Norman Vincent Peale (May 31, 1898 – December 24, 1993) was an American minister and author known for his work in popularizing the concept of positive thinking, especially through his best-selling book The Power of Positive Thinking. He served as the pastor of Marble Collegiate Church, New York, from 1932 until his death, leading a Reformed Church in America congregation. Peale was a personal friend of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and two other presidents, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, have praised his teachings. Some of his ideas and techniques were controversial, and he received frequent criticism both from church figures and from the psychiatric profession.
Peale was born in Bowersville, Ohio, the oldest of three sons of Charles and Anna (née Delaney) Peale. He graduated from Bellefontaine High School, Bellefontaine, Ohio. He earned degrees at Ohio Wesleyan University (where he became a brother of the Fraternity of Phi Gamma Delta) and Boston University School of Theology.
Raised as a Methodist and ordained as a Methodist minister in 1922, Peale changed his religious affiliation to the Reformed Church in America in 1932 and began a 52-year tenure as pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. During that time the church's membership grew from about 600 to over 5,000, and he became one of New York City's most famous preachers.
Peale and Smiley Blanton, a psychoanalyst, established a religio-psychiatric outpatient clinic next door to the church. The two men wrote books together, notably Faith Is the Answer: A Psychiatrist and a Pastor Discuss Your Problems (1940). The book was written in alternating chapters, with Blanton writing one chapter, then Peale. Blanton espoused no particular religious point of view in his chapters. In 1951 this clinic of psychotherapy and religion grew into the American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry, with Peale serving as president and Blanton as executive director. Blanton handled difficult psychiatric cases and Peale, who had no mental health credentials, handled religious issues.
When Peale came under heavy criticism from the mental health community for his controversial book "The Power of Positive Thinking," (1952), Blanton distanced himself from Peale and refused to publicly endorse the book. Blanton did not allow Peale to use his name in "The Power of Positive Thinking" and declined to defend Peale publicly when he came under criticism. As scholar Donald Meyer describes it: "Peale evidently imagined that he marched with Blanton in their joint labors in the Religio-psychiatric Institute. This was not exactly so." Meyer notes that Blanton's own book, "Love or Perish, (1956), "contrasted so distinctly at so many points with the Peale evangel," of "positive thinking" that these works had virtually nothing in common.
In 1935, Peale started a radio program, "The Art of Living", which lasted for 54 years. Under sponsorship of the National Council of Churches he moved into television when the new medium arrived. In the meantime he had begun to edit the magazine Guideposts and to write books. His sermons were mailed monthly. During the depression Peale teamed with James Cash Penney, founder of J.C. Penney & Co.; Arthur Godfrey, the radio and TV personality; and Thomas J. Watson, President and Founder of IBM to form the first board of 40Plus, an organization that helps unemployed managers and executives.
In 1945, Peale, his wife Ruth Stafford Peale and Raymond Thornburg, a Pawling, New York businessman, founded Guideposts magazine, a non-denominational forum for celebrities and ordinary people to relate inspirational stories. For its launch, they raised US$1,200 from Frank Gannett, founder of the Gannett newspaper chain, J. Howard Pew, a Philadelphia industrialist, and Branch Rickey, General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Peale was a prolific writer; The Power of Positive Thinking is by far his most widely read work. First published in 1952, it stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 186 consecutive weeks, and according to the publisher, Simon and Schuster, the book has sold around 5 million copies. The fact that the book has sold 5 million copies is printed on the cover of the current edition in both paperback and hard cover, and directly contradicts exaggerated claims that the book has sold more than 20 million copies in 42 languages. The publisher also contradicts the translation claim, saying the book has been translated into only 15 languages. Nearly half of the sales of the book (2.1 mil.) occurred before 1958, and by 1963, the book had still only sold 2 million copies according to Peale. Since then, the book has sold less than 3 million copies over the past 50 years. Some of his other popular works include The Art of Living, A Guide to Confident Living, The Tough-Minded Optimist, and Inspiring Messages for Daily Living.
In 1947 Peale co-founded (along with educator Kenneth Beebe) The Horatio Alger Association. This organization aims to recognize and honor Americans who have been successful in spite of difficult circumstances. Other organizations founded by Peale include the Peale Center, the Positive Thinking Foundation and Guideposts Publications, all of which aim to promote Peale's theories about positive thinking.
He was also the subject of the 1964 film One Man's Way.
Peale was politically and personally close to President Richard Nixon's family. In 1968 he officiated at the wedding of Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower. He continued calling at the White House throughout the Watergate crisis, saying "Christ didn't shy away from people in trouble."
President Ronald Reagan awarded Peale, for his contributions to the field of theology, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian honor in the United States) on March 26, 1984. He died of a stroke on December 24, 1993 at age 95 in Pawling, New York.
Peale's works came under criticism from several mental health experts, one of whom directly said Peale was a con man and a fraud. These critics appeared in the early 1950s after the publication of The Power of Positive Thinking.
One major criticism of The Power of Positive Thinking is that the book is full of anecdotes that are hard to substantiate. Almost all of the experts and many of the testimonials that Peale quotes as supporting his philosophy are unnamed, unknown and unsourced. Examples include a "famous psychologist", a two-page letter from a "practicing physician", another "famous psychologist", a "prominent citizen of New York City", and dozens, if not hundreds, more unverifiable quotations. Similar scientific studies of questionable validity are also cited. As psychiatrist R. C. Murphy exclaimed, "All this advertising is vindicated as it were, by a strict cleaving to the side of part truth," and referred to the work and the quoted material as "implausible and woodenly pious."
A second major accusation of Peale is that he attempted to conceal that his techniques for giving the reader absolute self-confidence and deliverance from suffering are a well known form of hypnosis, and that he attempts to persuade his readers to follow his beliefs through a combination of false evidence and self-hypnosis (autosuggestion), disguised by the use of terms which may sound more benign from the reader's point of view ("techniques", "formulas," "methods," "prayers," and "prescriptions."). One author called Peale's book "The Bible of American autohypnotism.".
While his techniques are not debated by psychologists, Peale said his theological practice and strategy was directed more at self-analysis, forgiveness, character development, and growth much like the Jesuits of the Catholic Church.
Psychiatrist R. C. Murphy writes "Self knowledge, in Mr. Peale's understanding is unequivocally bad: self hypnosis is good." Murphy adds that repeated hypnosis defeats an individual's self-motivation, self-knowledge, unique sense of self, sense of reality, and ability to think critically. Murphy describes Peale's understanding of the mind as inaccurate, "without depth," and his description of the workings of the mind and the unconscious as deceptively simplistic and false: "It is the very shallowness of his concept of 'person' that makes his rules appear easy ... If the unconscious of man ... can be conceptualized as a container for a small number of psychic fragments, then ideas like 'mind-drainage' follow. So does the reliance on self-hypnosis, which is the cornerstone of Mr. Peale's philosophy.'"
Psychologist Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational emotive behavior therapy and influential psychologist of the 20th century, compared the Peale techniques with those of French psychologist, hypnotherapist and pharmacist Emile Coue, and Ellis says that the repeated use of these hypnotic techniques could lead to significant mental health problems. Ellis has documented in several books the many individuals he has treated who suffered mental breakdowns from following Peale's teachings. Ellis' writings repeatedly warn the public not to follow the Peale message. Ellis contends the Peale approach is dangerous, distorted, unrealistic. He compares the black or white view of life that Peale teaches to a psychological disorder (borderline personality disorder), perhaps implying that dangerous mental habits which he sees in the disorder may be brought on by following the teaching. "In the long run [Peale's teachings] lead to failure and disillusionment, and not only boomerang back against people, but often prejudice them against effective therapy."
A third major criticism is that Peale's philosophy is based on exaggerating the fears of his readers and followers, and that this exaggerated fear inevitably leads to aggression and the destruction of those considered "negative." Peale's views are critically reviewed in a 1955 article by psychiatrist R. C. Murphy, published in The Nation, titled "Think Right: Reverend Peale's Panacea."
With saccharine terrorism, Mr. Peale refuses to allow his followers to hear, speak or see any evil. For him real human suffering does not exist; there is no such thing as murderous rage, suicidal despair, cruelty, lust, greed, mass poverty, or illiteracy. All these things he would dismiss as trivial mental processes which will evaporate if thoughts are simply turned into more cheerful channels. This attitude is so unpleasant it bears some search for its real meaning. It is clearly not a genuine denial of evil but rather a horror of it. A person turns his eyes away from human bestiality and the suffering it evokes only if he cannot stand to look at it. By doing so he affirms the evil to be absolute, he looks away only when he feels that nothing can be done about it ... The belief in pure evil, an area of experience beyond the possibility of help or redemption, is automatically a summons to action: 'evil' means 'that which must be attacked ... ' Between races for instance, this belief leads to prejudice. In child-rearing it drives parents into trying to obliterate rather than trying to nurture one or another area of the child's emerging personality ... In international relationships it leads to war. As soon as a religious authority endorses our capacity for hatred, either by refusing to recognize unpleasantness in the style of Mr Peale or in the more classical style of setting up a nice comfortable Satan to hate, it lulls our struggles for growth to a standstill ... Thus Mr Peale's book is not only inadequate for our needs but even undertakes to drown out the fragile inner voice which is the spur to inner growth.
Harvard scholar Donald Meyer would seem to agree with this assessment, presenting similar warnings of a religious nature. In his article "Confidence Man", Meyer writes, "In more classic literature, this sort of pretension to mastery has often been thought to indicate an alliance with a Lower rather than a Higher power." The mastery Peale speaks of is not the mastery of skills or tasks, but the mastery of fleeing and avoiding one's own "negative thoughts." Meyer writes this exaggerated fear inevitably leads to aggression: "Battle it is; Peale, in sublime betrayal of the aggression within his philosophy of peace, talks of 'shooting' prayers at people."
Psychologist Martin Seligman, former APA president and the founder of the branch of psychology known as "positive psychology", felt it important to differentiate Peale's Positive Thinking from his own Positive Psychology, while acknowledging their common roots.
It is important to see the difference: Is Positive Psychology just positive thinking warmed over?
Positive Psychology has a philosophical connection to positive thinking, but not an empirical one. The Arminian Heresy (discussed at length in the notes for Chapter 5) is at the foundations of Methodism, and Norman Vincent Peale's positive thinking grows out of it. Positive Psychology is also tied at its foundations to the individual freely choosing, and in this sense both endeavors have common roots.
But Positive Psychology is also different in significant ways from positive thinking, in that Positive Psychology is based on scientific accuracy while positive thinking is not, and that positive thinking could even be fatal in the wrong circumstances.
First, positive thinking is an armchair activity. Positive Psychology, on the other hand, is tied to a program of empirical and replicable scientific activity. Second, Positive Psychology does not hold a brief for positivity. There is a balance sheet, and in spite of the many advantages of positive thinking, there are times when negative thinking is to be preferred. Although there are many studies that correlate positivity with later health, longevity, sociability, and success, the balance of the evidence suggests that in some situations negative thinking leads to more accuracy. Where accuracy is tied to potentially catastrophic outcomes (for example, when an airplane pilot is deciding whether to de-ice the wings of her airplane), we should all be pessimists. With these benefits in mind, Positive Psychology aims for the optimal balance between positive and negative thinking. Third, many leaders in the Positive Psychology movement have spent decades working on the "negative" side of things. Positive Psychology is a supplement to negative psychology, not a substitute.
Seligman went on to say "Positive thinking often involves trying to believe upbeat statements such as 'Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better,' in the absence of evidence or even in the face of contrary evidence.... Learned optimism, in contrast, is about accuracy. (Ibid, page 98).
Another difference experts noted was that though Seligman describes his positive psychology as a self-empowering program completely within the ability of the individual to achieve on his or her own, experts described positive thinking as disempowering to the individual and a religion of weakness, where individuals are told by Peale they cannot overcome their negative circumstances without his autosuggestive "techniques," which he claims will give them the power of God. As Donald Meyer quotes Peale as saying, "No man, however resourceful or pugnacious, is a match for so great an adversary as a hostile world. He is at best a puny and impotent creature quite at the mercy of the cosmic and social forces in the midst of which he dwells." Meyer noted that Peale always "reacted to the image of harshness with flight rather than competitive fight," ("The Positive Thinkers." Donald Meyer. Pantheon books, 1965, p. 261), and the only solution Peale offers out of this state of helplessness are his autosuggestive "techniques," which he claims will give people the power of God. Meyer adds that the proof that positive thinking cannot work is that according to Peale, even with God's power on one's side, one still cannot face negative reality, which is always stronger.
Meyer, like Seligman, notes that such unrealistic thinking by a positive thinker could easily be fatal. "Faith that you could defeat an opponent who could run faster than you would be contemptible since it could only mean you expected God to lend you power He refused to lend your opponent or that you hoped your opponent lacked self-knowledge, lacked faith, and hence failed to use his real powers. Such faith could be fatal if it led you into competitions it would be fatal to lose. As for those competitions where luck or accident or providence might decide, certainly the faith which looked to luck or accident or providence would be contemptible, and also possibly fatal." (Ibid, p. 284)
Episcopal theologian (later bishop) John M. Krumm criticized Peale and the "heretical character" of his teaching on positive thinking. Krumm cites "the emphasis upon techniques such as the repetition of confident phrases ... or the manipulation of certain mechanical devices," which he says "gives the impression of a thoroughly depersonalized religion. Very little is said about the sovereign mind and purpose of God; much is made of the things men can say to themselves and can do to bring about their ambitions and purposes." Krumm cautions that "The predominant use of impersonal symbols for God is a serious and dangerous invitation to regard man as the center of reality and the Divine Reality as an impersonal power, the use and purpose of which is determined by the man who takes hold of it and employs it as he thinks best."
Theologian Reinhold Neibuhr, Professor of Applied Christianity, Union Theological Seminary, reported similar concerns about positive thinking. "This new cult is dangerous. Anything which corrupts the gospel hurts Christianity. And it hurts people too. It helps them to feel good while they are evading the real issues of life." ("The Case against Easy Religion," William Peters. Redbook Magazine, September 1955, pp. 22–23, 92-94).
Liston Pope, Dean of Yale Divinity School, agreed with Neibuhr. "There is nothing humble or pious in the view this cult takes of God. God becomes sort of a master psychiatrist who will help you get out of your difficulties. The formulas and the constant reiteration of such themes as "You and God can do anything" are very nearly blasphemous." (Ibid).
G. Bromley Oxnam, Bishop, Methodist Church, Washington D.C., also weighed in. "When you are told that if you follow seven easy rules you will become president of your company, you are being kidded. There just aren't that many openings. This kind of preaching is making Christianity a cult of success." (Ibid).
A. Powell Davies, pastor of All Souls' Unitarian Church, Washington D.C., added his view. "It has sort of a drug effect on people to be told they need not worry. They keep coming back for more. It keeps their minds on a superficial level and encourages emotional dependency. It is an escape from reality. People under stress do one of two things; seek shelter or respond to harsh reality by a deeper recognition of what they are up against. The people who flock to the 'peace of mind' preachers are seeking shelter. They don't want to face reality." (Ibid, p. 94)
In spite of the attacks, Peale did not resign from his church, though he repeatedly threatened that he would. He also never directly challenged or rebutted his critics. Meanwhile, his book "The Power of Positive Thinking had stopped selling by 1958,("Pitchmen in the Pulpit." Fuller, Edmond. Saturday Review, March 19, 1957, pp. 28–30 and "The Power of Positive Thinking." Peale, Norman Vincent. Fawcett Crest, 1963, pp.vii.) As Donald Meyer noted, at first
It was evident that Peale had managed to tap wide audiences formed by prolonged changes in the tone and morale of American society, for whom the coherence of Protestantism even as late as the early twentieth century was not enough. His attackers did not fall short of declaring his Protestantism non-existent. Peale survived. As he himself recounted it, he found himself stunned by the attacks. Troubled, even considering the virtues of resigning his post, he entered his season of withdrawal. There he found his answer. His father assured him he must go on. Was he not, after all, helping millions? Besides, it was unheard of in a democratic society for a man to believe his lonely critics when millions had approved. And so he returned. How to Stay Alive Your Whole Life, Peale entitled his next book; what else was George Beard's neurasthenia but a form of half-living? Finally, in consistent exemplification of the logic of the new religion, Peale proved he was right as well by publishing the testimonies of those declaring that for them positive thinking had indeed worked. There was no particular reason to doubt them.
Religious scholars, however, warned the public not to believe Peale just because he was a minister. They said the Peale message was not only factually false but also misrepresented Christianity. Reinhold Niebuhr told the public the Peale message was “a partial picture of Christianity, a sort of half-truth,” and added “The basic sin of this cult is its egocentricity. It puts ‘self’ instead of the cross at the center of the picture,” ("The Case Against Easy Religion." William Peters. Redbook, September, 1955, p. 92). Edmund Fuller, novelist, book critic, and book review editor of the Episcopal Churchnews took it a step further. “The Peale products and their like are equated blatantly with Christian teaching and preaching. They are represented as a revival or response in Christianity with which they have no valid connection. They influence, mislead and often disillusion sick, maladjusted, unhappy or ill-constructed people, obscuring for them the Christian realities. They offer easy comforts, easy solutions to problems and mysteries that sometimes perhaps, have no comforts or solutions at all, in glib, worldly terms. They offer a cheap ‘happiness’ in lieu of the joy Christianity can offer, sometimes in the midst of suffering. The panacea of positive thinking has been called by qualified people a positive hazard to the delicate marginal areas of mental health,” (“Pitchmen in the Pulpit,” Edmund Fuller. Saturday Review, March 19, 1957, p. 28-30).
Donald Meyer noted Peale's influence over his followers began when "Peale had 'discovered' the power of suggestion over the human mind, and therewith, had caught up with Henry Wood, Charles Fillmore, and Emmett Fox, sixty forty and twenty years before him. He was teaching Mental Photography all over again. Thoughts were things." (Ibid. p. 264). Meyer described Peale's religion. "Peale's aim in preaching positive thinking was not that of inducing contemplative states of Oneness nor of advancing self-insight nor of strengthening conscious will, let alone sensitizing people to their world. The clue lay here in Peale's reiterated concern that the operation of his positive thoughts and thought conditioners become 'automatic,' that the individual truly become 'conditioned....' But was the automated power of positive thinking liberty or just one more form of mind-cure hypnotism? Was this new power really health or simply further weakness disguised?" (Ibid. p. 268.) After considering all points of view, Meyer answered his own questions, and concluded positive thinking was a religion of "weakness." "Peale's phenomenal popularity represented a culture in impasse. The psychology for which the cult was also religion culminated the treatment of weakness by weakness." (Ibid., p. 258)
Peale is also remembered in politics by the Adlai Stevenson quote: "I find Saint Paul appealing and Saint Peale appalling." The origin of the quote can be traced to the 1952 election, when Stevenson was informed by a reporter that Peale had been attacking him as unfit for the presidency because he was divorced. Later during the 1956 campaign for President against Eisenhower, Stevenson was introduced for a speech with: "Gov. Stevenson, we want to make it clear you are here as a courtesy because Dr. Norman Vincent Peale has instructed us to vote for your opponent." Stevenson stepped to the podium and quipped, "Speaking as a Christian, I find the Apostle Paul appealing and the Apostle Peale appalling." In 1960 Stevenson was asked by a reporter for a comment regarding Peale attacking John F. Kennedy as unfit for the presidency because he was Catholic, to which Stevenson responded: "Yes, you can say that I find Paul appealing and Peale appalling."
Stevenson continued to lampoon Peale on the campaign trail in speeches for Kennedy. Though Nixon and the Republicans tried to distance themselves from the furor caused by Peale's anti-Catholic stance, Democrats did not let voters forget. President Truman, for one, accused Nixon of tacit approval of the anti-Catholic sentiment, and it remained a hot issue on the campaign trail. Regarding Peale's intrusion into Republican politics, Stevenson said in this transcript of a speech given in San Francisco: "Richard Nixon has tried to step aside in favor of Norman Vincent Peale (APPLAUSE, LAUGHTER) ... We can only surmise that Mr. Nixon has been reading 'The Power of Positive Thinking.' (APPLAUSE). America was not built by wishful thinking. It was built by realists, and it will not be saved by guess work and self-deception. It will only be saved by hard work and facing the facts."
At a later date, according to one report, Stevenson and Peale met, and Stevenson apologized to Peale for any personal pain his comments might have caused Peale, though he never publicly recanted the substance of his statements. There is no record of Peale apologizing to Stevenson for his attacks on Stevenson. It has been argued that even his "positive thinking" message was by implication politically conservative: "The underlying assumption of Peale's teaching was that nearly all basic problems were personal."
Peale was invited to attend a strategy conference of about thirty evangelicals in Montreux, Switzerland, by its host, the well-known evangelist Billy Graham, in mid-August 1960. There they agreed to kick off a group called The National Conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom in Washington the following month. On September 7, Peale served as its chairman and spoke for 150 Protestant clergymen, opposing the election of John F. Kennedy as president. "Faced with the election of a Catholic," Peale declared, "our culture is at stake." In a written manifesto Peale and his group also declared JFK would serve the interests of the Catholic Church before the interests of the United States: "It is inconceivable that a Roman Catholic president would not be under extreme pressure by the hierarchy of his church to accede to its policies with respect to foreign interests," and that the election of a Catholic might even end free speech in America. Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr responded "Dr. Peale and his associates ... show blind prejudice." Protestant Episcopal Bishop James Pike echoed Niebuhr: "Any argument which would rule out a Roman Catholic just because he is Roman Catholic is both bigotry and a violation of the constitutional guarantee of no religious test for public office." The Peale statement was further condemned by President Truman, the Board of Rabbis, and other leading Protestants such as Paul Tillich and John C. Bennett. Peale recanted his statements and was later fired by his own committee. As conservative William F. Buckley succinctly described the fallout: "When ... The Norman Vincent Peale Committee was organized, on the program that a vote for Kennedy was a vote to repeal the First Amendment to the Constitution, the Jesuits fired their Big Bertha, and Dr. Peale fled from the field, mortally wounded." Peale subsequently went into hiding and threatened to resign from his church. The fallout continued as Peale was condemned in a statement by one hundred religious leaders and dropped as a syndicated columnist by a dozen newspapers. After the uproar the pastor backed off from further formal partisan commitments.
The Reverend Billy Graham said at the National Council of Churches on June 12, 1966 that "I don't know of anyone who had done more for the kingdom of God than Norman and Ruth Peale or have meant any more in my life for the encouragement they have given me."
Upon hearing of Peale's death, President Bill Clinton said: "The name of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale will forever be associated with the wondrously American values of optimism and service. Dr. Peale was an optimist who believed that, whatever the antagonisms and complexities of modern life brought us, anyone could prevail by approaching life with a simple sense of faith. And he served us by instilling that optimism in every Christian and every other person who came in contact with his writings or his hopeful soul. In a productive and giving life that spanned the 20th century, Dr. Peale lifted the spirits of millions and millions of people who were nourished and sustained by his example, his teaching, and his giving. While the Clinton family and all Americans mourn his loss, there is some poetry in his passing on a day when the world celebrates the birth of Christ, an idea that was central to Dr. Peale's message and Dr. Peale's work. He will be missed".
As a child, Donald Trump attended Marble Collegiate Church with his parents, Fred and Mary. Both he and his two sisters were married there. Trump has repeatedly praised Peale and cited him as a formative influence.
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