Peale, Norman Vincent
Peale, Norman Vincent
(b. 31 May 1898 in Bowersville, Ohio; d. 24 December 1993 in Pawling, New York), popular American preacher and author who inspired millions with his inspirational message, typified in his best-selling book The Power of Positive Thinking (1952).
Peale was the oldest son of Charles Clifford Peale, a Methodist preacher, and Anna Delany, a homemaker. Norman and his two brothers grew up in a conservative Methodist atmosphere in Bowersville. Peale’s mother was involved in her husband’s ministry and managed the family finances. Peale’s father was an easygoing and straightforward man, who stressed to his sons that simplicity was the way to reach people. As a boy, Peale often had feelings of insecurity and was sensitive to criticism. He prayed about these things and forced himself to take a number of sales jobs to help him deal with his inferiority complex.
In 1916 Peale graduated from high school in Bellefontaine, Ohio. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1920 and became a reporter for the Detroit journal, but he quickly became disenchanted and decided to follow his father into the ministry. He attended the School of Theology at Boston University from 1921 to 1924 and was ordained by the Methodist Church in 1922. He preached his first sermon on 3 April 1922 at the Methodist church in Walpole, Massachusetts. Not an abstract thinker, Peale was critical of the program at Boston University, suggesting that there was too much philosophy and theology and not enough practical studies. Even though he remained politically conservative all his life, he became an adherent of the liberal religious tradition that focused on the social gospel. He graduated in 1924 with a bachelor of sacred theology degree and a master of arts degree in social ethics. He later studied at Syracuse University and received a doctor of divinity degree in 1931. He was awarded an honorary doctor of divinity degree from his undergraduate alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan University, in 1930.
After ordination in 1922, Peale became a student pastor at the Berkeley Church in Berkeley, Rhode Island, where he served until his graduation from Boston University in 1924, when he was assigned to St. Mark’s Church in Brooklyn, New York. He was soon assigned to work with a new church they wished to plant, King’s Highway Church. During his three years at St. Mark’s the congregation grew from 40 to 900. In 1927 he became the pastor of the University Methodist Church in Syracuse, New York, where he was one of the first pastors to have his own radio program.
On 20 June 1930 Peale married Ruth Stafford. Ruth was Peale’s emotional support throughout his career (despite his positive and joyful exterior, Peale continued to struggle with his childhood fears and feelings of inferiority). She was an essential sounding board for his ideas and the administrative aide for his many projects. Peale gave her tremendous credit for his work. He and Ruth had three children. A medium-sized man, bespectacled and jovial, with a warm smile, Peale maintained strong emotional bonds with his family, and although he lived in Manhattan most of his life, he kept strong ties to his home state of Ohio.
In 1932 Peale made a decision that would set the course for much of the rest of his life. He changed denominations from Methodist to Dutch Reformed in order to become the pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, founded in 1628. Under Peale’s leadership, the church became one of the premier churches of New York City, experiencing substantial growth during the Great Depression and World War II. Peale’s dynamic sermons, which were televised during the 1950s, generated standing-room-only conditions and long lines of people outside the church hoping for a chance to hear Peale preach.
Peale’s message was a combination of Fundamentalism and New Thought modernism. True to his father’s advice, Peale offered a message that was positive and simple. It emphasized practical Christianity through self-examination, prayer, and gaining control over one’s life by visualization. He proclaimed that people could empower themselves through this manner of positive thinking. In order to address “everyday issues facing people,” Peale endeavored not to use biblical language or religious terms in his message, and he proudly stated that he was not an intellectual. He believed that the power of God was released through the power of thought. Tim Stafford in Christianity Today has suggested that Peale was “the first example of nondenominational, entrepreneurial, communications-savvy, pragmatic, populist religion that rose out of the fundamentalist-modernist split.” Others have characterized Peale’s message as a potpourri of his conservative Methodist background, Dutch Reformed tradition, modern psychology, and metaphysics.
Through a variety of sermons, broadcasts, and publications, Peale brought his message to millions. Following World War II, Peale founded an inspirational leaflet called Guideposts, published weekly and aimed primarily at businessmen. In the 1950s it became a monthly magazine with a subscription base that eventually reached 5 million. Peale and his wife also hosted a television show called What’s Your Trouble? from 1952 to 1968. His radio program The Art of Living was broadcast on NBC Radio for fifty-four years. Peale also wrote forty-six books, including The Art of Living (1937), You Can Win (1938), A Guide for Confident Living (1948), and This Incredible Century (1991). But it was The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) that became one of the best-selling religious books in history, remaining on the best-seller list for three years. The book contains a number of inspirational messages and anecdotes, and a variety of religio-psychological catchphrases such as “visualize, prayerize, actualize.” It encourages people to free their “inner powers,” and proclaims to help people turn “self-doubt into self-esteem” and “obstacles into opportunities” using imagery, self-talk, and the power of prayer. At the time of Peale’s death, the book had been translated into forty-one languages and had sold more than 20 million copies.
In the 1940s, responding to the needs of his congregation, Peale and Dr. Smiley Blanton (a former student of Sigmund Freud) founded one of the first clinics to provide counseling through a combination of religion and psychiatry. In 1951 the clinic expanded to train religion-based counselors and programs, and became the American Foundation for Religion and Psychiatry, for which Peale served as president.
All of this made Peale one of the most well-known and popular clergymen in America and gained him the moniker “the Minister to Millions.” Yet he had critics as well. On the one hand his liberal theology caused conservatives to criticize his message; on the other hand he drew ire from liberals because of his conservative politics. Carol V. R. George, one of Peale’s biographers, points out that Peale’s desire to increase the numbers at his congregation led him to remain reticent on topics such as sin, guilt, suffering, and atonement as well as social issues such as racism. Many accused him of “watering down” the Christian message into a humanistic philosophy that focused more on humans than on God. Peale was hurt by the criticism that he was unscholarly. Liberals also criticized him for his support of Prohibition, his anti-New Deal stance, and especially for his public opposition to presidential candidate John F. Kennedy because of his concerns about possible papal influence.
Peale retired as senior pastor from the Marble Collegiate Church in 1984 and devoted himself to lecturing at business seminars as a motivational speaker, spending much of his time traveling to speaking engagements. That same year President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Medal of Freedom and his autobiography, The True Joy of Positive Living, appeared. Peale remained vital and active until his death. He died in his sleep at his farm in Pawling on 24 December 1993, having suffered a stroke about two weeks earlier. He is buried in Pawling.
Despite the criticism that Peale ignored important biblical themes such as sin and atonement, and that he did not take the problem of suffering seriously, Peale’s message resonated with the culture of the mid—twentieth century. While his message was more human-centered than God-centered, and more of a philosophy than a religion, he inspired millions of people and gave them hope. His influence on the self-help movement, on motivational speakers such as Dale Carnegie and Zig Zigler, and on preachers such as Robert Schuller and the “prosperity gospel” cannot be denied. Peale perhaps impacted American religion and culture more than any other speaker or preacher of the twentieth century.
Peale’s autobiography, The True Joy of Positive Living (1984), was published the year he retired. Perhaps the best biography of Peale is by Carol V. R. George, God’s Salesman (1992), a scholarly book that utilizes interviews with Peale and people who worked with him. It recounts his life using personal anecdotes and examines his influence within its historical, cultural, and religious context. Norman Vincent Peale: Minister to Millions (1958) and One Man’s Way (1972) are overtly sympathetic biographies by Arthur Gordon. For more concerning the context of Peale’s influence on American religion, see Twentieth-Century Shapers of American Religion (1989), edited by Charles H. Lippy. Tim Stafford judiciously details many of the criticisms of Peale’s message in “Half-Full Christianity—God’s Salesman: Norman Vincent Peale and the Power of Positive Thinking,” Christianity Today 37 (1993): 35-36. Obituaries are in Christian Century 111 (1994): 41; Christianity Today 38 (1994): 56; the New York Times (26 Dec. 1993); and the Wall Street Journal (27 Dec. 1993). The film One Man’s Way (1963) portrays Peale’s life and successes.
Markus H. Mcdowell