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The Occult Roots of Self-Help and Positive Thinking

I’m a sucker for esoterica. And religious trends fascinate me. So Mitch Horowitz’s latest book Occult America seemed like the perfect confluence. It didn’t disappoint. There’s more tidbits of arcana here than Hogwart’s Library. Okay, not quite that much. The author traces numerous modern-day beliefs and movements to their inception in early America. Along the way, we encounter many colorful characters from obscurity who shaped contemporary thought: Mesmerists, Freemasons, Mail-order prophets, Hoodooists, and metaphysicians. And then there’s the many hucksters who sought to capitalize on our craving for the supernatural.

“America hosted a remarkable assortment of breakaway faiths,” writes Horowitz, “from Mormonism to Seventh-day Adventism to Christian Science.” The breeding ground for this new religious climate was The Burned Over District, in Western and Central New York. (If you’ve never heard of The BOD, like me, you may be fascinated with its history.) The District became a historical hotbed for religious experimentation, from Shakers, Quakers, and Swedenborgians, to Zionists and traveling revivalists, like Charles Finney.

One of the most long-standing, recurrent ideas to come out of this era was the Mind Sciences, or what was then called The New Thought. As the 19th century closed, the fruits of modern science appeared everywhere. Technology, biology, psychology, politics, and religion were all influenced by a growing belief in a “science” of living. What transpired was an amalgamation of scientific, religious, and mystical theories. Horowitz writes:

Inspired by the possibilities, a group of religious thinkers and impresarios formed a loosely knit movement around this “scientific” religious concept. Thoughts, they argued, could be seen to manifest in actual events, such as health or sickness, wealth or poverty. They claimed Ralph Waldo Emerson as their founding prophet: “We know,” the Concord mystic wrote in 1841, “that the ancestor of every action is thought.” The Bible, in their reading, seemed to agree, particularly in the Proverb: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” In an enthused leap of reasoning, the movement that came to be known as New Thought maintained that the individual’s creative mind was one and the same as the creative force called God. As such, a person could literally think his dreams to life. It was America’s boldest — and most influential — attempt at what John B. Anderson called “a practical use of the occult powers of the soul.”

Simply put, adherents believed that the mind was the key to health and wealth. By training one’s thoughts, someone could shape their lives, relationships, and futures. Virtually nothing was withheld from the person who rightly controlled their thoughts and imaginations.

The kernel of New Thought morphed through numerous incarnations, embraced in varying degrees by mainstream ministers, spiritualists, even political socialists, all seeking to bring about various forms of personal and social change. Horowitz traces New Thought to such contemporary individuals as Dale Carnegie, Napolean Hill, and Norman Vincent Peale, who subsequently influenced many of today’s Self-Help theoreticians and Positive Confession / Word Faith adherents.  So the “science of right thinking” is an idea that continues to exert influence upon different branches of modern science and religion.

However, New Thought has faced opposition in many sectors of the 21st century church. Whereas some groups incorporate principles of the “mind sciences,” others see its embrace as “a practical use of the occult powers of the soul.”

I became a Christian during a time when there was great controversy concerning the Faith Movement — Kenneth Hagan, Kenneth Copeland, Fred Price and Robert Schuller, were all indicted. Even James Dobson made the list, as did secular psychology as a whole. They were accused of adopting a form of occultism cloaked in religious or therapeutic terminology. (The catalyst for this was Dave Hunt’s book “The Seduction of Christianity.”) Today, Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes are considered by some as the offspring of New Thought.

For some, Positive Thinking and Self-Help are antithetical to a biblical worldview. We are sinners, they say. No amount of thinking positively about our potential can change our nature. The only “help” our “selves” need is death and recreation. And then there’s the more extreme fringes of New Thought which veer into overt mysticism.

It’s a fascinating convergence of ideas, one that doesn’t seem easily parsed. I mean, who can deny that the condition of one’s mind effects the condition of their body, for good or ill. How someone thinks has definite implications upon their quality of life. Of course, the extreme would suggest that all disease or poverty is a symptom of bad thinking. Which is patently absurd. So where do we draw the line?

Anyway, I found Horowitz’s book rather fascinating. Especially this historic connection between the occult and a “science of the mind.” The question I’m left with is: Is Positive Thinking a tool of the “divine,” a key to personal growth, or is it “a practical use of the occult powers of the soul”?  

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{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Bobby April 24, 2012, 7:44 AM

    I think balance is always a good principle. Just thinking terrible things about yourself probably isn’t the answer, and neither is imagining yourself to be the most amazing thing ever. There’s positive thinking, then there’s amazement in yourself as a creation of God…suddenly, the glory is going to God, not yourself.

    Mike, what drew my attention wasn’t your last question, but the idea that the New Thought dudes qualified their, well, thoughts based on Proverbs. It’s almost like they still held the Bible to be an important measuring stick for whatever they were doing, even if they deviated from it. That’s such a massive, massive difference from today: back then everyone held the Scriptures in high esteem, even if they didn’t like them. Now, people treat the Bible like it’s little more than another myth to be looked down upon. Almost like the self-help thought stuff has evolved beyond positive thinking from back then to it’s current place as making us into gods: we stand over everything, from truth to reality.

  • Kessie April 24, 2012, 7:59 AM

    Wow, I think I need to read that book. It sounds fascinating. I remember being very young in church, and some lady was asking for prayer about some vague illness. I piped up, “Is it cancer?” And she shushed me, because speaking it would make it happen.

    I didn’t understand it at the time, and it still seems like the worst kind of superstition. It puts you into bondage and fear, because you might say the wrong word and “speak it into being”. Anything that is bondage and fear isn’t Jesus.

    Now, I do think that our thoughts have an impact on our lives. Look at what worry does to a person. Or anger, or bitterness. (There’s a study somewhere that draws links to bitter people who harbor unforgiveness and Alzheimer’s.) But the “speaking stuff into being …”

    Maybe if you’re a writer, and you’re speaking into being words on a page. 🙂

  • Jessica Thomas April 24, 2012, 11:07 AM

    I liken “positive thought” to yoga. I used to do yoga myself and enjoyed the stretching and the low impact workout, but after careful consideration, I decided yoga is incompatible with my Christian faith. At some point I asked myself, “Are Christians not allowed to enjoy the benefits of stretching?” To which I replied to myself, “Hogwash, God invented stretching.” Satan has borrowed it for his own purposes but God owns the patent!

    Same goes for “positive phinking.” God wants us to focus our minds on good things. He tells us so in plain terms. I think satan has tried to steal and twist “the power” of positive thinking for his own devious ways, but I’m here to tell him, by the power of Jesus, “You can’t have it!”

  • Josh C. April 26, 2012, 7:21 AM

    I think I’d like to read this, if for nothing else to see what is said concerning Freemasons. I’m a Freemason, my father, and uncle, and my grandfather, too. If the author knows too much about us, we shall sweep him away in the night (sarcasm). Always interested to read the theories concerning our fraternity.

  • Skadi meic Beorh April 29, 2012, 9:02 AM

    As a young teenager back in the late 1970s, I studied under hardcore martial artists. I was a Christian. One day the Holy Spirit spoke to me and told me that killing and self-defense was incompatible with what Jesus finished on the Cross. I quit immediately. But that was not the open door into Heaven for me. My life is filled with milestone cairns built, after intense warfare, with the dead bodies of unclean spirits. My latest battle? One I nearly lost. In 2003 the siren song of Carlos Castaneda beckoned, and I became a “Christian sorcerer.” A what? Yes, that’s right. I even wrote a book reconciling Castaneda with Jesus. I thank the Lord it was never published, but it almost was. It was seriously considered by a publisher who foundered and went under just after they read my ms.

    How did I escape eight long years of practicing “Christian sorcery” (which actually began with nominal interest in 1993)? God brought me a woman who both married me and found Castaneda too strange for words. So, I would be trying to explain some sorcery concept or another and she would take out her Bible, quick and powerful, able to divide asunder soul and spirit, and would, with the gentleness of a lamb, hack at Castaneda until I, too, saw, again, the Light of the World.

  • Niki August 24, 2013, 5:48 AM

    Hello, I like your article and I’ve a keen interest in this area due to the rampant pragmatic wave of Christianity that has swamped true Christianity. After watching a fair few debates with late Dr Walter Martin (on the John Ankerberg Show – think late 70’s stuff) I’m convinced that the “” word faith movement “”” has its roots in the occult somehow and keen to explore more. I do understand fully the roots of the counter reformation and the roots of the likes of Kenneth Haigee etc. On one of these debates was the Silva mind method which intrigued me as I could see at the very lower end of this where this would fit with all the power of positiveness guru’s such as Tony Robbins and the like. But it also put a question in my mind about the fat cats in the charismatic movement. Do you have further information regarding this other than this article just to head me off in the right direction. Blessings…

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