Norman Vincent Peale

Highlights of a Life

“Happiness will never come if it is a goal in itself; happiness is a by-product of a commitment to worthy causes.”
—Norman Vincent Peale

Norman Peale’s best-selling book, The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), might never have been published had his wife not fished the manuscript out of the trash.  Some biographical accounts say that Peale – who fought back a lifetime of self-doubt – had chucked his edited first draft in the wastebasket, only to have it retrieved by his wife who brought the manuscript to a publisher.

Despite a profound inferiority complex that began in childhood, Peale rose to become one of America’s most famous Protestant leaders.  He spread his gospel through sermons, syndicated newspaper columns, and radio and TV broadcasts.  Peale also wrote more than 24 books, including his immensely-popular fourth book, The Power of Positive Thinking, which sold nearly 20 million copies and has been printed in 41 different languages.

Born in the southwestern Ohio village of Bowersville in 1898, Norman Vincent Peale was the son of a physician-turned-minister, Charles Clifford Peale. His mother was Anna (DeLaney) Peale. The senior Peale left a lucrative medical practice in Milwaukee after a serious illness. “My grandmother told the Lord that if he recovered, he’d go into the ministry,” Peale would say about his father. “Grandmother might have been better advised to let him alone.”  Once his father changed careers, Peale’s family moved throughout Ohio with each new pastoral assignment.

By the time his father became pastor of First Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbus, Norman was also a minister.  He’d graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University, a private Methodist college just north of Columbus; but he wasn’t ready to commit to a lifetime in the clergy; Peale spent a year reporting for newspapers in Findlay and Detroit. Then, in 1922, the Rev. Peale was ordained a Methodist minister. He went on to earn a master’s degree from Boston University in 1924.

In 1930 Peale married Loretta Ruth Stafford; two years later he changed his religious denomination from Methodist to Reformed Church in America in order to qualify for a job as pastor of New York City’s Marble Collegiate Church. His dynamic sermons were simple, yet optimistic and inspirational.

During his 52-year pastorship the church grew from 600 to 5000. When technology became available, Peale’s growing congregation watched him preach on closed circuit television.  Moreover, his sermons were regularly broadcast, first on radio and later on television.  For 54 years, Peale’s weekly radio program, “The Art of Living,” was on the air.

So popular were his sermons that his wife began publishing them, a project which brought about the Peale Center for Christian Living in Pauling, New York.

In 1945, Norman and Ruth Peale, together with a New York investor, founded Guideposts, a 48-page magazine featuring inspirational stories. Today the publication has a circulation of four million, making it the 13th largest paid-circulation magazine in the country.

Even though it irritated some religious leaders, Peale’s use of psychology in counseling parishioners was groundbreaking. He was considered to be about three-quarters of a century ahead of the times with his focus on the link between psychology and religious faith.  In the 1930’s, Peale began working with psychiatrist Dr. Smiley Blanton to initiate a religio-psychiatric outpatient clinic, which eventually became the nonprofit Institutes of Religion and Health.

Peale completed what has been called his all-time inspirational best-seller at age 54: The Power of Positive Thinking. Peale wrote that faith in Jesus Christ and a change in thinking habits can empower us to find more satisfying work and have better personal relationships. Companion volumes followed, including The Power of Positive Thinking for Young People, 1954, and The Power of Positive Living, Fawcett Columbine, 1996.

Some of his other best known works include The Art of LivingA Guide to Confident LivingThe Tough-Minded Optimist, and Inspiring Messages for Daily Living.

Along with Peale’s mainstream popularity came widespread criticism of his ministry from other clergy. Peale was so stung by their disparaging remarks that he wrote a letter of resignation. In the 1958 biography, Norman Vincent Peale: Minister to Millions, the author tells that Peale changed his mind about quitting only because of his father’s deathbed advice. “Tell Norman they’re just a bunch of jackasses and to pay them no heed,” said his father, Rev. Charles Clifford Peale.

A half century ago, Peale believed there was a connection between optimism and good health, faith and healing, and stress and illness. Since then, countless studies have confirmed such ties between mind and body. In a Los Angeles Times interview, J. Harold Ellens, the founder and editor of the Journal of Psychology and Christianity noted:  “Norman Peale saw psychology and Christian experience as very compatible… he had the courage to stand pat on this position in spite of the opposition of the entire Christian church for nearly half a century. His genius was that he… translated psycho-theology into the language of the people.”

Norman Vincent Peale died after a stroke on December 24, 1993, in Pawling, New York.

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