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Secular New Thought

The healthy-mindedness of Unity and New Thought has maintained a strong appeal that has spilled over into secular fields. Positive thinking, prosperity and the acceptance of such ideas as miracles are now prevalent in the American culture. This intermingling is understandable in light of the extensive crossover of ideas from New Thought into traditional Christian denominations as well as other religions. Historian Sidney Mead estimated in 1950 that "between fifteen and twenty million are influenced by New Thought" (p. 142).

Perhaps the most well-known conveyor of the New Thought message is Norman Vincent Peale. As a minister of the Reformed Church in America, Peale has written numerous books, most notably The Power of Positive Thinking, is an internationally requested speaker, has a syndicated newspaper column and started the Guideposts daily devotional magazine. Braden (1963) claims that Peale "is reaching more people, probably, than any other single minister in America and perhaps the world, and is using consistently ideas and methods which are and have been the peculiar earmarks of New Thought since at least the turn of the century" (p. 386).

Braden explains how Peale, who claims that his beliefs fit perfectly with the historic church, developed the philosophy of positive thinking, success and prosperity that he espouses so widely.

Called to a large church in Syracuse, a university pulpit, he preached to a dominantly intellectual community, and found an increasing dissatisfaction with his ministry. He was, he says, on the way to losing what spiritual vitality he had. Then he began to read certain "spiritual literature" which he found was increasingly getting into the homes of his people. This literature was coming from Unity, Religious Science, Science of Mind, Christian Science, from various 'metaphysical teachers ... (p. 389)

Although Peale acknowledges reading Unity and other New Thought literature, and even quotes Charles Fillmore in his writings, he told Braden that he felt he had developed a philosophy which was different from New Thought (p. 389). Despite these differences, it is evident that similarities are present as well.

The true impact of Unity is difficult to estimate because, like its New Thought contemporaries, it does not emphasize conversion and adherence. Rather, Unity believes that its philosophy fits well with all religions and enhances the religious experience of any denomination. This belief is born out by the surprising statistic that 96 percent of all people who use Silent Unity and read Daily Word are not affiliated with a Unity church (Jafolla, 1997). This is why Unity claims that "Many who hold memberships in Protestant, Catholic and independent denominations, as well as thousands who claim no religious or church affiliation, use Unity publications and services" (Unity School of Christianity, 1995). Those members of other denominations may study and practice the Unity or New Thought message and therefore introduce it to others in a more secular and perhaps less threatening manner.

This historical perspective shows how Unity developed as a religion out of the spiritual seeking of two individuals. Taken from a wide range of sources, the positive, prayerful and flexible Unity philosophy has been accepted by many religious seekers. The next chapter looks at who those seekers are through an analysis of demographic survey data from two Unity populations.

© 1997, Rebecca Gittrich Whitecotton
All rights reserved by the author.
Reprinted with permission.