The most obvious connecting link between Alcoholics Anonymous and the New Thought movement comes through William James who “had found answers to his own depression and doubts about his self-worth from… New Thought teachings, which he termed ‘mind-cure’… While New Thought organizations never became very large, their ideas have wide acceptance in general society and also influenced early AA…. The principal benefit… was much like the program of the Oxford Group and the claims of William James in his seminal book. It transformed religious beliefs into a plan of action that individuals could follow for their own benefit in solving problems here and now.”
(New Wine – The Spiritual Roots of the Twelve Step Miracle, Mel B., p. 105)
The powers of the universe will directly respond to your individual appeals and needs.
“Mind-cure” is discussed at length in the Varieties lectures. James sees roots of New Thought ideas in the four Gospels, Emersonian transcendentalism, Berkeleyian idealism, spiritism, evolutionism, and Hinduism. Others see an origin that dates back to Plato’s cave, where “ideas” had greater reality than matter. The New Thought philosophy also appears to have been influenced by the works of Emmanuel Swedenborg who held the view that the material realm is one of the effects whose causes are spiritual, and whose purpose is divine.
Lois Wilson’s family, the Burnhams, were staunchly ensconced in this faction – her grandfather was a Swedenborgian minister.
What Is “New Thought”?
”New Thought is a spiritual movement, sometimes classed as a Christian denomination, which developed in the United States in the 19th Century, following the teachings of Phineas Quimby. It is a mind healing movement… based on religious and metaphysical presuppositions.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica) New Thought is “an umbrella term for diverse beliefs that emphasize experiencing God’s presence for practical purposes, such as healing or success.” (beliefnet.com)
Or getting sober, perhaps.
(a) We were alcoholic and could not manage our own lives.
(b) That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.
(c) That God could and would if He were sought. (BB, p. 60)
“The New Thought person was to be free from the principles of a declared belief, instead being in touch with the omnipresent Indwelling Presence of God.” (The Road To Fellowship, Richard Dubiel, p. 3) Unlike most religious societies, there is no sacred text, or immutable canon. “Truth is viewed as a matter of continuing revelation, and no one leader or institution can declare with finality what is the nature of truth.” (newthoughtalliance.org)
This is not so unlike “Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize we know only a little. God will constantly disclose more to you and to us.” (BB, p. 164) AA is not frozen in 1939.
In theory, at least.
For a relatively small organization, New Thought has experienced much fragmentation. Beliefs are varied, and thus, difficult to summarize. The three major factions today are: 1. Religious Science; 2. Unity Church; 3. Church of Divine Science. Bill Wilson’s close friend, Marty Mann, was a longtime member of the Church of Religious Science.
The bulk of the remaining sects have unified under the banner of the International New Thought Alliance (INTA).
In 1914, various New Thought splinter groups formed an association, and in 1916, put out a “mission statement”.
“To teach the Infinitude of the Supreme One, the Divinity of Man and his Infinite Possibilities through the creative power of constructive thinking and obedience to the voice of the indwelling Presence which is our source of Inspiration, Power, Health and Prosperity.” (newthoughtalliance.org)
The 1917 “Declaration of Principles”, modified in 1919, “emphasized the immanence of God, the divine nature of man, the immediate availability of God’s power to man, the spiritual character of the universe, and the fact that sin, and human disorders are basically matters of incorrect thinking”. (Britannica)
The modern INTA website lists New Thoughts “affirmations” which include:
We affirm the power of prayer and the capacity of each person to have mystical experience with God, and to enjoy the grace of God.
- We affirm the manifestation of the kingdom of heaven here and now.
- We affirm…loving one another unconditionally… (and) ministering to one another.
Phineas Quimby (1806-1866) “a self-educated clockmaker from Portland, Maine, is generally acknowledged as the founder of New Thought”. (New Wine, p. 104) Quimby “practiced mesmerism and developed his concepts of mental and spiritual healing, and health based on the view that illness is a matter of the mind”. (Britannica)
Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), a physician who practiced hypnotism, and other forms of psychic healing, attributed his successes to a natural energetic transference that he called “animal magnetism”. A Royal Commission investigating the “cures” wrought by one of Mesmer’s disciples concluded the cause to be “imagination”.
The former clockmaker thought that his healings were not from animal magnetism. He thought he was duplicating the works of Christ, and other prophets. The Skeptic’s Dictionary agrees, seeing a sameness in the biblical and Quimby phenomena. “The power of suggestion, the optimism of the healer, the strong motivation of the sick to be rid of their various ailments (many of them psychological), the faith of the patient in the cure of the healer, the rituals and theater of the healing all combine to produce what we now loosely call the placebo effect.” (Skeptic’s Dictionary)
Many years earlier, the comments of Mark Twain were more succinct. He proclaimed that “all the various forms of New Thought, as well as Christian Science, were cut from the same cloth… they all do their miracles with the same old powerful instrument–the patient’s imagination”. (Dubiel, p. 3)
Although she denied it, Quimby can be seen to have influenced Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, a movement which was explosively popular at the turn of the 20th century. Eddy had been a “patient” of Quimby’s.
“Did Christian Science teachings have anything to do with the forming of AA and the evolution of the Twelve Steps? Bill Wilson, months before he met up with the Oxford Group, had read and reread Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures in the hope of overcoming his drinking by strengthening his willpower.” (New Wine, p. 104)
Fire and Brimstone
New Thought was, in many ways, a reaction to the existing intellectual and religious climates of the era. It can be “traced to the dissatisfaction on the part of many persons with scientific empiricism and their reaction to religious skepticism in the 17th and 18th centuries”. (Britannica) As well, the “fire and brimstone” that constituted the Christian reign of terror being foisted on the majority of Americans, left an opening for something more positive.
“Man… is reared in fear; all his life is passed in bondage to fear of death and disease; and thus his whole mentality becomes cramped, limited, and depressed, and his body follows its shrunken pattern and specification… a perpetual nightmare… an ocean of morbidity.” (Ideal Suggestion through Mental Photography, p. 54)
And then, Hell awaits.
New Thought counters with an unflinchingly positive and optimistic view of life and its outcome. By… resigning the care of your destiny to higher powers… the believer gives the little private convulsive self a rest.” (Language of the Heart, Trysh Travis, p. 77)
William James and Eldwood Worcester
“James disaggregated spirituality from specific theologies… and thus made it available for use by anti-authoritarian alcoholics.” (Travis, p. 78) Further, “James characterized New Thought’s highest aim as an undoing of the modern norms of vigilance and aggression, the cultivation of ‘passivity, not activity; relaxation, not intentness’”. These ideas invite comparison to the relaxation techniques employed by lay therapists Courtenay Baylor and Richard Peabody of the Emmanuel Movement, which was influenced by Christian Science and New Thought concepts.
Elwood Worcester was an Episcopal minister with a PhD in psychology. His Emmanuel Movement was, at least in part, a response to Christian Science and New Thought, both claiming to heal various diseases by Christian methods. These are “’harmonial religions’ …in which spiritual composure, physical health, and even economic well-being are understood to flow from a personal rapport with the cosmos”. (Dubiel, p. 2) The Emmanuels attempted to reconcile psychotherapy and Christianity. Their efforts in bringing “free religious psychotherapy” led to conflicts with the medical authorities, but not before they were brought into contact with many alcoholics among the populations of tuberculosis, and neurasthenia sufferers they targeted to help.
And we have ceased fighting anything or anyone – even alcohol. For by this time sanity will have returned. We will seldom be interested in liquor. If tempted, we recoil from it as from a hot flame. We react sanely and normally, and we will find that this has happened automatically. We will see that our new attitude toward liquor has been given us without any thought or effort on our part. It just comes! That is the miracle of it. We are not fighting it, neither are we avoiding temptation. We feel as though we had been placed in a position of neutrality – safe and protected. We have not even sworn off. Instead, the problem has been removed. It does not exist for us. We are neither cocky nor are we afraid. (BB, pp. 84-85)
The famous 10th step promises are dripping with passivity!
Early AA members were encouraged to read New Thought literature such as Emmet Fox’s The Sermon on the Mount and Thomas Troward’s Edinburgh Lectures on Mental Science. Some went to the Ministry of High Watch retreat, based on the teaching of Eddy disciple, Emma Hopkins. High Watch was “one of the first treatment communities to address alcoholism solely through spiritual means”. (Travis, p. 79)
Richmond Walker, an AA member who got sober in Boston in 1942, penned a daily meditation book, Twenty-Four Hours A Day, in 1948, after moving to Daytona Beach. This book was instantly popular, and it has been conjectured that there may have been a time when more AA members owned Walker’s volume that owned the rather expensive Big Book. According to historian Glenn Chesnut, “there are flashes of the Emmanuel Movement’s New Thought mysticism scattered throughout the text”. (hindsfoot.org)
“It is certain… that the early AA movement acquired a few ideas from the Christian Science and New Thought teachings… Did Christian Science teachings have anything to do with the forming of AA and the evolution of the Twelve Steps? Bill Wilson, months before he met up with the Oxford Group, had read and reread Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures in the hope of overcoming his drinking by strengthening his willpower.” (New Wine, pp. 103-104)
A fundamental and critical AA method involves “letting go”. “Some of us have tried to hold onto our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely.” (BB, p. 58) Change through religion sprouts from similar seeds. “The individual becomes willing to give up the old self or the old ways… and the answers come. James called this ‘surrender’ the ‘way of success.’” (New Wine, p. 104)
“It’s not hard to see that this same idea was transferred to AA.” (New Wine, p. 104) A Second Edition story, The Professor and the Paradox, lists four paradoxes of how AA works. Number One is “We Surrender to Win”. Although Bill Wilson judiciously avoided using the specific term “surrender” in writing the Big Book, the concept is there.
AA, in its book, expresses disdain for the “self-propulsion” and “self-will run riot” of their former lives, these ambitions going hand in hand with compulsive drinking. “Influenced by both the evangelical Oxford Group… and New Thought religions, AA’s created a sense of self and of community loosely premised on what (sociologist) Max Weber has called a ‘religious rejection of the world.’” (Travis, p. 62)
“Alcoholics Anonymous… is premised on a ‘rejection of the world’ …AA’s versions of asceticism and mysticism derive from… the active and evangelical Protestantism of Frank Buchman’s Oxford Group and the passive, idealist, harmonial optimism of New Thought religions… By vigorously embracing the ascetic ‘surrendered life’, AA’s became able to pursue a deliberately diffuse, non-creedal, and sometimes mystical spirituality.” (Travis, p. 70)
“To the New Thought idealist, it is the world’s false definitions of health, wealth, and happiness that weigh down and sicken the soul. Devotional practice – affirmations, prayers, meditations – works to loosen the hold of those false definitions on the spirit and thus restore its ‘natural’ health and prosperity.” (Travis, p. 77)
New Thought in the Modern World
The 21st Century incarnations of the New Thought Movement are largely commercial. The positive thinking that was believed capable of spiritual regeneration, or even of physical healing by those in the Eddy camp, now appears in the self-help world as the “golden ticket” to all that the avaricious heart may desire.
Phineas Quimby might flinch at The Secret, or possibly bemoan his lack of foresight in not himself venturing down the yellow brick road of gold ingots. The notion that positive thoughts have an all-encompassing power over future results, supplies more than ample fodder for critics. Even more so, perhaps, does the corollary that negative thinking is at the root of every tribulation.
The number of healed amputees, of course, remains at zero.
Can anyone believe that if you happen to have the misfortune of being born, say, in a squalid Indian village governed by a caste system, that all you have to do is believe your way out?
In a harshly critical 2010 review, The New York Times states: “‘The Power’ and ‘The Secret’ are larded with references to magnets, energy and quantum mechanics. This last is a dead giveaway: whenever you hear someone appeal to impenetrable physics to explain the workings of the mind, run away – we already have disciplines called “psychology” and “neuroscience” to deal with those questions. Byrne’s onslaught of pseudoscientific jargon serves mostly to establish an “illusion of knowledge”, as social scientists call our tendency to believe we understand something much better than we really do”.
The “Law of Attraction” is about as much a law as AA “statistics” are statistics.
Rhonda’s Byrne’s enormously successful book has spawned many imitators, while itself being an imitation of the “positive thinking” efforts of generations ago. Napoleon Hill and Norman Vincent Peale grew out of the basic New Thought mentality. The torch of the movement’s “spiritually-focused” aspect is Oprah Winfrey, who is also no opponent of financial windfall, but don’t go dissing Oprah! Oprah is God!
AA’s ideas of taking the entire drink problem and turning it over to God, is entirely compatible with core New Thought thinking. When one reads the Big Book looking for positive affirmations, there are many to be found. Journeying through the philosophy and writings of William James, and also the Emmanuel Movement, New Thought’s principles have arrived in AA.
Phineas Quimby probably did not foresee that.
About the Author
Bob K. lives in the Metropolitan Toronto area, and has been a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous since 1991, and an out-of-the-closet atheist for that entire time. He has been a regular contributor to the AA Agnostica website for almost 5 years, and in January, 2015, published Key Players in AA History In 2013, he co-founded the Whitby Freethinkers meeting.