Healing Hypotheses  


Early American philosophy, in both Puritanism and Deism, paid attention to Nature and had a practical outlook encouraging one to get on in the world. In the first half of the nineteenth century in the United States, hopes were high and all sorts of utopian schemes were put forth. If demands for publicly observable reforms were impressive, the upward-looking changes of thought and affection called for by utopians and transcendentalists were no less significant. In the latter part of the century, Oriental thought became more apparent in the American philosophical scene. Naturalism also played its part, especially after the appearance of Darwinian evolution. This addition served to further the optimistic American belief in progress. Hence there were favorable conditions for there to arise an optimistic, progressive, eclectic, philosophical-religious movement.

There was an ancient tradition of religious healing, as well as speculation on the nature of magnetism and the influence of heavenly bodies. Against this background, mesmerism came to the fore. It was explained variously as due to imagination or to the influence of a subtle fluid flowing from the mesmerist to his subject. Little-understood electricity was thought by some to be a fluid, perhaps the same as the magnetic fluid of mesmerism (animal magnetism). Although mesmerism early was seen to have some healing properties, perhaps greater attention was given to the "higher phenomena" of extrasensory perception that mesmerism was reported to awaken in some people. This was the situation when mesmerism was spread abroad in the United States in the 1830's, largely at first by Charles Poyen.



Healing Hypotheses

Some of those who took mesmeric phenomena seriously sought to find the most adequate philosophical framework into which to fit their observations. They seemed to know little of philosophy, but engaged in their own speculation. A mesmeric thinker later recognized by Dresser was John Bovee Dods.

Dods saw that not everything seemed to be self-moving. He called what is self-moving, mind or spirit. But he rejected its immateriality, on the belief that existence requires form, which in turn requires materiality. He found that mind cannot move and called it electricity; he also proposed a gradation of material, each grade of which could be moved by the next more refined. At one point he called electricity an emanation of God, but later called it coeternal with mind or spirit. Since both were material, the distinction seems questionable. Despite this, Dresser stressed the Dods emphasis on mind as the originator of motion. Dresser admired the gradation from mind to matter. Dods considered healing the restoration of proper electrical balance of the body. As New Thought was to do, Dods believed in keeping the patient conscious, rather than putting him or her into a mesmeric state.

While the views of Dods may have exerted some influence on Dresser, those of another man who investigated mesmerism were of great importance in the lives of Dresser and his parents, Julius A. Dresser and Annetta G. S. Dresser. This man was Phineas P. Quimby. He gave mesmeric demonstrations and used a mesmerized subject, Lucius Burkmar, to diagnose and prescribe for sickness. After observing this process for some time, Quimby concluded that the results were due to beliefs held by patients. He abandoned his subject and mesmerism, developed his own extrasensory perception, and worked out a system of spiritual healing. Dresser stressed Quimby's theistic attitude, intuitive method of diagnosis, and discovery of "spiritual matter" similar to the "electricity" of Dods as a link between mind and matter. The spiritual matter was believed to be impressed by

Healing Hypotheses


beliefs and to bring forth the physical conditions corresponding to the beliefs. In Quimby's view, disease was real, but was in the form of false belief, which could be changed by a realization of divine Wisdom. Quimby identified one's true self with the parapsychological senses revealed in mesmerism but not dependent on mesmerism once one learns to use them consciously.

Quimby did not live to publish a book of his views, but they were interpreted in Swedenborgian terms by Warren F. Evans, who published several books. The Swedenborgian philosophy came to be adopted by Dresser, but Evans moved farther away from it as his thought developed subsequent to his learning from Quimby. The hallmark of the Swedenborgian outlook was the supremacy of God, with correspondence of the spiritual and material, but with a doctrine of discrete degrees of existence according to which there could not be pantheism, and divine influx uniting the spiritual and material worlds.

Evans grew into pantheism, and in doing so produced a system that substantially was taken over as the content of New Thought [which is not to say how many New Thoughters got it from Evans, inasmuch as there were parallel tracks of development]. Evans was less original with regard to his fundamental thought than those considered thus far. He was willing to accept the standard philosophical idealists for his system, but sought to connect them with healing. He also turned to occult writers of East and West in producing his "Christian Pantheism." His ultimate view was one of the identification of thought and existence, thus eliminating the need of any sort for gradation between mind and matter or any gulf to be bridged between mind and matter.

Turning to Dresser, one does not find him presenting a system purporting to be complete, nor even careful attention to such distinctions as soul and self or the nature of personality. His outlook was primarily practical, in wishing to try to help those in search of more meaningful, healthful life. Undoubtedly he must have


Healing Hypotheses

been influenced by the association of his parents with Quimby before his birth.

Both parents came from conventional religious groups and were skeptical of Quimby at first. J. A. Dresser's journal shows a falling away from Quimby and a return. The elder Dressers did not seek to carry on the work of Quimby at the time of his death, but moved to the western part of the United States. There Dresser early found himself in non-philosophical work. However, he managed to get a Harvard education, through the Ph.D. degree in philosophy, after the family moved to Boston.

Dresser was gifted with extrasensory perception, but did not allow this to sway him away from critical thought. Before completing his formal education he began publishing books, mostly of a self-help, inspirational sort. The earlier ones, at least, were entitled to be considered part of New Thought. Throughout his life, his writing, along with counseling and lecturing, constituted his major occupation, although he taught college for some years until 1913. He was ordained as a Swedenborgian clergyman in 1919, and did a little preaching.

Dresser begins his writing with largely an acceptance of pantheism, although he does not call it that, believing that the reserving of some of God unmanifested in the world saves him from pantheism. As he progresses in his philosophical studies, Dresser becomes increasingly concerned with epistemology. He finds that one begins with an indiscriminate whole of experience and that one gradually becomes aware of himself or herself in relation to another. He discovers no knowledge in the uninterpreted immediate. Hence, he rejects any claim of knowledge from unreflective mysticism. Nevertheless, he recognizes the necessity of the immediate as the content for reflection. He accepts the newer psychology that excludes separate faculties. His study of Hegel confirms his epistemological observation, and serves to stress the aspect of motion in the dialectical process. This probably reinforces his Quimbian reliance on a particularistic approach to life, doubting the adequacy of any

Healing Hypotheses   


formulation satisfactorily to represent reality as a whole. The becoming nature of the knowing process suggests the unfinished nature of the reality, something already offered by the theory of evolution, which he accepts. The Swedenborgian influx also may tend to stress motion, rather than a static system.

While the whole could not be compressed into one's understanding, Dresser retains faith in a meaningful whole, and makes his test for truth a consistency including all experience. This, and life itself, is the nature of truth for Dresser. He has a common-sense acceptance of a practical dualism of mind and matter, which leads him to appreciate the Dods gradation of matter and the Quimby "spiritual matter." This attitude probably is aided by his extrasensory perception, which he characterizes as operating in an intermediate realm neither visible in the ordinary way nor more divine than the commonly known world. Hence, stressing the details of the world, in whatever way revealed, Dresser finds no solution to the mind-body problem in the Evans identification of thought and existence. Both Evans and Dresser recognize the importance of non-intellectual experience, but where the mystical nature of Evans sweeps away distinctions of mind and matter, and of God and humankind, the more analytical Dresser rejects any solution that he considers lacking in discrimination. Both Evans and Dresser preserve the reality of the world as a divine expression, but Dresser believes that the Evans view does not adequately preserve the common-sense reality of the world.

Dresser remained optimistic, but in the exercise of his discrimination could not go so far as to call everything good. He wished to preserve the meaningfulness of finite ethical effort. Yet he held evil to be only an incident in the evolutionary process, a consequence of the freedom necessary for ethical value. Presumably, eventually all would become wise enough to want to do what is for the common good. While he stressed freedom, he remained an advocate of essentially divine guidance, presumably part


Healing Hypotheses

of the Swedenborgian influx. In the period beyond that covered in this study Dresser became rather closely identified with Swedenborgianism, at least in his writing.

Turning to Dresser and New Thought, Dresser participated in early activities of the movement, in helping to organize it and in his writing and lecturing. However, he maintained an independent attitude. This was increasingly the case as he moved away from pantheism and as New Thought showed an insufficient amount of scholarship, in his opinion.

New Thought is seen to have a strong pantheistic bent. Indeed, pantheism is the central doctrine for most of New Thought. Yet Dresser defined New Thought as not requiring pantheism, accepted at least honorary New Thought office, shared New Thought's open-minded, optimistic outlook, its healing aims, and to a considerable extent advocated its technique, to the extent that it recognized something beyond mere thought. On the basis of these facts, it is possible to classify him as a New Thought writer throughout the period here in question. At the very least, he was a friend of New Thought, if a critical one. In a movement as broad as New Thought one cannot very well exclude differing attitudes and internal criticism. At the present time, New Thought is showing some interest in thought beyond its own borders, and in doing so it is following advice given by Dresser, regardless of whether it has taken it from him. But on the side of doctrine, the prevailing pantheism indicates that the non-pantheistic views of Dresser made little headway in influencing New Thought.

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