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The New Thought Movement

Unity is the largest organization to come out of the New Thought movement of the late 19th Century. Other members of the New Thought family include Religious Science and Divine Science. New Thought has been explained as "a system of doctrine (and practice) which stresses that the physical and mental circumstances of life may be controlled by consciously cultivating a 'positive' attitude toward all things" (Szasz, 1984, p. 83). The Fillmores held that their philosophy was simply the practical application of the Christian principles of Jesus, or a return to primitive Christianity.

According to Historian Charles Braden (1963), the historical religious setting of the early 1800s set the stage for New Thought to appear in the latter half of the century. Three main views of religion prevailed in the New England area: Orthodox Christianity with its Calvinistic/predestinarian tones; Unitarianism with its rationalism and distrust of mysticism; and transcendentalism, a radical reaction to Unitarianism which focused on the divinity of humanity, intuition, idealism and the importance of experience. William James (1902), who referred to New Thought as the religion of healthy-mindedness or "mind-cure," said New Thought "might briefly be called a reaction against all that religion of chronic anxiety which marked the earlier part of our century in the evangelical circles of England and America" (p. 97 footnote).

It was transcendentalism, with such adherents as Ralph Waldo Emerson, which influenced the New Thought movement most heavily. Emerson, in particular, is often named as the "Father of New Thought," and his philosophies were of primary importance to Charles Fillmore. Braden (1963), however, distinguishes between Emerson's philosophic idealism and New Thought's idealistic practice. While Emerson spoke and wrote about the link between the mind and health, he did not actively pursue this philosophy in his daily life (p. 35). New Thought, on the other hand, backed its intellectual assertions with experiential proofs.

Although Emerson's philosophy of the oversoul and emphasis on self-reliance undoubtedly had profound intellectual impact on leaders like Charles Fillmore, Braden argues that the "new" in New Thought refers primarily to the practical application of these philosophies. James (1902), who lived through the birth and early stages of the New Thought movement, attributes the popularity of the philosophy to its practicality. With the growth of science, medicine and psychology, James contends that the American people began looking for ideas which could be proven. The experiential and highly experimental nature of New Thought seemed to meet these rational requirements. "The plain fact remains that the spread of the movement has been due to practical fruits, and the extremely practical turn of character of the American people has never been better shown than by the fact that this, their only decidedly original contribution to the systematic philosophy of life, should be so intimately knit up with concrete therapeutics" (p. 96).

When practicality is taken into consideration, a more likely father of New Thought, according to Braden, is Phineas P. Quimby, one of the first to argue that disease is based on wrong thinking and can be cured by changing thought patterns. Braden contends that while men like Emerson waxed philosophically about the connection between mind and body, it was Quimby who first put these ideas to practical use. Quimby, who lived from 1802 to 1866, was a hypnotist and worked with a healer who could diagnose disease under hypnosis and prescribe remedies. After watching this doctor prescribe similar remedies for vastly different diseases, he became convinced that people were cured because they believed they could be cured rather than because of the remedy's efficiency. Quimby began experimenting with hypnosis and found that persons under hypnosis would react strongly to vivid images and non-verbal mental suggestions in Quimby's own mind. Theories of the power of mind to create reality followed. Quimby traveled the country practicing the art of healing through right thinking, and he frequently practiced absent healing from long distances. Perhaps Quimby's most controversial and well-known patient was Mary Baker Patterson (later Eddy) who sought healing from him in 1862. According to Braden, she was admitted to Quimby's inner circle and had access to his manuscripts, which were not published for many years. Eddy later founded Christian Science and claimed that the healing knowledge she espoused was a divine revelation. Although her claim that she learned nothing from Quimby has caused considerable consternation to historians such as Braden, the controversy is not relevant to the subject at hand. Wherever Eddy received her ideas, it is indisputable that she went beyond Quimby in setting up an organization to take the message throughout the country. Eddy kept a tight reign on her movement and was known to be quite authoritarian. Although the term Christian Science was used generically for many years by people such as the Fillmores, it was later relinquished and the term New Thought adopted. Christian Science is not considered part of the New Thought movement, primarily because Eddy claimed that the ideas she set forth were the last revelation (Braden, 1963, p. 14). New Thought, on the other hand, takes the stand that revelation of truth is continuous, thus keeping thought "new."

The Fillmores were drawn into the fledgling New Thought movement by Emma Curtis Hopkins, a former student of Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science, who, by different accounts, was either ejected from or voluntarily left Eddy's movement. She went to Chicago, where she established the Christian Science Theological Seminary, later the Illinois Metaphysical Institute. She became known as the "teacher of teachers" in the New Thought movement for her influence on the Fillmores as well as the founders of Divine Science, Religious Science and other organizations. It was one of Hopkins' students, E.B. Weeks, whose speech in Kansas City brought change into the lives of the Fillmores.

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