A New Thought Centennial

Events of a century ago which helped mold
the New Thought movement of today


Assistant Professor, Babson Institute
Babson Park, Massachusetts

SOME events of 1866 are so important to New Thought that they are worthy of special attention a century later. As nearly as they can be placed in chronological order, they are (1) the birth of Horatio Willis Dresser (died 1954) on January 15, (2) the death of Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (born 1802) the next day, (3) the reaction of Mary Baker (then Patterson) Eddy (1821-1910) to happenings of this time, (4) the decision of Julius Alphonso Dresser (1838-93) not to attempt to carry on Quimby’s work then, and (5) the activities of Warren Felt Evans (1817-89) about this time.1 Except for the first and last of these, they are dealt with in the order in which they are listed. Since Horatio Dresser’s work is nearest the present time and in its intellectual emphasis is particularly relevant to the future of New Thought, his contributions are considered at the end of the article. Information about Evans is at several points here, as it does not lend itself to treatment exclusively in connection with any one occasion.

These five occurrences, or one or more of them, can be taken either as the starting point of the New Thought movement or simply as happenings of such importance that without them New Thought history might have been much different from what it was. Perhaps it matters little which interpretation should be adopted, since it is what happened, rather than labels which may be attached, that is of primary importance. But part of the significance of the events lies in their qualifications for being considered the beginning of the New Thought movement, so this topic will be dealt with briefly.

It is generally recognized that although the basic ideas of New Thought are ancient, the modern movement of that name grew out of the work of Quimby, the remarkable self-taught healer who first investigated and practiced mesmerism, grew out of it, practiced healing in Maine, and developed an idealistic philosophy largely out of his experiences. But a man is not a movement, and there arises the problem of determining the point at which the movement itself began.

The International New Thought Alliance, which held its Golden Anniversary Congress only months ago, was instituted in 1914; but it developed out of the National New Thought Alliance, which was established in 1908; and this emerged from the International Metaphysical League, which was founded in 1899. As early as 1892 there were conventions which represented substantial parts of what was to be known as New Thought. If one wished to emphasize formal organization, one of these dates could be selected. But New Thought always has been concerned more with ideas than with organization.

If the name of New Thought were the decisive factor, a date in the mid-1890’s would be chosen for the beginning, since it was then that the term became current. However, the thought and practice to which it referred had been known for more than a decade before that time as Mental Science. This pushes the start back as far as the 1880’s. If a sizable number of followers of the movement were to be the criterion, probably one would have to stop at this point. But the first book in the New Thought tradition, The Mental-Cure by Evans, was published in 1869, while the beginning of his healing practice, perhaps as early as 1863, overlapped that of Quimby.

Evans was only one of many patients with whom Quimby shared his ideas while practicing, especially during the period of his work in Portland from 1859 to 1865. Perhaps the inception of the New Thought movement came when Quimby made his, first converts to his theories, or when Evans first tried applying them to help others. Julius Dresser and his future wife, Annetta G. Seabury (1843-1935), were Quimby patients who helped to explain Quimby’s ideas to other patients, one of whom was Mary Baker Eddy. But it seems that during Quimby’s lifetime only Evans attempted to venture forth independently in Quimby’s method of healing, and Evans, a Methodist minister before leaving that church in 1864 because of its lack of sympathy with his attachment to the views of Swedenborg, apparently was more interested at this time in spreading Swedenborgianism than in what came to be New Thought. So it seems doubtful that one ought to speak of the New Thought movement, even without a name, as existing before the death of Quimby. Even without the other events of 1866, the passing of Quimby could serve as a point of division between the period of his work and the later period in which various others attempted to duplicate such healings as he had helped to bring about and to find satisfactory explanations for these seeming miracles.

WHILE Quimby welcomed the interest of people in his views, encouraged Evans and perhaps others to practice in accordance with them, and wrote out many of his ideas in manuscripts which others copied and circulated among his patients, he failed to publish a projected book which would have made his science of health and happiness more widely available. From the standpoint of today, the great fact about his death is that it came before he accomplished this publication.2 In the half century that followed, his writings had some limited circulation, partly by the publication of relatively brief excerpts, but it was not until 1921 that many of them were published in The Quimby Manuscripts; before that time there was controversy about their existence, authenticity, and status as a source of later theories. Presumably that trouble would have been eliminated and the whole course of New Thought history would have been simplified greatly if Quimby had published a book. One cannot well say whether such a book would have been very much like The Quimby Manuscripts. If he had received the help of Evans or some other academically trained person in its preparation, Quimby might have eliminated much of his own terminology and made his thought more easily understood, but perhaps less rich in meaning. Even if Quimby had not published anything but had lived several years longer, and if Evans had written when he did, comments by Quimby on writings of Evans might have produced nearly the same results as a book by Quimby. It seems entirely likely that Evans would have written irrespective of Quimby’s presence, since Evans was not deterred from taking some steps into the practice of healing during Quimby’s lifetime, and writing on the subject scarcely would have been more daring than practice.

Although one must view Quimby’s death without published writings and without an appointed successor as a misfortune in various ways, this state of affairs may have been a blessing in the very long run. If the quietly imposing figure of Quimby had remained, some others might not have undertaken to develop their own views about healing, and the alternative theories which are open for consideration might not have come forth, or at least not so clearly and relatively soon as they did. Also, some people might have raised a church around him and his writings, much as he would have disliked it. As it is, New Thought has remained remarkably free from hero worship and is open to truth from any source.

Since Quimby did not provide the general public with a book, the development of New Thought’s metaphysical idealism had to come by way of other writers. The degree of their indebtedness to Quimby is a matter which cannot be explored here, and for purposes of tracing the later 19th century development of New Thought it does not matter. The two major sources of theory, at least during the first two decades after Quimby’s death, were Evans and Mrs. Eddy.

The thought of Evans will be considered after that of Mrs. Eddy, but since not much is known about the activities of Evans around 1866, so they cannot be given an exact chronological position, it seems just as well to introduce the question of these activities and their importance at this point. It has been suggested that it was “about the year 1867”3 that Evans opened an office for practice in Boston. It was in this year that Evans and his wife joined the Swedenborgian church on Bowdoin Street, Boston, after having been members “at large” of the denomination before that time. Years later a man who was an associate pastor there in 1867 believed that Evans had an office in Boston at that time.4 If he did not join the church promptly, perhaps it was as early as 1866 that he opened this Boston office. Assuming that he did open it somewhere around this time, this certainly was an event which deserves consideration in deciding whether the New Thought movement began in or around 1866.

WHILE many must have felt a great loss in Quimby’s passing, it is doubtful that any outside his family could have felt it much more sharply than did Mary Baker Eddy. She expressed her praise of Quimby in a poem, “Lines on the death of Dr. P. P. Quimby, who healed with the truth that Christ taught, in contradistinction to all isms,”5 which was published in a Lynn, Massachusetts, newspaper. Half a month after Quimby’s death, she had occasion to miss him all the more out of a great sense of need, for on February 1, in Lynn, she suffered her famous fall on the ice. According to Christian Science history, three days later, while reading in the Bible of a healing performed by Jesus, she received the healing of her injury and a revelation of the nature of God. Without entering into any question of the accuracy of this, it can be said that what is important here is what she did after this time. Christian Scientists say that it took her a long time to appreciate her revelation fully, so one can note what happened later in February without judging its immediate antecedents. About the middle of the month, perhaps not knowing of Evans, Mrs. Eddy wrote to Julius Dresser appealing to him to take up the work of Quimby and to help with her illness. The new father of Horatio Dresser replied in part:

As to turning doctor myself, and undertaking to fill Dr. Quimby’s place and carry on his work, it is not to be thought of for a minute. Can an infant do a strong man’s work? Nor would I if I could. Dr. Quimby gave himself away to his patients. To be sure he did a great work, but what will it avail in fifty years from now, if his theory does not come out, and if he and his ideas pass among the things that were, to be forgotten? He did work some change in the minds of the people, which will grow with the development and progress in the world. He helped to make them progress. They will progress faster for his having lived and done his work. So with Jesus. He had an effect that was lasting and still exists. He did not succeed nor has Dr. Quimby succeeded in establishing the science he aimed to do. The true way to establish it is, as I look at it, to lecture and by a paper and make that the means, rather more than the curing, to introduce the truth. To be sure faith without works is dead, but Dr. Quimby’s work killed him, whereas, if he had spared himself from his curing, and given himself partly and as considerately, to getting out his theory, he would then have, at least, come nearer success in this great aim than he did.6

It was said, perhaps on the authority of Horatio Dresser:

The death of Quimby was a great shock to Mr. and Mrs. Dresser. It was generally expected by Quimby’s followers that Mr. Dresser would take up the work as Quimby’s successor. Mrs. Dresser hesitated to attempt it publicly, knowing her own and her husband’s sensitiveness, and after consideration they decided not to undertake it at that time.7

The elder Dresser then was doing newspaper work in Portland, possibly with the thought that this might help to provide an avenue through which he ultimately could spread word of Quimby’s ideas and accomplishments. However, he went to the West Coast later and did not return and enter into teaching and practicing along Quimby lines until after Mrs. Eddy had established her Christian Science. Had he taken up Quimby’s task in 1866, Mrs. Eddy might have been satisfied with his efforts and not developed her own system of healing.

As to the ideas which Mrs. Eddy put forth, most notably in Science and Health, published in 1875, she basically maintained that God is all, so matter is nonexistent. This she believed to be the case because she held that matter is of a nature contrary to that of God, who is spirit. She assumed that spirit cannot have manifestations which have the qualities of matter. Since there is at least the appearance of matter and all the evil which she associated with it, Mrs. Eddy attempted to explain this by saying that all this false appearance is produced by mortal mind, which she considered unreal itself. However, critics of her views observe that this still leaves an omnipotent God with responsibility for the appearance of mortal mind and its evils. Since she believed God to be good, and she denied his responsibility for evil, she was left with a dualism of God and mortal mind, both of which are powerful, so in some sense real.

Whatever one’s estimate of Mrs. Eddy may be, it should be recognized that unwittingly she was an important and perhaps necessary contributor to the process by which New Thought developed. She provided the spark which ignited widespread public interest in spiritual healing and in philosophical explanations of it after the time of Quimby,8 and it may be that Evans and others would not have had their attention called so effectively to the possibilities of metaphysical idealism in the explanation of healing if she had not developed her distinctive form of it, perhaps a misconception of more traditional idealism. However, the extent of any influence which she, or reaction to her, may have had on Evans is problematical, for his thought kept changing gradually throughout his life, and he might well have turned increasingly to leading Eastern and Western idealists without any influence from Mrs. Eddy. Moreover, he wrote in 1881, “Reid’s attempt to refute Berkeley made me a convert to idealism more than two score years ago.”9

AN alternative philosophical position, which seems to be the one most widely held in New Thought, was provided by Evans. He arrived at a position which he called Christian Pantheism. This maintained, as did Mrs. Eddy’s philosophy, that God is all; however, the more orthodox idealism of Evans denied that this meant that matter was nonexistent. Instead, he said that matter is part of God. The phenomenon which we call matter is illusory to the extent that we take it to be real in itself apart from any deeper reality, but it is the appearance by which we apprehend one aspect of God. This is about the same position as that given in the 1957 INTA declaration of belief 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.”

Not only did Evans affirm that matter, understood as the substance underlying the appearance of matter, is real and a part of God, but he took a step which has not yet been appreciated fully. He did not say that matter is just something which God might choose to have or not to have, or that it is something that comes and goes. He said that spirit and matter, as aspects of the divine substance, in contrast with the phenomenon called matter, are “co-eternal and co-extensive, and equally divine. Like the two forces of the magnet, the positive and the negative, each implies the other, and neither can exist without the other.”10 He did not claim originality, but worked ancient and modern learning into his system in a synthesis which was his own. Some of these finer points of his philosophy may not have been needed in establishing the basic New Thought teachings, but they deserve attention now, as will be seen below.

THE last of the men to be considered here is Horatio W. Dresser. He directly and indirectly contributed much to New Thought in his writing of thirty-one books published from 1895 to 1933, editing of a few other books and periodicals, and writing of many articles published in various magazines including Unity and The Nautilus. His books included technical works in philosophy and psychology, but most of his writing was on topics of great interest to New Thought even when he was not directly in New Thought, if lines can be drawn well enough to tell when this was. Around the turn of the century he was classified as one of the highly popular New Thought writers.11 He helped with organizational work for New Thought near the close of the century, but soon chose to consider himself independent, and later served the Swedenborgian church with preaching and writing. He did some college teaching, served in France with the YMCA during World War I, and later was active in a pioneering clinic of religion and medicine. As with Quimby and Evans, he was mystically and psychically gifted; but he always sought to maintain a proper balance between these abilities and his power of reason. He earned a Harvard Ph.D. degree in philosophy, and much of his contribution to New Thought was in the form of friendly intellectual criticism.

After an early practical acceptance of pantheism, although he did not call it that, he tended to emphasize a more Swedenborgian separation of God and man. However, he continued to teach the availability of God in the life of everyone. While Dresser rejected some of the ideas of Evans, he provided what may be taken as complementary to the Evans idea of God as spirit and matter. This was Dresser’s linking of permanence and change. He granted that there must be “immutability of some sort,” but maintained that this “need not be immutability in the absolute sense.”12 He said that “the permanent would be as incomplete without the transient as the latter without the former,” and that “the permanent is in the transient, and the transient is in the permanent.”13 When one combines these lines of thought, which of course are only small parts of all that Evans and Dresser had to say, it may be found that New Thought long has had at least some germs of a variety of thought which now is receiving attention in connection with such terms as panentheism, a dipolar view of God, and process philosophy, in association with such prominent names as Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne.14

Obviously such matters deserve much more attention than they can be given here. They also deserve more than New Thought has given to them in the past. For New Thought to determine its relationship to them would do much to fulfill the expectations of William James for New Thought, or mind-cure, as he preferred to call it, when he wrote near the start of this century.15

James called mind-cure the American people’s “only decidedly original contribution to the systematic philosophy of life,” and observed that it was appropriate to this people’s practical character that the philosophy “should be so intimately knit up with concrete therapeutics.” He said that the movement’s spread “has been due to practical fruits,” and noted that some of its literature was “so moon-struck with optimism and so vaguely expressed that an academically trained intellect finds it almost impossible to read it at all.” Of greatest interest now, he predicted that mind-cure was “evidently bound to develop still farther, both speculatively and practically.” He added that its then latest writers, Dresser and Henry Wood, “especially the former,” were “far and away the ablest of the group.”

WHILE New Thought has had various able writers since that time, it scarcely seems that the speculative side of New Thought has advanced as much as might be reasonable for a period of more than six decades. In the present world the most practical need of New Thought may be for that speculation which can provide an understanding of its foundations in terms which are most relevant to the current intellectual scene. This is necessary for the mutual comprehension of New Thought and the world which it seeks to help.

Dresser pointed the way for our time when in 1898 he undertook to begin writing a series of magazine articles on “The Relation of the New Thought to Exact Philosophy.” That inquiry will not be finished while New Thought and philosophical speculation continue. New Thought has no commitment to orthodoxy, so has nothing to fear in examining any thought, whether the latest or the most ancient If there are more adequate formulations of truth than those traditionally employed in New Thought, they should be used. If the old statements are better than the new, this should be shown. In either case, new explorations are needed.

Personal experience will remain basic, and presumably at least for the near future will remain unchanging with regard to its types; but the interpretation of it, which—as Dresser emphasized—produces knowledge, may be improved. This should enable more people to find more of the most significant experiences of life, and, to the extent that experiences are shaped by the holding of theories about them, even the quality of the experiences referred to by knowledge may be improved. Moreover, new knowledge will give rise to the experience of new satisfaction. In the words of the man whose birth accompanied that of the New Thought movement:

Nothing can take the place of that personal sense of the divine presence which makes Him in very truth our God. To behold is far more satisfying than to theorise. Yet, so rich is our life with Him that there is a part of our nature unsatisfied unless we also philosophically grasp what we have spiritually perceived. The idea of God is far inferior to the love of God; the life surpasses the doctrine. But more deeply to know is more truly to live.16

1. Some works which provide more background information on New Thought than can be given here are:

Horatio W. Dresser, A History of the New Thought Movement (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1919, out of print);
H. W. Dresser (ed.), The Quimby Manuscripts, currently published with an introduction by Ervin Scale (New York: The Julian Press, Inc., 1961, $8.00);
Charles S. Braden, Spirits in Rebellion (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1963, $7.50);
C. Alan Anderson, “Horatio W. Dresser and the Philosophy of New Thought” (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Boston University Dept. of Philosophy, 1963, available as No. 64-389 from University Microfilms, Inc., Ann Arbor, Mich., microfilm copy $4.70, Xerographic paperbound copy $16.65, plus postage).

2. A more positive fact about his death is that an hour before his passing he told his family: “I am more than ever convinced of the truth of my theory. I am perfectly willing for the change myself, but I know you will all feel badly; but I know that I shall be right here with you, just the same as I have always been. I do not dread the change any more than if I were going on a trip to Philadelphia.” This is from an article by his son, George Quimby, in the March, 1888, New England Magazine, quoted by Dresser in Health and the Inner Life (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907), p. 46.

3. William J. Leonard, “Warren Felt Evans, M.D.,” Practical Ideals X (November, 1905), 19. This article says that it was in Claremont, New Hampshire, that he had his “first triumphs as a practitioner, and here he gathered the material” for The Mental-Cure. (p. 16) That book’s preface is dated at Claremont on February 22, 1869; his custom, at least during the latter part of the time that he practiced in Boston, was to spend the winter and spring in the city. The preface of his next book, Mental Medicine, is dated at 3 Beacon Street, Boston, October 12, 1872.

4. Ibid., p. 19n. In the Swedenborgian church Evans was licensed as a lay leader for five years, but did not ask to have his license renewed when it expired in 1869; see Anderson, op. cit., p. 294.

5. The Quimby Manuscripts, present edition, p. 160; first edition, pp. 163-64.

6. Ernest Sutherland Bates and John V. Dittemore, Mary Baker Eddy: The Truth and the Tradition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1932) p. 110.

7. Georgine Milmine, The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1909), p. 79n.

8. Dresser suggested that her “more radical and less reasonable statement of the principles underlying the new therapeutism” may have been needed to produce enough contrast with materialism and to provoke controversy to which the general public was likely to respond. A History of the New Thought Movement, p. 127.

9. The Divine Law of Cure (Boston: H. H. Carter & Co., 1881), p. 154. This may well refer to the time when he was attending Middlebury College, 1837-38, or Dartmouth College, 1838-40.

10. W. F. Evans, Esoteric Christianity and Mental Therapeutics (Boston: H. H. Carter & Karrick, 1886), p. 62.

11. Paul Tyner, “The Metaphysical Movement,” The American Monthly Review of Reviews, XXV (March, 1902), 314, refers to him as one of “the ‘New Thought’ writers whose vogue rivals that of the popular novelist.” Charles Reynolds Brown, Faith and health (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1910), p. 149, refers to “the immense popularity of such books as Ralph Waldo Trine’s ‘In Tune with the Infinite’ and Annie Payson Call’s ‘Power Through Repose’ and Dresser’s ‘The Power of Silence’ and Charles Brodie Patterson’s ‘The Will to be Well.’ ”

12. Dresser, Man and the Divine Order (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1903), p. 409.

13. Ibid.

14. After these observations were written, the Autumn, 1965, issue of Religion in Life appeared with some articles of interest to New Thought students who wish to become better acquainted with the current state of theology in America. “A Contemporary Trend in North American Theology: Process-Thought and Christian Faith” by Norman Pittenger and “A Look at Contemporary American Theology” by Gene Reeves are particularly relevant. Especially in the Pittenger article one will find indications of the closeness of some New Thought teachings to process theology. The issue also includes an article by G. Norman Eddy on the I AM group, “An Esoteric Religion.”

15. The James quotations in this article are from The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Modern Library edition, no date), p. 94. At p. 105 he refers to Christian Science as a branch of mind-cure, but it seems clear that at p. 94. he is referring to New Thought. At p. 92 he notes “New Thought” as another name for the “Mind-cure movement.” He may well have been using both “mind-cure” and “New Thought” in the sense in which “the metaphysical movement” is used to refer to both New Thought and Christian Science. At any rate, in relation to mind-cure he gave most of his attention to writers associated with New Thought, rather than Christian Science. Probably he was so much more concerned with their similarities than with their differences that he saw little need of distinguishing one from the other, although at p. 105 he does call attention to the distinctive position of Christian Science on evil. If some words of J. R. Moseley in Manifest Victory: A Quest and a Testimony (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941), p. 38, exactly quote James, at some point he apparently did not consider either “New Thought” or “Christian Science” broad enough to include both. Moseley mentioned listening to James at Harvard before James went abroad to deliver the 1901-1902 Gifford Lectures, which became The Varieties of Religious Experience; this may imply that what he went on to attribute to James was given orally. Moseley continued, “I came to know something of the whole movement designated as New Thought, which James said constituted, together with Christian Science, a spiritual movement as significant for our day as the Reformation was for its time.”

16. Man and the Divine Order, p. 416.

[Originally published in New Thought Quarterly, XLVIII (Winter, 1966). Republished here through the courtesy of Anderson-Whitehouse Process New Thought.]