Was the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, father of the "believe and succeed" theology sweeping American Protestantism, a plagiarist inspired by the occult?
A former Peale protege and a Unitarian minister think so.
In the current issue of the journal Lutheran Quarterly, the Rev. John Gregory Tweed of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and the Rev. George D. Exoo of Pittsburgh write that many of Peale's uplifting affirmations originated with an "obscure teacher of Occult science" named Florence Scovel Shinn.
Lutheran Quarterly is a juried academic journal of theology and history, with a national circulation of 1,000.
After comparing his books to hers, the authors cite scores of specific instances in which Peale and Shinn not only think alike, but also use similar or identical phrases.
Mr. Tweed began investigating the Shinn-Peale link in 1990. Friends who credited Shinn for their success had given Mr. Tweed her book, "The Game of Life and How to Play It."
"I came across the phrase 'When one door shuts, another door opens,' one of the great Peale battle cries," said Mr. Tweed.
Shinn, who died in 1940, drew on mystical sources dating to the ancient Egyptian philosopher Hermes Trismegistus and the secrets of Freemasonry, as delineated in "The Kybalion," published in 1908 at a Masonic lodge.
Such sources are progenitors of New Age, a movement considered to be ungodly hocus-pocus by conservative and fundamentalist Christians.
The conclusions that Mr. Tweed and Mr. Exoo reached clearly dismay the stewards of Peale's legacy. Peale died in 1993, at 95.
The article is "built pretty much on . . . coincidence," said John Allen, Peale's son-in-law and president of the board of the Peale Center for Christian Living in Pawling, N.Y. "They happened to be dealing with the same subject: the art of living. He's now dead, and we hate to have anything negative that isn't true."
He said neither he nor Peale's widow, Ruth, knew of Florence Scovel Shinn.
Cult of reassurance
Peale, author of "The Power of Positive Thinking," is one of the 20th century's most influential religious figures, though some theologians accuse him of establishing a "cult of reassurance" -- and "vulgarizing" religion.
He also was a Mason, which didn't sit well with some of his followers. In 1988, he wrote to a concerned follower: "You ask if the vows taken by Masons are what may be described as Satanic. . . . I have never seen the slightest word or expression that is anything a Christian could not endorse."
Peale pastored New York's famed Marble Collegiate Church for 53 years. But it was his 46 books, touting simple solutions to life's complicated problems, that made him a multimillionaire, counselor to conservative presidents and cultural icon. "Positive Thinking," published in 1952, topped the New York Times best-seller list for 98 weeks. By Peale's death in 1993, it had sold 18 million copies.
His chief disciple is California minister Dr. Robert Schuller, pastor of Garden Grove's Crystal Cathedral and host of the "Hour of Power" TV ministry.
Florence Scovel Shinn, a professional illustrator in New York, was married to Everett Shinn, one of the eight urban impressionist painters of the "Ashcan Group."
Shinn's privately published metaphysical works, reissued by both Simon & Schuster and the Church of Religious Science, are available in New Age bookstores. Peale wrote the introduction to the Simon & Schuster edition, indicating he had "long used" Shinn's teachings.
Mr. Tweed and Mr. Exoo predict "discomfiture" among the "millions of mainline Christians, purporting to stand on orthodoxy and Scripture alone," who, through Peale, have "unwittingly embraced the Occult."
Mr. Tweed, a writer, painter and former AIDS chaplain, was a Peale protege in New York's Dutch Protestant Collegiate Church, a branch of the Reformed Church in America. He says the church forced him to resign during a crippling bout of depression.
Mr. Exoo, an ordained Unitarian minister, is America's only church critic, reviewing services in the manner of an arts critic for WQED-FM Radio in Pittsburgh. He was profiled on the front page of the Wall Street Journal in 1993.
In their article, Mr. Tweed and Mr. Exoo write that Peale claimed as the sources for his "positive thinking" Jesus Christ and "Peale's years of personal counseling with Dr. Smiley Blanton at Marble Collegiate Church's Religio-Psychiatric Clinic."
But, after running computerized comparisons of text, the authors concluded that Shinn had as much to do with the philosophy's origins as did Christ and Blanton.
John Allen acknowledged that Peale "did write a very nice thing on the reissue [of Shinn's book]. He'd write encouraging words on any book that was sent to him, and maybe read through it and pick up a few ideas. . . . The rest is from the Bible."
Mr. Tweed and Mr. Exoo point out that, like Shinn, Peale promoted the use of visualization to influence events -- visualize yourself getting rich, and you will -- and vibrations.
According to Mr. Tweed and Mr. Exoo, Shinn says, " 'If you read the "Kybalion" carefully, you will find that [Trismegistus] taught . . . that all mental states were accompanied by vibrations . . . so let us vibrate to success, happiness and abundance.' "
They quote Peale: " 'All the universe is in vibration. . . . When you send out a prayer for a person, you employ the force inherent in a spiritual universe through which God brings to pass the good objectives prayed for.' "
Lutheran Quarterly's editor, Dr. Oliver Olson, a Marquette University divinity professor, said he published the article because some of his Dutch Reform students "are very unhappy about the denomination's toleration of Peale. . . . The real Biblical message is that the normal condition for people is sin, rebellion and guilt, and the overcoming of [such things] is repentance. [Peale] simply leaves that out. He just talks about the 'feel-good' part of it, which is pagan."