How the Unity cofounder’s ideas went from radical to mainstream
When you think of New Thought and its teaching, you may not picture a man born before the Civil War.
But Charles Fillmore, born in 1854, is one of the foremost theologians, philosophers, and thinkers in the movement we call New Thought today. A true American mystic, Fillmore’s writing and teaching was innovative for his day and well ahead of the times.
Fillmore’s interest in the connection between our minds and bodies helped promote now-mainstream practices like meditation and vegetarianism, as well as our understanding of health and spirituality.
“He was downloading from the universe ideas that were later proven by science and medicine, particularly around the power of mind over body,” says Rev. Ellen Debenport, vice president of Unity publishing. “We know now that attitude makes a difference in our health, and placebos work because we believe they will, but that was radical in Fillmore’s day.”
The Foundation of Modern Metaphysics
Though our understanding of science has evolved tremendously throughout the past century, many of his writings still resonate today.
Explore Charles Fillmore’s essential teachings
“Fillmore lived through world events at least as dramatic as those we are experiencing. Two world wars, the Great Depression, the flu pandemic of 1918,” says Debenport. “And he never wavered from his belief that we are spiritual beings, that we have access to the attributes of God, and we are creating our lives with our thoughts.
“He was saying we can be what Jesus was, that Jesus showed us what’s possible for all. That’s still a mind-blowing idea.”
His work is often considered dense, but it has become the foundation not only for Unity—founded in 1889 by Charles and his wife Myrtle—but of modern metaphysics. The Essential Charles Fillmore was initially published more than 20 years ago as a way to distill some of his best writing. Author James Gaither says he continued to receive inquiries about the book long after it was out of print.
Because Fillmore’s writing does not often make for easy reading, Gaither wanted to take that “best of” approach from the first book and make it even more accessible for Unity scholars and general readers alike.
The new version offers additional context for Fillmore’s thoughts—both historically and topically—to help readers connect the teachings to a broader understanding of practical metaphysics.
What Fillmore taught was instruction for what to do in times of serious struggle, whether that is an individual’s dark night of the soul or a global crisis affecting entire communities. These readings can help us address the problems we face in any age.
“Charles was into the significance and the meaning of scriptures in a way that was really deeper than anyone else in New Thought, especially when you take into account the importance in his teachings of a metaphysical interpretation of the scriptures.”—Author James Gaither, The Essential Fillmore
A Movement of Practical Teachings
What was different about Fillmore’s understanding of Christian theology?
Fillmore offered specific affirmations for healing, connecting metaphysics to Christian ideas and the Bible itself more strongly and effectively than anyone before him. He uncovered the mysticism that many theologians in his day didn’t see or acknowledge.
Coming on the heels of the American transcendentalist movement of the 1830s, Fillmore bridged the gap between that idea of transcending the world of reason through spiritual experiences and the everyday experiences of people on earth.
“You don’t see that thorough connection of the teachings, and delving into the depths of those teachings, anywhere else,” Gaither says.
He explains that Fillmore saw the Bible as deeply allegorical, in the same way that very early Christian thinkers did. Fillmore, Gaither says, sought to tie that metaphysical understanding into his own modern world through positive, practical practices.
It was already common for many Protestant leaders to understand some books of the Bible as being more important than others from a theological standpoint. But Gaither says Fillmore took that idea one step further, suggesting that different biblical writers had different levels of consciousness.
“Charles was into the significance and the meaning of scriptures in a way that was really deeper than anyone else in New Thought,” Gaither says, “especially when you take into account the importance in his teachings of a metaphysical interpretation of the scriptures.”
He incorporated an archetypal framework into his study of the Bible, drawing on the influence of Carl Jung to understand Jesus as having the highest level of consciousness, with other writers (and their books) having varying degrees of consciousness or significance from a metaphysical perspective in what they could tell us about our own souls.
The Impact of the Fillmore Ideology
Rev. Jackie Hawkins, a Unity minister who grew up in a Baptist household with a literal interpretation of the Bible, often found it difficult to connect what she was learning to her own life.
When she discovered Fillmore after an introduction to other Unity writers, she was captivated by his ability to integrate the science of the day with his exploration of a variety of religions as a way to understand Christianity.
She says Fillmore did the hard work—the studying, the meditation, the prayer—in order to incorporate these essential lessons of mysticism and faith and make them relevant to the average person.
“The Fillmores were able to create a movement to help people understand their place in the world and to create for the good,” Hawkins says.
“He never wavered from his belief that we are spiritual beings, that we have access to the attributes of God, and we are creating our lives with our thoughts. He was saying we can be what Jesus was, that Jesus showed us what’s possible for all. That’s still a mind-blowing idea.”—Rev. Ellen Debenport
For the Good of All
Fillmore spoke to the ideals of prosperity and abundance, Gaither says, teaching that the resources of the earth belong to all and that it is our spiritual duty to ensure everyone is provided for.
It was controversial that he linked these spiritual teachings to economic considerations—particularly during the height of the Great Depression, Gaither notes, but he wasn’t interested in legislative change.
“He wasn’t an advocate for changing laws—he wasn’t a politician—but he was an advocate for changing consciousness,” says Gaither. “And that, ultimately, is where it has to start.”
Fillmore also understood the great power of the mind over the body, Gaither says, seeing the link between our consciousness and our immune system long before it was a mainstream idea.
This began when Myrtle first began to cure lifelong physical ailments through prayer and meditation, changing the way the Fillmores understood the mind–body connection. The idea that our beliefs and attitude could have an effect on our physical health—and that our bodies are perfect in God’s divine order—was groundbreaking.
Rev. Bob Brach, host of Unity Classic Radio: Words from Our Past, says that Fillmore saw the value in practices that may have seemed like fringe ideas at the time, but that are now in the mainstream: A practicing vegetarian and a proponent of a meditation he called the Silence, Fillmore was years ahead of his time in how he believed we should understand the body.
“He was into caring for bodies as temples for the Holy Spirit,” Brach says.
“Invisible forces are always the most powerful, and the dynamics of mind control the universe. In mind originates all that is, and by its actions all things are moved,” Fillmore wrote in his 1918 pamphlet The Pure Reason and Honest Logic in Practical Christianity.
Being able to help people set themselves in the direction of perfect health and prosperity through their own thoughts was a radical proposition. And one that is still foundational in New Thought today.