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Rare image of the coach of the soul (1882–1956)

Blinded by the Light

One of the brightest intellects of the positive-mind movement skirted close to Nazi-appeasement — what lessons does that hold today?

Mainline American churches faced a crisis of mission in the 1920s and ’30s when congregants demanded practical help with the problems of life.

An answer came from Glenn Clark, a Presbyterian lay leader who devised a radical theory of prayer and mental causation drawn from mystical influences. Although this college educator and athletic coach didn’t strictly consider himself part of New Thought — the metaphysical movement based in affirmative thought — he brought mental-therapeutic principles into the pews of mainline congregations. He also wrestled with ethical demons, which, at times, gained the better of his judgment and highlighted gaps in the New Thought approach.

Clark was born in 1882 to a large and devout Christian family in Des Moines, Iowa. He became a young literature professor and coach at Macalester College, a Presbyterian liberal arts school in St. Paul, Minnesota. At Macalester, Clark developed ties to Christian Scientists and New-Thoughters, with whom he huddled in study sessions, prayer groups, and discussions.

Clark grew enamored of the ideas of an English scientist and spiritual seeker named F. L. Rawson, a follower of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy. Though Rawson later split with the Christian Science church, the English engineer continued searching for a methodical, even scientific, approach to prayer, an interest shared by Clark. When Rawson visited the United States in the early 1920s, Clark traveled to meet his British hero in Minneapolis. To Clark’s chagrin, however, Rawson seemed more like a technician of the soul than a man driven by a passion for truth and goodness.

“I determined then and there not to be a mere follower of his,” Clark wrote, “but to begin where he left off.” This was Clark’s strength: never to settle for an idea but always to look for ways to build on it.

Clark wanted a method of practical prayer — and he soon found it. In 1924 he realized that for two years straight he had experienced “an almost continuous stream of answered prayer.” What caused it? Clark was an athlete, and he discovered that to pray effectively a person had to prepare for prayer in much the same way a winning athlete trained and drilled before a competition. Clark’s prayer-preparation regimen included meditation, breathing exercises, and preliminary devotionals. With the proper degree of “warm up,” inner reflection, and sincerity, Clark insisted, prayers were almost guaranteed to work. Clark gained a national audience for his ideas in the summer of 1924 when the Atlantic Monthly (a journal rarely given to practical theology) ran his hugely popular article on effective prayer, “The Soul’s Sincere Desire.”

Clark had a gift for blending Biblical and psychological concepts into meaningful self-help formulas. One of Clark’s techniques came to him one day when he had a breakthrough in his understanding of the Biblical verse 2 Samuel 22:34: He maketh my feet like hinds’ feet; and setteth me upon my high places. Clark saw the verse as a psychological allegory: “hinds’ feet” — an animal’s powerful rear legs — are the subconscious mind, which is the individual’s interior engine and spiritual center. Whoever can coordinate the workings of the subconscious with the strivings of the conscious mind — just as an animal coordinates its rear and front legs — is “most certain to reach the heights in life,” Clark wrote.

As a college varsity coach, Clark cultivated a backslapping rapport with young people. He wanted to find ways of instructing them in constructive prayer and practical Christianity. This coach of the soul found his answer in opening a network of Christian youth camps, Camps Farthest Out. The idea for the camps came to him in a dream in 1929. He dubbed them “laboratories for experimentation in the art of praying.” After the frrst camp launched on Lake Koronis in central Minnesota in 1930, Camps Farthest Out set the mold for twentieth-century programs in Christian youth development. They remain active around the world today.

Clark’s first camps attracted a wide range of Christians, along with some Jews and nonreligious campers. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) cofounder Bob Smith attended retreats at Camps Farthest Out and spoke of Clark as one of his favorite authors. Clark also maintained ties in the New Thought world, delivering talks at conventions of the International New Thought Alliance.

Clark believed in the power of prayer to cure illness, manage addictions, improve relationships — and even end war. That last conviction figured into a troubling aspect of his career. During World War II, Clark tended toward a myopic view of using prayer and thought-power to compel Hitler to halt his Blitzkrieg. While this approach was hardly troubling in itself, Clark believed in it so completely that his political outlook verged on appeasement. Clark was convinced that his prayer groups had slowed Hitler’s march into Poland in 1939 (rather than the recent signing of the Polish-British Common Defense Pact). Even after the war, Clark believed in Hitler’s transparently propagandistic demand that Poland could have settled matters “peacefully” by handing over the Danzig Corridor to the Third Reich. “What he [Hitler] asked for,” Clark wrote, “merely the Danzig Corridor and a little more, was a fraction of what, when provoked to war, he finally did take. In other words, all he asked for were territories which many neutral authorities thought it only just for Germany to have. Think what this offer meant!” Such convictions were tempered by neither time nor perspective — Clark wrote this following the war in 1949, seven years before his death.

Writing in 1940, Clark described having a spiritual vision of Mussolini bending his head and lowering into a devout kneel “until his forehead touches the ground.” Soon after Clark said that, he received a newspaper clipping from his Boston publisher, Little Brown, reporting that Mussolini had written to the company to purchase Clark’s book, The Soul’s Sincere Desire, and had paid for it with “his personal check.”

One wants to believe Clark when he wrote in the same piece: “I do not believe in appeasement or compromise of any sort” toward the Axis. And in his heart he meant this. But Clark went beyond endorsing the uses of prayer and thoughts of love to influence Hitler; he made concrete and ardently felt policy prescriptions that amounted to the very thing he claimed to be set against. The spiritual visionary was so desperate to see the light that he was blinded to darker realities.

Other New Thought leaders, including Ernest Holmes and Frank B. Robinson, raised their voices against fascism before the war and held rallies for Allied victory. AA cofounder Bill Wilson tried (and was deemed too old) to register for military service at the start of the conflict. Christian Scientists sent chaplains and service members to the front lines. In the positive-thinking culture Clark was a political outlier. Nonetheless, Clark, a brilliant and practical theologian, pointed up the inconsistent, and sometimes inadequate, response of of the nation’s growing New Thought and positive-thinking movements to global evil and personal suffering — a testing ground for the continued relevance of such congregations today.

(The article is adapted form the author’s book One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life.)

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"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China

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