1957 spoken-word record of Holmes.

The Promise and Perils of Ernest Holmes

The Yankee mystic was poised to become America’s great metaphysical voice — but complexities intervened

Mitch Horowitz
14 min readAug 28, 2023

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Could 20th century America — the land of positive-thinking, recovery movements, and self-help — produce the morally persuasive, mass transcendental religion for which many seekers yearned?

The answer seemed to lie within one of the era’s most unique and persuasive metaphysical thinkers: Ernest Holmes (1887–1960). In the early 20th century, the stout, rotund Yankee journeyed from his native Maine to Los Angeles to spread his version of the positivity gospel or New Thought, the umbrella term for modernity’s disparate mind-power theologies. For a time, Holmes’s Religious Science or Science of Mind movement showed promise of developing into the great American metaphysical faith.

In actuality, the last thing the intellectual and spiritual seeker wanted was to start a religion. From Holmes’s early days on the metaphysical speaking circuit in the 1910s until his death in Los Angeles in April 1960, he mounted plaintive resistance to enthusiasts who transformed his mind-power philosophy into a network of churches replete with textbooks, rule-making bodies, and enough factional splits and infighting to populate a New Thought version of I, Claudius. At the January 1960 dedication of the ornate, domed Founder’s Church in Los Angeles months before his death, Holmes gazed out over the crowded pews and said, “This church was not my idea.” [1]

Whatever the reluctance of its founder, the Science of Mind movement, known more formally as the United Church of Religious Science, became the last — and in some ways the most influential — of all New Thought denominations.

Other ministries arrived earlier and claimed more members, such as the well-established Unity School of Christianity based in Kansas City, Missouri. But none had a 20th century figurehead quite like Ernest Holmes. Not only did Holmes, possessed of a ready smile and joie de vivre likability, devise a fully fleshed-out theology but he also inspired the most formative self-help philosophy of the 20th century: the “power of positive thinking” of author–minister Norman Vincent Peale. In the end, Holmes proved a mighty catalyst, though his fame…

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Mitch Horowitz

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