THE HEALING IDEALISM
OF P. P. QUIMBY, W. F. EVANS,
AND THE NEW THOUGHT MOVEMENT
C. Alan Anderson
Professor of Philosophy and Religion
Probably the most consciously philosophical popular movement in the life of the American nation throughout the past century is what William James called the American people's "only decidedly original contribution to the systematic philosophy of life" (James 1902, 88-89). James referred to this academically much neglected group of approaches to applying idealism in daily life as the "Mind-cure movement," and included in it both Christian Science and various non-Christian Science forms of "health mysticism." However, James emphasized the New Thought side of Mind-cure. He characterized the movement as "a deliberately optimistic scheme of life, with both a speculative and a practical side" (James 1902, 87), and the basic purpose of "the systematic cultivation of healthy-mindedness" (James 1902, 85). Particularly on its practical side it has been considered appropriately as a religion, but it is a religion rooted more in philosophical attitude and exploration than in revelation (at least if one omits Christian Science, and it largely will be omitted here, both because of its claims of revelation and because of space limitations). Sydney E. Ahlstrom deals with New Thought, Christian Science, and related outlooks, such as the positive thinking of Norman Vincent Peale, as "harmonial religion," "those forms of piety and belief in which spiritual composure, physical health, and even economic well-being are understood to flow from a person's rapport with the cosmos" (Ahlstrom 1972, 1019). Ahlstrom sees harmonial religion as
a vast and highly diffuse religious impulse that cuts across all normal lines of religious division. It often shapes the inner meaning of the church life to which people formally commit themselves. . . . Some of its motifs probably inform the religious life of most Americans. During the 1960's, moreover, one could note a steady growth in the strength of this general impulse, while closely related but more esoteric forms of religion [of occult and Eastern types having much in common with some forms of New Thought] . . . seemed to thrive even more vigorously (Ahlstrom 1972, 1020).
New Thought, which acquired its name about 1895 after being called Mental Science and other names, may well be the quintessential blend of American spirituality and practicality. As expressed in the Declaration of Principles which appears in each issue of the quarterly New Thought, the movement affirms
 the inseparable oneness of God and man, the realization of which comes through spiritual intuition, the implications of which are that man can reproduce the Divine perfection in his body, emotions, and in all his external affairs.  the freedom of each person in matters of belief.  the Good to be supreme, universal, and eternal.  that the Kingdom of Heaven is within us, that we are one with the Father, that we should love one another, and return good for evil.  that we should heal the sick through prayer, and that we should endeavor to manifest perfection "even as our Father in Heaven is perfect."  our belief in God as the Universal Wisdom, Love, Life, Truth, Power, Peace, Beauty, and Joy, "in whom we live, and have our being."  that man's mental states are carried forward into manifestation and become his experience through the Creative Law of Cause and Effect.  that the divine Nature expressing Itself through man manifests Itself as health, supply, wisdom, love, life, truth, power, peace, beauty, and joy. [9, this omitted from the paper, since it was omitted inadvertently from International New Thought Alliance publications for years] that man is an invisible spiritual dweller within a human body, continuing and unfolding as a spiritual being beyond the change called physical death.  that the universe is the body of God, spiritual in essence, governed by God through laws which are spiritual in reality even when material in appearance.
James saw as sources (1) the four Gospels, (2) Emersonianism, (3) Berkeleyan idealism, (4) "Spiritism, with its message of 'law' and 'progress' and 'development,'" (5) "optimistic popular science evolutionism," (6) Hinduism, and especially (7) the intuitive belief of the movement's leaders in "the all-saving power of healthy-minded attitudes" (James 1902, 87-88). Other writers have added Neoplatonism (Riley, 1915, 49) and Spinozism (Atkins 1923, 215-17) to the list. Except perhaps for James's last source, all this misses the most impressive immediate origin, the work of a self-educated Yankee genius, Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866), and his followers.
Quimby, who lived almost all of his life in Maine, was a clockmaker, daguerreotypist, and inventor who obtained patents on a lock, chain saw, and steering gear for ships. But his most important contributions followed his investigation of mesmerism and the interpretations of it given by several of its practitioners, who might be called America's pre-Socratic philosophers. With apparently little knowledge of philosophy, they boldly ventured into new worlds of experience and speculation, attempting to explain reality as seen in the light of their hypnotic feats. Largely following an old esoteric tradition, they taught the existence of an invisible, magnetic, electric fluid connecting the mesmeric operator with his receptive subject. As a result of his experimentation with mesmerism in the late 1830's and 1840's, Quimby concluded that there was no mesmeric fluid, but that one mind acts directly on another. In an unpublished manuscript of this period, Quimby observed, "The fluid which really exists, is in the mind of the operator, being like Berkeley's [sic] composition of matter, made up of ideas, impressions &c." One might suppose that Quimby, who wrote that in the mesmeric state "the bodily senses cease to act--impressions are now conveyed directly to the mind--all space + time, in this state, is annihilated," discovered a kindred soul in Berkeley. However, this was not the case. Quimby briefly referred to Berkeley at this time, as he did to others, including Epicurus, Lucretius, Plato, and Hume, but Quimby did not attempt to work out a thoroughgoing conventional idealism, perhaps because he was drawing on common sense realism as discovered in reading Thomas C. Upham of relatively nearby Bowdoin College. The extent to which Quimby wrote of philosophers, especially Upham, has been unknown or ignored by previous writers on Quimby. Nevertheless, although one can point to these and such other conceivable influences as Swedenborg, mesmerist John Bovee Dods, and "the Poughkeepsie seer," Andrew Jackson Davis, consideration of Quimby's own experiences and reflections on them essentially justifies the claim that Quimby "was not in any sense a borrower, after he took up the theory of mesmerism and found how meagre was the supposed science, and branched out into the field of his own investigations." Neither Quimby nor his early followers until the 1880's appeared to take note of Emerson.
In exploring mesmerism Quimby discovered most remarkable phenomena, including the extrasensory perception of his mesmerized assistant. As Quimby's experimentation with mental powers progressed, he discovered that without the aid of mesmerism his mind could operate beyond conventionally accepted boundaries and that he could help others to make contact with divine Wisdom, which would correct the human errors which he held to be the sources of illness. He maintained that the explanation or the Truth is the cure. No longer was he concerned simple with the influence of one human mind on another; he had discovered the central importance of allowing the divine mind to express itself in one's life. There is a deeper level of selfhood, one's true self, which can rise above bodily appearances and enable healing to take place. In his ultimate Science of Health and Happiness, as he called his outlook, Quimby considered matter, in the words of his leading expositor, "plastic to thought; it is that in which, on the one hand, the thought of God takes shape, and, on the other, the embodiment of human belief," which often impresses sickness on the body. Quimby used more confusing, less clearly philosophical, terminology in his at least implied idealism of healing than he did in his early lecture notes. Quimby died without publishing his manuscripts, and many of them remain unpublished, but some of his Portland patients carried on his work in divergent ways.
If the pioneering, persistently questioning, often condemned Quimby was the Socrates of the New Thought movement, Warren Felt Evans (1817-1889) was its Plato. By the time that Evans finished publishing, from 1869 to 1886, his six books (one of which appeared in five languages) on mind and healing, New Thought scarcely could help being "a series of footnotes" to Evans. Evans studied at Middlebury and Dartmouth, became a Methodist minister and later a Swedenborgian lay leader, was healed with the aid of Quimby, became a healer in Boston and Salisbury, Massachusetts, and received a medical degree from an eclectic medical school the identity of which has not been discovered.
After first taking a more Swedenborgian approach, Evans came to see his work as "an attempt to construct a theoretical and practical system of phrenopathy, or mental-cure, on the basis of the idealistic philosophy of Berkeley, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel" (Evans 1881, 9). Evans called one of his chapters "The Creative Power of Thought, or Hegel's Philosophy as a Medicine." Evans referred to his philosophy as a Christian Pantheism "which does not destroy the individuality of man, nor separate God from the universe which he continually creates out of Himself, nor sunder Him from the activities of the human soul by the intervention of second causes." This pantheism or panentheism, as he might have called if the term had been available to him, foreshadowed current process philosophy in various ways, including emphasis on God interpreted in accordance with his loving relationship with us, the primacy of feelings, and divine-human partnership in the ongoing process of creativity. Some of Evans' observations relevant to process thought, as well as to New Thought, are:
Creation is not now an accomplished event. It is not a thing done, but one that is in the process of being done. The divine idea is not yet fully realized or actualized. The world is an unfinished picture. As the Platonists would say, it is in a state of becoming. The divine idea, the universal divine life, a mysterious power of order and arrangement, is at the very centre and heart of things, struggling to work itself out into a complete material expression. Universal nature is moved from within by the Universal Mind, of which our minds are a part (Evans 1885, 124).
If life is love, then all the physiological processes must be modified by our affectional states. . . . The life of God is love. His love is an infinite desire to impart his own good to others (Evans 1869, 216).
By the power of silent thought, which in its nature is a tacit speech, we can deposit in the fruitful soil of the unconscious mind of an invalid the living germ of a better condition. . . . The Spiritual nature of man acting through the will and imagination, and determined to a definite aim by love and faith, is the most real force in the universe, for thoughts are not "trifles light as air," but are substance and divinely living things (Evans 1885, 85).
Desire alone is powerless; and thought alone is lifeless and inefficient. They must be combined in a harmonious unity (Evans 1885, 135).
[If] the inmost soul of man is the outcome or offspring, or offshoot, of the Universal Soul, and is a manifestation under finite limitations of the first creative Principle . . . then the inner nature of man must of necessity share in a degree the attributes of the world-creating Power. It is made in the image of God, and so far is God. . . . Just so far as we know God, we become God, and so far is God. . . . Just so far as we know God, we become God, and can to the same extent do divine works. . . . As all matter exists only in mind, it follows that all modifications of the mind effect changes in that appearance which we call matter. . . . The body is but a part of the external world, and both are to us what we think and believe them to be (Evans 1885, 94-95).
Evans's reference to matter as an appearance, and he even calls it "an illusion or deceptive appearance that is perceptually changing with our ever-varying mental states," points up the chief philosophical contrast between New Thought and the Christian Science established by another former Quimby patient, Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910). In New Thought matter is recognized as an appearance of spirit, or one way in which God makes himself known, even if sometimes so unclearly as to invite the term illusion; yet it is never altogether unreal. In Christian Science matter is considered utterly unreal, the erroneous product of mortal mind, which itself is unreal. Thus New Thought has a form of idealism, while Christian Science, although asserting the allness of God, is left with an almost Zoroastrian dualism of God and the powerful nonentity that is mortal mind.
As Borden Parker Bowne observed with regard to Christian Science, it is experimentation, rather than metaphysical speculation, that will determine the truth of claims of fact. However, metaphysics can be helpful in encouraging or discouraging the needed experimentation. To conceive of the possibility of an occurrence is a step toward bringing it about. That the direct application of thought and feeling to change material conditions beyond customarily controlled voluntary bodily motions seems strange is partly a tribute to long-prevalent metaphysical convictions as to the limits of mental power. Perhaps only now are we entering a sufficiently open-minded period to begin to assess New Thought adequately. This is thanks in part to scientific progress in psychosomatic medicine and parapsychology, to new philosophical interest in such fields as medicine, genetics, and psychology, to ecologically-stimulated concern over the status of nature, and to the popularity of various Oriental and occult theories and meditative practices, most of the essentials of which have been found in New Thought for many years. With widespread awareness of exotic sources of teachings like those of New Thought, it is all the more appropriate that we recognize the American contributions. Moreover, New Thought is especially deserving of attention and emulation because of its, especially Evans's, attempt to put its concerns into the fullest metaphysical perspective.
References. Several references contained in the original footnotes are omitted here, largely because they do not lend themselves to presentation in the form of citation used here. The paper, with full references, is available in the publications listed after the references and as appendix J of Healing Hypotheses.
Ahlstrom, Sydney E. 1972. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Atkins, Gaius Glenn. 1923. Modern Religious Cults and Movements. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company.
Evans, W. F. 1869. The Mental-Cure. Boston: H. H. & T. W. Carter.
-----. 1881. The Divine Law of Cure H. H. Carter & Co.
-----. 1885. The Primitive Mind-Cure H. H. Carter & Co. James, William. 1902. The Varieties of Religious Experience, Mentor edition.
Riley, Woodbridge. 1915. American Thought: From Puritanism to Pragmatism. New York: Henry Holt and Co.
From: Philosophy in the Life of a Nation: Papers Contributed to the Bicentennial Symposium of Philosophy, New York: Bicentennial Symposium of Philosophy, City University of New York Graduate Center, 1976, pp. 279-283; reprinted in The Journal of the Academy of Religion and Psychical Research, II, January, 1979, 25-30. This may well have been the only academic recognition of New Thought in connection with the Bicentennial of the United States.
[Republished here through the courtesy of Anderson-Whitehouse Process New Thought.]