Self-Help and Popular Religion in Modern American Culture: An Interpretive Guide

By Roy M. Anker | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
The Power of Positive Thought: Norman Vincent Peale

As a Boston University seminarian and apprentice preacher, the young Norman Vincent Peale regularly ventured to a small Methodist church in Hancock, New Hampshire. According to Arthur Gordon, Peale's friend and authorized biographer, Peale enjoyed his winter journeys to the rural church because, among other pleasures, the steeple tower contained a bell made by Paul Revere. While Peale amply appreciated its historical importance, he especially liked to think of the bell as a harbinger of his personal future. For the young Peale, the bell and its famous maker became portents that he, too, would someday perform a signal service akin to Revere's by "sounding the call to Christianity and the deeper freedom to be found in God" ( One Man's Way89). Sanguine and hopeful were Peale's dreams--typical of young men, to be sure--but this small-town Ohio boy surely could not then imagine that his influence would significantly alter and, for some critics, even define the United States' religious and cultural landscape for the latter half of the twentieth century. Indeed, no other contemporary religious figure, save perhaps, and then only perhaps, for evangelist Billy Graham, has come close to matching Peale's influence. Moreover, within America's long history of religion and self-help, no other figure in history has so successfully melded and promulgated the means and substance of a self-help message within a traditional religious perspective. Peale's numerous accomplishments as a self-help proponent, a religious innovator, and a national celebrity periodically plunged him into sometimes rancorous controversy, especially amid the success of his record-breaking 1952 best-seller, The Power of Positive Thinking, and his brief, very public opposition in 1960 to the presidential ambitions of Roman Catholic candidate John Kennedy on religious grounds.

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