• An AIDS patient writes a letter to the HIV virus, forgiving it for the harm it's done him and thanking it for inspiring him to live a fuller life.
  • A recovering alcoholic reminds herself to "let go and let God."
  • Parents pray to see their son as "the perfect child of God" rather than call a doctor to prescribe medication for his earache.
  • A collective of incorporeal beings sends this message to a best-selling author: "There is nothing you cannot be, do, or have."

    What do these people have in common? All of them are heirs of the religious philosophy that came to be called New Thought. Practical, robust, optimistic, and results-oriented, New Thought is a prototypical product of 19th-America. Not only is it the progenitor of a number of distinct religious denominations- Christian Science, Religious Science, Divine Science, Unity, and even a Japanese offshoot called Seicho-No-Ie-its ideas have informed the sermons of popular pastors such as Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller, the prosperity programs of Napoleon Hill and Stephen Covey, and the teachings of a veritable pantheon of New Age writers and authors such as Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, and Marianne Williamson.

    The founder of New Thought is generally acknowledged to be Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866), a Maine clock maker who discovered that he could cure sick people simply by talking to them. Quimby's son George published a biographical sketch of his father in the New England Magazine in 1888, in which he summarized the series of epiphanies that led to his practice of mental medicine: "That `mind was spiritual matter and could be changed;' that we were made up of `truth and error;' that `disease was an error, or belief, and that the Truth was the cure.'"

    Quimby's patients Warren Felt Evans, Julius and Annette Dresser, and Mary Baker Eddy did much to popularize his ideas, though the movement Eddy went on to found in 1879, the Church of Christ, Scientist, quickly went its own way (many of its teachings were Bible based and its members were discouraged from using conventional medicine). One of Mary Baker Eddy's students, Emma Curtis Hopkins, broke away from the Christian Science movement and started the Hopkins College of Metaphysical Science in 1885. Hopkins' student Nona L. Brooks would become one of the founders of the church of Divine Science in 1887. Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, who also studied with Hopkins, would go on to found the Unity Church in Kansas City, Missouri in 1899.

    In addition to New Thought, Unity drew on Hinduism, Buddhism, Theosophy, and Rosicrucianism. "We have borrowed the best from all religions," Charles Fillmore declared. "Unity is the Truth that is taught in all religions, simplified. . .so that anyone can understand and apply it." Still another of Hopkins' students, Ernest Holmes, published the influential book "The Science of Mind" in 1926; he would found the church of Religious Science in that same year.

    Dubbing New Thought "the religion of healthy-mindedness" and "Mind-cure," William James devoted several of the lectures in his seminal "Varieties of Religious Experience" (1902) to the philosophy and its offspring. Though he found its theology derivative and its science somewhat less than rigorous, he testified to the positive psychological effects it had on its adherents.

    James wrote: "One of the doctrinal sources of Mind-cure is the four Gospels; another is Emersonianism or New England transcendentalism; another is Berkeleyan idealism; another is spiritism, with its messages of `law' and `progress' and `development'; another the optimistic popular science evolutionism...and, finally, Hinduism has contributed a strain. But the most characteristic feature of the mind-cure movement is an inspiration much more direct. The leaders in this faith have had an intuitive belief in the all-saving power of healthy-minded attitudes as such, in the conquering efficacy of courage, hope, and trust, and a correlative contempt for doubt, fear, worry, and nervously precautionary states of mind. ...The blind have been made to see, the halt to walk; lifelong invalids have had their health restored. The moral fruits have been no less remarkable. The deliberate adoption of a healthy-minded attitude has proved possible to many who never supposed they had it in them; regeneration of character has gone on on an extensive scale; and cheerfulness has been restored to countless homes."