The Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, 95, a clergyman, writer and lecturer whose name became an American household word during the 1950s as author of the best-selling self-help book "The Power of Positive Thinking," died Dec. 24 at his farm in Pawling, N.Y. He had had a stroke.
With its message that the keys to success and happiness lie in prayer, self-examination and the cultivation of a positive mental attitude, Dr. Peale's book struck a vital and responsive chord on the national psyche at the time. The book soared to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for three years, and it made an overnight celebrity of its author. Since its publication in 1952, more than 15 million copies have been sold, and it has been translated into 33 languages. It became the prototype for a wave of self-help literature on a variety of subjects over the next four decades.
For a period, Dr. Peale was one of the nation's most influential clergymen and a personal friend and counselor to Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon. He preached at the White House, and in December 1968, he officiated at the wedding of Julie Nixon, the daughter of the president-elect, and David Eisenhower, the grandson of the former president.
Intellectuals and theologians criticized his message as materialistic, overly simplistic and spiritually empty. He offered sugarcoated panaceas to complex human problems, they said. But Dr. Peale's enthusiasm, his unshakable optimism and his profession of a common-sense religious faith captured a wide following among Americans.
"Christianity," he said, "is a practical, usable way of life -- a clearly defined system of workable formulas and techniques drawn from the Bible." These formulas, he said, included "loving one another" and "having faith," and he proclaimed that the good life would increase in direct proportion to the amount of faith a believer possessed.
"You do not need to be defeated by anything," he declared in the introduction to "The Power of Positive Thinking." "You can have peace of mind, improved health and a never-ceasing flow of energy. . . . You can modify or change the circumstances in which you now live, assuming control over them. . . . You will become a more popular, esteemed and well-liked individual."
To theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, such a message was "dangerous. . . . It hurts people. . . . It helps them to feel good while they are evading the real issues of life." Liston Pope, the dean of Yale Divinity School during the 1950s, declared: "There is nothing humble or pious in the view this cult takes of God. God becomes sort of a master psychiatrist who will help you get over your difficulties. . . . The constant reiteration of such themes as 'You and God can do anything' are very nearly blasphemous."
In the face of such criticism, Dr. Peale was undaunted. "A person would be a fool not to face all the facts, all the hard, tough realities. But to lick them, he needs to believe, really believe, that with God's help he can do it. . . . Attitudes are more important than facts," he said.
Altogether, Dr. Peale wrote more than 40 books, including "Inspiring Messages for Daily Living" (1955), "Stay Alive All Your Life" (1957), "The Amazing Results of Positive Thinking" (1959), "The Tough-Minded Optimist" (1961), "The Healing of Sorrow" (1966), "Enthusiasm Makes the Difference" (1967) and "You Can if You Think You Can" (1974).
He also wrote about the life of Jesus, including books for children, and he was editor of "Norman Vincent Peale's Treasury of Courage and Confidence" (1970), a collection of stories, poems and quotations intended to illustrate solutions to common problems and to inspire self-confidence.
Sunny and unpretentious in his personal demeanor, Dr. Peale had a ready smile and twinkling eyes behind rimless glasses. He was 5 feet 9 inches tall, gray-haired and portly, and he often said that he had "been on one diet or another all my life."
Not surprisingly, he was popular as a motivational speaker with business groups, and he had an especially wide following among middle-aged women. But his ministry was narrowly focused on what was sometimes known as white-bread America. As minority concerns came to the fore in the latter part of the century, Dr. Peale faded from center stage.
In 1964, his life story was recounted in a movie, "One Man's Way."
Norman Vincent Peale was born May 31, 1898, in Bowersville, Ohio, where his father, a former physician, was a Methodist clergyman. In high school, he was a star debater. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University, where he was president of his fraternity and editor of the campus newspaper.
After college, he worked briefly on newspapers in Findlay, Ohio, and in Detroit. He then enrolled at Boston University's School of Theology, a Methodist institution, and received bachelor's and master's degrees in sacred theology. He received a doctor of divinity degree from Syracuse University in 1931.
Ordained a Methodist clergyman in 1922, his first church was in Brooklyn, N.Y. In 1927, he became the pastor at University Methodist Church in Syracuse, N.Y. After five years there, he accepted an invitation to be pastor of New York City's Marble Collegiate Church, which was established by Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam in 1628 and is said to be the oldest Protestant pastorate in continuous operation in the United States.
In order to accept the position, Dr. Peale changed his denominational affiliation to the Reformed Church in America.
Dr. Peale was the pastor of Marble Collegiate for 52 years, retiring in 1984 at the age of 86. When he began, the church's membership had fallen to 500, and only 200 heard him preach on his first Sunday in the pulpit. In subsequent years, membership increased to 4,000, and overflow crowds packed the church to hear his dynamic sermons.
Dr. Peale was among the first of America's religious leaders to recognize the drawing power of the mass media, both electronic and print. In 1935, he began a weekly radio program called "The Art of Living," which was sponsored by the National Council of Churches.
By the mid-1950s these broadcasts were carried on 125 NBC stations, reaching an estimated audience of 5 million. From 1952 until 1968, Dr. Peale and his wife, Ruth Stafford Peale, appeared together on a nationally televised counseling program, "What's Your Trouble?" Sunday services at his church also were recorded for broadcast on radio and television.
With psychiatrist Smiley Blanton, Dr. Peale also was among the first to forge a link between religious and psychiatric counseling. Five years after assuming the pastorate at Marble Collegiate, he began working with Blanton to counsel parishioners who came to him for guidance.
As their caseload increased, they added staff, calling the operation a religio-psychiatric clinic. In 1951, it was organized into the American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry. It eventually treated as many as 600 patients a week with a staff of ministers, priests, rabbis, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, and it offered training programs for pastoral counselors.
It was during his early years at Marble Collegiate that Dr. Peale began his career as an author. His first two books, "The Art of Living" and "You Can Win," were published in 1937 and 1939. With Blanton, he wrote "Faith Is the Answer" (1940), a review of some of the cases they had treated successfully at their clinic. "A Guide to Confident Living," published in 1948, had 25 printings and was Dr. Peale's first bestseller.
Dr. Peale also edited a spiritual newsletter, Guideposts, which he began distributing shortly after World War II. It consisted of religious testimonials from prominent businessmen, movie stars and other celebrities, and a monthly article by Dr. Peale. Its circulation eventually reached 2 million.
Beginning in the early days of World War II, copies of Dr. Peale's sermons and other inspirational material were distributed by the Foundation for Christian Living, which was headed by Ruth Peale. Organized as a volunteer effort, this operation eventually grew to include a paid staff of more than 120, processing 7,000 letters a day, ranging from requests for help with personal problems to financial contributions.
During the 1960 presidential election, Dr. Peale lent his name to a statement given out by a group of Protestant clergymen suggesting that the election of John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, as president might compromise the principles of separation of church and state. He was roundly criticized for this and later admitted that "I made a mistake."
In addition to his wife, whom he married on June 20, 1930, survivors include three children, Margaret Ann Everett, John Stafford Peale and Elizabeth Ruth Allen; eight grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.