The Power of Positive Thinking

The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) by Norman Vincent Peale

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There is no record of how or when Norman Vincent Peale acquired his evangelizing zeal, but it’s clear that from a very early age he had a burning desire to change the world by changing the people in it. He was born in Ohio, just before the close of the nineteenth century, to parents who were staunch Methodists and proud when their son gained admission to Ohio Wesleyan University. At some time during his studies he came in contact with the New Thought Movement, which was then exceedingly popular among the American middle classes. It was a religious doctrine which held that all sickness originates in the mind and can be cured by right thinking, combined with faith in the infinite power of the Holy Spirit. ‘Change your thinking, change your life’, was the movement’s slogan, which Peale adopted as his own. After gaining ordination as a Methodist preacher, he changed horses and became a member of the Reformed Church. This was an inspired decision, because it enabled him to become the vicar of the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, which provided him with a pulpit and public sounding board for the next fifty-two years. Here he gathered a vast congregation and became one of the Big Apple’s most famous preachers.  After three years he was hosting his own radio programme, The Art of Living, which lasted without a break for over fifty years. He made regular appearances on television, wrote syndicated articles for newspaper chains, founded the Positive Thinking Foundation and edited the magazine Guideposts. Next door to his church, with the help of a professional psychiatrist, he launched an out-patient clinic for people with problems of a spiritual or emotional nature.

On the basis of this accumulated experience, Peale wrote a number of books, none of which had real impact. Refusing to be deterred by these early failures, he put his life and soul in one further New Thought guidebook The Power of Positive Thinking. This was packed with pithy aphorisms and uplifting advice. Like ‘When life offers you a lemon, make lemonade’, and ‘the tests of life are not made to break you, but to make you.’  The book, which he wrote in his early fifties, was rejected by a succession of publishers. Bitterly disappointed by the mounting pile of rejection slips he threw the manuscript into the wastepaper basket, forbidding his wife to take it out. While she didn’t want to challenge his instructions, she was also desperately keen to ease his mortification, so the next day she followed his literal orders and took the manuscript, still in its waste paper basket, to Simon and Schuster. After reading it through, and no doubt taking account of his widespread public following, the firm agreed to give it a modest print run. It proved an instant success, staying on the New York Times best seller list for 186 consecutive weeks. In the next few years it went on to sell over five million copies and was translated into fifteen foreign languages.

Strangely enough the book was heavily criticised by the medical profession, even though it said little which hadn’t been said before by followers of the New Thought Movement, or which is affirmed today by self-help gurus bristling with doctorates in clinical psychology. The difficulties probably arose from the nature of the man, rather than the nature of his teaching. He was forthright in his views and made enemies almost as easily as he made friends. The censure mainly came in the form of an argumentum ad hominem, an attack on the man rather than his teachings. Even before the

book was published he fell out with the psychiatrist with whom he’d set up the outpatient clinic. The shrink shrank from endorsing either the book or its content, which he claimed was at total variance with his own beliefs. The psychologist Albert Ellis, the founder of cognitive therapy, was equally critical of Peale’s approach, claiming that he’d had to treat many patients who’d suffered a mental breakdown as a result of following Peale’s advice, which he contended was dangerous, distorted and unrealistic.  Other critics suggested that Peale had invented the book’s case histories and testimonials which he’d claimed to have received from a ‘famous psychologist’, a ‘practicing physician’ and other authorities he never named. One mental health expert came straight to the point and described him as an outright ‘con man and a fraud.’  He made yet more enemies when he organised a group of one hundred-and-fifty non-conformist ministers to oppose the presidential election of John F Kennedy on the grounds that he was a member of the Holy Roman church. ‘Faced with the election of a Catholic our culture is at stake,’ he proclaimed, forgetting that this bigoted comment was not in keeping with St Paul’s doctrines of Christian brotherhood and charity, and totally contrary to the American constitution. However this foolish lapse gave Adlai Stevenson the opportunity to make the brilliant riposte: ‘Speaking as a Christian, I find the Apostle Paul appealing and the Apostle Peale appalling.’

Ignoring these defaults and defects, it’s difficult to criticise the book’s basic advice, which is essentially an application of the technique of autosuggestion developed by Emile Coué.  Peale quotes sages like Marcus Aurelius, Emerson and William James, but most of his texts come from the Bible, especially the epistles of St Paul.  ‘According to your faith, be it unto you’ and ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ To this he adds his own words of wisdom. ‘Don’t take yourself too seriously,’ he counsels. ‘Drop the idea that you are Atlas carrying the world upon your shoulders. The world would go on even without you.’ The book influenced millions, and was a source of personal inspiration for the Rev Billy Graham who said: ‘I don’t know of anyone who has done more for the kingdom of God than Norman and Ruth Peale, or have meant more to me for the encouragement they have given me.’

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