Looking for Phineas Quimby—Looking at Us
By the Rev. Dr. DUNCAN NEWCOMER
You may think his name is strange—but you should see the photographs of Phineas Quimby I found at the Belfast, Maine, Free Library on the third floor in the research section with some real help from Reference Librarian Betsy Paradis.
Look at those eyes! They look back at us. They actually focus, piercingly, not right at the camera, but at the cameraman! Quimby was able to convince thousands of his fundamental idea: “The truth is the cure.”
You can read more about that cure in my profile of Phineas Quimby. It’s everywhere today. As I was working on this column about my growing personal interest in the man, I read the line on a throat-coating teabag I was about to steep. It said, “Our minds are forming the world.” Bingo! Phineas Quimby in my cup.
Trying to capture the powerful personality of an innovator and teacher like Quimby is difficult, across more than a century. But, beyond his enduring teachings, his visage tells us a lot. A Belfast historian notes his wealth of snow white hair, kindly strong mouth, intellectual high forehead, forceful lines—and the power of intense concentration that is obvious in the few images that remain of Quimby. I feel a little hypnotized just looking at the photos and the etchings of his face.
In the beginning of his career, he caught onto one of the latest trends from France: mesmerism. He started out “mesmerizing” a local man for health reasons.
As I dug through the archives, I kept thinking: What is this American thing of a lone, unschooled, man, out of the 19th century especially, putting body and soul into a new healing truth? I’m thinking L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, Professor Harold Hill, and: “Please observe me if you will.” I’m prepared to flip my skeptic meter and cry “Snake Oil!”
But I’m also thinking of Joseph Smith and his new religious movement, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, maybe even Ralph Waldo Emerson, Johnny Appleseed, and of course, Mary Baker Eddy. She was in long and deep personal correspondence with, whom else? Dr. Phineas Quimby, with a doctorate from nowhere but himself.
I dwell on his lack of a formal degree because—that was his point. Phineas Quimby taught: “I found I was the very idea I was looking for.” He moved on past mesmerism, or what we might call hypnosis today. He began just sitting with sick people and observing. He was a master watchmaker first. So he knew how to look and see what was in front of him. What he saw was that while people suffered real, not imaginary, pain—they were sick because some of their thoughts actually invited their disease. He said he could see how people’s thoughts made them sick. He called his insights superior wisdom, even a science.
This wasn’t a judgmental verdict on those who were suffering. Quimby was, above all, full of love and even humility. He was passionately opposed to the smoke and mirrors of 19th-century medicine and religion. He thought doctors missed what their patients were thinking, and just substituted expensive and usually unproven cures. His blood boiled when he thought of the religious faithful who handed over their willpower to dependence on a harshly parental God.
Now, I smile to think: I attend “First Church” in Belfast and sit under a tower clock that Quimby made, and hear a bell made in the Paul Revere Foundry. Quimby saw himself as pealing out the good news of a God who wanted us to wind our own God –given watch. Both clock and bell remind us of our minds—and what Quimby described as the natural power of our minds to shape our health and our world.
Here’s a story from Mitch Horowitz’s new book that tells all. Quimby is ill. His medical treatments are just poisonous foolery. One day he is exhilarated by a rapid carriage ride. (I wonder which streets and roads here along the Penobscot Bay he whirled along.) He noted that he felt better. He was better. He wondered why.
Now most of us would decide to take up rapid carriage riding! In fact, 19th century doctors were full of such ideas. Have you ever wondered why the rich and the famous of the 19th century were prescribed the European Tour for their health? Lots of us in these waning days of automotive obsession would follow the Quimby carriage-ride cure and buy a newer, faster car. That would make us feel better. The fast freedom of owning the road!
Not Quimby. He made the crucial leap inward, not outward. His mind was the answer. He felt better. He was better, because he had exhilarating thoughts. The thoughts, not the ride, were the cure.
This practical New Englander had hit upon a moment of spiritual genius. What’s more? He saw that potential in each of us.
A century later, you simply have to look at his face. You can see it in his eyes.
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.