BY MITCH HOROWITZ
Wikipedia recently took down its page for Neville Goddard (1905-1972), one of the most important and influential New Thought voices of the past century. I felt it important that there be a reliable biography of Neville online. The following article focuses only partially on the linear details of Neville’s life and more on the growth and meaning of his message. This essay will be available in print in Fall 2016 in TarcherPerigee’s reissue of Neville’s first book, At Your Command.
The words of spiritual writer and lecturer Neville Goddard retain their power to electrify more than forty years after his death. In a sonorous, clipped tone that was preserved on thousands of tape recordings made during his lifetime, and now widely circulated online, Neville asserted with complete ease what many would find fantastical: The human imagination is God – and our thoughts create our world, in the most literal sense.
Neville Goddard was perhaps the last century’s most intellectually substantive and charismatic purveyor of the philosophy generally called New Thought. He wrote more than ten books under the solitary pen name Neville, and was a popular speaker on metaphysical themes from the late 1930s until his death in 1972.
Possessed of a self-educated and uncommonly sharp intellect, Neville espoused a spiritual vision that was bold and total: Everything you see and experience, including other people, is the result of your own thoughts and emotional states. Each of us dreams into existence an infinitude of realities and outcomes. When you realize this, Neville taught, you will discover yourself to be a slumbering branch of the Creator clothed in human form, and at the helm of limitless possibilities.
Neville’s thought system influenced a wide range of spiritual thinkers and writers, from bestselling author Joseph Murphy to mystical iconoclast Carlos Castaneda. He now has an ardent online following, connected by the proliferation of his digitized lectures and books. More still, Neville’s reputation is growing as his mystical teachings are found to comport with key issues in today’s quantum physics debate.
Yet little is known about this spiritual teacher who exerted so unusual a pull on the American spiritual scene of latter twentieth century. Neville cultivated an air of mystery, which has contributed to the intrigue and questions around his ideas – and where they came from.
A Philosopher Born
Neville Lancelot Goddard was born on February 19, 1905 on the then British-protectorate of Barbados in the town of St. Michael to an Anglican family of nine sons and one daughter. A 1950s gossip column described the young Neville as “enormously wealthy,” his family possessing “a whole island in the West Indies.”
The truth was far more modest. Neville depicted his own English childhood home as happy, but threadbare. There was constant jostling among his brothers for clothes and second-helpings at the dinner table. Neville came to New York City at the age of seventeen to study theater – a move that led to a successful career as a vaudeville dancer and Broadway actor. He toured America and England with dance troupes. But Neville’s theater life was hand-to-mouth; he supplemented his income by working as an elevator operator and shipping clerk.
The young performer’s ambition for the stage began to fade as he encountered an alluring range of spiritual ideas – first with self-styled occult groups, and later with the help of a life-transforming mentor. In his lectures, Neville described studying with a turbaned, Ethiopian-born rabbi named Abdullah. Their initial meeting, Neville said, had an air of kismet:
When I first met my friend Abdullah back in 1931 I entered a room where he was speaking and when the speech was ended he came over, extended his hand and said: “Neville, you are six months late.” I had never seen the man before, so I said: “I am six months late? How do you know me?” and he replied: “The brothers told me that you were coming and you are six months late.”
According to Neville, the two studied Hebrew, Scripture, and Kabbalah together for five years – planting the seeds of Neville’s philosophy of mental creativity.
Neville said that his first understanding of the power of creative thought came while he was living in a rented room on Manhattan’s Upper West Side during the winter of 1933. The young man was depressed: his theatrical career had stalled and his pockets were empty. “After twelve years in America, I was a failure in my own eyes,” he later said. “I was in the theater and made money one year and spent it the next month.” The 28-year-old ached to spend Christmas with his family in Barbados; but he couldn’t afford to travel.
“Live as though you are there,” Abdullah told him, “and that you shall be.” Wandering the streets of New York City, Neville thought from his aim – as he would later urge his listeners – and adopted the feeling that he was really and truly at home on his native island. “Abdullah taught me the importance of remaining faithful to an idea and not compromising,” he recalled. “I wavered, but he remained faithful to the assumption that I was in Barbados and had traveled first class.”
One December morning before the last ship was to depart New York that year for Barbados, Neville received a letter from a long out-of-touch brother: In it was $50 and a ticket to sail. His experiment, it seemed, had worked.
Neville discovered what eventually became the hallmark of his philosophy: It is imperative to assume the feeling that one’s goal has already been attained. “It is not what you want that you attract,” he wrote. “You attract what you believe to be true.”
Feeling is the Secret
Neville grew convinced that Scripture was rife with this idea that man had to think from the end. He called it the state of “I AM” – this being a mystical translation of the name of God. Man could attain any goal, he reasoned, provided he adopted the feeling of it in the present. Neville reinterpreted each episode in Scripture as a psychological parable of this truth. In an example from his 1941 book Your Faith Is Your Fortune he took a fresh sounding of the tale of Lot’s wife, who turns into a pillar of salt after looking back upon the city of Sodom: “Not knowing that consciousness is ever out-picturing itself in conditions round about you, like Lot’s wife you continually look back upon your problem and again become hypnotized by its seeming naturalness.”
In his eyes, all of Scripture was nothing other than a blueprint for man’s development. “The Bible has no reference at all to any person who ever existed, or any event that ever occurred upon earth,” Neville told audiences. “All the stories of the Bible unfold in the minds of the individual man.” Neville depicted Christ not as a living figure but, rather, as a mythical master psychologist whose miracles and parables demonstrate the power of creative thought.
In public talks, Neville often made extravagant claims – such as his use of mental visualizations to win an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army after being drafted at the height of World War II. In actuality, such a sudden discharge did occur.
Neville entered the army on November 12, 1942, obligated to serve for the duration of the war. But military records show that four months later, in March 1943, the mystic was “discharged from service to accept employment in an essential wartime industry.”
Neville resumed his “essential wartime” job as a metaphysical lecturer in New York’s Greenwich Village. A profile in The New Yorker of September 11, 1943, described the handsome speaker back at the lectern before swooning (and often female) New York audiences.
It is unclear why Neville, a lithe man in perfect health, would have been released from the military at the peak of the war. “Unfortunately,” an Army public affairs officer said. “Mr. Goddard’s records were destroyed in the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center.”
Neville also made bold claims about the eventual – and highly prosperous – rise of his family’s food service and retail businesses in Barbados. These claims likewise conform to public records.
Even Neville’s tales about the mysterious teacher Abdullah are far from dismissible.
Neville’s description of training under a turbaned spiritual adept had a certain pedigree in America’s alternative spiritual culture. It was a concept that the Russian mystic Madame H.P. Blavatsky ignited in the minds of Western seekers with her late-nineteenth century accounts of her mentorship to unseen Mahatmas, or Great Souls. Blavatsky aroused a hope that invisible help was out there; that guidance could be sought from a difficult-to-place master of wisdom, someone who might arrive from an exotic land, or another plane of existence, and who could dispense illumined knowledge.
Indeed, the Abdullah story as told by Neville might be brushed aside as a tale borrowed and retouched from Blavatsky – except for another, better-known figure in the positive-thinking tradition who, toward the end of his life, made his own claims of mentorship under Abdullah.
The Irish emigrant writer Joseph Murphy arrived in New York City in the early 1920s with a degree in chemistry and a passion to study metaphysics. Murphy is widely remembered for his 1963 mega-seller The Power of Your Subconscious Mind. The book remains one of the most engaging and popular works of positive-mind metaphysics. Shortly before his death in 1981, Murphy, in a little-known series of interviews published by a French press in Quebec, described his own encounter with the mysterious Abdullah. Interviewer Bernard Cantin recounted the tale in his 1987 book of dialogues with Murphy:
It was in New York that Joseph Murphy also met the professor Abdullah, a Jewish man of black ancestry, a native of Israel, who knew, in every detail, all the symbolism of each of the verses of the Old and the New Testaments. This meeting was one of the most significant in Dr. Murphy’s spiritual evolution. In fact, Abdullah, who had never seen nor known the Murphy family, said flatly that Murphy came from a family of six children, and not five, as Murphy himself had believed. Later on, Murphy, intrigued, questioned his mother and learned that, indeed, he had had another brother who had died a few hours after his birth, and was never spoken of again.
By the mid-1950s Neville’s story of tutelage under a secretive teacher exerted a pull on a budding writer whose own memoirs of mystic discovery later made him a near-household name: Carlos Castaneda.
Castaneda wove his own tales of mentorship to shadowy instructor, in his case a Native American sorcerer named Don Juan. Castaneda first discovered Neville through an early love interest in Los Angeles, Margaret Runyon, who was among Neville’s most dedicated students. A cousin of American storyteller Damon Runyon, Margaret wooed the Latin art student at a friend’s house, slipping Carlos a slender Neville volume called The Search, in which she had inscribed her name and phone number. The two became lovers and later husband and wife.
Runyon spoke frequently to Castaneda about her mystical teacher Neville, but he responded with little more than mild interest – with one exception. In her memoirs, Runyon recalled Castaneda growing fascinated when the conversation turned to Neville’s discipleship under an exotic teacher:
…it was more than the message that attracted Carlos, it was Neville himself. He was so mysterious. Nobody was really sure who he was or where he had come from. There were vague references to Barbados in the West Indies and his being the son of an ultra-rich plantation family, but nobody knew for sure. They couldn’t even be sure about this Abdullah business, his Indian teacher, who was always way back there in the jungle, or someplace. The only thing you really knew was that Neville was here and that he might be back next week, but then again…
“There was,” she concluded, “a certain power in that position, an appealing kind of freedom in the lack of past and Carlos knew it.”
The Master Revealed?
Was there a real esoteric teacher named Abdullah who taught Neville and Joseph Murphy? A plausible candidate exists. He is found in the figure of a 1920s and 30s-era black-nationalist mystic named Arnold Josiah Ford. Like Neville, Ford was born in Barbados, in 1877, the son of an itinerant preacher. Ford arrived in Harlem around 1910 and established himself as a leading voice in the Ethiopianism movement, a precursor to Jamaican Rastafarianism.
Both movements held that the East African nation of Ethiopia was home to a lost Israelite tribe that had preserved the teachings of a mystical African belief system. Ford considered himself an original Israelite, and a man of authentic Judaic descent. Like Abdullah, Ford was considered an “Ethiopian rabbi.” Surviving photographs show Ford as a dignified, somewhat severe-looking man with a set jaw and penetrating gaze, wearing a turban, just like Neville’s Abdullah. Ford himself cultivated an air of mystery, attracting “much apocryphal and often contradictory speculation,” noted Randall K. Burkett, a historian of black-nationalist movements.
Ford lived in New York City at the same time that Neville began his discipleship with Abdullah. Neville recalled his and Abdullah’s first meeting in 1931; and U.S. Census records show Ford was living in Harlem on West 131st Street in 1930. (He was also at the same address in 1920, shortly before Joseph Murphy arrived.) Historian Howard Brotz, in a study of the Black Jewish movement in Harlem, wrote of Ford: “It is certain that he studied Hebrew with some immigrant teacher and was a key link” in communicating “approximations of Talmudic Judaism” from within the Ethiopianism movement. This would fit Neville’s depiction of Abdullah tutoring him in Hebrew and Kabbalah. (It should be noted that early twentieth-century occultists often loosely used the term Kabbalah to denote any kind of Judaic study.)
More still, Ford’s philosophy of Ethiopianism possessed a mental metaphysics. “The philosophy,” noted historian Jill Watts, “…contained an element of mind-power, for many adherents of Ethiopianism subscribed to mental healing and believed that material circumstances could be altered through God’s power. Such notions closely paralleled tenets of New Thought…” Ford was also an early supporter of black-nationalist pioneer Marcus Garvey and served as the musical director of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Garvey had also suffused his movement with New Thought metaphysics and phraseology.
The commonalities between Ford and Abdullah are striking: the black rabbi, the turban, the study of Hebrew, mind-power metaphysics, the Barbados connection, and the time frame. All suggest Ford as a viable candidate for the elusive Abdullah.
Yet there are too many gaps in both Neville’s and Ford’s backgrounds to allow for a conclusive leap. Records of Ford’s life grow thinner after 1931, the year he departed New York and migrated to Ethiopia. Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, after his coronation in 1930, offered land grants to any African-American willing to relocate to the East African nation. Ford accepted the offer. The timing of Ford’s departure is the biggest single blow to the Abdullah-Ford theory. Neville said that he and his teacher had studied together for five years. This obviously would not have been possible with Ford, who had apparently left New York in 1931, the same year Neville said that he and Abdullah first met.
In a coda to Ford’s career, he journeyed to Africa, along with several other American followers of Ethiopianism, to accept the land grants offered by Haile Selassie. Yet Ford’s life in the Ethiopian countryside, a period so sadly sparse of records, could only have been a difficult existence for the urbane musician. Here was a man uprooted from metropolitan surroundings at an advanced age to settle into a new and unfamiliar agricultural landscape. All the while, Ethiopia was facing the threat of invasion by fascist Italy. Ford died in Ethiopia in September 1935, a few weeks before Mussolini’s troops crossed the border.
While Ford’s migration runs counter to Neville’s timeline, there are other ways in which Ford may fit into the Abdullah mythos. Neville could have extrapolated Abdullah from Ford’s character after spending a briefer time with Ford. Or Abdullah may have been a metaphorical composite of several contemporaneous figures, perhaps including Ford.* Or, finally, Abdullah may have been Neville’s invention, though this scenario doesn’t account for Joseph Murphy’s record.
The full story may never be knowable, but the notion of two young metaphysical seekers, Neville and Murphy, living in pre-war New York and studying under an African-American esoteric teacher, whether Ford or another, is wholly plausible. The crisscrossing currents of the mind-power movement in the first half of the twentieth century produced collaborations among a wide range of spiritual travelers, who traversed the metaphysical landscape with a passion for personal development and self-reinvention.
Does it Work?
If one considers Neville’s philosophy, what emerges seems almost too good to be true: Believe that you already possess your goal, and so you will. “Man moves in a world that is nothing more or less than his consciousness objectified,” he concluded. If that’s true, one might ask, why has this principle been discovered by so relatively few?
In a little-known book from 1946, the occult philosopher Israel Regardie took measure of the burgeoning creative-mind movements, including Unity, Christian Science, and Science of Mind. Regardie paid special attention to the case of Neville, whose teaching, he felt, reflected both the hopes and pitfalls of New Thought philosophy. Regardie believed that Neville possessed profound and truthful ideas; yet he felt these ideas were proffered without sufficient attention to training or practice. Could the everyday person really control his thoughts and moods in the way Neville prescribed? In The Romance of Metaphysics, Regardie wrote:
Neville’s method is sound enough. But the difficulty is that few people are able to muster up this emotional exaltation or this intellectual concentration which are the royal approaches to the citadel of the Unconscious. As a result of this definite lack of training or technique, the mind wanders all over the place, and a thousand and one things totally unrelated to ‘I AM’ are ever before their attention.
Neville offered his listeners and readers simple meditative techniques, such as using the practice of visualization before going to sleep, or the repeat reenactment of a small, idealized imaginal drama symbolizing one’s success, like receiving an award or a congratulatory handshake. But Regardie reasoned that, as a dancer and actor, Neville possessed a unique control over his mind and body which his audience did not share: “Neville knows the art of relaxation instinctively. He is a dancer, and a dancer must, of necessity, relax. Hence I believe he does not fully and consciously realize that the average person in his audience does not know the mechanism of relaxation, does know how to ‘let go.’”
“Of all the metaphysical systems with which I am acquainted,” Regardie concluded, “Neville’s is the most evidently magical. But being the most magical, it requires for that very reason, a systematized training on the part of those who would approach and enter its portals.” Absent this training, Regardie wrote, “His system is in reality strictly personal.” It may work for him, the journalist suspected, but not others.
Living in the Material World
Is Regardie’s a fair criticism? Certainly testimony exists to the contrary. In his 1961 book The Law and the Promise Neville supplied a plethora of letters from people who said they achieved success using his methods. As one reads these passages, however, another impression emerges. Student after student is concerned with ardently material goals: a new house, a new car, a new suit, cash in the pocket. But this was not Neville’s ultimate aim.
In a lecture from 1967, Neville drew an intriguing contrast:
What would be good for you? Tell me, because in the end every conflict will resolve itself as the world is simply mirroring the being you are assuming that you are. One day you will be so saturated with wealth, so saturated with power in the world of Caesar, you will turn your back on it all and go in search of the word of God … I do believe that one must completely saturate himself with the things of Caesar before he is hungry for the word of God.This passage sounds a note that resonates through various esoteric traditions: One cannot renounce what one has not attained. To move beyond the material world, or its wealth, one must know that wealth. But to Neville – and this became the cornerstone of his philosophy – material attainment was merely a step toward the realization of a much greater and ultimate truth.
In the last twelve years of his life, the teacher took his philosophy in a radically new direction – one that cost him some of his popularity on the positive-thinking circuit. Neville told of a jarring mystical experience he had in 1959 in which he was reborn as a child from within his skull, which opened as a womb. (In the Bible, Golgotha translates as skull). In a complex interweaving of Scripture and personal experience, Neville told of “the Promise:” that each of us is Christ waiting to be liberated through metaphysical rebirth; this is the true symbolic meaning of the crucifixion in which God became man so that man could one day know himself as God. Our imagination, Neville taught, is the God-seed. He saw literal and final truth in Psalm 82:6, “Ye are gods.”
Neville’s lecture audiences, however, seemed to prefer the earlier message of affirmative-mind success, or what he called “Imaginism.” Many listeners, the mystic lamented, “are not at all interested in its framework of faith, a faith leading to the fulfillment of God’s promise,” as experienced in his vision of rebirth. Audiences drifted away. Urged by his speaking agent to abandon this theme, “or you’ll have no audience at all,” a student recalled Neville replying, “Then I’ll tell it to the bare walls.”
When the teacher died of heart failure at his West Hollywood home on October 1, 1972, his passing was marked only by a short obituary in The Los Angeles Times and a hastily arranged memorial service. The Age of Aquarius, it seemed, had limited interest in this silver-haired seer who spoke of the human imagination as God.
In the early twenty-first century Neville’s name would seem to be a relic. But the mystical philosopher has instead experienced a renaissance of attention.
Neville’s work is extolled by some of today’s bestselling New Age writers, such as Wayne Dyer and Rhonda Byrne. As a result, his books have ridden a new wave of popularity. What’s more, Neville’s message, perhaps more than that of any other New Thought writer, has prefigured and coalesced with current debates in quantum physics.
Physics journals today routinely discuss what is called the “quantum measurement problem.” Many people have heard of some version of it. In essence, more than eighty years of laboratory experiments show that atomic-scale particles appear in a given place only when a measurement is made. Quantum theory holds that no measurement means no precise and localized object, at least on the atomic scale.
In a challenge to our deepest conceptions of reality, quantum data shows that a subatomic particle literally occupies an infinite number of places (a state called “superposition”) until observation manifests it in one place. In quantum mechanics, an observer’s conscious decision to look or not look actually determines what will be there.
For example, quantum experiments demonstrate that if you project an atom at a pair of boxes interference patterns prove that the atom was at one point in both boxes. The particle existed in a wave-state, which means that the location of the particle in space-time is known only probabilistically; it has no properties in this state, just potentialities. The wave became localized in one box only after someone looked. Neville described man’s power of creation similarly: Thought, he said, does not so much manifest the outcome as select it from an infinite universe of already-existing possibilities.
Quantum theory grows still closer to Neville’s outlook when dealing with the thought experiment called “Schrodinger’s cat.” In 1935 the physicist Erwin Schrodinger sought to impel his colleagues to deal with the logical conclusions of their own data – through a purposely absurdist thought experiment. A version goes like this:
A cat is placed into one of a pair of boxes. Along with the cat is what Schrodinger called a “diabolical device.” The device, if exposed to an atom, releases a deadly poison. An observer then fires an atom at the boxes. The observer subsequently uses some form of measurement to check on which box the atom is in: the empty one, or the one with the cat and the poisoning device. When the observer goes to check, the wave function of the atom – i.e., the state in which it exists in both boxes – collapses into a particle function – i.e., the state in which it is localized to one box. Once the observer takes his measurement, convention says that the cat will be discovered to be dead or alive. But Schrodinger reasoned that quantum physics describes an outcome in which the cat is both dead and alive. This is because the atom, in its wave function, was, at one time, in either box, and either outcome is real.
Neville likewise taught that the mind creates multiple and coexistent realities. Everything already exists in potential, he said, and through our thoughts and feelings we select which outcome we ultimately experience. Indeed, Neville saw man as some quantum theorists see the observer taking measurements in the particle lab, effectively determining where a subatomic particle will actually appear as a localized object. Moreover, Neville wrote that everything and everyone that we experience is rooted in us, as we are ultimately rooted in God. Man exists in an infinite cosmic interweaving of endless dreams of reality – until the ultimate realization of one’s identity as Christ.
In an almost prophetic observation in 1948, he told listeners: “Scientists will one day explain why there is a serial universe. But in practice, how you use this serial universe to change the future is more important.” More than any other spiritual teacher, Neville created a mystical correlate to quantum physics.
* * *
During his lifetime, Neville never achieved the fame or reputation of his better-known contemporaries, such as Ernest Holmes and Joseph Murphy. Some of his more radical theories cost him segments of his audience. But it was his intellectual bravery, and the elegant congruity of his ideas, that has resulted in his recognition today as one of modern spirituality’s most pioneering and foresightful theorists.
This self-taught, unfettered journeyer into the cosmic is likely to emerge as the positive-mind movement’s most enduring voice.
* Neville may have hinted as much, especially in light of his love for Hebrew symbolism. He affectionately called Abdullah “Ab” for short – a variant of the Hebrew abba for “father.” Neville may have fashioned a mythical “father mentor” from various teachers.
A PEN-Awarding winning historian, Mitch Horowitz is the author of Occult America and One Simple Idea, a history and analysis of the positive-mind movement. He has written on alternative spirituality for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. Vice-president and executive editor at TarcherPerigee, Mitch is also the voice of popular audio books, including Alcoholics Anonymous. Visit him at MitchHorowitz.com.