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As a Man Thinketh: Mitch in NYC. Photo by Larry Busacca

Working-Class Sage

The power and progress of James Allen

In his first solo album in 1970, John Lennon famously sang: “A working-class hero is something to be.” If you want to example of how to live out that ideal in art and life, discover the career of inspirational writer James Allen (1864–1912).

In a writing career that lasted only a decade, the English essayist, moralist, and mystic revolutionized the field of modern inspirational literature and provided an example of dramatic personal progress in the story of his own advancement from factory orphan to literary lion.

Before Allen’s death from tuberculosis at age 47, he produced the enormously popular meditation As a Man Thinketh and combined themes of social reform, Victorian self-reliance, and New Thought metaphysics like no author before or since.

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A rare photo of Allen, undated.

Allen’s few years of output, ranging from the publication of his first book in 1901 to his death in early 1912, resulted in nearly twenty books, the launch of two magazines, and a countless range of letters, poems, and articles. The British seeker drank deeply from Eastern spirituality (he was among the first Westerners to popularize principles of Buddhism), American motivational and mind-power philosophy, and the rock-ribbed moralism of Victorian England, where he grew up in the shadow of factories and poverty.

His era was one in which Victorian readers were inspired by works like “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley (1849–1903), who was twenty years Allen’s elder:

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

Allen possessed the ability to combine the ideal of the British “stiff upper lip” with the insights of New Thought, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Mystical Christianity. He may be the only writer for whom this is true. Allen was also a social reformer: he was a vegetarian (an influence from Buddhism), an early advocate for humane treatment of animals, and a supporter of laws protecting workers and promoting social equity.

All this arose from the brief career of a man who lost his father at age fifteen and had to quit school for factory work to ensure his family’s survival. As important as anything that he wrote, Allen provided a living example of his philosophy of moral and material progress. That is why I have titled this essay “Working-Class Sage.” That is what Allen is to me — and his life story should be better known to the millions of readers who swear by his signature book As a Man Thinketh.

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James Allen was born to a working-class home on November 28, 1864 in the industrial town of Leicester, in central England. His mother, Martha, could neither read nor write. His father, William, was a factory knitter who maintained a small manufacturing business. The eldest of three brothers, James was a bookish and gentle boy, doted upon by his father, who cultivated his taste in books and philosophy.

A downturn in the textile trade drove William out of business, and in 1879 he traveled to New York City to look for new work. His plan was to get settled and pay for the rest of the family to join him. But the unthinkable occurred. On the brink of the Christmas season, just after James had turned fifteen, word came back to the home that its patriarch was dead. William had been found robbed and murdered two days after reaching New York. His battered body, with its pockets emptied, lay in a city hospital.

James’s mother, Martha, a woman who could not read or write, found herself in charge of James and his two younger brothers. The family had no means of support. “Young Jim” would have to leave school and work as a factory knitter if the Allens were to survive and remain intact.

The teenager had been his father’s favorite. An avid reader, James had spent hours questioning his father about life, death, religion, politics, and Shakespeare. “My boy,” William told him, “I’ll make a scholar of you.” Those hopes seemed gone.

James took up employment locally as a framework knitter, a job that occupied his energies for the next nine years. He sometimes worked fifteen-hour days. But even amid the strains of factory life, he retained the dignified, studious bearing that his father had cultivated. When his workmates went out drinking, or caught up on sleep, Allen studied and read two to three hours a day. Coworkers called him “the Saint” and “the Parson.”

Allen read through his father’s collected works of Shakespeare, as well as books of ethics and religion. He grew determined to discover the “central purpose” of life. At age twenty-four he found the book that finally seemed to reveal it to him: The Light of Asia by Edwin Arnold. The epic poem introduced Allen, along with a generation of Victorians, to the ideas of Buddhism. Under its influence, Allen came to believe that the true aim of all religion was self-development and inner refinement.

Shortly after discovering The Light of Asia, Allen experienced a turning point in his outer life, as well. Around 1889 he found new employment in London as a private secretary and stationer — friendlier vocations to the bookish man than factory work. In London he met his wife and intellectual partner, Lily Louisa Oram. They wed in 1895. The following year, Lily gave birth to the couple’s daughter and only child, Nora.

By this time, Allen had developed an impassioned interest in the world’s spiritual philosophies, poring over the works of John Milton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and early translations of the Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching, and the sayings of Confucius and Buddha. He marveled over the commonalities in the world’s religions. “The man who says, ‘My religion is true, and my neighbor’s is false,’ has not yet discovered the truth in his own religion,” he wrote, “for when a man has done that, he will see the Truth in all religions.”

He soon grew interested in the ideas of America’s burgeoning New Thought culture through the work of Ralph Waldo Trine, Christian D. Larson, and Orison Swett Marden. His reading of New Thought literature sharpened his spiritual outlook — in particular his idea that our thoughts are causative and determine our destiny.

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By 1898, Allen found an outlet for his spiritual and social interests when he began writing for the magazine, The Herald of the Golden Age. The journal was a pioneering voice for vegetarianism and humane treatment of animals (a cause he discovered in Buddhism), and also highlighted metaphysics and practical spirituality. Allen’s writing for The Herald of the Golden Age commenced a period of feverish creative activity.

By 1901, he published his first book of spiritual philosophy, From Poverty to Power. The work extolled the creative agencies of the mind, placing an equal emphasis on Christian-based ethics and New Thought motivation. In 1902, Allen launched his own spiritual magazine, The Light of Reason — a tribute to Arnold’s title — later redubbed The Epoch.

The following year, Allen produced the book that made his name known worldwide: the short, immensely powerful meditation, As a Man Thinketh. The title came from Proverbs 23:7: “As he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” In Allen’s eyes, that brief statement laid out his core philosophy — that a person’s thought, if not the cause of his circumstances, is the cause of himself, and shapes the tenor of his life.

As the book’s popularity rose, the phrase “as a man thinketh” became the informal motto of the New Thought movement, adopted and repeated by motivational writers throughout the century. Indeed, twentieth-century New-Thoughters frequently borrowed, cross-referenced, and repurposed one another’s language — sometimes to the point where an original reference, or its meaning, got lost. This was the case with Allen’s title phrase. Read in context in Proverbs 23:6–7, the precept “as a man thinketh” is not a principle of cause-and-effect thinking, but rather a caution against covetousness and hypocrisy:

Eat thou not the bread of him that hath an evil eye, neither desire thou his dainty meats:

For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he: Eat and drink, saith he to thee; but his heart is not with thee.

This kind of misunderstanding was common in New Thought. The early positive thinkers were passionate to describe their ideas as the fulfillment of ancient doctrines. Hence, they tended to retrofit the positivity gospel to Scripture and other antique sources, sometimes ignoring the context of favored passages.

Regardless, Allen’s book was otherwise marked by memorable, aphoristic passages, which have withstood the passage of time. As a Man Thinketh defined achievement in deeply personal terms: “You will become as small as your controlling desire; as great as your dominant aspiration.” Toward the end of As a Man Thinketh, Allen wrote in a manner that amounted to autobiography:

Here is a youth hard pressed by poverty and labor; confined long hours in an unhealthy workshop; unschooled, and lacking all the arts of refinement. But he dreams of better things: he thinks of intelligence, of refinement, of grace and beauty. He conceives of, mentally builds up, an ideal condition of life; vision of a wider liberty and a larger scope takes possession of him; unrest urges him to action, and he utilizes all his spare time and means, small though they are, to the development of his latent powers and resources. Very soon so altered has his mind become that the workshop can no longer hold him.

Although I grew up in circumstances hardly comparable to the brutalities of England’s “dark Satanic mills,” I, like many readers, knew struggle and felt that Allen’s pen expressed the progress of my own life.

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The same year that he wrote As a Man Thinketh, 1903, Allen produced another book — less well known but equally powerful in scope and practicality: All These Things Added

All These Things Added is consummate James Allen, and deserves special mention. The concise work encapsulates an entire philosophy of life. In All These Things Added, Allen created a method of day-to-day living designed to bring personal fulfillment and self-realization. He based it on his interpretation of Matthew 6:33:

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness;

and all these things shall be added unto you.

The book captures Allen’s struggle — and all of ours — to live by the principle of reaching beyond our grasp. And of seeking to produce more than we grab. Perhaps more than any other book, All These Things Added reflects the personal search that marked Allen’s life.

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With the publication and success of these two books, the Allen family moved to the southern English costal town of Ilfracombe, where Allen spent the rest of life. He produced books at a remarkable pace — often more than one a year.

With Lily as his partner, Allen hosted discussion groups on metaphysical themes, continued publishing The Epoch, and spent long periods of time in nature, taking early morning walks and exploring the coastal highlands. His life assumed a meticulous routine of meditating, writing, walking the coast, and gardening. Friends sensed that he was living out the simple, ascetic ideal of one of his literary heroes, Leo Tolstoy.

For all the vigor of his output, Allen was in fragile health. Lily wrote of her husband’s health faltering in late 1911. On January 24, 1912, Allen died at home in Ilfracombe at age 47, probably of tuberculosis. His body was cremated — a funerary choice that was then unpopular in the West but reflected the seeker’s fealty to Eastern traditions.

Lily continued to publish her husband’s remaining manuscripts, to work on her own books, and to edit and publish The Epoch. She also founded her own New Thought-oriented society, the Union of Right Thinking. She died on February 14, 1952. The Allens’ daughter, Nora, a Spiritualist and later a devout Roman Catholic, died July 18, 1976.

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The true legacy of James Allen is that the British author established a philosophy of self-advancement set within a framework of Eastern mysticism, Christian asceticism, and American motivation. He combined these elements like no other writer. His values were simple, clear traits of thrift, reliability, hard work, respect of one’s neighbor and employer, along with a deeply held belief in the unseen power of the individual who, through the proper exercise of thought, could radically transform his circumstances.

Allen was simultaneously the Victorian moralist and the searching mystic. The path to personal greatness, he believed, is found in eschewing self-indulgence, pursuing a modest existence of basic needs, and tirelessly exercising the control of your thoughts to minimize what is cruel and petty, while cultivating ideals of tolerance, generosity, kindness, and, above all, belief in self. Through these methods, Allen insisted, you can realize untapped powers and resources. This is the path he walked from factory orphan to internationally known writer.

Although Allen loved the greenery of the British landscape, his work found its greatest popularity outside his native land. In an obituary of January 27, 1912, the Ilfracombe Chronicle noted: “Mr. Allen’s books…are perhaps better known abroad, especially in America.”

Indeed, the twentieth century’s leading American writers of motivational thought — from Napoleon Hill to Norman Vincent Peale — read and noted the influence of As a Man Thinketh. Dale Carnegie said the book had “a lasting and profound effect on my life.” The cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bob Smith, called it a favorite. The black-nationalist pioneer Marcus Garvey embraced the book’s do-for-self ethic and adapted the slogan “As Man Thinks So Is He” on the cover of his newspaper Blackman. In years ahead, the book’s influence showed up in myriad places: An adolescent Michael Jackson told a friend that it was his “favorite book in the world”; NFL Hall-of-Famer Curtis Martin credited As a Man Thinketh with helping him overcome pain and injury; businessman and Oprah Winfrey partner Stedman Graham said Allen’s work helped him attain “real freedom.”

The full impact of As a Man Thinketh and Allen’s work in general can best be seen in the successive generations of readers who embraced his aphoristic lessons in directing one’s thoughts to higher aims and to understanding success as the outer manifestation of inner development. “Men do not attract that which they want,” Allen told readers, “but that which they are.”

In that sense, Allen attracted a vast following who mirrored the ordinary circumstances from which he arose — and whose hopes for a better, nobler existence were redirected back to them in writing that bore the mark of his experience.

In 1913, Lily Allen summarized her husband’s mission in a preface to one of his posthumously published manuscripts:

He never wrote theories, or for the sake of writing; but he wrote when he had a message, and it became a message only when he had lived it out in his own life, and knew that it was good. Thus he wrote facts, which he had proven by practice.

(This essay is adapted from the author’s introduction to the forthcoming anthology The Wisdom of James Allen.)

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If you liked this piece, here are a few others to check out. I appreciate your read and how value your time is — I always strive to honor it.

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