John L. Crow
At the last AAR conference in Chicago, I picked up a copy of John S. Haller, Jr.’s recent history of the New Thought movement published by the Swedenborg Foundation Press: The History of New Thought from Mind Cure to Positive Thinking and the Prosperity Gospel (2012). I just got around to reading a portion of it this weekend and I was immediately reminded of the fascinating history of this under studied movement. This is the newest comprehensive review I am aware of since Charles S. Braden’s Spirits in Rebellion: The Rise and Development of New Thought: The Story of the Beginnings and Growth of New Thought and Kindred American Metaphysical Healing Movements (1963, 2nd ed. 1984). The foreword by Robert C. Fuller states that “Haller provides the perceptive eye we need to make judicious sense of America’s long-standing interest in the power of mind and thought” (viii), and he is right, although I wonder if Haller’s heavy emphasis on Swedenborg’s influence on New Thought is an artifact of his audience and/or publisher. Nevertheless, his history makes the recent success of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret (Atria, 2006) more understandable.
In 2006, as most people know, Australian TV producer Rhonda Byrne released her bestselling video, The Secret. Not long after she released a book version that was on the self-help/inspiration bestseller lists for over 150 weeks. Four years later she released a sequel entitled The Power (Atria 20120). Whereas the first was about the law of attraction, the second was about the connection of the law of love. Not long after, the third installment, The Magic (Atria 2012), was released, and the law of gratitude was added to the series. While the second and third volumes did not mirror the success of the first, all three together have sold over 20 million copies, have been translated into over 46 languages, and have ancillary products such as The Secret Daily Teachings (Atria 2008) and The Secret Gratitude Book (Atria 2007). To her credit, Byrne always starts out her story attributing her discovery of “the secret” to the century old book, The Science of Getting Rich (1910) by Wallace D. Wattles. (Byrne’s publisher also released a revised edition of this volume, The New Science of Getting Rich (Atria 2007) where Ruth Miller edits the volume, adding short, PowerPoint like chapter summaries for those unwilling to slog through the early 20th century prose of the original.) One wonders, however, why the success? What was the reason this line of self-help/inspirational books did so well when the so-called “secret” was anything but secret?
To explain this kind of success, Haller points to shifts in New Thought, moving from metaphysical concerns to those of the material world. He writes, “The mind, once firmly the domain of divine influx, became a distinct echo, drowned out by the kinetic energy of free-market capitalism” (13). Today New Thought products are offered in a vast marketplace, promoted by the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres, and is the focus of many lectures and discussion in New Thought churches. Moreover, Haller traces how New Thought doctrines transform into Prosperity Gospel whose preachers “ignore metaphysics entirely, promoting techniques for success in business and in life through positive attitude” (261).
I am still making my way through the book, but I am glad to see the volume. A new history of the New Thought movement is long overdue.