Marcia Montenegro

The New Thought Movement: Making the Straight Ways Crooked (Part 1)

Marcia Montenegro | 31 July 2020 | 8 min read

“Thoughts are things,” “Believe it and receive it,” “Think Positive.”

Though the term is not well known today, New Thought is a movement which beliefs are growing in popularity. New Thought uses the label Christian but denies all the essentials of the historic Christian faith. The threads of New Thought, like a fine cobweb that is strong but invisible, have been cast so widely into the culture that it is crucial for Christians to be aware of and able to recognize New Thought. The first part of this article will provide an overview of the roots of this movement, and the second part will be a critical evaluation.

The Roots of New Thought

Though many helped to spread New Thought, its origins and development are often attributed to three major figures: Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), an accomplished scientist; physician hypnotist Franz Anton Mesmer (1733-1815); and Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866), who trained as a clock maker but soon became a healer after studying Mesmer’s teachings.

Emanuel Swedenborg

Although he died in the 18th century, Swedenborg’s long shadow reaches into the very nooks and crannies of twenty-first century religion, healing practices, and philosophy. Swedenborg abandoned science to listen to beings he called angels, and stated that the invisible spiritual world had more reality than the visible one.[1] Everything in the visible world had a correspondence to the invisible world, though the material world is a cruder version of the spiritual.[2] The Bible was viewed as being an esoteric book which words are symbolic of higher truths understood only by the enlightened.[3] Heaven and hell, Swedenborg declared, are states of mind.[4] Swedenborg founded the Church of the New Jerusalem, still in existence today.[5]

Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772)

Anton Mesmer

Mesmer claimed that a universal fluid, animal magnetism, could be manipulated (at first with magnets and then with his hands) to bring about healing in people.[6] Mesmer’s ministrations caused a person to fall into what were apparently hypnotic trances, which was first called mesmerism, or mesmeric sleep.[7] The verb “to mesmerize” comes from Mesmer’s name.

Anton Mesmer (1733-1815)

Phineas Quimby

Influenced by Mesmerism, Quimby came to believe that healing resulted from an inner belief.[8] After further contact with people influenced by Swedenborg and spiritualism[9], Quimby came to believe that God is humanity’s true nature, and that the source of healing is a science called Christ, or Christian Science.[10] Quimby had enormous influence on Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1920), who founded the Church known as Christian Science.

Phineas Parhurst Quimby (1802-1866)

Warren Felt Evans

A Methodist minister turned Swedenborgian, Warren Felt Evans believed that he was healed by Quimby. Thereafter, he further developed Quimby’s ideas[11] and blended them with Swedenborg’s. Evans wrote that illness results from a wrong idea in the mind, and that thinking positively would bring health.[12] Evans wanted to fuse Christianity with these beliefs, and taught that Christ is a principle, a “divine spark,” that resides in every person.[13]

Warren Felt Evans (1817-1889)

Syncretism

Syncretism between Christianity and early New Thought was a hallmark of this movement. The biblical teaching that salvation and redemption from sin comes through faith in Jesus Christ was rejected, replacing it with the view that union with what was called the “Divine Mind” would bring health and happiness. This became a central teaching of New Thought, which by the 1890’s was known by that name.[14]

Man’s problem was not sin, but rather incorrect thinking about his nature; the Bible was interpreted allegorically through the filter of  New Thought; and salvation was not related to redemption through faith in Jesus Christ, but rather was a matter of birthing a new thought or consciousness to provoke awareness of one’s innate divine nature.[15]

A basic tenet of New Thought is that man is God or a part of God, and achieves a state of “Christ consciousness” when aware of this divine nature.[16] “Christ Consciousness,” or “God Consciousness,” is a term pervasive in the New Age movement, which absorbed some New Thought beliefs, and also refers to the realization of one’s divine or Christ nature.

The Three Major New Thought Churches

New Thought did not deny God or Jesus, but redefined them, and this is seen in three major New Thought churches that exist today: the Church of Christ, Scientist (or Christian Science Church), Unity School of Christianity (now usually called Unity or Unity Church), and the Church of Religious Science.[17]

Christian Science

Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, was heavily influenced and allegedly healed by Quimby, and claimed that she was reinstating “primitive Christianity and its lost art of healing.”[18] She proposed that mind is the only reality, and that Christ healed by a spiritual influence, which she had discovered in the Scriptures.[19] Right thinking was necessary for healing, since illness resulted from an erroneous view entailing that the material world is real.[20]

Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1920)

Christian Science views the Bible as allegorical and only meaningful as interpreted by Eddy, whereas Eddy’s work titled, Science and Health, is accepted as divine and infallible.[21] God is a divine principle and is Divine Mind, and all that exists is Divine Mind; nor are God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit personal beings.[22] Jesus and Christ are separate in the sense that Jesus was a mere man, but the Christ is a principle identified with God.[23] According to Eddy death is illusory, because man is neither mortal nor material.[24] Since man is good and equated with God, there is no sin, and heaven and hell are only considered to be states of thinking.[25]

The Unity School of Christianity

The Unity School of Christianity, founded in 1889 by Charles Fillmore (1854-1948) and his wife, Myrtle, remains one of the largest offshoots of New Thought.[26] In spite of the influence of Eastern beliefs on Fillmore, and his acceptance of reincarnation, Unity perhaps maintains a stronger focus on Jesus Christ than other New Thought churches.[27] Actively promoting itself as practical Christianity, Unity freely uses biblical terms and language, thus perhaps proving to be a more subtle deception than other New Thought organizations, especially since it is not restrained by the more narrow teachings of a strong founder (such as Mary Baker Eddy in Christian Science). Unity published the Metaphysical Bible Dictionary, a guide to esoterically interpreting Biblical names, places, and events, and maintains an open prayer line at its headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri.[28]

Charles Fillmore (1854-1948)

The Unity School of Christianity teaches that:

  • God is a principle of love and goodness.
  • One must reject the false ideas based on what is perceived as reality.
  • Correct thinking will bring health, harmony, and prosperity.
  • Man’s personality disguises his true divine nature, but once man realizes this nature, he becomes Christ or “God-man,” thus attaining the higher state of Christ consciousness.
  • Jesus realized his oneness with Being (a term for God) as an example for mankind; and the Bible must not be read literally.[29]

One Unity brochure offers meditative statements such as, “O Christ, Thou Son of God, my own eternal Self,” and Unity also recommends repeating an affirmation[30] that one is Christ in order to realize the truth of this belief.[31]

Church of Religious Science

The third major New Thought church is the Church of Religious Science, founded by Ernest Holmes (1887-1960). Holmes, under the influences of transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Swedenborg, spiritism, Theosophy,[32] hypnotism, and Hinduism, held to and developed many New Thought beliefs, which he called “Science of Mind.”

Ernest Shurtleff Holmes (1887-1960)

Holmes taught that Jesus was a man who used Science of Mind principles and that there is a distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ (the latter is a state that can be realized by all). He also maintained that man is divine; sin is error or ignorance; death is an illusion; and heaven and hell are states of mind. Holmes held to the view that all religions are essentially one and teach one truth.[33]

Holmes’ contribution to New Thought (eventually incorporated by the New Age and the Word of Faith Movement[34]) was his emphasis on positive affirmations and negative confessions. This is rooted in the belief in a spiritual law that if one unites one’s mind with Divine Mind and affirms what one desires, speaking it as though it is a present reality, then it will be manifested. Since unwanted conditions are not actually real, one must affirm that which is true reality.[35]

Positive Thinking, a Fox, Oprah, and Chicken Soup

Positive Thinking

Due to its use of Christian terms and the Bible, and its claims to be Christian, New Thought has influenced many in the Christian church through admired ministers such as Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993), author of The Power Of Positive Thinking, and popular New Thought writer and Divine Science minister Emmet Fox (1886-1951).

Peale’s bestselling book, The Power of Positive Thinking, influenced many, especially in the “Human Potential movement.” Most people believe that to “think positive” merely refers to a sunny disposition or positive outlook. However, the term is based on the belief that thinking about something in a positive way can manifest it into reality. This technique is originally found in the occult, especially the practice of occult magic (sorcery).

Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993)

The bestselling video and book, The Secret, is a good example of New Thought principles.[36] Those promoting The Secret claim it is compatible with Christianity, and both the book and video frequently quote or refer to the Bible and to Jesus.

Peale and Fox further blended New Thought teachings with Christianity through misinterpretation and misapplication of biblical passages. They were both influenced by Fillmore, founder of Unity, while Peale was also influenced by Holmes, founder of the Church of Religious Science.[37]

Emmet Fox

Fox wrote the popular book, The Sermon on the Mount: The Key to Success in Life, which is sometimes sold in Christian bookstores.[38] In this book, Fox denies the existence of sin and the atonement of Jesus Christ, and declares that reality is merely the expression of inner thought.[39] Fox claims that the “Plan of Salvation,” as he calls it, taught in evangelical Christianity, “is as completely unknown to the Bible as it is to the Koran.”[40]

For Fox, man’s main purpose is “the changing of one’s consciousness,”[41] by which Fox means replacing the delusion that we are separate from God with the realization of our oneness with God, and that we are on earth to manifest and express God through creative power that is similar to God’s.[42] Fox asserts that this is what Jesus meant by “entering in at the strait gate” in Matthew 7:14.[43]

Emmet Fox (1886-1951)

In his book of devotionals, Fox writes that Jesus was concerned with “mental states, for he (Jesus) knew that if one’s mental states are right, everything else might be right, too.”[44] Fox uses familiar Christian or biblical terms that seem correct if the reader does not know what Fox means by them, and is not familiar with Fox’s true beliefs.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey, one of the most influential women in the United States[45], claims a book by Eric Butterworth (1916- 2003), a Unity minister, influenced her view of Jesus Christ.[46] In a 2008 television broadcast, Oprah said that she is a Christian but, due to Butterworth’s teachings, she came to understand that Jesus did not come to die on the cross; instead, he came to show us how to achieve “Christ Consciousness.” She said that rather than the cross, what Jesus really was about was “Christ coming here to show us how to do it – how to be – to show us the Christ consciousness that he had, and that, that Consciousness abides with all of us.”[47]

Oprah Winfrey

In his book, Discover the Power Within You, Butterworth writes that Jesus was a “great way-shower,” and that “Christ is not a person” but rather he is “a degree of potential stature that dwells in every man.”[48] He also states that “Jesus’ real mission was to bring the message of the Divinity of Man to all the world.”[49] The book is dedicated to the founders of Unity, Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, and Butterworth’s philosophy is a fitting tribute to Unity beliefs.

In light of Butterworth’s influence, it is not surprising that Oprah Winfrey heavily promoted the bestselling book and DVD, The Secret, which is essentially re-packaged New Thought philosophy. The Secret even quotes extensively from earlier New Thought pioneers.

Chicken Soup for the Soul

Almost everyone knows about the popular series, Chicken Soup for the Soul, which chief editors, Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, are New Thought proponents, though this fact is not well-known. Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul has mislead many. It contains essays from well-known Christians, Corrie Ten Boom, and Chuck Colson, as well as some other Christians. It also offers essays with New Thought or New Age outlooks. Many are unaware of Canfield’s and Hansen’s true beliefs, and may assume this series is harmless.

Now that we have established the main tenets and proponents of New Thought we will proceed with an analysis and critique of these fundamental beliefs in part 2 of this article.

Suggested Readings

Ankerberg, John & Weldon, John. Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions. Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1999.

Clark, David K & Geisler Norman L. Apologetics in the New Age: A Christian Critique of Pantheism. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1990.

Herrick, James A. The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclispse of the Western Religious Tradition. Downers Grover: InterVarsity Press, 2003.

Melton, J. Gordon, Clark, Jerome & Kelly, Aidan A. New Age Encyclopedia. 2nd. ed. Detroit: Gate Research Inc., 2001.

Steyn, Chrissie. Worldviews in Transition: An Investigation into the New Age Movement in South Africa. Pretoria: UNISA, 1994.

Zacharias, Ravi. Why Jesus: Rediscovering His Truth in an Age of Mass Marketed spirituality. New York: Faith Words Publishers, 2012.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the employees and members of Ratio Christi South Africa.


[1] J. Gordon Melton, Jerome Clark & Aidan A. Kelly, New Age Encyclopedia (Detroit: Gale Research Inc.), xxii-xxiii.

[2] Ibid., p. xxiii. Take note that this view is a form of Gnostic duality between matter and spirit. This type of duality is an important trademark of New Thought and later, the New Age movement, which adopted many New Thought ideas.

[3] John Ankerberg & John Weldon, Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers), 442.

[4] Ibid., p. 441.

[5] Ibid. Author and political activist, Helen Keller, was a member of this church.

[6] Melton, Clark & Kelly, New Age Encyclopedia, p. 287.

[7] Ibid., xxiii.

[8] Richard Kyle, The Religious Fringe: A History of Alternative Religions in America (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press), 116.

[9] Spiritualism, a developing religion of the 1800’s focused on contact with the dead. It also influenced the forerunners and early leaders of New Thought.

[10] Kyle, The Religious Fringe, p. 117.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ankerberg & Weldon, Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, p. 350, 552, 554; Kyle, The Religious Fringe, p. 118.

[14] Kyle, The Religious Fringe, p. 118.

[15] Ankerberg & Weldon, Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, p. 350-351.

[16] Ibid., p. 341, 342, 345, 349, 552.

[17] There are several New Thought offshoots but the three addressed here are the largest and most well-known in the world.

[18] Kyle, The Religious Fringe, p. 121, 123, 125.

[19] Ibid., p. 121, 123.

[20] Ibid. The view that the physical world does not have material reality is also found in nondualistic Hinduism and strongly implied in Buddhism. This view has been adopted in various forms by many New Age pioneers.

[21] Ibid., p. 124; Ankerberg & Weldon, Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, p. 106.

[22] Kyle, The Religious Fringe, p. 124.

[23] Ibid. The teaching that Christ is a principle is also found in the New Age movement to which the New Thought functioned as a tributary and forerunner. Christ is a principle (also consciousness) that Jesus the man was able to understand, attain, and teach.

[24] Kyle, The Religious Fringe, p. 124; Ankerberg, 106.

[25] Kyle, The Religious Fringe, p. 121; 123.

[26] Kyle, The Religious Fringe, p. 119. Keep in mind however, Charles Fillmore withdrew Unity from the International New Thought Alliance in 1922 due to his disagreement with some of its teachings (see Ankerberg & Weldon, Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, p. 541). Despite this, Unity still encapsulates many New Thought views and can be categorized under the broader umbrella of New Thought.

[27] Ibid.; Ankerberg & Weldon, Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, p. 546-548.

[28] Ankerberg & Weldon, Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, p. 542.

[29] Ibid., 547-552.

[30] An affirmation is a statement expressing the reality of a desire as having come to pass and which one repeats to oneself or writes down over and over, believing that doing so will manifest it into material reality. Example: “I have a two week vacation to Hawaii.” This is done whether one is saving up for a trip or not and the idea is that the belief in and expectation of having this will cause it to come about.

[31] Unity of Indianapolis flyer, (March, 1984); Ankerberg & Weldon, Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, p. 552.

[32] The Theosophical Society, founded in 1875 in New York by Madame Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891), includes certain Hindu-based beliefs combined with a belief that humanity is being guided by disembodied, enlightened “Masters” and other esoteric beliefs. Theosophy greatly influenced early thinkers of the New Age movement. For a fascinating history of Theosophy, see Peter Washington’s Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon (Peter Washinton, Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon: A History of the Mystics, Mediums and Misfits Who brought Spiritualism to America [New York: Schocken Books], 1996).

[33] Ankerberg & Weldon, Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, p. 391, 393, 402; Kyle, The Religious Fringe, p. 120, 121.

[34] With spokespersons such as Kenneth Hagin, Charles Capps, and Kenneth Copeland, the Word of Faith movement within the church emphasizes positive words and thoughts to attract health and wealth, and is often referred to as  “Name it and claim it,” the “Health and Wealth Gospel,” “Positive Confession,” or the “Prosperity Gospel.”

For further connections between this movement and New Thought (see Ankerberg & Weldon, Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, p. 547-548).

Additionally, in A Different Gospel, author D.R. McConnell presents the case that the roots of the Word of Faith and prosperity teachings can be traced back to the metaphysical New Thought cults (D.R. McConnell, A Different Gospel: A Bold and Revealing Look at the Biblical and Historical Basis of the Word of Faith Movement [Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing], 2011).

[35] Ankerberg & Weldon, Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, p. 393-395.

[36] Ibid., p. 542; Kyle, The Religious Fringe, p. 118; Melton, Clark & Kelly, New Age Encyclopedia, p. 365; Rhonda Byrne, The Secret (Hillsboro: Beyond Words Publishing, 2006).

[37] Ankerberg & Weldon, Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, p. 542.

[38] Christian author and columnist, Anne Lamott, highly recommends the works of Emmet Fox.

[39] Emmet Fox, The Sermon on the Mount: The Key to Success in Life (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1989), 4, 13, 89.

[40] Ibid., p. 4.

[41] Ibid., p. 129.

[42] Ibid., p. 158-159.

[43] Ibid., p. 128.

[44] Emmet Fox, Around the Year With Emmet Fox: A Book of Daily Readings (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992), 81.

[45] Kim Blakely, “The Most Influential Women In Media,” Forbes Magazine, July 14, 2009, available at http://www.forbes.com/2009/07/14/most-influential-women-in-media-forbes-woman-power-women-oprah-winfrey.html accessed August 13, 2010.

[46] Eric Butterworth, Discover the Power Within You: A Guide to the Unexplored Depths Within (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1989). In 2008 there appeared a 40th anniversary edition of this book.

[47] “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” of April 9, 2008.

[48] Butterworth, Discover the Power, p. 12, 137.

[49] Ibid., p. 13, 136, 193.

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