Experts differ over future of New Thought religious movement

The Gazette, March 1, 2000
By Eric Gorski

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- The reverend wears a gray dress and a silver angel pin. She surveys the room. "There's a lot of good energy here tonight," she says.

About 30 people are seated on folding chairs at an Odd-Fellows Hall on the west side of Colorado Springs on a Friday night. Two-thirds of them are women. Many attend the psychic fairs that sweep through town. Their religious upbringings range from Catholic and Episcopal to Baptist and atheist. The reverend, Maddie Cohen, is a Jew.

Meditation, mysticism and psychic readings mesh during the two-hour service with lots of hugs and a dash of Christianity.

The unusual group, called Spiritual Gathering, is among fewer than a handful of local congregations with links to an American religious movement called New Thought that is more than a century old.

Churches differ -- some stress Christianity more than others, some eschew psychic readings -- but all draw from a tradition that believes in the power of the mind to positively influence health, wealth and relationships.

Though the movement's heyday was a century ago, these small congregations are trying to hang on and even thrive, seeking new believers despite their opposition to proselytizing and firm belief in individual will over group-think.

"The basic claim is your thought has power -- it can control or change reality if you focus it properly," said Beryl Satter, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University and author of a book on New Thought's origins. "They tend to say there's a God within, a divine spark within human beings, and that's manifested in our thought power."

It's hard to gauge how many people subscribe to New Thought philosophies.

The International New Thought Alliance, a loose-knit umbrella group for the movement, counts 2,000 congregations around the world, most in the United States.

Many adherents don't affiliate with any group because New Thought people are "anti-survey, anti-being-put-in-a-mold," states the Rev. Mimi Ronnie, chief executive officer of the Arizona-based alliance. Some congregations are small, some as large as 15,000, she said.

One scholar wrote that "New Thought is neither church, cult nor sect; it asks no allegiances to creeds, forms, or personality." Even the schools of thought that have sprung from New Thought are loose in structure.

The three largest -- Unity Church, Religious Science and Divine Science -- count among them about 780 churches and between 130,000 and 150,000 members, according to a 1996 almanac of American religions. By comparison, the Episcopal church, one of the nation's largest, has 2.4 million members.

Colorado Springs is home to a Unity church, a Religious Science church and Spiritual Gathering. The last group is a hybrid of various New Thought philosophies and spiritualism, which blends traditional religion with mediums, seances and clairvoyance.

The father of New Thought is considered to be Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, a 19th century New England clockmaker who became enthralled by the mind's healing power after studying a form of hypnotism.

One of Quimby's students was Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, known for its reliance on spirituality to heal.

Christian Scientists, however, don't lump themselves in with New Thought. Christian Scientists believe in healing through spiritual communion with God, not through the exercise of human will.

At the Unity Church in the Rockies, between 150 and 175 people attend services in a small A-frame chapel with a stained-glass portrait of Pikes Peak. Most worshippers are women, though one board member is a former Green Beret.

The service is not unlike one at a Christian church, with hymns and readings. The atmosphere exudes warmth, with hugs and talk of love instead of sin and punishment. Unity recognizes the divinity of Jesus but puts little emphasis on traditional Christianity; it honors all major world religions.

"Our emphasis is: Life begins from the inside out," said The Rev. Lana Charlton, the minister.

"We obviously believe in a power greater than self. But we find it inside, not in an outside force."

Charlton, who was raised as a Pentecostal, said Unity doesn't attract many people under 30. She thinks the openness of the church appeals to people later in life.

One of the newer New Thought movements is Religious Science, "a correlation of laws of science, opinions of philosophy, and revelations of religion applied to the needs and aspirations of humankind," the church says.

The founder, Ernest Holmes, wrote the textbook for the movement, Science of Mind, in 1926.

Holmes believed there can be no permanent healing of the body without poise in mental and emotional life. The right thinking, the logic goes, will result in a greater success in life.

The 325 people who attend Pikes Peak Church of Religious Science in Colorado Springs are a varied lot -- military personnel, writers and poets.

The Rev. Charllotte Amant, assistant minister, said members "have a bent for independent thinking rather than rules and regulations, people who have, on their own, made certain spiritual decisions and find this to be a place of inquiry compatible with their own beliefs."

Though the church is sometimes confused with Christian Science, the two differ in many ways. For example, the Church of Religious Science believes thought and prayer can complement medicine, not replace it.

It "considers the teachings of Jesus to be sacred, and (we) touch on them a lot," Amant said, but it also incorporates Native American spirituality, Buddhism and other world religions.

Spiritual Gathering, meanwhile, borrows the love from Unity and thought power from Religious Science and tosses in a heavy dose of metaphysics. The services are mostly about energy -- recognizing it, honoring it, harnessing it.

On a recent Friday night, the co-ministers offered psychic readings, first asking each person permission to "come into your energy."

Sometimes, the advice was encouraging yet vague ("Go for it. Whatever it is, just do it,") other times it was out of left field ("You may want to stop into a taco restaurant.")

One woman, raised Methodist, said she doesn't talk about her faith to co-workers for fear of misunderstanding.

"A lot of people think it's phony and fake," Cohen said. "They're very much in the real world, which is fine. We don't have to convert them."

Cohen and co-minister Richard Carlton Sleght founded the group in 1996 because "we had to go to four churches to get the flavor we wanted," Sleght said.

"We believe there is a creative force -- some call it God -- that always says 'yes' to us," he said. "What we are learning is how to request it."

The spiritual climate in the United States suggests some hope for proponents of New Thought.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll in December found Americans remain intensely religious but embrace nontraditional approaches to religion.

Only 54 percent of those surveyed described themselves as "religious," while 30 percent defined themselves as "spiritual" but not religious. Seventy-five percent said there's a religion "other than their own that offers a true path to God."

Some New Thought churches in Colorado are getting their message across.

Mile High Church of Religious Science in Lakewood, Colo. ( draws a total of 2,200 to 2,500 to three Sunday services in a sanctuary holding 900.

The membership of the local Religious Science church dwindled to 13 around 1983, Amant said,but has grown steadily since, strictly through word-of-mouth.

Unity Church in the Rockies has taken a pro-growth approach by airing radio ads and supplying information about the ministry to local cable TV stations.

"We say it's a way, but not the only way," says Unity's Charlton, who says the congregation has doubled in a year and added a second service.

Although Spiritual Gathering doesn't do much to attract new people, Cohen said she considers her faith "on the front line, the leading edge," of attracting spiritual seekers because it is so open and accepting of various traditions.

Others don't think so. Satter, the Rutgers professor, said she thinks New Thought peaked 100 years ago.

Back around 1900, psychology was in its infancy and New Thought was enthusiastically discussed in political journals and intellectual circles, she said.

As an organized form of worship, she said it may have run its course.

On the other hand, New Thought ideals permeate American culture "in a way evangelical Christians or Christian Scientists don't," Satter said.

The philosophies are embodied in self-empowerment messages of such 12-step programs as Alcoholics Anonymous and such best sellers as "The Celestine Prophesy" and "Conversations with God."

"Most Americans haven't heard of New Thought, but know its ideas," Satter said.

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