© 2024 Blue Ridge Public Radio
Blue Ridge Mountains banner background
Your source for information and inspiration in Western North Carolina.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Norman Vincent Peale Was A Conservative Hero Known Well Beyond His Era

Dr. Norman Vincent Peale is shown in 1968 as pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. Peale served as pastor from 1932 to 1984.
Dr. Norman Vincent Peale is shown in 1968 as pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. Peale served as pastor from 1932 to 1984.

Norman Vincent Peale was born in 1898 in the town of Bowersville, Ohio, son of a physician who also became a Methodist minister. Another Ohioan named William McKinley was president, wrapping up the Spanish-American War and setting the stage for what would be known as the American Century.

It was a time of expanding commerce and industry — an era of skyrocketing confidence – and Peale would be part of carrying that spirit forward through a century of his own.

Peale received degrees from Ohio Wesleyan University and Boston University's School of Theology and became an ordained Methodist minister. Young Peale was an immediate hit as a preacher, serving the university Methodist congregation in Syracuse, N.Y., where he gained a reputation for packing the pews.

That led to a call in 1932 from the socially prominent Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Marble Collegiate was a Dutch Reformed Church, but Peale made the adjustment and served in that pulpit for more than half a century.

Peale always was a conservative, inclined to praise the American way of life and the capitalist economics he saw as key to prosperity. But he was an establishment man, not a reactionary or a panderer to conspiracy theories.

In the mid-1930s, he denounced such demagogic figures as Louisiana's Huey Long, the governor and senator whose semi-socialist program was called "Every Man a King." He also opposed Father Charles Coughlin in Detroit, whose hugely popular Catholic radio show descended into anti-Semitism and sympathy for the rise of fascism in Europe.

As time went on, Peale was increasingly associated with mainstream-to-right-wing political groups. He signed on early with the group called Spiritual Mobilization, a creation of prominent Protestant ministers in league with some of the leading industrialists of the era, including oil producers and automakers, who opposed the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt.

Spiritual Mobilization, with Peale on its advisory board, also became associated with the "America First" movement that opposed U.S. entry in World War II.

After the war, Peale continued to draw large crowds at Marble Collegiate, including the members of President Trump's family. Fred Trump, Sr., father of the future president, was an admirer of Peale's particularly robust and businesslike approach to Christianity and to life in general.

In this era, Peale was already producing a regular radio program and a magazine called Guideposts when he released his masterwork, The Power of Positive Thinking, in 1952.

It was a publishing phenomenon overnight and remained on the The New York Times bestseller list for 186 weeks. A decade later Peale would say it had sold two million copies, but his publisher, Simon & Schuster, put the number at 5 million in 14 languages. Some later press accounts of the book claimed four times as many copies in three times as many languages. He continued to write and collect and publish his magazine columns — his Amazon author's page says he was "the author of 46 books."

For the next few decades, Peale was at least a minor media celebrity, appearing on TV game shows and talk shows and lecturing as well as preaching around the country and the world.

Counselor to Trumps

He also maintained ties to the Trump clan.

In 1977, Peale officiated at the first of Donald Trump's three wedding ceremonies. Trump praised him lavishly, saying that when Peale preached, he never wanted to leave the church. Peale repaid the flattery, telling a New York Times reporter that he perceived in the 31-year-old Trump "a profound streak of honesty and humility."

In his last years as an active minister, Peale had a supportive relationship with Richard Nixon and later with Ronald Reagan, the latter of whom awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 1985, the year he retired from Marble Collegiate.

The essence of Peale's pitch was an almost hypnotic fascination with confidence. His quotations, some now clichés, would be echoed in both the ecclesiastical realm — by spiritual men such as Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Robert Schuller, Pat Robertson and a host of other televangelists — and in the world of secular motivational speakers.

Peale's style was to speak in pithy, imperative sentences using simple words. For example: "Expect great things and great things will come."

"Shoot for the moon, even if you miss you'll land among the stars."

Popular as Peale and his wisdom became, some critics dismissed Peale's lines as mere bromides, scarcely worthy of note. Other scientific and religious thinkers found the Peale approach downright dangerous.

A Methodist bishop of the 1950s called Peale's following a cult, saying it worshiped success rather than Christ. A leading Unitarian minister in Washington D.C. called the Peale program "an escape from reality."

The prominent theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said Peale's teachings "corrupted" the Christian gospel and "hurts people too ... helps them feel good while they are evading the real issues of life."

Yet Peale and his formula remained big favorites in some conservative circles throughout the second half of the 20th Century, even after his death in 1993. Candidate Trump was still paying homage to him in 2015, and The Power of Positive Thinking remains in print to this day.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.