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A Positive Note : Norman Vincent Peale Speaks at Crystal Cathedral Celebration

Times Staff Writer

They came in busloads and carloads. They came in dark suits and black shiny shoes, Burberry coats and fuchsia velveteen sandals, white duck pants and white tennis shoes. They came 11,000 strong to hear the man and his message, just as some of them had 28 years ago.

The man is Norman Vincent Peale. He is a spry, articulate, seemingly mild-mannered octogenarian. Bespectacled, white-haired, with the smile of a Cheshire cat, he looks and sounds like anybody’s grandfather--until he steps to the pulpit.

“You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you,” he bellows out with lion-like ferocity and verve. Without question, this is the man who wrote “The Power of Positive Thinking.” The 1952 best-seller sold 15 million copies, was translated into 40 languages and made Norman Vincent Peale a household name.

In 1957 he brought his message--"positive thinking is the way to freedom"--to the Drive-In Church at the Orange Drive-In Theater. He came at the behest of the young church’s then-obscure pastor, Robert Schuller, who, like Peale, is a member of the Dutch Reformed Church.

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On that June day in 1957, the drive-in was playing a film on the life of Audie Murphy. So the marquee said: “To Hell and Back. Now Playing Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.”

Much has changed, of course, since Peale and Schuller preached together to 8,000 people in 2,000 cars from the snack-bar rooftop at the drive-in. On Sunday, they shared a resplendent marble pulpit in Schuller’s $15-million, 10,000-window Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove.

The event marked the 30th anniversary celebration of the Garden Grove Community Church and the 15th anni versary of Schuller’s televised evangelistic programs.

In an interview Sunday, Peale recalled that first visit.

“As I drove through the town, I saw my picture on telephone poles, and the more I saw it, the more I believed I was going to give a good sermon,” he said.

When Schuller got up to introduce Peale that day, he apparently had forgotten his biographical notes on the visitor. So Schuller said to the audience, “You probably think Dr. Peale is the most important person here. Well, he’s not.”

“I wondered who was going to get this accolade,” Peale said. “But when Dr. Schuller said, ‘Jesus Christ is the most important figure here,’ that made a great hit with me, and I said this young fella is 100% OK with me.

“I didn’t visualize it then, but I knew he (Schuller) would accomplish something great. ‘Bob, that church is already built in your mind,’ I said to him. As I recall, when he started he had $500, a parish of two families, no building, no property, nothing.”

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The audience Sunday gave Peale a standing ovation when he was introduced and two when he finished speaking.

Peale retired last year as pastor of his New York church, Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue, in order to devote himself full-time to Guideposts, a spiritual magazine with a circulation of 4.5 million that he started with his wife, Ruth Stafford Peale. He also continues to broadcast his daily radio show, “The American Character,” which is carried on 442 radio stations, as well as writing a syndicated weekly newspaper column.

Peale’s critics have taken issue with his perceived preoccupation with material success. Sunday, however, he said, “Material success is irrelevant. Two examples of very successful people were my parents--and they never attained a high degree of material success. The purpose of religion is to make people their best selves, in every way, but mostly spiritually.”

The similarities between Peale and his disciple Schuller are striking.

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Peale grew up in rural Ohio, the son of a Methodist circuit minister, and earned his own money as a paper boy, grocer and door-to-door salesman of pots and pans.

Schuller was an Iowa farm boy from a family of modest means.

Both recount painful, awkward experiences as adolescents. “I thought I was a worm,” Peale said. “I went around telling people I wouldn’t amount to anything. Then I discovered they were all agreeing with me.” That’s when he said he decided to do something about his life.

Peale (in high school) and Schuller (in college) became highly successful orators.

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Ruth Stafford Peale, a prominent figure in the Dutch Reformed Church along with her husband, was interviewed by Schuller during the second Sunday service. She has recently written a book about her successful 54-year marriage, called “The Secrets of Staying in Love.”

‘Greatest Career’

“My theory is that the greatest career for a woman is being a wife,” Ruth Peale said. “The second greatest career is being a mother. And you can do both of these and still have a career outside the home. I know, because I have done this. Your wife has done the same,” she said, turning to Schuller.

“Do you know that there are congregations who know you as the husband of Arvella Schuller?” the diminutive, white-haired woman asked Schuller. The audience laughed and applauded.

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Both Peale and Schuller link religion and psychiatry.

“The church misses its mark if you don’t go out respecting yourself more than when you came in,” Schuller said in his sermon.

“If you want to live dreams, this is the place to come,” he exhorted the audience. “If you want to be successful, find a need and fill it. . . . It takes a lot of heart and muscle to lift the dream off the floor and make it soar.”

But Sunday was not a day simply for dwelling on past success. Schuller’s plans for the future include a 24-hour prayer chapel to be built on a lake, with a glass floor and walls “so you can look at the fish swimming under your feet and see the sky,” he said.

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“Will this institution survive me?” he asked. “First of all, I’m not ready to check out yet. Dr. Peale is 86 years old. I’m 58. My goal is to pass his record. He was a pastor in the Marble Collegiate Church for 52 years, and I aim to be here for 52 years. I’ve got 28 years left.”


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