'The Secret' Draws on Long Tradition
Saturday, June 23, 2007; 2:25 PM
CHICAGO -- In the back of her best seller, "The Secret," author Rhonda Byrne lists the biographies of 29 "teachers" whose wisdom inspired her book.
Mixed among the color photos of such people as "Chicken Soup for the Soul" author Jack Canfield, there are black-and-white images of several men and a woman who died long ago.
They include Wallace D. Wattles, whose 1910 book, "The Science of Getting Rich," has been cited by Byrne as the book that gave her "a glimpse of a Great Secret _ The Secret to life," as Byrne writes in her foreword.
Wattles was a member of the New Thought movement, which emphasized the power of thought.
"By thought you can cause the gold in the hearts of the mountains to be impelled toward you," Wattles wrote.
"The Science of Getting Rich" has been reissued by several publishers, including Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin. Mitch Horowitz, the company's editor in chief, has published books on world religion, esoterica and the metaphysical.
He said New Thought has its earliest roots in the "mental healing movement" of the mid-19th century, when a New England clock maker named Phinneus Quimby found his tuberculosis symptoms eased after he took carriage rides in the countryside.
"People began to extrapolate from that," Horowitz said. "If my state of mind seems to have a positive influence over how I feel physically, what other things can it do? Can it lead to prosperity? Can it lead to happiness in my home? Can it lead to finding love and romance?"
Into this mix came Transcendentalism and its do-it-yourself approach to spirituality, and then in the late 19th century, the belief in the power of science, Horowitz said.
"All these currents came together, and this philosophy that we call 'New Thought,' was born out of them," he said. "It's as American as an old-growth forest."
New Thought probably found its most famous proponent, Horowitz said, in former Methodist minister Norman Vincent Peale, who published "The Power of Positive Thinking" in 1952. The book has sold more than 20 million copies in 42 languages, according to Guideposts, an organization founded by Peale.
"I suppose probably back in the 1950s," Horowitz said, "people were scratching their heads over his book the way we're scratching our heads over 'The Secret,' saying, 'My goodness, this philosophy has been around for decades and decades _ what is it in this form of communication that made it so popular?'"
Frank K. Flinn, an adjunct professor of religious studies at Washington University, calls Byrne's work "recycled New Thought" and said he gets asked whether it's a cult.
"No it's not, it's a fad. It's a religious fad," said Flinn, an expert on cults, religious splinter groups and the legal rights of religious groups. "These things happen in cycles in America."
As for Horowitz, he believes the common denominator regarding the success of New Thought proponents is not when, but where. The philosophy, he said, has always been much more popular on American soil.
"We live in a nation where most people, most of the time, feel that their basic necessities of life are taken care of; they feel a relative sense of physical safety," he said. "It kind of leaves us free to play in this sandbox of possibility."
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