When New Thought Encountered the World



The New Thought is an ‘influence,’ not an institution.

                                             — Horatio Dresser, 1917

New England nurtured the personalities and thinkers that produced Transcendentalism and the “mental science” movement, or what William James called “the religion of healthy mindedness.” The Boston environs provided creative soil for visionaries publishing their metaphysical interpretations of scripture and experimenting with “mental” methods of healing.

Charismatic teachers attracted followers and formed communities. Mary Baker Eddy excelled in institution-building (and casting off disciples). Theosophists dominated on the lecture circuit. Unitarians connected liberalizing ideas with Congregationalist traditions. Mental science germinated in the Northeast and from there it branched out. By 1890, interest in this approach had grown in Chicago, where proponents set up schools and published magazines. Then a momentous happening accelerated the movement westward.

Social theorists often point to a “catalytic event” that helps challengers combine forces and coalesce into a social movement. If we consider New Thought a social movement today, we would do well to look back to see how various strands of belief, activism, and organization coalesced in its creation. I propose that the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893 provided the nexus that allowed the fragmented mind cure enthusiasts to come together and enlarge their vision. This event motivated the practitioners, groups, and organizations–it led to the national expansion of what became known as the New Thought.

1893 Chicago, Illinois.

Emma Curtis Hopkins Botta

Emma Curtis Hopkins illustration by Tim Botta

Three hundred fifty students were enrolled in Emma Curtis Hopkins’ Christian Science Theological Seminary the year that Chicago prepared for the World Columbian Exposition. While many mental science, theosophy, and other metaphysical groups sought a place at the World’s Parliament of Religions, Mrs. Hopkins quietly prepared her booth for the Women’s Pavilion at the Chicago World’s Fair. Her decision was both political and practical. The Hopkins booth showcased Emma’s teachings as a way for women to become self-realized and self-sufficient. Hopkins was a long time feminist, having sent delegates to the WCTU and the Women’s Federal Labor Union. And since her former mentor, Mary Baker Eddy, intended to make a strong showing at the Parliament, Hopkins’ discretion helped diffuse potential tension.

Many of Emma’s students did participate in the World’s Parliament of Religions from September 11 – 27. Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, ordained by Hopkins in 1890, travelled from Kansas City for the event. Their good friend, Annie Rix Militz, also attended the sessions where she met Swami Vivekananda, who became a life-long friend. Completely missing from the scene was Emma herself. Hopkins travelled abroad to lecture in England in August 1893.

Sarah Farmer

Sarah Farmer

A future New Thought luminary, Sarah Farmer, had spent the winter in Chicago. She served as the personal secretary for her father, Moses Gerrish Farmer, an electrical engineer and inventor. Moses was also a spiritualist and transcendentalist; his wife, Hannah Tobey Farmer, was an abolitionist and feminist who established a shelter for unwed mothers. After Hannah died in 1892, Sarah accompanied her father to help him set up his inventions at the Columbian Exhibition. In Chicago, the Farmers met Charles Bonney, a Swedenborgian who was the motivating force behind the World’s Parliament of Religions. They were privy to the early plans for the Parliament and shared Bonney’s enthusiasm for this historic inter-faith gathering. Unfortunately, Moses Farmer became ill and died in Chicago on May 25. Sarah went back East to bury her father, but returned to the city in October just after the Parliament had concluded.

The theosophists, naturally, were eager to participate in the Congress, since East-West religious unity was key to the theosophical idea. However, the Theosophical Society’s initial application was rejected because it included presentations on psychical research and occult phenomena. When those topics were withdrawn, the Theosophical Society’s application was accepted. In his official letter of invitation, Charles Bonney made the ground rules completely clear: “As the entire matter of what are known as ‘Occult Phenomena’ has been [removed from the application] . . . I trust you will take the pains to exclude that subject from your address, and make it quite clear that the object of your demonstration is to give the Religious and Ethical world better information [on the] . . . principles of your order.”

The World’s Parliament of Religions opened on September 11, 1893 and lasted for seventeen days. Since this event is well known, I will not provide details here, but rather identify those aspects that were significant for the subsequent development New Thought. Notably, relationships were formed and lines of inquiry begun in Chicago that generated momentum for the movement. The conversations begun in and around the Parliament inspired New Thought writers and teachers and provided the basis for a national expansion of this heterodox movement.


Zen master Soyen Shaku

Religious ideas from the East and their carriers were received enthusiastically by attendees from transcendentalist, Swedenborgian, theosophical and mental science circles. Swami Vivekananda’s three talks put forward Vedantic ideas that resonated with American spiritual seekers who had encountered them in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau. A more indirect, although highly culturally significant, influence came through the appearance of Zen master Soyen Shaku. His presentation on Soto Zen was the first time Western audiences were exposed to this Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism. Soyen’s speech was translated into English by his disciple, D.T. Suzuki (still in Japan, struggling with his koan). A few years later, Suzuki arrived in Illinois to work with publisher Paul Carus on English translations of classical Taoist and Buddhist texts. Suzuki became interested in Western mysticism, especially that of Swedenborg, whose writings he translated into Japanese. And he met a former student of William James, American theosophist Beatrice Erskine Lane. They married in Yokohama in 1911 and later started a Theosophist Society lodge in Kyoto.

Adherents of America’s liberal religions, such as the Unitarians, Theosophists and Christian Scientists, were also being heard at the Parliament. Christian Scientists packed the hall to hear Judge S. J. Hanna, editor of the Christian Science Journal. The Daily Inter Ocean reported, “The scholarly leader in this advanced application of an old science received the closest attention while he discussed the theories of Christian Science.” While Christian Scientists had their day, the Theosophical Society’s organizational presence exceeded that other metaphysical and mental science groups. A Theosophical Congress was held at the World’s Parliament of Religions on September 15–17. Annie Bessant, Professor G. N. Chakravarti, and Anagarika Dharmapala were some of the prominent figures who spoke to the assembled Theosophists. Although Dharmapala was representing Theravada Buddhism at the Parliament, he had a long association with the founders of Theosophy and frequently attended TS meetings.


Horatio Dresser, leading New Thought intellectual and student of William James

The reverberations–of energy and enthusiasm for inter-faith connections–were sustained for a long time. The Chicago meetings in 1893 provided an impetus for theoretical, practical, and social coalescence among teachers, healers, and seekers interested in understanding the deep truths at the heart of the world’s religions. In 1894, Sarah Farmer initiated the summer conferences at Greenacre in Maine. She brought together New England transcendentalists, European philosophers, Harvard sociologists, Indian yogis, and other spiritual thinkers. Horatio Dresser noticed a shift taking place—spiritual enthusiasts were moving away from a focus on physical healing (the “mental science period”), and towards a broader set of spiritual and practical concerns (the “New Thought”). On both coasts and in the Midwest: new organizations were being formed, journals founded, and books published.

In 1893, local and national newspapers lavished attention on the dignitaries and their speeches at the Parliament. But the context was more important than the formalities. The World’s Parliament of Religions was a catalytic event for the subsequent development of New Thought as a movement. The people committed to the New Thought spread out, forming communities, testing out the ideas from the congress that had inspired them, and emulating the Parliament by setting up their own inter-faith conferences and retreats. Can we say that this expansion was creating something novel, culturally Western and American, but resonant with sensibilities of the East? Was it essentially spiritual but not religious? In what sense can we even speak of New Thought as a movement? These are questions I will explore in a subsequent post.

Maryjane Osa author picture

Maryjane Osa is a sociologist and author. She belongs to a number of New Thought groups and is committed to daily spiritual practice. You can visit her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dr.maryjane.osa or at her website www.maryjaneosa.com. For readers interested in the source material for this article, Osa will provide a copy of the article with a bibliography. Contact her at: info@maryjaneosa.com


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