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New Thought

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

A movement embracing any form of modern belief in the practice of mental healing other than those associated with traditional Christianity. The name came into vogue in 1895 and was used as the title of a magazine published for a time in Melrose, Mass., to describe a “new thought” about life, based on the premise that knowledge of the real world of ideas has marvelous power to relieve people of various ills.

History. The movement began with the work of Phineas P. Quimby (1802—66), of Portland, Maine, who practiced mental and spiritual healing for more than 20 years and greatly influenced Mary Baker *Eddy, foundress of *Christian Science. At first Quimby practiced unqualified mesmerism; the client would sit opposite the doctor, who then held the person’s hands and looked him intently in the eye. As the patient went into a mesmeric sleep, Quimby spoke to him and talked him out of his ailment, often manipulating the affected part with hands that were moistened for greater efficiency. Later, Quimby became convinced that disease was simply an error of the mind and not a real thing, so that mesmerism could be dispensed with and equal, or even better, results assured. In time he claimed that his only power consisted in the knowledge he had that sickness is illusion and in the ability to communicate this assurance to others. In a circular addressed to the sick, Quimby thus described his own system: “My practice is unlike all medical practice. I give no medicine, and make no outward applications. I tell the patient his troubles, and what he thinks is his disease; and my explanation is the cure. If I succeed in correcting his errors, I change the fluids of the system and establish the truth, or health. The truth is the cure. This mode of practice applies to all cases.”

Quimby organized no society, but persons whom he had helped adopted his method, passing it on to others with additions and changes of their own. Two of his followers, Warren F. Evans and Julius A. Dresser, gave systematic form to his ideas; they are regarded as the intellectual founders of New Thought and its allied movements. Evans published six books on the subject, of which the most significant were The Mental Cure (1869), Mental Medicine (1872), and Soul and Body (1875). According to Evans, disease has its roots in wrong belief. Once that is changed, disease is cured. A devoted Swedenborgian, he had long been familiar with the writings of G. *Berkeley and other idealists (see SWEDENBORG, E.), His own character and personal experiences further led him to a point where he was ready to apply an extreme form of idealism to the healing of disease. Dresser, cured by Quimby in 1860, began his major work in mental healing in 1882 in Boston, Mass., where Dresser and his wife, Annetta, were competing with Mrs. Eddy. When Dresser’s clients were curious to learn how they had been healed, he obliged with a series of 12 class lectures, which included a study of the divine immanence and a consideration that the spiritual life is continuous, that men already live in eternity. “To realize that our real life is spiritual was to overcome the illusions of sense-experience with its manifold bondages.” Dresser’s son and biographer popularized his father’s teaching.

Evans and Dresser remained faithful to the memory of Quimby, whereas Mrs. Eddy disclaimed all dependence on her benefactor, whom she called “an ignorant mesmerist.” Mrs. Eddy’s followers became organized in a tightly knit society, the Church of Christ, Scientist; the disciples of Quimby founded numerous small groups under different names, such as Divine Science, Unity, Practical Christianity, Home of Truth, and the Church of the Higher Life. Before the turn of the century, these came to be known as New Thought and in 1894 the first national convention was held. In 1908 the name National New Thought Alliance was adopted and 6 years later the organization became international. Its membership was extended to all the major countries of the world.

Basic Principles. Although New Thought did not substantially change after the time of Quimby, Evans, and Dresser, there was an expansion of scope to cover a broader perspective than healing sickness. The Declaration of Principles, adopted by the International Alliance in 1917, begins by affirming “the freedom of each soul as to its choice and as to belief.” Accordingly no creedal profession is necessary. “The essence of the New Thought is Truth, and each individual must be loyal to the Truth he sees. The windows of his soul must be kept open at each moment for the higher light, and his mind must be always hospitable to each new inspiration.”

Allowing for a monistic interpretation of the universe, the declaration states, “We affirm the new thought of God as Universal Love, Life, Truth and Joy, in whom we live, move, and have our being, and by whom we are held together; and His mind is Our mind now, that realizing our oneness with Him means love, truth, peace, health, and plenty.” In the same strain, taking monistically Christ’s words about the kingdom within us, New Thought asserts that “we are one with the Father” (see MONISM).

In keeping with Quimby’s theory of the mind’s influence, it is held that “Man’s body is his holy temple. Every function of it, every cell of it, is intelligent, and is shaped, ruled, repaired, and controlled by mind. He whose body is full of light is full of health. Spiritual healing has existed among all races in all times. It has now become a part of the higher science and art of living the life more abundant.”

Consistent with its stress on present well-being, New Thought believes that “Heaven is here and now, the life everlasting that becomes conscious immortality, the communion of mind with mind throughout the universe of thoughts, the nothingness of all error and negation, including death, the variety in unity that produces the individual expressions of the One-Life.” All this is to be understood against the background of an idealism that some have traced to G. W. F. *Hegel and others to Berkeley. “We affirm,” the declaration concludes, “that the universe is spiritual and we are spiritual beings.”

New Thought considers itself a form of Christianity, while denying the Trinity, original sin, and the divinity of Christ. It proposes instead a cosmic hypostatic union that reflects the Christology of David *Strauss. “Every man is an incarnation of God,” New Thought teaches, “anyone who recognizes this and lives in conscious and harmonious union with Spirit, automatically becomes Christ.”

Unlike other denominations that emphasize mental health, such as Christian Science, New Thought permits dual membership; many of its adherents are active church-goers in the more liberal Protestant denominations.

Bibliography: M. Bach, The Unity of Life (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1962). H. E. Cady, Lessons in Truth (rev. ed. Lee’s Summit, Mo. 1955). H. W. Dresser, Health and the Inner Life (New York 1906); A History of the New Thought Movement (New York 1919). E. Holmes, New Thought Terms and Their Meanings (New York 1942). R. Peel, Christian Science: Its Encounter with American Culture (New York 1958).

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