history of 'The Secret'
By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY
If The Secret can get any hotter, no one's telling.
It's selling like an elixir that promises everything but eternal
life. Rhonda Byrne's book tops USA TODAY's best-seller list for
the seventh consecutive week, and the companion DVD is No. 1 on
Amazon's sales chart. It has captured wallets and water coolers
like nothing else since Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown suggested
Jesus was a daddy.
Oprah dedicated two shows to The Secret; Australian video producer
Byrne has a roundup on how the mind can deliver a laundry list
of goodies, from health to a helicopter. Saturday Night Live was
quick to lampoon the book, while Pulitzer Prize-winning political
columnist Maureen Dowd invoked it while wondering if wishful thinking
could lead to a change in the White House.
But such pop culture fascination leaves actress and minister
Della Reese Lett laughing.
"Child, The Secret hasn't been a secret since the times
of Moses, if not before," says the former Touched by an Angel
star, founder and minister of the Understanding Principles of
Better Living church in Los Angeles. "But every generation
needs a new way to look at things that have been around a while.
I suppose right now The Secret is it."
Lett's church is one of hundreds of loosely affiliated metaphysical
churches that have been around for more than a century. Their
guiding principles are anchored to self-fulfillment via the power
of the mind.
The number of American followers of these so-called New Thought
churches (don't call them New Age) hovers around 200,000, which
includes 100,000 who regularly attend the nation's 700 Unity churches,
says James Trapp, CEO of the Association of Unity Churches in
Lee's Summit, Mo.
What's particularly interesting about The Secret phenomenon is
that beyond finding its way into millions of homes, it is in some
instances getting the curious to step out of those houses and
seek like-minded fellowship.
"We've got more people coming on Sundays than ever,"
says the Rev. Temple Hayes of the First Unity Church of St. Petersburg,
Fla., whose small bookshop has sold 860 copies of The Secret.
The church holds regular workshops using the book as a teaching
Overall, services at First Unity have decidedly Christian overtones,
with regular readings from the Bible and references to God and
Jesus, although the latter isn't viewed as the Son of God. Communion
is reserved for holidays such as Easter. Sunday staples include
sermons (the preferred term is "message") and a moment
of silence, which can be filled with any form of meditation.
"We teach people how to think, not what to think, and folks
find that appealing," Hayes says. "But we do make sure
to tell people that, while the mind is a powerful way to get what
you want, you may face some pain along the way. Nothing comes
That sounded like a fair trade to Bob Stewart, a county commissioner
in St. Petersburg who recently was drawn to First Unity when a
favorite Presbyterian minister retired. Skeptical at first, he
now relishes the weekly meetings, as well as his new meditation
"I've found a comfortable zone at that church," Stewart
says. "I find that focusing my mind helps me with my life."
Over the decades, everything from personal solace to material
wealth has helped draw people to spiritual and secular leaders
who promise that your wish is the cosmos's command.
Even before the Civil War there was a fascination with mental
healing, an outgrowth of the work of 18th-century Austrian physician
Franz Mesmer, who pioneered the study of the unconscious mind
and hypnosis and gave us the term "mesmerizing."
When photography became popular, "many people were sure
these often-foggy images were proof that the body possessed an
energy that was capable of taking physical form," says Robert
Fuller, professor of religious studies at Bradley University in
Peoria, Ill., who focuses on unconventional U.S. religions.
Fuller says a growing fascination with the unseen world gave
way to a wave of interest in Spiritualism, in which otherworldly
energy was used for both healing and summoning Aunt Betsy from
the great beyond.
Famously, magician Harry Houdini embraced the movement in the
hope of contacting his late mother, but he turned on it when she
didn't appear. His attempts to debunk mediums led to dire threats
from high-profile Spiritualists such as Sherlock Holmes creator
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (Just last week, Houdini's relatives moved
to exhume the escape artist's body in an effort to see if he was
murdered by Spiritualists.)
By the 1920s, with science and industry humming along, Spiritualism
had given way to a new movement called New Thought.
New Thought was tethered to an appealing concept: The human mind
was capable of delivering anything it desired, from pain relief
to debt relief.
That message was appropriated by others who wanted to tap into
the frustrations of the masses.
"The get-rich philosophies that followed, like Norman Vincent
Peale's classic, The Power of Positive Thinking, all were the
result of the changes in economics," Fuller says. "In
the 1800s, it was relatively straightforward. The harder you worked
in the field, the more successful you were.
"But with the advent of the stock market in the new century,
people suddenly felt like they had less control of their lives
and of success. So along come these people saying 'You just need
to change the way you're thinking,' and believe me, that hit home."
Today, you need only to see Donald Trump's face beaming from
a Learning Annex brochure to know that the appeal of this promise
But there are plenty of people who see positive thinking as a
deeply religious experience that can help connect humans both
to each other and a higher power. New Thought leader Trapp says
his organization hopes to welcome this group.
"Many people seem to be looking for this philosophy now
but just don't seem to be aware of who we are," says Trapp.
As for The Secret, he appreciates any spillover into the pews
but advises fans to be informed.
"It is a good introduction, but (the book) is superficial
and tends to focus on accumulating material things," he says.
"That is only the beginning of the message. The real point
of mental power is to create a world that works for everyone,
with food, education and health care for everyone. I'm glad (Unity)
ministers are using The Secret to try and bring people in. I just
hope it segues for many people into a church experience."
Interestingly, the president of the New Thought Alliance, Blaine
Mays, questions whether the book's popularity can translate into
new believers for Unity or other metaphysical churches.
"Maybe one in 100 will ask, 'I wonder if there's a church
that preaches these same ideas,' " Mays says. "Face
it, you had Transcendental Meditation, you had Shirley MacLaine,
now you've got The Secret. You just know it also won't be around
Mays thinks the "spiritual aspect" of New Thought turns
off those mainly on the hunt for a salary increase or a better
"We're not against that, but it's just that it's not what
we're really after," he says.
But the pursuit of material happiness is just fine with some
New Thought leaders, including Lett, who says, "God never
said it wasn't OK to be well fed, well clothed or drive a nice
car. You have to take care of yourself, as well as others."
Mark Anthony Lord, minister at Chicago's Center for Spiritual
Living, echoes that sentiment.
"America was built on having a wonderful life, on being
all that you can be," he says. "If you generate a feeling
of self that's capable and worthy, you'll attract what you want.
I don't care if you use it to get a car."
Spiritual but not religious
Attendance is up at his center since The Secret caught fire,
which pleases Michelle Schrag, who attends each Sunday with her
stockbroker husband and three children. Though raised Catholic,
Schrag says the center's "emphasis on meditation, which I
now do each day, has helped me find happiness in my daily life."
Schrag is typical of a growing breed of American who declares,
"I'm spiritual, but not religious," says Catherine Albanese,
who heads religious studies at the University of California-Santa
Barbara and is author of A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural
History of American Metaphysical Religion.
"I have to laugh at all the hype around The Secret, because
for some folks, it's really just religion as usual since the 19th
century. Passing on a message of how to get what you wanted from
life was a business then, and it's a business now," Albanese
Just ask "Abraham," the disembodied, vibrational force
whose teachings have been transmitted for the past few decades
through the physical form of lecturer and author Esther Hicks.
Although she dismisses the popular term "channeling,"
Hicks is a modern link to the past Spiritualist movement.
Hicks and her husband, Jerry, have written about the so-called
law of attraction — the "secret" that was the
focal point of The Secret DVD. But contractual issues find the
couple, and their Abraham entity, excised from the version now
No worries, they say. They're happy to stay on the road and pass
on Abraham's keys to better living through the power of the mind.
"The secrets of life have never been a secret. It's like
calling the law of gravity a secret," says Abraham via Esther
Hicks, whose normally lilting twang suddenly takes on a robotic
"People have been calling Jerry and Esther, saying, 'I have
bought The Secret, but now what do I do?'
"The truth is, The Secret is merely a powerful catalyst
that presents the possibility of a better life," says the
monotone voice. "Abraham is smiling in the simple knowledge
that, in truth, The Secret has not revealed 'the secret.' "
copyright: 2007 USA TODAY