Peale, Norman Vincent (1898–1993), Minister and Author

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Peale, Norman Vincent
(1898–1993), minister and author.

One of the most important currents in twentieth-century Christian thought has been the "gospel of prosperity," the idea that God wants his faithful people to prosper both spiritually and materially. The principal proponent of this gospel during the mid-twentieth century was Norman Vincent Peale, a Methodist minister whose "positive thinking" message struck a chord with millions of Americans struggling to work their way out of the Great Depression and to achieve personal success during the postwar era. The means to achieving success and prosperity, Peale argued, lay within the human mind and spirit. Drawing on the mental hygienics of nineteenth-century New Thought philosophy, Peale told his listeners that negative thinking led to failure and unhappiness. Positive thinking, in contrast, actually created the conditions for prosperity, health, and success in one's chosen profession. In crafting his gospel of this-worldly success, Peale tapped into a long-standing American interest in self-culture and self-empowerment, whose major nineteenth-century proponents included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mary Baker Eddy, Ralph Waldo Trine, and Emma Curtis Hopkins.

Peale grew up in small-town Ohio, where his father, Charles Clifford Peale, rose from a Methodist circuit preacher to district superintendent and pastor of First Methodist Church of Columbus. The younger Peale attended Ohio Weslyan College and experienced a renewal of religious faith after overcoming a debilitating stutter. He worked as a journalist in Michigan before enrolling at Boston University's school of theology. Upon graduation, Peale successfully built churches in Brooklyn and Syracuse before receiving an appointment as senior minister at Marble Collegiate Church in midtown Manhattan. Peale's optimistic and ebullient preaching style soon drew thousands to the church's three Sunday services. His message of self-help, moral living, and hope appealed to Depression-era Americans struggling to keep their families afloat both morally and financially. Soon Peale was invited to start a new Saturday radio program, The Art of Living, which would run for forty years and turn Peale into a national celebrity. Peale also adapted his message to the new medium of television. His two programs, What's Your Trouble? and Positive Thinking with Norman Vincent Peale, were hugely popular during the "can do" Eisenhower era of the 1950s.

Peale's publishing successes outstripped even his broadcasting career. He began Guideposts during the mid-1940s as a newsletter and within ten years had built its circulation to more than one million readers. The still-popular periodical contains inspirational stories and quotations from ordinary people who have overcome adversity through belief in God and self. Peale's series of books on self-empowerment, the most popular of which was The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), helped define the postwar generation's ethos of faith in God, self-help, and material success.

Peale's personal star began to wane during the 1960s and 1970s, when his simple message of positive thinking seemed unable to speak to a nation traumatized by a loss of faith in conventional values and institutions. Television evangelists such as Robert Tilton, Frederick Price, and Robert Schuller, however, have embraced Peale's essential message and achieved considerable success by adapting the "gospel of prosperity" to their late-twentieth-century audiences.


See alsoJournalism, Religious; Material Religion; New Thought; Popular Religion; Preaching; Prosperity Theology; Publishing, Religious; Televangelism; Schuller, Robert.

Bibliography

Detrich, Richard Lewis. NormanVincentPeale. 1969.

Peale, Norman Vincent. The PowerofPositiveThinking. 1952.

Phillip Charles Lucas