and thus implicitly affirming the Law of Attraction on at least a psychological level), etc. Peale in turn influenced others, including Robert Schuller’s “Possibility Thinking.”

William James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, labeled New Thought as the “Mind-cure movement.” Unsurprisingly, given its early association with healing, New Thought also influenced faith healing. Christians have prayed for the sick from the days of the Apostles, and there are many ministries today that specialize in healing prayer that are not influenced by New Thought.

But faith healing in the strict sense, that is, teachings that say we are healed by our faith and that limit we what God can do based on the strength of our faith, is essentially New Thought with a thin veneer of Christianity. In this mindset, God’s actions are not voluntary or free; He always wants to heal but is limited in what He can do by our faith or lack thereof. This amounts to saying that our faith heals us, and that God is merely a means to our ends. In essence, faith in healing replaces trust in God’s goodness and wisdom which may have a redemptive purpose in suffering.

From faith healing, it is a small step to Word Faith. This teaches that just as God spoke the universe into existence, we as beings made in His image have the ability to speak into our lives all the blessings that Christ obtained for us on the cross, including physical, psychological, and spiritual health, as well as prosperity and all other blessings.

This shares the problems of faith healing—God is a means to our ends, He is bound by our words, it and rejects redemptive suffering. If Word Faith were true, wouldn’t the Apostles have spoken health, prosperity, and success into their own lives? If we could “name it and claim it,” why was anyone ever martyred?

Another element that contributed to the New Spirituality is the rise of various forms of spiritualism, especially in the wake of World War I. We will turn to that in our next article.


Glenn Sunshine, PhD, is a Senior Fellow with the Colson Center for Christian Worldview and professor of history at Central Connecticut State University.

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