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Why the controversial book “Power of Positive Thinking” is still so popular after 70 years

After 70 years, “The Power of Positive Thinking” remains incredibly popular, even though its critics find the book to be mostly fluff.
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach
Key Takeaways
  • The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale is one of the world’s most influential books. Yet, many critics see it as unserious fluff.
  • One reason Peale did not gain acceptance among the intelligentsia is because of his political activities. For instance, his anti-Catholic views led him to vehemently oppose John F. Kennedy.
  • Today, Peale’s message remains popular among everyone from churchgoers to New Age seekers.

It was the ultimate insult. In the early 1960s, the editors of the radical literary quarterly Dissent hosted a small conference in New York City with bestselling therapist Erich Fromm to discuss the Frankfurt School philosopher’s new manifesto of “ethical Socialism.” At one point, socialist icon and presidential candidate Norman Thomas, “sharp-witted in his age,” recalled editor Irving Howe, exclaimed to the author, “Erich, it’s a nice piece of writing and I don’t disagree with a word, but you know, to me it reads like a sermon by Norman Vincent Peale!”

Red with anger, the analyst stalked out.

Theology or fluff?

Thomas’s barbed appraisal reflected a widely held attitude among intelligentsia — enduring to this day — that the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993), author of the 1952 landmark The Power of Positive Thinking, was an apostle of fluff. Comparisons to Peale were a scarlet letter of unseriousness.

Yet the Dutch Reformed minister and mega-selling author, whose book marks its 70th anniversary this year, has outlasted in readership nearly all of his contemporaries who promulgated a message of therapeutic practicality, including Fromm and once-popular religious writers Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. Indeed, Peale’s 70-year-old volume, on its publication spending an unprecedented 98 weeks at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, this year rose to number two on Publishers Weekly’s list of religion bestsellers. Simon & Schuster has re-released several of Peale’s titles.

Yet the man who lodged the term “positive thinking” into the American psyche was pained by his lack of acceptance among lettered peers. In actuality, Peale was a widely read attendee of Boston University’s School of Theology who headed one of America’s oldest pulpits at Marble Collegiate Church on New York’s Fifth Avenue from which he collaborated with Freudian analyst Smiley Blanton in opening the innovative Religio-Psychiatric Clinic in 1937.

Agonizing over whether his bestselling message of winning personableness had detracted from his theological gravitas, Peale wrote that his father, also a minister, set him straight:

“Norman, I have read and studied all your books and sermons and it is clearly evident that you have gradually evolved a new religious system of thought and teaching. And it’s O.K., too, very O.K., because its center and circumference and essence is Jesus Christ. There is no doubt about its solid Biblical orientation. Yes, you have evolved a new Christian emphasis out of a composite of Science of Mind [a mystical positive-mind philosophy], metaphysics, Christian Science, medical and psychological practice, Baptist evangelism, Methodist witnessing and solid Dutch Reformed Calvinism.”

The political pastor

But Peale, it seemed, was his own worst enemy. Contrary to his ebullient public persona, Peale never stood aloof from partisan politics. Indeed, he had a history of coarse political statements. In 1934, he warned congregants that “a sinister shadow is being thrown upon our liberties,” a thinly veiled reference to the New Deal. In 1952, he supported an archconservative movement to draft General Douglas MacArthur to run for president. In 1956, Peale used his pulpit to criticize Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson for being divorced, leading to Stevenson’s famous quip, “I find Saint Paul appealing and Saint Peale appalling.”

But it was in the fall of 1960 that Peale ignited a true storm of controversy. During the Nixon-Kennedy campaign — Nixon was a congregant and confidant — Peale publicly aligned with a group of conservative Protestant ministers who opposed the candidacy of John F. Kennedy on grounds that Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, would ultimately prove loyal to the pope. The benignly named Citizens for Religious Freedom announced: “It is inconceivable that a Roman Catholic president would not be under extreme pressure by the hierarchy of his church to accede to its policies…” Conspiracists feared that the young senator was, in effect, a Vatican “Manchurian Candidate.”

A flood of negative coverage led to calls for Peale’s resignation from his pulpit, and several newspapers dropped his syndicated column. Peale succeeded in convincing his parishioners that he had simply wandered, Forrest Gump-style, into a situation of which he had no foreknowledge. Speaking from his Marble Collegiate pulpit, Peale said of his decision to join the group: “I never been too bright, anyhow.” The line elicited sympathetic laughter from the pews. Within Marble Collegiate, the rift was healed.

But a darker Peale reemerged in private. In a 1960 letter to a female supporter, Peale wrote: “I don’t care a bit who of the candidates is chosen except that he be an American who takes orders from no one but the American people.” He went on to ask her how a “dedicated Protestant as yourself could so enthusiastically favor an Irish Catholic for President of our country which was founded by Calvinistic Christians?” Upon Kennedy’s victory, Peale despondently wrote to friends: “Protestant America got its death blow on November 8th.”

To Peale’s critics, the minister’s attack-and-deny tactics on Kennedy were no surprise. Detractors saw him as a smiley-faced cipher — a propagator of happiness with no ethical core. Indeed, it must be acknowledged that Peale’s philosophy of positivity and self-worth was incapable of meeting life in all of its difficulties and tragedies. His outlook did not include a theology of suffering. Peale seemed incapable of persuading readers, as his avowed literary heroes Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James once did, that the individual facing illness, tragedy, and death could find dignity and purpose only by seeing himself as part of the cycles of creation, in which loss plays an inevitable part.

The deeper side of Peale

It must also be said, however, that if those intellectuals who rolled their eyes at Peale’s gospel of affirmation had taken the care to read his books, they would have discovered serviceable ideas. Peale’s outlook could ford a river — his advice could prevent a marriage from crumbling when an unspeakable criticism, of the kind that can never be rescinded, was uttered in the heat of argument. Peale’s integration of psychology into church life dramatically lessened the post-war stigma of seeing a therapist. Indeed, Peale was the best-known clergyman to embrace psychotherapy — the literature from his Religio-Psychiatric Clinic described the “sacredness of human personality.” Peale encouraged the faith traditions to stretch and grow in order to stay relevant. In 1936, four years after taking his pulpit at Marble Collegiate, he privately wrote a congregant: “As time passes men’s ideas change; their knowledge is enlarged; and before long a creed leaves much to be said and says some things that are no longer tenable.”

Peale possessed spiritual depth — but “the world did not see that depth,” his successor the Rev. Arthur Caliandro (1933-2013) recalled to me when I was writing One Simple Idea, a history of the positive-mind movement.

The power of self-promotion?

Still, supporters and critics alike harbored questions about Peale’s theology and his innermost judgment. The minister was most at home among business elites and corporate climbers. Caliandro remembered an elderly Peale’s attraction to Donald Trump upon first seeing the real-estate magnate on television. Peale was always “very impressed with successful people” and self-promoters, Caliandro recalled. “That was a weakness.”

Indeed, among the movers and shakers who filled Peale’s pews were the family of an adolescent Trump. The influence stuck. “I still remember [Peale’s] sermons,” candidate Trump told the Iowa Family Leadership Summit in 2016. “You could listen to him all day long. And when you left the church, you were disappointed it was over. He was the greatest guy.” The Power of Positive Thinking is among the few books the ex-president calls an influence.

Did Peale create a philosophy that elevates self-belief above ethics, as monstrously seen in Trump’s fantasies of stolen elections? Is that, finally, the key to his book’s endurance?

The chief criticism of Peale’s work arose from his principle that self-assurance brings accomplishment. Critiquing the modern urge to self-belief, philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) noted, “Assurance is contemptible and fatal unless it is self-knowledge.” The philosopher highlighted a contradiction in Peale’s approach — which is that blindly self-confident people, rather than accurately assessing their strengths and achieving their ends, are often dangerously delusive.

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Yet the part of the equation that Santayana and other critics missed is that Peale didn’t promulgate a conceited idealism to the exclusion of self-questioning, a lesson Trump typically blew past. In a facet of the minister’s positive-thinking approach, only by a coordinated effort of thought could an individual begin to grasp or question what he actually wants from life and who he really is. The Protestant minister’s outlook proved electrifying and freeing to millions of readers raised on religion as a punitive institution. Peale’s core message, recalled Caliandro, was, “Not only can you be forgiven, but you could achieve, you could accomplish.”

Today, Peale’s message has inspired a wide range of therapeutic evangelical voices, including Joel Osteen, one of the few evangelical leaders who acknowledges him as an influence and has appeared on the cover of the ongoing monthly Peale founded, Guideposts. Other evangelists publicly keep their distance, leery of Peale’s integration of mystical themes with Bible-based Christianity. In The Power of Positive Thinking, Peale adopted some of the affirmative-mind movement’s key concepts, including “Law of Attraction,” “in tune with the infinite,” and the efficacy of magnetic “prayer power.”Building bridges

In the end, The Power of Positive Thinking endures because it extols the possibilities of the individual in a manner that sits comfortably with both the church-going public and alternative or New Age seekers. Whatever one makes of Peale’s message, or its fallout, the minister is among the few figures who bridged that divide and other cultural redlines. Indeed, today in the hallways of Harlem’s A. Philip Randolph Campus High School, a student-painted wall mural, adjacent to projects on mass incarceration, quotes Peale: “Change your thoughts and you change your world.”


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