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Little Leaven

New Thought began as a healing movement. In mid-nineteenth century New England, as in most times and places, people were hurting in mind and body. The Christian church had abandoned its role in healing, and in its zeal to distance itself from medieval superstition, had all but ceased to expect miracles. Science and scientific methods were all the rage, but human nature had not changed very much, and the clergy and physicians of the time were doing great harm by frightening people with misinformation. The resulting fears either caused or exacerbated illnesses. Further, in the Age of Heroic Medicine, common practices probably killed as many patients as they cured.

One of the new scientific wrinkles on the scene was mesmerism, which later evolved into hypnosis. Two mesmerists came to New England, and Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, a self-taught clockmaker and inventor with an inquiring mind, decided to try his hand at it. He was quite successful, even healing a serious physical ailment of his own with the power of the focused mind; and he began to travel around healing people with this new approach.

Quimby soon realized that the mesmeric theory did not at all explain what was really happening to people. He say the harm that the fear of thoughts of the "priests and doctors," as he called them, were doing to his patients. He determined that his job was to dehypnotize people from these false beliefs by disputing them. Like any great communicator, intentionally or not, he continued to use techniques that put people into light trance, even after he abandoned the formal use of mesmerism. And he discovered the existence of the other-than-conscious mind—that source of so much inexplicable behavior—long before Freud, who was ten years old when Quimby made his transition. He wrote down his theories, sharing them with his patients, but with his limited schooling, his writing was difficult to understand, and he used strange terms to describe his findings. Still, he was healing many thousands of people, who flocked to his office. He even accomplished some long-distance healing, of which there were eyewitness accounts. He was effective not only with mental illness, but with much physical illness, since all illness is psychosomatic in that it has both a mind (psyche) and a body (soma) component. Yet he did not claim to be able to heal everyone of everything.

Paralleling the development of Quimby’s healing practice was his own spiritual growth. Although he had no use for organized religion, he began to study the Bible on his own, looking for evidence with which to refute the negative fear-thoughts of his patients. He came to the conclusion that he had discovered the lost healing methods of Jesus. He saw his mission as one of helping others, charging very little for his services. He eventually died of overwork, having neglected to take the time to tend to his own health challenges. Unfortunately, only two of his patients showed any interest in continuing the work: Warren Felt Evans and Mary Baker Eddy. Evans does not appear to have stayed particularly close to the teachings of Quimby. Eddy, on the other hand, begged to be allowed to teach Quimby’s methods, but during his lifetime, he would not allow her to do so, nor would he allow her to have any of his writings except a set of questions and answers that all of his patients were permitted to copy. Through a convoluted set of circumstances, Quimby’s teaching were kept alive by Eddy and may of her followers (although Eddy soon repudiated Quimby, after she had established her own teachings, which she at first acknowledged as based on his), as well as by the efforts of the Dressers, who were also Quimby patients. Their son, Horatio, wrote the first history of the New Thought movement, as the work became known. As a psychologist and student of William James, Horatio Dresser saw the significance of Quimby’s work for the new discipline of psychology, which had just begun with James and others.

All religions have a huge psychological component, but New Thought is more self-consciously psychological in approach. It came into existence just when psychology was coming into its own as a discipline, and research in psychology by authors such as Thomson J. Hudson fueled and supported New Thought techniques, which quickly spread from healing of mind and body to healing of pocketbooks and relationships. It is therefore of particular significance that Quimby came along when he did, as one of the precursors of the new discipline.

Mysticism, occultism, and spirituality (the raw material from which religions develop) are all dealt with as part of the discipline of psychology, which is defined as "the science of mind and behavior." Their boundaries are very blurry, and it is frequently difficult to separate them. Medicine has been very slow to acknowledge the mind/body connection, whose boundaries are equally blurry. Some scientists have begun speaking of the bodymind. One of the most interesting and valuable findings of psychology has been the importance of a God-centered, principle-centered, spiritually based, optimistic lifestyle for mental and physical health.

Although Quimby did not personally organize the movement that is now known as New Thought, without his life and work, it never would have come into existence. The task of organizing is generally credited to Emma Curtis Hopkins, a former Eddy associate who founded a school and assumed the office of bishop, ordaining ministers. She functioned in relation to Quimby much as John Y. Brown functioned in relationship to Colonel Sanders, the creator of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Without Brown’s promotion, Sanders might have remained a local phenomenon.

Quimby’s writings, organized into a three-volume set under the auspices of former International New Thought Alliance president, Ervin Seale, are difficult reading, but well worth the effort for the serious scholar. Transcriptions of hypnotic inductions (which are well-known to facilitate healing of all sorts) are about as interesting as watching paint dry, but Quimby’s patient sessions and those of psychiatrist Milton Erickson, who made hypnosis a respectable scientific discipline, show great similarities.

Just as negative thoughts can take root and spread, poisoning mind and body, so positive thoughts can take root and grow, facilitating the healing that ultimately comes from God. As Quimby himself put it, "These ideas are in your mind like little leaven. They will work till the whole mind is changed."