Was the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, father of the “believe and succeed” theology sweeping American Protestantism, a plagiarist inspired by the occult?
A former Peale protege and a Unitarian minister think so.
In the current issue of the journal Lutheran Quarterly, the Rev. John Gregory Tweed of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and the Rev. George D. Exoo of Pittsburgh write that many of Peale’s uplifting affirmations originated with an “obscure teacher of occult science” named Florence Scovel Shinn. Lutheran Quarterly is a juried academic journal of theology and history, with a national circulation of 1,000.
After comparing his books to hers, the authors cite scores of specific instances in which Peale and Shinn not only think alike but use similar or identical phrases.
Tweed began investigating the Shinn-Peale link in 1990. Friends who credited Shinn for their success had given Tweed her book, “The Game of Life and How to Play It.”
“I came across the phrase, ‘When one door shuts, another door opens’ - one of the great Peale battle cries,” said Tweed.
Shinn, who died in 1940, drew on mystical sources dating to the ancient Egyptian philosopher Hermes Trismegistus and the secrets of Freemasonry, as delineated in “The Kybalion,” published in 1908 at a Masonic lodge.
Such sources are progenitors of New Age, a movement considered ungodly hocus-pocus by conservative and fundamentalist Christians.
The conclusions that Tweed and Exoo reached clearly dismay the stewards of Peale’s legacy. Peale died in 1993 at 95.
The article is “built pretty much on … coincidence,” said John Allen, Peale’s son-in-law and president of the board of the Peale Center for Christian Living in Pawling, N.Y. “They happened to be dealing with the same subject: the art of living. He’s now dead, and we hate to have anything negative that isn’t true.”
He said neither he nor Peale’s widow, Ruth, knew of Florence Scovel Shinn.
Peale, author of “The Power of Positive Thinking,” is one of the 20th century’s most influential religious figures, though some theologians accuse him of establishing a “cult of reassurance” and “vulgarizing” religion.
Peale, a Mason, pastored New York’s famed Marble Collegiate Church for 53 years. But it was his 46 books, touting simple solutions to life’s complicated problems, that made him a multimillionaire, counselor to conservative presidents and cultural icon.
“Positive Thinking,” published in 1952, topped the New York Times best-seller list for 98 weeks. By Peale’s death in 1993, it had sold 18 million copies.
Florence Scovel Shinn, a professional illustrator in New York, was married to Everett Shinn, one of the eight Urban Impressionist painters of the “Ashcan Group.”
Shinn’s privately published metaphysical works, reissued by both Simon & Schuster and the Church of Religious Science, are available in New Age bookstores. Peale penned the introduction to the Simon & Schuster edition, indicating he had “long used” Shinn’s teachings.
Tweed and Exoo predict “discomfiture” among the “millions of mainline Christians, purporting to stand on orthodoxy and Scripture alone,” who, through Peale, have “unwittingly embraced the occult.”
John Allen acknowledged that Peale “did write a very nice thing on the reissue (of Shinn’s book). He’d write encouraging words on any book that was sent to him, and maybe read through it and pick up a few ideas. … The rest is from the Bible.
“The occult was not his ballgame. … I think anybody who knows Dr. Peale would know this is a specious bit of vindictive research.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SHINN, PEALE PASSAGES COMPARED Some comparisons noted by the Revs. John Gregory Tweed and George D. Exoo in the writings of Norman Vincent Peale and Florence Scovel Shinn: Shinn, “The Game of Life and How to Play It,” 1925, Page 89: “Never force a picture by visualizing; let the divine idea flash into your conscious mind; then the student is working according to the divine design.” Peale, “The Power of Positive Thinking,” 1953, Page 143: “Don’t try to force an answer. Keep your mind relaxed so that the solution will open up and become clear. … Pray about your problem, affirming that God will flash illumination into your mind.” Shinn, “Game of Life,” Page 10: The subconscious “is like a singer making a record on the sensitive disc of the phonographic plate. Every note and tone of the singer’s voice is registered. If he coughs or hesitates, it is registered also. So let us break all the old bad records in the subconscious mind, the records of our lives we do not wish to keep and make new and beautiful ones.” Peale, “Positive Thinking,” Page 50: “Like a needle caught in the groove of a defective record on a Victrola, it plays the same tune over and over again. You must lift the needle out of the groove, then you will have disharmony no longer, but harmony.” Shinn, “Writings,” Page 216: “You have to let go long enough for the great law of attraction to work. You never saw a worried or anxious magnet.” Peale, “Positive Thinking,” Page 94: “When you expect the best, you release a magnetic force in your mind which by the law of attraction tends to bring the best to you.” Miami Herald