Peale, Norman Vincent (1898-1993)

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Peale, Norman Vincent (1898-1993)

A long happy life, national acclaim, professional satisfactions, and accumulating wealth seemed to attest to the success of Norman Vincent Peale's blend of New Thought, psychotherapy, optimism, and Protestant Christianity. The phrase "positive thinking" became part of the national vocabulary, as Peale's books repeatedly topped the bestseller lists. While Pealeism, as his thought came to be known, exactly suited the American post-World War II mood, it also became the object of angry attack from academic theologians for two decades. Along with Billy Graham and Bishop Vincent Sheen (who often found himself introduced as "Norman Vincent Sheen"), Peale became one of the best known American clergymen of his time. His books constituted the greatest commercial success of religion in the middle of the twentieth century. His concepts linger on, though no longer labeled as "Pealeism," in the optimism and mind control techniques of the New Age.

There was much of New England Transcendentalism in Peale's thought. He gratefully acknowledged his debt to Ralph Waldo Emerson, that archbore of American literary classics. There was also much of New Thought in Peale's spirituality. He would have agreed frequently with Mary Baker Eddy, though they did not speak the same theological language. He further learned from both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, though he never penetrated the depths of the human psyche or engaged in grandiose speculation about racial archetypes. Most of all, he never discovered the murky underground passages of the human soul; most serious theologians agreed he had a deficient sense of sin.

But within modest limits Peale's thought was energizing; his self-applied therapy worked. And people enjoyed reading his books, which made few intellectual demands and abounded in homey anecdotes of folk who became millionaires or successes in their professions. His Bible quotations were invariably sunny.

Peale's best known self-help book was The Power of Positive Thinking, published in 1952; it was one of the bestselling books of the decade. Peale became increasingly well known as a public motivational speaker and as regular preacher in the marble Collegiate Church at Fifth Avenue and 29th Street in New York. There he preached to a packed sanctuary and ministered spiritually to Presidents. His message was consistent. The American dream was real; the Protestant work ethic made one virtuous, wise, and prosperous. Material pleasures were not contrary to Christian piety; personal goals were realizable. With the power of positive thought working, a person need not fear any defeat. Good mental and physical health were possible; the goal of life seemed to be contentment, even joy.

Peale described his therapeutic system as "applied Christianity, a simple yet scientific system of practical techniques of successful living that works." His techniques of spiritual healing, derived from his personal experiences and a variety of other sources and ultimately, he claimed, traceable to the Gospels, involved silent meditation, positive affirmation, creative visualization, and biblical quotations used almost as a mantra. When he talked about getting into "time synchronization" with the Almighty by listening to the sounds of the earth, he sounded suspiciously pantheistic.

Peale was born in Bowersville, Ohio, the son of a Methodist preacher who had given up a medical practice to answer the call. After some hesitation, young Peale accepted ordination in the Methodist ministry, studying theology at Boston University and serving churches in Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey. Congregations grew and flourished under his care. In 1930 he married Loretta Ruth Stafford, often called "the true positive thinker" of the family, who remained a full partner in his national media ministry. In 1932 Peale was persuaded to accept appointment at the historic Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, founded by the Dutch in 1628 and reputed to be the oldest Protestant church in continuous use in North America. This appointment necessitated Peale's transfer from Methodist to Dutch Reform affiliation. This caused no crisis of conscience, since denominational identity meant little to Peale. Under Peale's direction, Sunday attendance grew from 200 to 4,000.

His calling, however, could never be limited to one congregation, no matter how enormously it expanded. His publications and lectures became central to his national ministry. Early books sold well across the nation, even before the resounding success of The Power of Positive Thinking, which stayed at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for three years. Other organs of ministry included his monthly pastoral magazine, Guideposts, an inspirational book club, the American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry, emanating from his church's counseling center, and the Foundation for Christian Living, operated by Mrs. Peale with the aim of disseminating her husband's sermons through booklets and recordings. Radio appearances were also frequent and the Reader's Digest was the perfect forum for Pealeism.

A Republican and personal friend of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon, Peale ventured unsteadily into political controversy during the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy. Much to his later embarrassment, Peale lent his name to a statement issued by a group of religious leaders opposing Kennedy on the basis of the politics of the Roman Catholic Church and its record of church-state relations. Peale certainly did not harbor personal anti-Catholic prejudice. He maintained cordial relations with Vincent Sheen and other Catholic dignitaries and the Catholic daughter of Reader's Digest editor Fulton Oursler called Peale "my Protestant pastor."

To the end of his career, Peale's critics were harsh in their attacks. They found his thinking simplistic, even heretical in its confusion of historic Christianity with American materialism and doctrines of self-reliance and worldly success. Critics found Peale's optimism at variance with reality in a century which had witnessed history's two bloodiest wars, a holocaust, and the advent of nuclear weapons. Peale's own sons attending seminary were forced to listen to their professor's tirades against "Pealeism," and Mrs. Peale especially found the attacks a savagery against a gentle man. It might be supposed that Peale himself, who became a wealthy man from the sale of his books, would have laughed all the way to the bank. On the contrary, he was deeply wounded and even considered dropping out of the ministry. His own brand of positive thinking eventually won over; he forgave his critics, outliving them all, and dying with his optimism unshaken.

—Allene Phy-Olsen

Further Reading:

George, Carol V.R. God's Salesman: Norman Vincent Peale and the Power of Positive Thinking. New York, Oxford University Press, 1993.

Meyer, Donald. The Positive Thinkers: Religion as Pop Psychology from Mary Baker Eddy to Oral Roberts. New York, Pantheon Books, 1980.

Occhiogrosso, Peter. The Joy of Sects. New York, Doubleday, 1996.

Peale, Norman Vincent. The True Joy of Positive Living: An Autobiography. New York, William Morrow and company, Inc., 1984.

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Peale, Norman Vincent (1898-1993)

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