Norman Vincent Peale, ‘Minister to Millions,’ Dies : Religion: Mixing faith and psychology, author of ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ spread inspiration worldwide.


Norman Vincent Peale, the internationally recognized minister and philosopher who made “the power of positive thinking” a household phrase, died Christmas Eve.

Peale, who was 95, died in his sleep in his home on a 20-acre farm in Dutchess County, north of New York City, according to the Peale Center for Christian Living. He had suffered a mild stroke about two weeks ago.

Peale, the Ohio-born son of a circuit-riding Methodist preacher, was known as “the minister to millions.” His compelling, folksy preaching and motivational lectures, prolific writing and innovative integration of psychology and religion earned him a place as one of the best-known ministers in history.


Peale wrote more than 40 books. His seminal work, “The Power of Positive Thinking,” was translated into 42 languages and sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. It is one of the all-time best-selling books of nonfiction. Written in 1952 when he was 54, the book became an immediate hit. Although it sparked sharp controversy among Peale’s fellow clerics, it soon became the model for a flood of self-help and motivational books that continues four decades later.

The Rev. Robert Schuller, founder and pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, whose TV ministry placed him at a level of national recognition similar to Peale’s, was in seclusion and unable to comment on his friend’s death.

However, over the years Schuller--who had a decades-long personal and professional relationship with Peale--said repeatedly that “I built my church on Easter services, Christmas Eve services and Norman Vincent Peale.”

Peale and his wife, Ruth Stafford Peale, co-founded the Peale Center for Christian Living and were co-publishers of Guideposts, a monthly inspirational magazine with millions of subscribers across the nation.

Vigorous well into his 90s, Peale in 1984 reluctantly stepped down as pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City at the age of 86. He then devoted his time to writing and lecturing. He had been senior pastor of the large congregation, part of the Reformed Church in America denomination, for 52 years. When he took it over in 1932, both finances and membership were dwindling; gradually he built the church into one of the country’s most prestigious congregations.

Large audiences across the land revered Peale, who traveled an average of 200,000 miles a year to spread his positive-thinking principles. Many of the rich and famous, including U.S. Presidents from Herbert Hoover to George Bush, were among his close friends and admirers.


When he was 93, Peale delivered the invocation at the Eisenhower Centennial D-Day Salute in New York, and the benediction at the dedication of the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda. And using a No. 2 lead pencil on a lined yellow pad, he recently wrote two more books: “The Power of Positive Living” and “This Incredible Century,” a review of his first nine decades.

At age 93 he also returned to preach at Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral. The two Reformed Church in America ministers had also preached together there in 1985 on the 30th anniversary of the Garden Grove church’s founding.

It was in 1957 that Peale, whom Schuller considers a spiritual mentor, first brought his positive-thinking message to Schuller’s drive-in church--which at the time was also the Orange Drive-In Theater.

The man known for his folksy humor and preaching gusto (he spoke without notes and with many gestures) fought a lifelong battle against shyness and feelings of inferiority.

He was fond of telling audiences about his student days at Ohio Wesleyan University, where as a sophomore he was “shy, bashful and reticent . . . a scared rabbit, just scared of everyone.”

His economics professor, Ben Arneson, asked Peale to stay after class one day. “You are so terribly shy, so embarrassed when I call upon you, that you get tongue-tied, red in the face, and your inferiority feelings stick out all over,” Arneson told the quaking young man. “No wonder students snicker. Don’t you know that shyness is actually a form of egotism and extreme self-awareness? In the name of heaven, be a man!”

Peale prayed earnestly and said he felt “strangely peaceful.” Soon, other professors steered him toward classic “possibility thinkers,” and he avidly read the works of William James, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and philosopher.

Peale marked the episode as a turning point. Even so, he conceded in his autobiography, “The True Joy of Positive Living” (written when he was 85), that “the old inadequacy feelings . . . have never entirely disappeared and probably never will.”

His struggle to conquer his own negativism was the grain of sand that eventually produced the pearl that made him a truly international--and controversial--figure: “The Power of Positive Thinking.”

Peale wrote the first draft of the book while he and his wife and three children were staying in a cottage on the grounds of the old Huntington Hotel in Pasadena. The publisher was not impressed. Eventually, after attempted revisions, Peale tossed the manuscript in the wastebasket. Ruth Peale rescued it, however, and personally delivered it to the publisher.

In Peale parlance, positive thinking is simply faith in the power of God. But disgruntled churchmen read it to mean that Peale thought faith in oneself could produce miracles.

Some charged that Peale attempted to apply sugar-coated panaceas to complex problems. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once accused Peale of “trying to make a success story out of Christianity” by seeking a largely white, middle-class audience. And many psychologists wrote off his book as simplistic Pollyanna poppycock.

But legions of followers testified that Peale’s message changed their lives for the better and represented the best combination of faith and pragmatism.

“This is an awful world, just frightening, and we’re stuck with it,” Peale said in a 1968 interview. “But people are deserving of some help so they can live in this world and make the best of it. I plead guilty, gladly and happily, to helping people accommodate to living in this awful world.”

Together with a psychiatrist, Dr. Smiley Blanton, Peale in 1937 founded the American Foundation for Religion and Psychiatry--now the Blanton-Peale Institutes of Health--in the basement of his Manhattan church. As an outgrowth of the institute, more than 100 pastoral counseling centers were established in major U.S. cities.

Some critics claimed that Peale’s basic affirmation that you become whatever you think you are was allied with--if not the origin of--the human potential movement and New Age philosophy.

“Anything that develops legitimate, positive thinking principles, I’m for,” Peale retorted in an interview with the Los Angeles Times at age 90.

His life was not always serene. In 1960, a flap over opposition to John F. Kennedy as a presidential candidate caused Peale such anguish that he tendered his resignation as pastor.

Peale had joined 150 other clergy in a statement that voiced concern that Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, might be unduly influenced by the Vatican in conducting foreign policy. But later, Peale said that though he favored Nixon--a longtime acquaintance--he was not against Kennedy because of his Catholicism.

The press labeled the clergymen “the Peale group” and made him the center of the controversy. Peale said he felt the negative public statement had brought his church “into disrepute” and was “the dumbest thing I ever did.” Accordingly, he sent his letter of resignation and “was prepared to preach a farewell sermon at Marble Collegiate the following Sunday.” But the church board wouldn’t hear of it.

Asked whether he would change anything in his career, Peale told the Christian Science Monitor in 1984 that he would not “get involved with a politician. A minister should deal (only) with the human soul.”

Peale was ordained a minister in what is now the United Methodist Church in 1922.

Although Peale did not regard it as such, he founded a religious empire.

In Pawling, N.Y., 70 miles north of Marble Collegiate, is the Peale Center for Christian Living. Ruth Peale established it in 1940 to distribute her husband’s sermons. The center now annually sends around the globe more than 31 million copies of Peale’s inspirational booklets. Nearby, in Carmel, N.Y., is the world headquarters of Guideposts Associates, where 400 employees produce the Guideposts magazine.

Peale extensively used radio to spread his message. His program, “The Art of Living,” which went on the air in 1933, continued for more than 40 years.

Besides his wife, Peale is survived by two daughters, Margaret Everett of Pittsburgh and Elizabeth Allen of Pawling, the wife of John Allen, a vice president of the Reader’s Digest Corp.; a son, John, professor of philosophy at Longwood College in Virginia; eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

A public memorial service will be held at Marble Collegiate Church on Wednesday.