I taught my first New Thought History class on Thursday. My students are eager to learn. I’d like more of them because I think our history is absolutely fascinating. The history is also helpful when your relatives ask those silly questions.
We’ve all had friends and relatives who asked questions that tell more about their bias than we could guess.
I’ve heard many questions in the last 25 years. Here are three favorites I can remember. “How can an intelligent woman fall for that hokum?” “How can I visit your church when I’m Jewish?” “What do you guys think about having sex outside of marriage?”
There is one question that still tangles me up – “Is New Thought Christian?”
Do you get tongue tied when someone asks you if your church is Christian? Do you think Unity and Divine Science answer yes faster? I think it is possible because they were formed in the 1880’s. Religious Science came about 50 years later and I think the answer is more apt to be, “Yes and no.” It may also be a longer response.
Some New Thought people think we are practicing original Christianity because we teach what Jesus taught. On the other hand, some Fundamentalist Christians are certain our answer has to be no. They believe we can’t qualify as Christian because we ignore some of the Bible stories and don’t talk about sin.
New Thought is usually classified as Christian in encyclopedias because it evolved from earlier Christian denominations. That’s what the encyclopedias believe – but not all New Thought followers agree. Some don’t believe they are Christians. I think people in Unity, and Divine Science are more apt to say yes to the question because they were created in the 1880’s.
The founder of Religious Science, Ernest Holmes, was a prodigious student of religious and philosophical ideas. He gives a yes and no answer on PG 4 of our class textbook, The Philosophy of Ernest Holmes. He writes, “…we have roots in a very deep antiquity. …it has drawn its knowledge from all sources; it is not just a Christian philosophy, although it is a Christian denomination.
All New Thought denominations believe that everything comes from God. There is no split between body and soul. There is no battle between light and darkness or good and evil. The belief in Oneness puts us in a rare stream of mystical teachers (including Jesus) that are all recorded and respected.
New Thought, whether the most modern aspects of Religious Science, or the most Christian aspects of Divine Science, are based on a mystical worldview. In other words – we may or may not be Christian but we are all mystics.
We are called mystics and we are also called idealists. Whether the word is mystic or idealist, we believe that everything comes from One Source – Spirit – the formless or invisible part of life. Although Holmes used his studies of many religious and philosophical sources to create the Science of Mind teaching, he never strayed from the idea of Oneness.
All New Thought uses this Oneness as a tool for spiritual healing. It was built on the knowledge of God or Spirit’s to heal. We recognized the mind/body connection early.
There is no sin in New Thought. We know that in the original Aramaic of the Bible, the word that is now translated as sin meant, “missing the mark.” Or error. We believe that people make mistakes but the essential nature or Spirit is never harmed and we will all eventually come to know ourselves as perfect, complete and whole. We also believe that life is eternal and consciousness continues to exist after what we call death or transition.
Technically, we don’t pray to rescue the sinner or heal the sick. We pray to see the spiritual Truth. The Truth we pray for is already there and we want to realize it through our prayer. Holmes says the result is not a healing but a revealing.
That is an important thing for practitioners to remember when they pray for others. They are working to know the person they pray for is already perfect, whole, and complete at the level of Spirit. As they pray, the Truth becomes apparent. That is both the mysticism of the Christian mystics and the idealism of the Greek Idealists.
Next week we will explore the Greek roots of New Thought in my class. We will learn about Greek philosophers such as Plato and his follower, Plotinus. My students will also learn that Ernest Holmes had a brilliant, and inquisitive mind. He was a self-directed student and he knew his classical history.
Holmes knew and loved Emerson who also embraced Oneness and idealism. But that was not all of the story. Emerson and Holmes also knew about Asian religions and that led them to a world view we call mysticism. Mysticism also runs throughout the history of Christianity. Leaders like St. Augustine, Hildegard of Bingham and Meister Eckhart gain fame as New Thought grows.
Emerson was greatly influenced by the work of one Christian mystic, Emmanuel Swedenborg. He also read some basic Asian texts. Scholars trace the influence of Hindu and Buddhist texts that on Clipper ships into the Boston harbor.
This history makes a pattern of Love and Light. Holmes loved Emerson and he also loved the Bible. He ended up with a mystical teaching that was influenced by classical philosophy, Asian religions, and the teachings of Jesus. When Holmes found the work of Thomas Troward, an Englishman who lived in India most of his life, he was able to build a powerful intellectual structure for spiritual healing. He called it Science of Mind.
Some people are disappointed when they learn that Ernest Holmes was basically a synthesizer. He didn’t receive his message from on High. He collected the best from myriad sources and had the ability to weave it together. Actually, I believe that the fact that Holmes took from a variety of sources makes his genius even more rare. The combination of his studies, seasoned by his unique, inventive and magnificent mind, created a thoroughly modern religion.
We are studying the strands of wisdom that Ernest Holmes knit into this wonderful, teaching, philosophy, and religion. I’m confident my students will gain a great respect for using the Science of Mind in their lives.
I’m not so sure it will give them a snappy answer to that Christianity question. But is it important to ask questions about classifying a belief system? Isn’t it better to ask, “How do I use this wisdom?”
If I believe I am perfect, how will that look?
If I let go of feeling wrong, guilty or sinful, how will that look? Feel?
Do I have any special sources for my beliefs?
Do I have special stories about my beliefs?
What would I like to know more about?
“Imagine what it must have been like to ride the trains like those early women did,” my ministerial student says. “They were very brave and it makes me feel special to be a part of that history”.
As she speaks, I can feel myself beginning to glow with pleasure. Any history teacher wants her students to appreciate the past, and I believe New Thought history and its connection to the rise of women’s rights is especially relevant. I am proud of the part women played in New Thought history and I want my students to be proud, as well.
My interest in the role of women in New Thought history goes all the way back to when I was training to be a minister. In those days, we had to write a thesis and I chose to write about Women and New Thought. That early thesis morphed into a book called New Thought – New Woman which I am now rewriting.
Ministerial students also had to give a public lecture based on their topic. I talked about women’s lives in the 1880’s and how difficult it was just to get dinner on the table and the weekly washing done. Housework was a full time job for most women.
The women who worked outside the home were always poor and usually not considered respectable; they were slaves, prostitutes, or servants. There were a few school teachers and some small business owners who had been lucky enough to inherit from fathers and husbands.
New Thought teachers were an anomaly. These pioneers, were respectable, educated women who included some well-known figures such as Emma Curtis Hopkins, and many others whose names we no longer remember. They usually chose to live independent and quite solitary lives as practitioners and teachers of New Thought.
Those early teachers were often widowed or divorced and they struck out on their own, riding trains from town to town and staying in boarding houses while they taught in one town and then another. Some of them, like Hopkins, started schools that were fairly big establishments but most were doing small works in small towns, spreading the word, one small group at a time.
The New Thought teaching was something that was open to them as a way to earn a living and they took advantage of that fact. It was a healing teaching and that probably seemed natural to some. Women were accustomed to healing and teaching work. Perhaps it felt as though they were simply expanding their boundaries as time and women marched onward.
Many of the travelling practitioners and teachers were widowed or divorced women. Additionally, women were accustomed to healing and teaching work and they simply expanded their techniques and boundaries as time and women marched forward.
In New Thought, our understanding of God is much grander than a human-like figure. It has no shape and no gender but is the creative energy of the Universe. In that way, we were like the Quakers, who also allowed women to speak, because they believed the Inner Light is in all persons.
How could we say that only men can be ministers if we said that God created all of us and lives within everyone? If God is present everywhere all of the time then we must acknowledge that women should have an equal voice everywhere – even in the pulpit.
One of the greatest strengths of our religion is that we describe God as the Creative Energy of the Universe. Our founder, Ernest Holmes and the other New Thought writers use many names for God including; Universal Mind, First Cause, Divine Mind, Infinite Mind, Divine Givingness … and the list goes on.
We sometimes use the word God but we never intend it to describe an Old Man who lives in the sky and looks down upon us, judging what is right and wrong.
The fact that God has no gender is probably the major reason so many women were so important to the New Thought movement from the very beginning. The founders of Divine Science were women. The founders of Unity were a married couple. The first president of the International New Thought Alliance (INTA) was a woman.
There were also important women writers and some of them are still quite well known. Emilie Cady’s book, Lessons In Truth is still well read in Unity. Ella Wheeler Wilcox is no longer considered a great poet but her verse is still read and she is still taught in poetry classes. Most writers have faded from our current lists but not all of them. The Game of Life and How To Play It by Florence Scovell Shin is still in most New Thought bookstores.
Emma Curtis Hopkins, often called the “Teacher of Teachers” is definitely better known now than she was twenty-five years ago. There are new classes based on her old books. She taught the woman who taught the Divine Science founders and the Fillmores who founded Unity plus Ernest Holmes who founded Religious Science. In her lifetime, she spoke to and taught thousands of people.
The other factor in the importance of women in New Thought is that the women’s movement was rising at the same time New Thought was developing into a distinct denomination. In the 1880’s through the turn of the Century, women were on the march. They were interested in a variety of causes. Those interests included women’s right to vote, abolishing alcohol consumption, rational clothing (remember Amelia Bloomer?) public hygiene, prison reform, and helping poor people.
Some New Thought leaders who were women were interested in more than one of these subjects. There were several early suffragettes in Hopkins’s classes. She had a boot in the Women’s Pavilion of the World’s Fair. Other women leaders reserved all their energy for healing endeavors.
The important thing to know about this period in history is that more women were much more active outside the home and in the public forum as lecturers, writers and teachers than in any other field. We should be very proud of our feminine heritage.
What does history have to do with my life?
What is one courageous thing I might do today?