Obituary: The Rev Norman Vincent Peale

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The Independent Online
Norman Vincent Peale, minister of the church: born Bowersville, Ohio 31 May 1898; married 1929 Ruth Stafford (one son, two daughters); died Pawling, New York 24 December 1993.

NORMAN VINCENT PEALE was one of the most influential figures in modern American Protestantism: a populist who brought the New Thought to millions of mainstream, middle-class believers, a secularising wolf whose evangelical Christian clothing helped smooth the path of the American divinity from rural farmstead to corporate boardroom.

His ability to contain within his person an ultra-liberal immanentist theology with hard-right political conservatism made him particularly attractive to Republicans like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan who needed evangelical votes without the encumbrance of fundamentalist intellectual baggage or the embarrassment of Christian teachings on poverty. Through The Power of Positive Thinking - the most famous of his many books - Peale managed to square the theological circle as neatly as any Trinitarian doctrine, by grafting the individualistic narcissism of the consumer society on to the traditional Calvinist puritanism of small-town America.

Peale was born in Bowersville, Ohio, in 1898, the son of a doctor turned Methodist minister. After graduating from Boston University school of theology he made his mark at the University Road Methodist Church in Syracuse, New York, where he attracted worshippers with giant billboards extolling such assets as the 'Greatest Choir in the Empire State'. Alert to the possibilities of new communications technology, he was among the first preachers to have his services carried by local radio stations. In line with his Wesleyan background, he emphasised the personal side of the relationship between the individual believer and Jesus Christ; but he injected into this traditional discourse ideas of a very different provenance. The New Thought popularised by Emmet Fox and Peale carried forward many of the ideas associated with the 19th-century 'harmonial religion' of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Phineas Quimby, the teacher of Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science.

This brand of mysticism, long in vogue in Boston, predicates an essentially friendly universe, in which the individual is infused with the divine energy flowing through the cosmos. The human mind is assumed to be the supreme channel for this energy, with its powerful healing and creative forces. Implicit in the New Thought is the view that religious belief as such should be pragmatic, in tune with the culture of the age and consonant with scientific laws. The supernatural, whose eruptions feature so largely in fundamenta1ist discourse, is virtually absent, along with any explicit doctrine of redemption and the acceptance of the enduring reality of sin in the world. Sin, like sickness, is assumed to be transitory. created by blockages caused by fear or bad parenting.

In 1932 Peale was offered the ministry of the Marble Church on New York's Fifth Avenue, a move which necessitated a formal change of denomination from Methodism to the Reformed Church of America.

Inspired by the clinic founded by the physician and preacher Elwood Worcester in Boston, he opened a psycho-spiritual healing centre at the church with financial help from the local business community. The acquisition of a partner, Dr Smiley Blanton, a Freudian-trained psychologist, injected harmonial religious therapy with significant post-Freudian influences, notably those of Jung, Adler, Eric Fromm and Abraham Maslow (whose psychotherapeutic techniques would provide one of many links between the mainly Christian New Thought and the neo-Buddhism of the New Age that took root in the 1960s). Peale would see the patient first, and then decide whether to counsel them himself or to refer them to Blanton for more rigorous psychotherapeutic treatment.

Despite criticism from all sides from liberal theologians trained in the seminaries, from evangelicals who accused Peale of occultism and heresy, and from professional psychiatrists who disapproved of the mixing of therapy and religion, the clinic proved popular, especially with women.

From 1934 Peale began to reach a much larger audience with a weekly radio programme, The Art of Living. A book of the same title published in 1937 marked the beginning of his career as the author of popular 'self-help' books, which would make him independently wealthy. The Power of Positive Thinking, published in 1932, was an instant success, remaining for more than two years on the best-seller lists and selling more than a million copies. By 1957 Peale would claim a regular weekly audience of more than 30 millions, including 10 million readers of his syndicated newspaper column, 3 million listeners to his radio programme and more than half a milion subscrlbers to Guideposts, the compact magazine he founded on the lines of Reader's Digest.

The success of Guideposts, whose circulation peaked at 4.5 million in 1985, owed much to a judicious combination of inspirational personal 'testimonies' - always popular in America - with sturdy right-wing politics. Extolling laissez-faire individualism, these stories invariably charted the passage from crisis to triumph, aided by the power of prayer or 'Mind'. Virulent in its espousal of Cold War, anti-Communist and anti-union attitudes, Guideposts was bought up in large numbers by corporate employers, including US Steel and General Motors, who distributed it among their workforces.

A vigorous advocate of Prohibition during the 1920s, Peale transferred his political energies after its collapse into attacking the New Deal. During the Eisenhower administration he forged the friendship with Richard Nixon that would survive the vicissitudes of power. In 1960 he committed his greatest political blunder by publicly implying that John F. Kennedy's Catholicism made him unfit for the Presidency. America's foremost theologian, Reinhold Neibhur, attacked his 'blind prejudice' and after much criticism from fellow Protestants he was obliged to back down. The election of Nixon to the Presidency in 1968 did much to eradicate the humiliation he had suffered. Within weeks of Nixon's inauguration Peale reached the summit of political respectability by solemnising the marriage of Nixon's daugher Julie to David Eisenhower. During the trauma of Watergate he stood by his friend, telling reporters 'I'm not one to throw stones, and I never criticise from the pulpit.'

The 'feel-good' religion Norman Vincent Peale did so much to promote is now safely in the hands of his disciple and successor in the Reformed Church of America, the Rev Robert Schuller, the popular 'televangelist' who works from the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California.

(Photograph omitted)