The great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was a teacher of mine at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, wrote a liturgy for Friday night services welcoming the Sabbath that included these words: “A thought has blown the market place away.” He elevated the thought of Sabbath to its culture-changing power. Phineas Parkhurst Quimby delivered an equally transformative message about the way we think: I am the idea I am looking for. With his idea—reality can be what I think it is—medicine and religion as Quimby had known it were blown away. From then on he taught and he healed thousands with this now popular idea. He was so successful that, today, we simply assume his idea must be true. We think of it this way: What we think is how we can be, and it is also our way to the God inside us. My spiritual director used to say: “God is my Best Self.” Quimby had opened the way for such intimate theology and such powerful psychology. Phineas Quimby radically changed both of my professional careers. As a minister and as a psychotherapist, I realize now that for decades I have been using Quimby’s axiom.
The Rev. Dr. Duncan Newcomer
Phineas Quimby (1802-1866)
Yankee ingenuity was Phineas Quimby’s path to becoming the visionary prophet of positive thinking in America. The Father of New Thought started his working life in Belfast, Maine, in the 1830’s as a blacksmith, then a clockmaker, and eventually the owner of four patents, two signed by President Andrew Jackson. It was by close observation of the material world, including watching iron forged into wheels and seeing clock gears and pendulums obey mathematical laws, that he finally had confidence in his discovered spiritual truth: “I found I was the very idea was looking for.”
Emboldened by what he felt to be a divine truth he went on in the final decades of his life to work his spirit over mind, then mind over matter, working with some 12,000 patients. In so doing he upset the apple carts of medicine, religion, psychology, and capitalism. Never charging more than a patient could pay, returning his one dollar or five dollar fee if they were not satisfied, making himself the empathic friend of each patient, believing that Jesus’s methods were his own, modestly refusing guru-status, Quimby instilled in the common farmers, house wives, and regular folk of his part of the world the kind of spiritual freedom in truth that Gandhi formulated in his core idea: Be the change that you wish to see in the world.
Without formal education, Quimby was as much the author of spiritual empiricism as Carl Jung, the great psychologist. He was a rustic John the Baptist to the writings of the Harvard founder of American psychology, William James. James would have little to write about in his New Thought and Mind Cure chapters on healthy mindedness—in religion and medicine—but for the pioneering work of Quimby and those whom he healed, including the famed Mary Baker Eddy.
Without an academic or political following, Quimby nonetheless originated the ideas of how Americans believe medicine and religion work. Our ideas of the power of suggestion, the belief that positive thinking cures or helps to cure, that God is an inward truth, and that there is, or should be, some kind of “science to health and happiness,” all first were his hard won insights. Even corporate culture’s efforts to create positive environments rest on his assumptions. This summer, the University of Michigan Ross School of Business just held its first annual conference on “positive business.”
Phineas Quimby is an American classic—a New England prophet who now is enjoying a second chance at being honored in his own country. Until recently, his name had been all but forgotten in mainstream culture. Not that Doctor Quimby ever would have regarded himself as a victim. He truly was humble and devoted to serving religious and medical truth as he intuited it. But, in recent years, Americans are rediscovering his self-minted and revolutionary preachments against the strangle-hold “medicine” had on patients and the iron grip the clergy had on parishioners’ spiritual lives. In 2012, his writing was published as Phineas Parkhurst Quimby: His Complete Writings and Beyond, edited by Ronald Hughes, and Quimby’s pivotal role in American intellectual history is featured in the first chapter of One Simple Idea by Mitch Horowitz, a stellar history of positive thinking in American medicine, religion and psychology.
Quimby was the first to put to pragmatic use the idea that the human mind could heal the body, an idea we take for granted in various degrees today. He healed himself from tuberculosis deducing that the positive thoughts and feelings he received from a wild horse-drawn carriage ride were in fact his thoughts and feeling and that they were beneficial to him. Slowly, through observation, intuition, hypnosis, a religious awareness of Jesus, and sheer love, he startled himself and then others with his conviction that God is in us willing health and happiness. Our diseases, he thought, were like a bad dream. We really suffer in our minds and bodies, but he would, often through silent deep-shared presence, help patients to awaken to their spiritual reality as well.
His intellectual and professional descendants are legendary, from Eddy to Norman Vincent Peale to Bernie Segal to sports psychologists and a slew of good and ill promoters. But few know of this man born in New Hampshire in 1802, who, in mid-coastal Maine, was a blacksmith in Belfast, but became a self-proclaimed, Jesus-inspired, healer from Belfast to Chicago and back from 1840’s to 1866. Eventually, he was highly honored in his hometown as a Doctor with no doctorate. He would walk from his fine-but-modest home, which he shared with his wife and four children, down to his office in the courthouse square. He carried a cane with a silver head—his full white beard and piercing eyes marking him as distinguished, even loved, the ordeal of making a sea change in our mind-set having been successfully begun, if not won.
Care to read more from Duncan Newcomer?
Duncan Newcomer is best known to ReadTheSpirit regulars as an expert on Lincoln and, currently, he is working on a new book about Lincoln’s legacy in American culture through his deep values and spiritual wisdom. You can sample some of his writing via links in our extensive Abraham Lincoln Resource Page. One of Duncan’s most popular collaborations was a look at what Lincoln might have said about sociologist Wayne Baker’s 10 core American values. Duncan also is the author of Desperately Seeking Mary. As a poet, psychotherapist and minister, Duncan wrote this book welcoming men to join with women in a spiritual search to recover the sacred feminine.