God’s Salesman: Norman Vincent Peale and the Power of Positive Thinking.

God’s Salesman: Norman Vincent Peale and the Power of Positive Thinking. – book reviews

Richard V. Pierard

By Carol V. R. George. Oxford University Press, 269 pp., $23.00.

Norman Vincent peale is undoubtedly one of the most and controversial figures in modern American Christianity. His life has spanned the 20th century and at age 95 he remains active. Historian Carol George, a professor at Hobart and William Smith College in Geneva, New York, has skillfully used Peale’s personal papers and interviews with him, his wife Ruth and important figures in his various ministries to construct an insightful book.

A native of Ohio who was trained at Methodist institutions, Peale began his meteoric rise to fame as a pastor in his denomination. In 1932 he was called to the well-endowed Marble Collegiate Church in New York City where he would serve until his retirement a half-century later. Although he began as an evangelical Methodist, his views shifted to a form of New Thought, “positive” religion. His innovative ministry centered on a message of practical Christianity that included prayer, self-examination and surrender, and enabled individuals to become channels of divine energy and to gain control over their fives. His theology was a composite of Science of Mind, metaphysics, medical and psychological practice, old-fashioned Methodist evangelism and Dutch Reformed Calvinism. Peale not only had little use for social Christianity and neo-orthodoxy, but he combined within himself, seemingly without cognitive dissonance, principles drawn from both liberalism and fundamentalism.

Peale’s organization grew rapidly and was supported by five pillars: Marble Collegiate Church; Guide-posts magazine; the Institutes for Religion and Health; his most important book, The Power of Positive Thinking; and the Foundation for Christian Living. From the very beginning he was drawn to politics, first in the fight for Prohibition and then as a Republican anti-New Dealer. Being in touch with the middle-class constituency of the Protestant mainstream ensured that after the war he would become deeply involved in cold-war anticommunism. As George ably shows, Peale’s unique message of populist religion was readily linked to a conservative political agenda. He was involved in various right-wing groups, and in 1960 he was in the forefront of the anti-Kennedy struggle. Although I have investigated Billy Graham’s involvement in the Nixon campaign, I never realized how much Graham had drawn Peale into his effort to derail the Catholic candidate. Peale’s role in mobilizing Protestant clergy against Kennedy is a fascinating if not very edifying story.

Why was Peale so successful? George argues that Peale’s populist religion was hospitable to the beliefs and desires of “ordinary” people, and that his syncretistic theology was sufficiently plastic to appeal to almost any audience. He superimposed New Thought beliefs on an evangelical base, and thus his message was more conservative evangelical than mystically metaphysical. George also emphasizes that Ruth Peale played a crucial role in what clearly was a team effort. She was his emotional support, chief catalyst for his ideas, carrier of much of the workload and the real possessor of positive thinking in their household.

COPYRIGHT 1993 The Christian Century Foundation

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