Rev. Norman Vincent Peale is understudied. Since Carol V. R. George's sympathetic biography in 1993 (God's Salesman), Peale has been relegated to brief, largely formulaic treatments in histories of “harmonial religion” (to recall Sydney Ahlstrom's phrase) or of religiously tinged conservative politics. Born in 1898, Peale reached modest prominence in the late 1930s as pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, critic of the New Deal, and coauthor of self-help guides with the neo-Freudian psychiatrist Smiley Blanton. After publishing The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952, he achieved international fame, built a conglomerate of self-help organizations and periodicals, and continued his (usually inept) involvement with conservative politics. He officiated at the marriage of Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower as well as the first marriage of Donald J. Trump. Surge of Piety is a long essay on the meaning of Peale and “Pealeism.” Pealeism includes parts of the conglomerate that he often chose not to manage directly (since his managerial skills were minimal). Much of the story will be familiar to readers of George's biography and Donald Meyer's classic account in The Positive Thinkers (1964). Peale first cultivated optimism to ward off his own gloom and insecurity; borrowed ideas from William James, New Thought, and Christian Science; cultivated rich and powerful men, a group he aspired to join; adapted his version of moderate evangelicalism to the changing zeitgeist; and showed more enthusiasm than skill in trying to advance conservative political causes. Lane effectively discusses Peale's part in the botched effort to rally prominent conservative Protestant clergy against John F. Kennedy in 1960. Lane also gives a good account of the Peale-Blanton friendship (though the book offers too little on their philosophical differences), underscores Peale's characterization of his version of positive thinking as a science, acknowledges that what Peale called his “God-help” books helped some people some of the time, and details the snobbish attacks on Peale by secularists and Protestant theological liberals during the 1950s. As Lane shows, the American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry, founded by Peale in 1951 but largely left to go its own way, eventually accepted both antidepressant medication and the post-Freudian ideas of the psychologists Rollo May and Carl Rogers. Still, the gap between Pealeism and the medical profession remained wide. For his part, Lane too easily accepts psychoanalysis as science. After American historians rediscovered religion as a worthy subject in the late 1970s, they tended toward theological determinism as an explanation of behavior. Lane wisely avoids this error, since Peale had almost no theology beyond belief in a divine Jesus and an afterlife. Unfortunately, he yields to a current countertrend, attributing the 1940s and 1950s awakening to “concerted efforts” by elites rather than a “spontaneous” upsurge (p. 146). As with most social movements, this dichotomy is worse than useless. Finally, Peale's career further undermines two persistent historiographical misconceptions that survive despite copious evidence to the contrary: that there was little conservative Protestant political mobilization between the 1920s and the 1970s, and that conservative evangelicals were necessarily premillennial preachers of God's imminent judgment. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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