Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993) was a religious leader who developed a blend of psychotherapy and religion based on the idea that nearly all basic problems are personal. He spread this message through his radio and television programs and through his popular book The Power of Positive Thinking and other writings.
Norman Vincent Peale was born in the small Ohio town of Bowersville on May 31, 1898, son of the local Methodist minister. The family moved frequently, in the Methodist itinerant tradition. They were not wealthy, and young Peale earned money delivering papers, working in a grocery store, and selling pots and pans door-to-door.
Graduating in 1920 from Ohio Wesleyan, a Methodist-founded college, Peale worked as a reporter on two newspapers, the Findlay (Ohio) Morning Republican and the Detroit Journal, for about a year before deciding that his life work lay elsewhere. Ordained to the Methodist ministry in 1922, he took a master's degree and an S.T.B. (Bachelor of Sacred Theology), both in 1924, from the theological school at Boston University. Faculty members at BU were religious liberals, many interested in the relationship between psychology and religion—a life-long concern of Peale's.
After serving from 1922 to 1924 as pastor in Berkeley, Rhode Island and then from 1924 to 1927 in Brooklyn, New York, Peale crowned his Methodist career with an appointment to University Methodist Church in Syracuse, New York. He married Loretta Ruth Stafford, herself an active church worker, in 1930.
In 1932 Peale changed his denomination from Methodist to Dutch Reformed, when he moved to the 300-year-old Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. This church traced its parish life back to Dutch New Amsterdam and was to be Peale's home church for the next half-century.
Peale and Smiley Blanton, a psychoanalyst, established a religio-psychiatric outpatient clinic next door to the church. The two men wrote books together, notably Faith Is the Answer: A Psychiatrist and a Pastor Discuss Your Problems (1940). In 1951 this blend of psychotherapy and religion grew into the American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry, with Peale serving as president and Blanton as executive director.
Peale started a radio program, "The Art of Living," in 1935. Under sponsorship of the National Council of Churches he moved into television when the new medium arrived. In the meantime he had begun to edit the magazine Guideposts and to write books: The Art of Living (1937), A Guide to Confident Living (1948), and most notably, The Power of Positive Thinking (1952).
Peale's books enjoyed only a modest circulation until the great religion boom after World War II, a movement of which Peale was both a maker and a beneficiary. By the early 1950s the publishing climate for books like Peale's was highly favorable. Publisher's Weekly noted (January 23, 1954) that "the theme of religion dominates the non-fiction best-sellers in 1953," including such gems as The Power of Prayer on Plants and Pray Your Weight Away. The most successful such book, The Power of Positive Thinking, was on the New York Times best-seller list for three years and was translated into 33 languages.
If Peale had his ardent admirers, he had also his vocal detractors. He was accused of watering down the traditional doctrines of Christianity, of stressing materialistic rewards, and of counseling people to accept social conditions rather than reform them. Also, his best-known book was replete with "two 15-minute formulas," "a three-point program," "seven simple steps," "eight practical formulas," and "ten simple rules." Some readers found his message too easy to be plausible.
Asked to compare Peale with St. Paul, the two-time presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson of Illinois quipped that he found Paul appealing and Peale appalling. That remark perhaps reflected political bias. Boston University's liberalism may have loosened Peale's theology, but it did not seem to influence his politics. For a time Peale was chairman of the ultraconservative Committee for Constitutional Government, which lobbied vigorously against New Deal measures. In 1960 Peale, as spokesman for 150 Protestant clergymen, opposed the election of John Kennedy as president. "Faced with the election of a Catholic," Peale declared, "our culture is at stake." The uproar resulting from that pronouncement caused the pastor to back off from further formal partisan commitments, possibly to avoid offending part of the mass audience for his primary religio-psychological message. He was, however, politically and personally close to President Nixon's family. In 1968 he officiated at the wedding of Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower. He continued calling at the White House throughout the Watergate crisis, saying "Christ didn't shy away from people in trouble." It has been argued that even his "positive thinking" message was by implication politically conservative: "The underlying assumption of Peale's teaching was that nearly all basic problems were personal."
In 1984 Peale was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan. In that same year, after 52 years at the pulpit, Peale retired from preaching at Marble Collegiate Church. For the next seven years he spoke to an average of 100 groups a year (a live audience numbered in the millions) and made frequent television and radio appearances. During this time he also produced more than a dozen books.
Peale died at his home in Pawling, New York on December 24, 1993, at the age of 95. He was survived by his wife Ruth and their three children.
Autobiographical anecdotes and fragments are scattered throughout Peale's books, especially his later ones. Arthur Gordon wrote a biography, Norman Vincent Peale: Minister to Millions (1958), a book sufficiently romanticizing its subject that it was readily transformed into a Hollywood movie, One Man's Way (1963); the book was revised and retitled One Man's Way in 1972. Douglas T. Miller described the context of Peale's literary success in the article "Popular Religion of the 1950s: Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham," in Journal of Popular Culture (Summer 1975). Donald Meyer has placed Peale in his longer-range historical context in The Positive Thinkers: A Study of the American Quest for Health, Wealth and Personal Power from Mary Baker Eddy to Norman Vincent Peale (1965). See also George, Carol V.R., God's Salesman: Norman Vincent Peale and The Power of Positive Thinking (1993).