New Thought Movement

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NEW THOUGHT MOVEMENT . The New Thought movement is a diverse and loosely affiliated collection of religious communities that share an idealistic theology, an optimistic worldview, and an emphasis on religious rituals that focus on personal well-being, health, and material success. The movement emerged in the United States in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and was well established by the first decade of the twentieth. It is the largest movement in what is often broadly referred to as the "metaphysical" tradition, which also includes Christian Science, Theosophy, and Spiritualism. In theory and practice, New Thought, like Christian Science, is a popular expression of religious idealism, and idealism is the unifying foundation of all forms of New Thought. Emma Curtis Hopkins (18491925) is properly cited as the founder of the movement, with its immediate precursors including Mary Baker Eddy (18211910) and her Church of Christ, Scientist; Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (18021866) and his students; the New England "Mind Cure" movement; and various independent groups and individuals practicing mental healing. Other less significant but notable formative influences can be attributed to Swedenborgianism, spiritualism, New England Transcendentalism, the Hegelian Societies of the late nineteenth century, imported forms of Hinduism (especially Vedānta), and secularization. New Thought is still centered in the United States, although the movement is well represented throughout the world.

The New Thought movement has revealed sustained growth throughout the twentieth century, and since the 1950s it has supplied institutional legitimation and theological support to the alternative healing movement and various beliefs and practices associated with the New Age movement. The impact of New Thought on American culture is revealed in its role as a precursor to and possible precipitating influence on popular psychology and the self-help movement, the ordination of women as ministers in mainstream Protestantism, best-selling popularizations of idealism such as Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich (1937) and Norman Vincent Peale's Power of Positive Thinking (1952), and the development of prosperity and success teachings in secular culture and mainstream Protestantism.

Despite its longevity and impact on American culture, New Thought and its various subgroups have received little scholarly attention, although publications by Gail M. Harley, Beryl Satter, John K. Simmons, and J. Gordon Melton have offered good insights into certain aspects of its formative period. Encyclopedias and general texts on new religions often have brief sections on New Thought or representative groups (especially Unity), as do textbooks on religion in America. As often as not, however, New Thought is absent in general dictionaries of religion and textbooks on world religions. There are no critical histories of the movement and no significant scholarly treatments of its theology. In this regard, Charles S. Braden's now dated Spirits in Rebellion (1963) still offers the only general history of New Thought, and J. Stillson Judah's equally dated History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America (1967) is the best overview of the movement's theology.

Worldview, Practices, and Aims

As a contemporary manifestation of popular religious idealism, the deepest historical roots of New Thought can be traced to Plato (428348 bce), the father of the idealist tradition in philosophy. Other distant forebears include ancient Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, and pre-Nicean forms of Christianity associated with the Alexandrian school and typified by Origen (185254). Philosophical precursors in the modern period are Rationalists such as René Descartes (15961650) and Baruch Spinoza (16321677), and Idealists such as Johann Fichte (17631814) and G. W. F. Hegel (17701831).

New Thought's brand of idealism holds that the ultimate basis of existence is mental (God as Mind) and all material/physical conditions are secondary to and products of human mental states and conditions. What this means for New Thought is that consciousness, ideas, and thoughts are the basis of reality and function as the casual forces behind all material/physical phenomenafrom objects, including human bodies, to the events and circumstances of an individual's life. A formal statement of New Thought's foundational idealism is offered in the "Declaration of Principles" of the International New Thought Alliance (INTA), which declares (among other claims): "We affirm God as Mind, Infinite Being, Spirit, Ultimate Reality. [and] that our mental states are carried forward into manifestation and become our experience in daily living" ("Declaration of Principles," 2001, p. 19). In principle, New Thought's idealism is similar to that of Christian Science, yet unlike the earlier movement, New Thought generally interprets matter and physical experiences in a positive light, viewing them as limited (but perfectible) manifestations of Spirit (Divine Mind). In this regard, New Thought groups tend to be world-affirming, harmonial (with respect to ultimate reality and humans), and proponents of human spiritual evolution.

In New Thought the ultimate power (e.g., God, Mind, Divine Mind, Principle, Truth, Intelligence) is understood as supremely good (the Good) and the ground of perfection. The omnipotence of the Good is expressed succinctly in INTA's Declaration of Principles as follows: "We affirm that God, the Good, is supreme, universal and eternal" ("Declaration of Principles," 2001, p. 19). The essence of humanity is divine, and humans are seen as spiritual beings that are linked with Divine Mind through their highest consciousness (e.g., Christ Mind, superconsciousness, Christ within). This relationship of unity is analogous to the relationship of brahman (the manifestation of ultimate reality) and ātman (the self) in Hinduism, as well as understandings of the human essence found in the Western Esoteric tradition, influenced by Neoplatonism and Gnosticism.

The failure of humans to fully demonstrate their innate spiritual perfection is the result of ignorance and wrong thinking (e.g., "error thought" and "mortal consciousness"). New Thought believes that because human consciousness is causative it is the source for all the experiences and conditions in a person's lifeboth positive and negative. Negative experiences and conditions (illness, poverty, theft, death, etc.) are the result of negative states in consciousness, and positive experiences and conditions are the result of positive states. The key to eliminating specific negative conditions and creating a tendency to ever more positive experiences is based in the belief that all persons are in essence spiritual beings, and that Divine Mind is accessible to human minds. When Divine Mind is properly engaged by human consciousness, the Good is brought into material/physical manifestation, thus eliminating negative experiences and conditions and replacing them with positive ones. This engagement is believed to occur "scientifically" through precise and systematic religious exercises, such as prayer, "spiritual treatment," "visualization," "affirmations," and, in some cases, "denials."

Through continued practice of these exercises (which are typically quite specific and individualized but may be general and collective) an individual's consciousness becomes increasingly attuned to the "Truth" so that the reality of Divine Mind is more frequently brought into manifestation. As a result, adherents may report improvement in general and specific conditions of their lives. This thoroughgoing idealism forms the basis of New Thought's theology and the foundation for its optimistic worldview. It is the premise upon which the movement's primary myths and rituals are predicated.

In practice, most New Thought rituals are individualistic in focus and aim to bring about improvements in precise areas of a special concern to individuals. The most common areas are the following: physical and emotional health, material prosperity, and personal relationships. Corporate religious activities are less common than individual religious practices, although New Thought congregations routinely engage in group prayer and treatment rituals. The movement as a whole affirms a positive expectancy for humanity and a belief in spiritual evolution, but individual groups are seldom socially active and tend to be silent on political, economic, and legal issues.

Early in its history, New Thought produced two notable theorists, Warren Felt Evans (18171889) and Horatio Dresser (18661954), but the movement as a whole rejected their scholarly explications of religious idealism in favor of the popular approaches utilized by Emma Curtis Hopkins and her students. As a result, the New Thought movement has never articulated its idealistic cosmology in a formal philosophical context. Rather, it has restricted academic horizons, it lacks a systematic theology, and it has developed no schools of higher learning. Nonetheless, in an era that has seen the devaluation of idealism in the academic community, especially among professional philosophers, it is significant that New Thought has remained firmly committed to its idealistic theology. Equally significant is the sustained growth of the movement in light of the decline of America's other major version of popular religious idealism, Christian Science.

Origins, Development, Leaders

As a unique expression of human religiosity, New Thought is a decidedly American religious phenomenon. From its birth in the 1880s in the Chicago ministry of Emma Curtis Hopkins, New Thought emerged in the context of (and was enriched by) the secularization process. Although the roots of New Thought can be traced to Christian Science, Mind Cure, and the mental healing movement, from its earliest days New Thought offered a unique and comprehensive interpretation of individual existence and humanity as a whole. Mental healing has continued to be a major component in New Thought systems, but as the movement grew the implications of mental healing expanded beyond bodily healing to include all areas of life. This is especially to be noted in the movement's "prosperity" teachings, which began to develop in the late 1880s.

The decisive origin of the movement, per se, can be traced to the writing, teaching, and evangelical ministry of Hopkins, a former student and professional associate of the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy. Strong arguments are sometimes advanced for ascribing its origin to Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, a mental healer and former mesmerist who shared his technique with a small circle of his clients. Another reasonable source for New Thought is Christian Science and Eddy herself. Eddy had been a client and student of Quimby and later a teacher of Hopkins. Hopkins's dissatisfaction with Eddy's religion, and possibly a professional misunderstanding between the two women, led to Hopkins's separation from Eddy's work and her development of an independent form of Christian Science in Chicago in the mid-1880s.

Hopkins's Chicago work led to the establishment of a seminary and, beginning in 1889, the ordination of ministers. On the basis of her encouragement, Hopkins's students took the New Thought message to all parts of the United States, chiefly the emerging urban centers of the Midwest and West, in particular San Francisco, Denver, Kansas City, and Saint Louis. Included among the major New Thought leaders who studied with Hopkins were Kate (Mrs. Frank) Bingham, the teacher of Nona Brooks (18611945) and a founder of Divine Science; Malinda Cramer (18441906), also a founder of Divine Science; Charles Fillmore (18541948) and Myrtle Fillmore (18451931), co-founders of Unity; Annie Rix Militz (18561924), a prominent author in Unity's early years, founder of Homes of Truth, and publisher of Master Mind (19111931) magazine; Helen Wilmans (18351907), the founder of Mental Science; Frances Lord, who carried New Thought to England; H. Emilie Cady (18481941), author of New Thought's most widely disseminated text, Unity's Lessons In Truth ; Ella Wheeler Wilcox (18501919), poet and syndicated columnist; and Elizabeth Towne (18651960), INTA president (19241925) and the publisher of the major New Thought periodical, The Nautilus (18981954). After her retirement from public teaching and administrative work, Hopkins tutored Ernest S. Holmes (18871960), founder of Religious Science. All told, by the time Hopkins left active ministry in 1895, she had ordained more than one hundred persons, and these, together with numerous others who had been exposed to her work, formed the first generation of New Thought leaders. For this reason, Hopkins was referred to as "the teacher of teachers" in the movement.

As Hopkins's version of Christian Science transformed itself into New Thought, the younger movement became clearly distinguished from Eddy's work. Aside from abandoning the term Christian Science in its self-references, the three most prominent distinctions pertain to the status of doctrine, the material world, and medicine. In contrast to Christian Science, New Thought and its representative groups have no authoritative doctrines, and even in denominations with distinct and venerated founders (e.g., Unity and Religious Science) the authority of the founder's teachings is minimal at best. New Thought also differs from Christian Science in its generally positive evaluation of the material world. In distinction to Christian Science beliefs, in New Thought, matter is not illusionary and the material world is not antithetical to Spirit (Divine Mind). Instead, New Thought tends to view the material world (including humankind) as an extension or expression of Spirit, which is growing toward perfection. Finally, New Thought is not opposed to the medical resolution of physical illness. In conformity with its generally optimistic and harmonial worldview, New Thought embraces all forms of healing, including traditional Western medicine.

Entering the twentieth century, New Thought's idealistic theology and optimistic worldview allowed it to assume a congenial stance relative to the new realities of American life: secularization, urbanization, industrialization, pluralism, and consumerism. Called "the religion of healthy mindedness" by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), the movement affirmed a positive vision of humanity and sacralized critical aspects of what was coming to be the American dream: health, wealth, and peace of mind. Its message of happiness and prosperity had particular resonance with members of the expanding urban middle class, which was then reaching majority status and sociocultural self-consciousness. It was this class that first embraced New Thought, and it has remained the primary source for membership in the movement.

From a practical standpoint, and in addition to its idealistic principles and "scientific" optimism, New Thought's early and enduring success is owed to five major factors, probably in this order: (1) confidence of its leaders and movement-building; (2) professional empowerment of women; (3) prosperity teachings; (4) skillful use of mass media; and (5) a general ease with and adaptability to secularization.

The confidence of the early New Thought leaders was intense. Zealous missionaries, they believed in the truth of their message with the evangelical ardor frequently expressed by members of young and dynamic religions. The writings and addresses of Hopkins's and her students reveal the confidence typical of early New Thought leaders, with Hopkins's "Baccalaureate Address" (1891) and High Mysticism (1920) serving as representative texts. Following Hopkins's model, many of her students developed distinct movements of their own, establishing ministerial schools, ordaining ministers, and sending them forth to establish religious communities (churches, societies, centers, and temples), then networking these communities together into distinct, though loosely structured, denominations. Examples of this developmental strategy include Hopkins's own movement, Wilmans's Mental Science Association, Militz's Homes of Truth, the Fillmore's Unity School of Christianity, and Cramer's and Brooks's Divine Science. Although many of the early denominations were short-lived, Unity and Divine Science, both founded in the 1880s, have endured, ranking first and third, respectively, in size at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The majority of Hopkins's students and ministers were women, and the early movement had a distinctly feminist character and public profile. Hopkins appears to have been the first woman in modern times to ordain women as Christian ministers. As a consequence, New Thought had particular appeal to women with professional aspirations who were otherwise often excluded from public life. The professional empowerment of women contributed to the early success of New Thought by not only attracting talented women to the movement, but also reform-minded men and persons of both genders with progressive social visions. The movement has maintained its commitment to female leadership, with women forming the majority of New Thought ministers.

New Thought's growth was also fueled by its promotion of prosperity teachings, whose deepest cultural influences can be traced to the Calvinist notion of the "visible signs" of one's predestination for salvation. Other contributing influences were Benjamin Franklin and Ralph Waldo Emerson, both of whom proposed methods of general self-improvement, which they believed would also lead to economic success. An even more direct influence was the expansion of economic opportunity for members of the middle class in the late nineteenth century, as well as the growing acceptance that material affluence was a cultural ideal if not a moral imperative. New Thought offered the promise that affluence could be achieved; in fact, New Thought affirmed that God wanted all people to be prosperous. Through its prosperity techniques, which were essentially extensions of its mental-healing methods, New Thought introduced itself to America's middle class as a religion that proclaimed the spiritual virtue of affluence and financial success. In this regard, New Thought's prosperity teachings have affinities with Andrew Carnegie's Gospel of Wealth (1900) and later Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich (1937). Prosperity continues to be a major theme of New Thought literature, with Charles Fillmore's Prosperity (1936) and Catherine Ponder's The Dynamic Laws of Prosperity (1962) being classics of the genre.

From its earliest days, New Thought leaders were quick to recognize the potential of the mass media. By the early twentieth century, periodicals with a national reach were widely used to disseminate the New Thought message to the general public. They also served to maintain the networks of the developing denominations. Later (and this is especially true of Unity), New Thought leaders made extensive use of radio. Only with the dawning of television did New Thought's aggressive use of advanced media technology begin to decline. In the twenty-first century, New Thought denominations and many individual churches have websites, and worship services of larger churches are aired on radio and cable television in most metropolitan areas. Although both the number and circulation of New Thought publications have been declining since the mid-twentieth century, major New Thought groups continue to publish periodicals, including Unity's Daily Word, the United Church of Religious Science's Science of Mind, and INTA's New Thought. Daily Word is the largest of these publications, with over a million subscribers.

Unlike many traditional forms of American religion, New Thought was not and is not antagonistic to the astonishing transformation of culture and society wrought by secularization. Rather than decrying the sins of secularization, New Thought either ignored or actively embraced the widespread cultural change that characterized Western culture in the twentieth century. In doing so, New Thought has proven itself remarkably adaptable to and implicitly (if not explicitly) supportive of pluralism, individualism, racial and gender equality, modifications in traditional gender roles and family structures, globalization, and consumerism. Nonetheless, in harmony with its general apolitical character, the movement has seldom taken public positions advocating social change.

Major Communities

The twenty-first-century New Thought movement is comprised of numerous religious communities, most of which are small independent churches, although several can be rightly classified as denomi-nations.

Divine Science

Among these major groups, the oldest is Divine Science. The roots of Divine Science can be traced to the ministry of Malinda E. Cramer in San Francisco in 1888 and, more significantly, to the work of three sisters (Fannie Brooks James, Alethea Brooks, and especially Nona Brooks) in Denver in the 1890s. Cramer's International Divine Science Association (founded in 1892) was the first national organization of New Thought religious communities and arguably the predecessor of INTA. Of the major forms of New Thought, Divine Science has been the least evangelistic and least institutionalized.

In the late 1990s a small number of churches separated from the original Divine Science Federation, forming the United Divine Science Ministries. Central texts of Divine Science are Cramer's Divine Science and Healing (1902) and a compilation from the works of Cramer and Fannie Brooks James, Divine Science: Its Principle and Practice (1957). The movement's most recognized leader was Emmet Fox (18861951), the author of numerous widely popular texts, including The Sermon on the Mount (1934) and Power Through Constructive Thinking (1940). His pamphlet The Golden Key (1937) offers an abbreviated outline of spiritual healing treatment as it is practiced in New Thought, and his idealistic maxim, "life is consciousness," is among the most well-known aphorisms in the movement. Divine Science is the smallest of New Thought's denominations, with a total membership of less than five thousand as of 2004.


is second oldest and most clearly Christian denomination in New Thought. It is the largest and most culturally prominent New Thought group. Unity was cofounded in Kansas City in 1889 by Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, a married couple. From its inception as a prayer and publication ministry, it has experienced relatively sustained growth. Since 1966 it has been represented by two loosely affiliated organizations: Unity School of Christianity and the Association of Unity Churches. Unity School, located at Unity Village in Kansas City, Missouri, is the largest material complex in New Thought. It is the successor of the Fillmores' original organization and directs the denomination's publishing, prayer, and education ministries. The Association manages Unity's ecclesiastical operations, ordains ministers, supervises churches, and directs expansion.

Two other small independent Unity groups emerged in the 1990s: the Unity-Progressive Council and the World Federation for Practical Christianity (formerly the World Federation of Independent Unity Churches [name changed in 2003]). Unity's primary textbook ("together with the Bible") is Cady's Lessons in Truth, which was first published as a series of articles in Unity magazine beginning in 1894. Unity is New Thought's largest book publisher, and, among its sizable collection of texts, two of the more distinctive are Charles Fillmore's Christian Healing (1909) and The Twelve Powers of Man (1930). His Metaphysical Bible Dictionary (1931) is New Thought's only comprehensive lexicon offering a "metaphysical" (allegorical) interpretation of the names of persons and places found in the Bible. Outside of New Thought, Unity is perhaps best known for its prayer ministry, Silent Unity, which receives about one million contacts annuallya number far in excess of the total number of active Unity participants. There are nearly one thousand ministries and study groups worldwide, with membership probably in the 150,000 range.

Religious Science

The second largest New Thought denomination is Religious Science, founded in Los Angeles in 1927 by Ernest Holmes. Originally established as the Institute of Religious Science and Philosophy, churches were being established by the 1940s, and the movement began to develop a more traditional religious appearance. In 1954, tensions over ecclesiastical structure led to a schism, with a small number of churches separating from what became the United Church of Religious Science and forming what became Religious Science International. Over the years, the two groups have maintained a relatively cordial relationship, with the major differences being organizational rather than doctrinal. In the early 1990s a third Religious Science organization was formed: Global Religious Science Ministries.

Religious Science is notable for its rejection of identification with Christianity. The United Church remains the largest branch of the denomination. All branches of Religious Science recognize Holmes's Science of Mind (1926) as their foundational text. Other notable works by Holmes are This Thing Called Life (1943) and What Religious Science Teaches (1944). Total membership in all branches of Religious Science is around sixty thousand worldwide.

Universal Foundation for Better Living

The youngest New Thought denomination is the Universal Foundation for Better Living (UFBL), founded in Chicago in 1974 by Johnnie Colemon (Johnnie May Colemon Nedd). UFBL is the most successful Unity-derived movement, although there are no formal ties between UFBL and Unity's historical institutions. Prior to the founding of UFBL, Colemon had been a successful minister in the Unity movement, developing a large congregation in Chicago, expanding the reach of New Thought teachings to the African American community, and serving as the President of the Association of Unity Churches (1970). Institutional disagreements led to the founding of UFBL, which was originally founded as Unity Foundation for Better Living but changed by Colemon when authorities in the Unity movement challenged the use of the name "Unity." The current President is Mary Ann Tumpkin, who replaced Johnnie Colemon in 1996.

UFBL bases its beliefs on the traditional teachings of the Unity movement, especially as promulgated in the works of Unity's founders, Myrtle and Charles Fillmore, and H. Emilie Cady's Lessons In Truth. The movement is strongly committed to higher learning in the New Thought tradition and has developed a number of unique educational initiatives, most notably a project to establish an accredited New Thought seminary.

The movement is the third largest New Thought denomination, with 27 affiliated religious communities and an estimated 20,000 members. In addition to the USA, UFBL has affiliated groups in Canada, the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Guyana. It publishes a monthly devotional magazine, Daily Inspiration for Better Living.


Properly speaking, the International New Thought Alliance (INTA) is not a denomination but rather an umbrella organization comprised of religious groups, individual churches, and individuals. INTA is the most democratically structured of all the major New Thought groups, with full membership rights extended to laypersons. Its general aims are to promote the New Thought movement as a whole, disseminate New Thought teachings internationally, and facilitate solidarity among all New Thought participants. INTA was founded in 1914, although its roots can be traced to predecessor groups dating to the 1890s. Throughout its history, the success of INTA has largely been contingent on the support of the major New Thought denominations and prominent leaders in the movement. Since the early 1990s the significance of INTA appears to have decreased as individual denominations have grown in size and institutional self-identity. In addition, a leadership struggle in 1996 resulted in a number of influential leaders leaving INTA to form the Association for Global New Thought. The president of INTA in 2004 was Blaine C. Mays, who became president in 1974 and held the office longer than any other INTA president. The Alliance publishes New Thought, a quarterly magazine, and its creedlike "Declaration of Principles" embodies the general beliefs of most New Thought adherents.


The global scope of New Thought is reflected in its presence on all continents and in more than sixty countries, with a particularly strong presence in sub-Saharan Africa. A related movement, Seicho-no-Ie (Home of Infinite Life, or House of Blessing), was founded by Masaharu Taniguchi (18931985) in Japan in 1930. Taniguchi was inspired in part by Religious Science, and the movement's foundational idealism and optimistic worldview suggests a close affinity with traditional New Thought beliefs. Seicho-no-Ie is, however, more broadly syncretistic than other New Thought groups and includes elements of Buddhism and Shintō otherwise not found in the movement. Seicho-no-Ie is also more socially conservative and politically active than traditional New Thought denominations. If included within the movement, Seicho-no-Ie would be by far New Thought's largest denomination, with a worldwide membership of over 1.25 million, including 400,000 to 500,000 members in Brazil.

See Also

Hopkins, Emma Curtis; Unity.


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