Articles - Deb > Henry Wood (1834-1909)
Henry Wood (1834-1909): Early New Thought Mentor
by Deb Whitehouse
To be read at the SSMR Session at the INTA Annual Congress, July 14, 2011
I briefly considered conforming to the Congress theme, "Yo, Spirit Now!" and giving this paper the title "Yo, Henry!", but I thought better of it.
Although Henry Wood was a highly successful businessman and later a highly successful New Thought author, few people today have heard of him or read any of his books, which are all available as free downloads on the Internet and in their day sold in the tens of thousands. He was a presenter at early New Thought conventions. His readers wrote testimonials to the efficacy of his writings in their own healings. He prospered, and he helped others to prosper in all ways.
Horatio W. Dresser, the first New Thought historian as well as the first baby born into what became known as the New Thought movement, classified Henry Wood as "Middle Period—New Thought" in contrast to "Early Period—History, Mental Science", but his break point appears to be 1890, the year that Wood’s first New Thought work, the novel Edward Burton, was published. Dresser includes in the early period John Hamlin Dewey’s Pathway of the Spirit, which was also published in 1890, so the break point seems arbitrary. Wood’s healing began in 1888; in 1908 he writes about himself in his preface to The New Old Healing:
It is now twenty years since, when at the age of fifty-four, he was in a mental and physical condition where life seemed a burden, and an overwhelming depression prevailed. More specifically, a long period of chronic neurasthenia, insomnia and dyspepsia was experienced which gave no promise of recovery, or even of partial relief. With the round of conventional means for betterment practically exhausted, in the natural order the termination seemed not far away. The forebodings and sufferings of a temperament of keen intensity may be but faintly imagined, except by the few who have dragged anchor in the treacherous quicksands of a similar experience. A plunge was made without reservation, from a supposedly correct, moral and ethical life into the practice and philosophy of the higher thought with new ideals. A sharp corner was turned and a new path entered which led to results which were remarkably favorable. Whatever may occur in the immediate or more remote future, the past score of years stands entirely to the credit of the principles of mental science, even though they have been imperfectly lived. Not only the time added, but everything accomplished within its limits is entirely due to the strength derived from the new departure. (pp. 6-7)
For comparison, Divine Science co-founder Malinda Cramer’s healing began in 1885 and Unity co-founder Myrtle Fillmore’s healing began in 1886. Clearly Wood comes during the early years of the forming movement, which only adopted the name New Thought in 1895, the year when the Metaphysical Club of Boston, one of the precursors of INTA, was founded. Wood was elected president of the Metaphysical Club in 1899.
Why, then, has Wood been overlooked? Like Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, who is considered to be the father of New Thought; or Warren Felt Evans, a Methodist minister and Quimby patient who wrote the earliest books concerning New Thought principles; Henry Wood did not found any sort of institution. Like Nehemiah in the Old Testament, Wood was a layman who had no desire to become a clergyman. His outstanding contribution was as an author. Professor of the history and literature of religions Charles S. Braden writes in Spirits in Rebellion: The Rise and Development of New Thought (1963):
Among the more influential figures in the development and spread of New Thought ideas in the nineties were certain men who exercised much of their influence through writing rather than in the personal professional ministry or as leaders in the organizational expansion of the movement. And their writings carried far beyond the limits of those belonging to the organized movement. . . . They are not original in their thinking, but they rephrased and restated ideas that had appeared in both Quimby and Evans, and gave them a literary form that gained for them a wider reading by the general public, or at least that part of it which was to run at that time. Henry Wood (1834-1908)[sic] was particularly important. (p. 154)
As evidence of Wood’s popularity, Braden cites the advertisements in the back of one of Wood’s later books, indicating fourteenth, eighth, third, and fourth editions of his earlier books (possibly printings or press runs).
Further evidence of Wood’s stature comes from philosopher and early psychologist William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, delivered as the Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh in 1901-1902. In the chapter "The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness, James states:
We can . . . overlook the verbiage of a good deal of the mind-cure literature, some of which is so moonstruck with optimism and so vaguely expressed that an academically trained intellect finds it almost impossible to read it at all. . . . To the importance of mind-cure the medical and clerical professions in the United States are beginning, though with much recalcitrancy and protesting, to open their eyes. It is evidently bound to develop still farther, both speculatively and practically, and its latest writers are far and away the ablest of the group. (p. 94)
He continues in a footnote, "I refer to Mr. Horatio W. Dresser and Mr. Henry Wood, especially the former." Dresser earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard, and James was a Harvard professor.
Episcopal priest Elwood Worcester, co-founder of the Emmanuel Movement, which was an attempt to restore the work of healing to a position of importance in mainstream Christianity, writes in Religion and Medicine, "Concerning the value of the discovery and use of those inexhaustibly subconscious powers which have their roots in the Infinite. . . Much has been written of the highest value by the so-called metaphysical school to which I am glad at least to pay my respects." He adds, in a footnote, "I allude to such writers as Henry Wood, Charles B. Patterson, Horatio W. Dresser, Ralph Waldo Trine, Aaron Crane, also to Horace Fletcher . . . and many others, all or most of them well-known New Thought leaders" (quoted by Braden, page 405).
Braden’s chapter on the history of INTA begins with Malinda Cramer’s formation of the International Divine Science Association. At one of the San Francisco congresses, papers by Henry Wood, Horatio W. Dresser, and Helen Van Anderson, among others, were read. At the Boston Convention of the Metaphysical League, chaired by Charles Brodie Patterson, Patterson himself was on the program along with Ursula Gestefeld, Henry Wood, and Sarah Farmer.
Historian of religions J. Stillson Judah, in The History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America (1967) points out that the New Thought movement "displayed the greatest individualism of any metaphysical group." He adds:
Although no one writer’s works became the sacred textbooks for New Thought because of the cherished freedom of interpretation, Evans’ works possibly came as close as any in the early period. His idea of thought as a creative force became New Thought’s "healing power of thought." His use of the term "suggestion" as meaning something that could be visualized in the mind prepared the way for Henry Wood’s theory of "ideal suggestion through mental photography." [This was the title of an 1893 book by Wood.] Thoughts came to be regarded by Wood as things, a view that was foreign neither to Evans nor to Theosophy. Prentice Mulford, one of the immediate forerunners of New Thought, utilized the idea in his widely circulated pamphlets. (p. 170)
Judah notes that New Thought’s individualism results in its leaders holding
many different views including various interpretations of their common statements of belief. Freedom of belief and interpretation is the essence of New Thought. Therefore, it has both profited and suffered because of its individualism. Its cherished freedom has allowed it to utilize the growing research in psychology, psychoanalysis, and medical science. At least as early as 1899 its leaders could fit into their philosophy the new theories of medical science concerning the relationship between mental and emotional attitudes and bodily health. Henry Wood could cite the findings of Dr. George E. Gorham, M.D., showing the role of faith in the "unconscious physical process," and the effects of "fear, anger, and other inharmonious mental states, upon the same wonderfully delicate mechanism." New Thought made use of principles most Americans now accept as psychosomatic medicine. (p. 177)
Judah also cites Henry Wood as an influence on Thomas Troward, who in turn was a major influence on Religious Science founder Ernest Holmes. In another instance of influence on those outside the New Thought movement, Braden notes concerning Norman Vincent Peale, author of the huge best seller The Power of Positive Thinking:
Another New Thought technique is that of visualization—that is, for example, seeing yourself as that which you wish to be. A formula given Dr. Peale by a businessman who had made a notable success was "prayerize, picturize, actualize," and Dr. Peale’s explanation of its operation is definitely in the New Thought pattern, though neither he nor the businessman may have known it. Henry Wood, one of the early greats of New Thought, has a book [Ideal Suggestion Through Mental Photography] specifically on this method. (p. 390)
Biographical details on the life of Henry Wood are woefully scant. He was born in Barre, Vermont on January 16, 1834, the son of Stillman Wood and his wife, Harriet Clark Wood. A "historical souvenir of Barre" published in 1894 supplies some interesting details. His father was in the tanning business and "prominently identified with the public enterprises of the town and ...active in its religious, political and educational interests". He was Justice of the Peace, Postmaster, and also "a dealer in drugs and sundries". Henry’s early education "was received in the common schools and in Barre Academy, and later, he took a course in the Boston Commercial College, graduating from there at the age of twenty-one".
Barre Academy was a remarkable institution, only a few years old at the time that Henry Wood was enrolled. Its primary object was "to furnish to the youth of their own vicinity . . . the means of securing a sound, practical education, for the business of life". It was open to young ladies as well as young men, and sought to "promote virtue, morality and piety in the young, by the inculcation of those great moral principles, on the observance of which, in so great a measure, depend the freedom of our institutions, and the highest well being of man individually". However, "nothing sectarian shall be allowed in the management of laws of the Academy. The Bible will be honored, and its religion and requirements enforced, without interfering with the creed of any pupil or with his choice in respect to his place of public worship". Textbooks included Latin, Greek, French, geometry, chemistry, philosophy, logic, and moral science. The Boston Commercial College was equally impressive in the rigorous training given its students.
After a few years of clerkship, Wood left Barre in 1855 for Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he went into the mercantile business. In 1860 he married Margaret Osborne Baker, the daughter of the state bank commissioner. In 1863, they moved to Chicago, where he entered the wholesale trade. Advertisements in the Chicago Tribune describe what became Keith, Wood & Co, a successful dry goods business, importing and jobbing high-end clothes and shoes for the carriage trade. One of his partners was also a native of Barre. The firm was burned out by a fire in 1868 (not the great fire of 1871) but survived and moved into even nicer quarters. According to the Barre souvenir program, Wood retired in 1869 owing to impaired health, and the last mention of his firm in the Tribune was in September of 1868. That, however, does not completely square with Wood’s own account, mentioned above, of his illness in 1888. In any case, the program informs us, "after disposing of his business in Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Wood spent a year in Europe, but upon their return, still made their home in Chicago, except during summers which were spent on the Massachusetts coast." Wood’s first novel, Edward Burton, is set mainly in the seaside resort of Bar Harbor, Maine. The Woods moved to Boston in 1882. We are not told how he earned his living after closing his business, but he was considered well-to-do. Dresser called him the first New Thought philanthropist.
The Woods had two children: a son who died in infancy, and a daughter, Helen Margaret, presumably named after Wood’s sister Helen and his wife Margaret, who died in 1888 in Boston at about age 11. This would put her birth during the time after the Woods returned from Europe but before they moved to Boston. Undoubtedly her death contributed to whatever Wood was experiencing in 1888.
All we know is that Wood, who had published a very successful business book in 1887, came roaring back in 1890 with Edward Burton and continued to prosper with popular books, articles, and lectures, the last book being published in 1908. He died in Brookline, Massachusetts in April of 1909.
In addition to numerous articles and papers, many of which were later reprinted in books, Wood wrote eleven books. His business book, The Political Economy of Natural Law, was written in 1894 and republished in 1901 under the title The Political Economy of Humanism. In the Preface, Wood states:
In 1894 the author issued a work entitled "The Political Economy of Natural Law," which was well received, and which called out hundreds of commendatory notices from the best class of critics and newspapers. It passed through four editions. The present volume, though containing much of the same matter (revised), has two addition [sic] chapters upon current topics of special interest, With this revision and addition, it is thought best to change the title to one which perhaps is more expressive of the viewpoint and purpose of the volume. (p. 6)
Wood’s writing career seems to have begun in 1887 with Natural Law in the Business World, published by Lee and Shepard (later Lothrop, Lee & Shepard) of Boston, the publishers of all Wood’s books. His other books are all classified as New Thought, including his two works of fiction, in which he puts New Thought ideas into the words and actions of some of his characters. They are:
1890 Edward Burton (fiction)
1892 God’s Image in Man: Some Intuitive Perceptions of Truth
1893 Ideal Suggestion Through Mental Photography
1896 Studies in the Thought World
1898 Victor Serenus: A Story of the Pauline Era (historical fiction)
1901 The Political Economy of Humanism (New Thought principles applied to business and politics)
1901 The Symphony of Life
1903 The New Thought Simplified: How to Gain Harmony and Health
1905 Life More Abundant
1908 The New Old Healing
All of these are available online as downloadable Google books; some are also still in print and for sale. For a convenient list of these titles and links to them, see the Henry Wood page on our website, http://www.neweverymoment.com .
New Thought Principles in Wood’s Writings
Wood apparently came from a traditional yet fairly liberal religious background. Having grown up as a nice little Maryland Episcopalian, I was unfamiliar with the dichotomy in New England Congregationalism between the strict Calvinist approach and the more liberal unitarian and/or universalist views. We know from the Barre Academy catalogue that Wood was trained in traditional beliefs and practices but with a freedom of observance for the individual. Our main clue comes in Edward Burton, in which the eponymous hero, who had intended to take ministerial training at Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, decides at the last minute to switch to Princeton at the urging of his local Calvinist minister, who claims that Andover has become "unsound". Burton’s close friend attends Andover and fares much better than does Burton, who falls gravely ill and is healed by the New Thought-type treatment of his friend. The real-life history of Andover’s shift in attitude can be read in chapter 1 of The Andover Liberals: a Study in American Theology (1970), by Daniel Day Williams.
In a discussion of the broad ideas of New Thought as contained in the INTA Declaration of Principles, Judah leads off with comments about the widespread pantheism in the movement. He notes:
On the other hand, there have been others, like Henry Wood, who criticize this dominant trend. Concerning God, Wood said: "While he is in and back of all things, it would be pantheism to say that everything—as we behold it—is God. Immanence and transcendence are complementary aspects. To rate him as ‘principle’ as that term is generally understood, is unworthy and such a concept will never fill the void in the human constitution." (p. 179)
Judah also comments, "Henry Wood’s view at the close of the last century became more normal for New Thought. He quotes Wood as saying that New Thought "does not deal directly with surface phenomena, but with their inner springs of causation. . . . The New Thought believes in the potency of God and Law, and that an aggressive pessimism, emphasizing the evil of human conditions, is unscientific and harmful, even when well meant." (p. 182)
Although Wood was an idealist, he is very clear that he does not share the notion that matter is illusory: "Matter is regarded as expressive, secondary, and resultant, but by no means as unreal. In its proper place and relation it is good and useful. Man is the normal and rightful executive of his physical organism, and not its subordinate, nor the slave of its sensations." He constantly emphasizes the importance of good hygiene, of eating properly and getting proper rest and exercise, caring for the body well. He regards drugs as unnatural and to be avoided as much as possible. He stresses the importance of conforming to universal law rather than trying to go against it. He also stresses common sense:
Much ill-founded and unnecessary prejudice is aroused against the higher philosophy of life by unqualified statements which are beyond present conditions and above the viewpoint of ordinary observers. . . . Extremes always beget opposing extremes. . . . That the primary causes for physical conditions are inherently mental is true, but it does not follow that the body can be changed "while you wait" by a superficial change in the mind. Logic is good, but it is subject to abuse. Because a man can lift three hundred pounds it does not follow that he can lift three thousand, even though the principle be the same. Idealistic statements, true in a certain sense and of great utility when understood, may be harmful and repulsive when made to a "realist"; for to him they are lies. ("Criticisms of New Thought". In Dresser (Ed.) The Spirit of the New Thought, pp. 190-191).
Although Wood clearly had a prosperity consciousness, he would have agreed with Charles and Myrtle Fillmore that we should enjoy material prosperity "without making any of these things the object of our existence". One of the characters in Edward Burton loses much of his large fortune and becomes deathly ill. After a healing facilitated by the hero, he moves contentedly into a simpler way of life and eventually regains most of what he has lost.
Henry Wood represents New Thought at its finest: centered on theologically liberal Christianity, seeking health, wealth, and happiness through first aligning our minds with the mind of God to get our thinking right. His was the era when New Thought still postulated the character ethic and the Judeo-Christian belief system in the tradition of success literature dating back to Benjamin Franklin. Man was to access God directly in all times and places while seeking to adhere to God’s laws. We are to help our neighbor with a hand up rather than a handout. There is no substitute for regular quiet time with God, reading the Bible, and remaining disciplined in our daily lives, even while we enjoy life to the fullest degree possible.
For more about Henry Wood, you may wish to read my series of newsletters dealing with Wood’s writings, particularly the sets of Suggestions and Suggestive Lessons from Ideal Suggestion and from The New Thought Simplified. These are available on our web site, http://www.neweverymoment.com on the Newsletter page. You can scroll down to the earliest Henry Wood post on April 15, 2010.
Barre, Vt. (1894). Historical Souvenir. Nickerson & Cox, Publishers.
Braden, Charles S. (1963). Spirits in Rebellion: The Rise and Development of New Thought. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press.
Dresser, Horatio W. (Ed.) (1917). The Spirit of the New Thought: Essays and Addresses by Representative Authors and Leaders. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.
James, William (1902). The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: The Modern Library.
Judah, J. Stillson (1967). The History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
Williams, Daniel Day (1970). The Andover Liberals: A Study in American Theology. New York: Octagon Books.