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The Therapeutic Gospel: Religious Medicine and the Birth of Pop Psychology, 1850–1910


In 1857, a bangor, maine, newspaper announced that a man named Phineas P. Quimby was engaged in “investigations in psychology” and that he had “discovered and in his daily practice carries out, a new principle of treatment of diseases.” A few years later, a Portland newspaper reported that Quimby's “new theory of disease” was “so contrary to the commonly received opinions” that people “hardly dare believe there can be any truth in it.” Contemporary observers found both Quimby's theory of Mind Cure and his medical practice to be highly unusual. Apparently, Quimby would “sit down beside him [the patient], and put himself en rapport with him.” He did “not use medicine or any material agency, nor call to his aid mesmerism or any spiritual influence whatever” in his treatment. Rather, observers maintained that “his power over disease arises from his subtle knowledge of the mind”.

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1. Dresser Horatio, A History of New Thought (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1919), 58.

2. Dresser , History, 66.

3. Ibid., 58.

4. Ibid., 65.

5. Ibid., 62.

6. This essay is part of a larger project that I am currently working on entitled The Therapeutic Gospel: Personal Problems and Public Debate in Modern America.

7. The most important work to date done on the psychological and social origins of therapeutic thinking is that of T. J. Jackson Lears. Lears explored the spiritual malaise that led Americans to the therapeutic al ar in the late 19th Century and documented the emergence of the therapeutic ethos (a phrase he coined) in 1920s advertising (see Lears T. J Jackson, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Cultsure, 1880–1920 (New York: Pantheon, 1981); and Lears , “From Salvation to Self-Realization: Advertising and the Therapeutic Roots of the Consumer Culture, 1880–1930,” in Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880–1980, ed. Fox Richard Wrightman and Lears T. J. Jackson [New York: Pantheon, 1983], 338). For other cultural historians who address the issue of the psychologization of American society, see Susman Warren, “Personality and the Making of Twentieth-Century Culture,” in New Directions in American Intellectual History, edited by Higham John and Conkin Paul (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 212–26; Marchand Roland, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920–1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); Lasch Christopher, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Norton, 1978); and Burnham John C., How Superstition Won and Science Lost: Popularizing Science and Health in the United States (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987). Studies that address the role of the professions or professionals in promoting psychological or therapeutic thinking include those by Ross Dorothy, G.Stanley Hall: The Psychologist as Prophet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972); O'Donnell John, The Origins of Behaviorism: American Psychology, 1870–1920 (New York: New York University Press, 1985); Hale Matthew Jr., Human Science and Social Order: Hugo Munsterberg and the Origins of Applied Psychology (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980); and Leys Ruth, “Types of One: Adolf Meyer's Life Chart and the Representation of Individuality,” Representations 34 (Spring, 1991): 129.

8. For biographical information on Quimby, see Braden Charles, Spirits in Rebellion: The Rise and Development of New Thought (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1963); and Dresser , History.

9. Mesmerism was a theory first proposed by Franz Anton Mesmer. In 1778, he proclaimed that he had discovered a fluid that surrounded all bodies. Frenchman Charles Poyen and Englishman Robert Collyer brought mesmerism to the United States. For a discussion of this popular science in France and in the United States, see, respectively, Darton Robert, Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968); and Fuller Robert C., Mesmerism and the American Cure of Souls (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982).

10. Dresser , History, 106. Spiritualism, a popular movement that gained momentum in the 1850s, embraced direct communication with the supernatural and encouraged communication with the dead. For a discussion of Spiritualism and American culture, see Kerr Howard, Mediums, and Spirit-Rapperss, and Roaring Radicals: Spiritualism in American Literature, 1850–1900 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972); Moore R. Lawerence, In Search of White Crows: Spiritualism, Parapsychology, and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977); and Braude Anne, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (Boston: Beacon, 1989).

11. Quimby , Science of Health and Happiness (the unpublished writings of Phineas P. Quimby), copied from the original Quimby manuscripts in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., by E. S. Collie (New York, 1939), 2–3.

12. Quimby , Science, 235. Quimby was by no means alone in his hostility to the clergy. Indeed, a great period of anticlericalism preceded his therapeutic activity. As scholars have shown, this anticlericalism was part of a larger attack on patriarchal authority that included hostily toward elites and professionals. For a discussion of these themes, see, for example, Fliegelman Jay, Prodigals and Pilgrims: The A merican Revolution Against Patriarchal A uthority, 1750–1800 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982); Wood Gordon S., “The Democratization of Mind in the American Revolution,” in Leadership in the American Revolution (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1974); and Hatch Nathan O., The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

13. Quimby , Science, 177.

14. Ibid., 3.

15. Ibid., 34.

16. Ibid., 13.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Victorians believed that truth was directly readable. This faith in the visibility of truth was often linked to an enthusiasm for physiology and the insights it provided. Thus, phrenologists, for example, believed that the size and the shape of the head provided direct knowledge about a person's character. Similarly, moral advisors believed that virtue and depravity could be read from deportment and composure. They provided newcomers to urban areas with information about the physical characteristics of confidence men, painted women, and others they considered to be morally depraved. For studies of phrenology, see Davies John D., Phrenology, Fad, and Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955); and Stern Madeline B., Heads and Headlines: The Phrenological Fowlers (Norman: Oklahoma University Press, 1971). For a discussion of Victorian advice literature, see, for example, Halttunen Karen, Confidence Men, Painted Women: A Study of Middle Class Culture in America, 1830–1870 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982). The best overview of the values of Victorian culture remains Howe Daniel Walker's “Victorian Culture in America,” in Victorian America, ed. Howe Daniel Walker (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976). For a provocative discussion of the new importance of observable proof and the new physiological ideal of vision, see Crary Jonathan, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991).

20. Quimby , Science, 15.

21. Quimby was clearly not alone in his criticism. Indeed, there was an important tradition of attacks on the emphasis on the body. For example, American reformers attacked corporal punishment, not only for its inhumaneness, but also for its ineffectivenss as a method of punishment. In a variety of settings including the school, the military, and the slave plantation, flogging came under attack. For an account of this intense attention to scenes of bodily correction, see Brodhead Richard H., “Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America,” Representations 21 (Winter 1988): 6796.

22. Despite Quimby's strong criticisms of Victorian medicine, the campaign he waged against it was, in fact, selective. Indeed, Quimby accepted a good deal of its logic. He shared with both orthodox and unorthodox physicians, for example, a belief that disease was nonspecific. Most doctors in the 1850s and 1860s still conceived of disease as a general systemic imbalance. They viewed it as a condition in which the body had lost its natural equilibrium. Thus, as one historian of medicine explains, “diseases were thought to be generalized not by discrete causative agents – one invariably producing pneumonia and another typhoid fever – but rather a variety of destabilizing factors acting singly or more often as an ensemble to unbalance the system” (see Warner John H., Therapeutic Perspective: Medical Practice, Knowledge, and Identity in America [(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986)], 86. Unlike modern medicine, mid-19th-Century medicine imagined diseases to be fluid. One disease could become another in the course of illness. Quimby shared these views. He imagined diseases to be fluid and that they were caused by a systemic imbalance, though he located this imbalance in the mind. Quimby also shared with contemporary medical therapeutics an emphasis on local knowledge. In the mid-19th-Century, both orthodox and irregular medicine believed that the key to effective therapeutics was knowledge of the patient and the medical environment. Doctors insisted on an individualized match between the patient and the treatment. They imagined a wide range of circumstances affecting the course of the disease, including the age, gender, profession, ethnicity, and moral status of the patient as well as meteorological conditions. Indeed, this emphasis on local knowledge was so great that physicians viewed the application of universal rules as a sign of quackery. Quimby shared these concerns. However, Quimby took the directive to know one's patient much further than his medical colleagues, for he included in it a full understanding of the patient's personal troubles and state of mind.

23. Though Quimby greatly exaggerated the differences between his medical theory and that of his contemporaries, his privileging of the mind is one of the critical features that distinguishes his therapeutics from Victorian medicine and links it to modern therapeutic discourse.

24. Quimby , Science, 14.

25. Ibid., 19.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid., 16.

28. Ibid., 19.

29. Ibid.

30. For two excellent discussions of this transformation, see Howe , “Victorian Culture,” and Brodhead , and “Sparing the Rod”.

31. Ronald Walters discusses the tendencies among reformers in the antebellum period to be radically optimistic about the possibility of eradicating sin and establishing perfect harmony and health. This commitment to perfectionism was widespread among revivalists and a host of reformers (see Walters Ronald G., American Reformers [New York: Hill and Wang, 1978]). For this tendency among health reformers, see Markell-Morantz Regina, “Making Women Modern: Middle Class Women and Health Reform in Nineteenth-Century America,” Journal of American History 10 (Summer 1977): 490507.

32. Quimby , Science, 90.

33. Ibid., 149.

34. Ibid., 5.

35. Ibid., 90.

36. Dresser , History, 49.

37. Quimby , Science, 151.

38. Ibid., 56.

39. Ibid., 116.

40. Ibid., 149.

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid., 40–41.

43. Ibid., 6. Mid-19th-Century marital advisors, for example, considered physiology key to successful domestic relations. While some advisors ascribed marital problems to ignorance of or faulty sexual practice, others believed that “offenses of disposition” stemmed from “badly cooked and unhygenic food” (see Cowan John, Science of a New Life [New York: Cowan, 1871]). For an analysis of mid-19th-Century marriage manuals, see Moskowitz Eva S., “Naming the Problem: How Popular Culture and Experts Paved the Way for ‘Personal Polities’” (Ph.D. diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1992), 2376.

44. Many historians have explored the theme of the demise of Victorian culture and morality. See, for example, Kasson John, Amusing the Millions: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978); May Elaine, Great Expectations: Marriage and Divorce in Post-Victorian America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Griswold Robert, Family and Divorce: Victorian Illusions and Everyday Reaities (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982); May Larry, Screening Out the Past: The Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture Industry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980); Smith-Rosenberg Carroll, “The New Woman as Androgyne,” in Disorderly ConductVisions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Knopf, 1985); Curtis Susan, Consuming Faith: The Social Gospel and Modern American Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991); Rosenberg Rosalind, Beyond Separate Spheres: Intellectual Roots of Modern Feminism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982); Lubove Roy, The Professional A Itruist: The Emergence of Social Work as a Career, 1880– 1930 (New York: Atheneum, 1972); Erenberg Lewis A., Steppin Out: New York Night Life and the Decline of Victorianism, 1890–1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984); and Peiss Kathy, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986).

45. Higham John, “The Reorientation of American Culture in the 1890s,” in Writing American History: Essays in Modern Scholarship, ed. Higham John (Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 1970): 73102.

46. This interpretational framework was first characterized as such in 1970 by Louis Galambos, who observed a tendency among economic and political historians to see modern American history in terms of the development of large-scale, national organizations. For discussions of this persepective, see Galambos Louis, “The Emerging Organizational Synthesis in Modern American History,” Business History Review 44 (Autumn 1970): 279–90; Galambos , “Technology, Political Economy, and Professionalization: Central Themes of the Organizational Synthesis,” Business History Review 57 (Winter 1983): 471–93; and Balogh Brian, ldquo;Reorganizing the Organizational Synthesis: Federal Professional Relations in Modern America,” Studies in American Political Development 5 (Spring 1991): 119–72.

47. Abbott Andrew, in Systems of Professions: An Essay on the Expert Division of Labor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), explores the role of neurologists in organizing Americans' inner lives. For discussion of the diverse medical and popular movements active during this time period in what today would be called the area of personal problems, see Moskowitz , “Naming the Problem.”

48. Although most students of Mind Cure and New Thought observe that the movement had wide appeal among women and that women might have been attracted to it because they had access to leadership positions (it was quite common for women to run New Thought schools and seminaries and to become ministers), no one has done a systematic study of women in the New Thought movement or the gendered implications of its therapeutic rhetoric. As my larger study, The Therapeutic Gospel: Personal Problems and Public Debate in Modern America, will show, therapeutic rhetoric has historically targeted a largely female audience.

49. Journal of Practical Metaphysics no. 3 (12 1897): 86 (hereafter cited as JPM). For the controversies surrounding what distinguished New Thought from Christian Science, see Dresser, History; and Braden, Spirits in Rebellion.

50. Dresser , History, 244.

51. Ibid., 236.

52. Ibid., 234.

53. Ibid., 176.

54. Ibid., 175.

55. JPM no. 2 (11 1897): 60.

56. Parker Gail Thain, Mind Cure in New England: From the Civil War to World War I (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1973), 7.

57. Ibid., 101.

58. No one has compiled a complete list of New Thought magazines. This task is made difficult by the fact that many were short-lived and are not included in local library collections. The largest New Thought collection of material is located at the Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University. The periodicals I examined for this study include the Arena, Christian Metaphysician, Harmony, The Higher Law, Ideal American, Immortality, Journal of Practical Metaphysics, Library of Health, Mental Science Monthly, Nautilus, New Thought, Realization, and Success Magazine. For the most complete listing, see, Braden, Spirits in Rebellion.

59. Parker , Mind Cure, 101.

60. Braden , Spirits in Rebellion, 341.

61. Dresser , History, 239.

62. Wood Henry, Ideal Suggestions Through Mental Photography: A Restorative System for Home and Private Use Preceded by a Study of the Laws of Mental Healing (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1893), 55.

63. Ibid., 93.

64. Miriam Helen Bigelow, What Shall Make Us Whole (Boston: Cupples and Herd, 1988): 49.

65. Pennock Edward A., “Disease of Apprehension,” JPM no. 1 (10 1896): 10.

66. JPM no. 4 (01 1898): 109.

67. Miriam , What Shall Make Us Whole, 49.

68. Ibid.

69. Barnett Elizabeth, Practical Metaphysics or the True Method of Healing (Boston: Carler and Karrick, 1988), 6.

70. Miriam , What Shall Make Us Whole, 36.

71. Wood Henry, Edward Burton (New York: C. T. Dillingham, 1890), 74.

72. Ibid., 70.

73. DrMacDonald Cassins, “Metaphysical Terminology,” Mind 22 (10 1897): 43.

74. Ibid.

75. Wood , Ideal Suggestions, 5455.

76. Pennock Edward A., “Storm-Centresxs,” JPM no. 1 (10 1897): 14.

77. Wood , Ideal Suggestions, 54.

78. Pennock , “Disease of Apprehension,” 6.

79. Ibid., 7.

80. Pennock , “Storm-Centres,” 14.

81. “Notes from the Journal of a Truth Seeker,” JPM no. 4 (01 1898): 109.

82. Ibid., 110.

83. Beard George, American Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences (New York: Putnam, 1881), 7. See also Blustein Bonnie Ellen, “‘A Hollow Square of Psychological Science’: American Neurologists and Psychiatrists in Conflict,” in Mad Houses, Mad Doctors, and Mad Men, ed. Scull Andrew (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981): 241–70.

84. Miriam , What Shall Make Us Whole, 22.

85. “Committing Sickness,” Nautilus 8, no. 2 (12 1905): 15.

86. Choate Clara Elizabeth, “The Potency of Good Thinking,” JPM no. 2 (11 1896): 43.

87. “Magic of Mood,” JPM no. 1 (10 1897): 20.

88. Ibid.

89. JPM no. 2 (11 1896): 43.

90. Barnett , Practical Metaphysics, 47.

91. Wood , Ideal Suggestions, 24.

92. Barnett , Practical Metaphysics, 16.

93. Wood , Ideal Suggestions, 79.

94. JPM no. 4 (01 1898): 113.

95. Barnett , Practical Metaphysics, 49.

96. “Magic of Mood,” 18.

97. “Potency of Good Thinking,” 44.

98. Wood Henry, “Auto-suggestion and Concentration,” Arena 12 (03 1895): 142.

99. “Concentration,” JPM no. 1 (10 1897): 11.

100. Ibid.

101. Wood , Ideal Suggestions, 24.

102. Wood , “Auto-suggestion,” 142.

103. Ibid.

104. Ibid., 143.

105. Barnett , Practical Metaphysics, 23.

106. Wood , “Auto-suggestion,” 141.

107. Ibid., 144.

108. “Family Counsel,” Nautilus no. 2 (12 1905): 29.

109. Ibid.

110. Ibid.

111. Ibid.

112. Ibid.

113. “Health and Happiness Insurance Company Mutual,” Good Housekeeping 50 (04 1910): 470.

114. Ibid., 470–71.

115. Ibid., 472.

116. Ibid.

117. William James was one of the few psychologists who opposed the efforts of the Massachusetts legislature. He testified against restrictive measures. He explained that while religious medicine's findings were “patent and startling … anything that interferes with the multiplication of such facts, and with our freest opportunity of observing and studying them [would] be, I believe, a public calamity” (quoted in Weiss Richard, The American Myth of Sucess: From Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peak [New York: Basic, 1969]: 198).

118. “A Pathological View of the ‘New Thought’ as a Form of Mania,” Current Literature 46 (01 1909): 97.

119. Ibid., 98.

120. Weiss , Myth of Success, 199.

121. Ibid., 201.

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