By D. Keith Mano
April 12, 1982 12:00 PM

Christmas 1981. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale stands, a man of the homespun cloth, beside his lectern at Marble Collegiate Church. Peale is comfortable, both with this overflow congregation and with his God. The lectern might be a cracker barrel in some rural feed store. His great persuasiveness derives, to large degree, from that absolute sense of ease and confiding intimacy. “This is the 50th Christmas sermon I’ve preached in this church. Think of it.” Pause. His timing is caliper-precise. “Fifty sermons, and I’ve never repeated myself once.”

The SRO audience/congregation has to laugh. There are stories they wouldn’t mind hearing again. Like that one about the drunk who saw Peale across a busy restaurant. “Dr. Peale, Dr. Peale,” he cried out. “I’ve gotta speak to you.” Here, surely, Peale thought, is a soul in need. The drunk came over, weaving, breath inflammable. “Dr. Peale,” he said, “I can’t tell you how much your books have changed my life.” Pause. Double take. Whereupon, as Peale tells it, the man passed out cold at his feet.

This self-lampooning humor is part of Peale’s enormous charm. That, plus his passionate eloquence, legendary optimism and accessible style, has turned Marble Collegiate from the near-insolvent midtown New York parish it once was into a popular, hot-ticket attraction. Each Sunday there are two sold-out services. (For those who can’t find a pew in the large Romanesque nave, closed-circuit TV is available elsewhere in the church.) People line up 15 minutes beforehand. “You’d think God was holding His closeout sale,” observes a policeman surveying the crowd. Just before the sermon, Peale calls for an intermission. The service is being recorded for TV and radio. Cameramen have to reset their videotape. It feels like the commercial time-out at a pro football game. Marble Collegiate is as up-to-date as space medicine.

After 83 years of positive thinking, Norman Vincent Peale has more vitality and resilience than an Alfa Romeo drive shaft. The face might be jowled now, but his hail-fellow Kiwanis smile can pop from it like bright loose change out of a drawstring purse. He laughs frequently. Small, round and trim as an oyster cracker, Peale will admit that “I’ve been on one diet or another all my life.” His walk is firm, though he may ask for a hand when negotiating iced-over pavement. The hand most often belongs to his dynamic wife, Ruth Stafford Peale, 75. Ruth Peale has the carriage of a Cold-stream Guard. She is slim, meticulously groomed, with wide blue-white eyes that could weld steel. “We’re a team,” Ruth Peale has said. A team that today might be called God’s conglomerate.

The Foundation for Christian Living is just one branch of the Peales’ wholesale religious enterprise. Based in Pawling, N.Y., it employs 121 people provided with the most sophisticated direct-mail equipment. Last January FCL sent a new inspirational booklet—Stop Worrying and Start Living—to 610,000 subscribers. (Since FCL was set in motion by Ruth Peale at the start of World War II, 350 million pieces of mail have gone out.) It is an immense effort; the feeding of the 5,000 was only somewhat more miraculous. FCL receives 7,000 letters per day. Every donor check and request for literature, every individual problem is recorded immediately on computer printout. In the beginning was the Word. Now, here, it is processed and retrieved. Though the hardware may seem impersonal, staff members pray for each correspondent—by name and particular trouble—in a chapel at Pawling. This week, on Good Friday, there will be a special 24-hour continuous prayer service.

“I’m here nearly every day,” says Ruth Peale. “Norman has an office here too. But I have the veto power. And I believe the foundation should be run on the strictest principles of efficiency and organization.” Her staff seems cheerful; indeed, being melancholy at the source of positive thinking might be cause for dismissal. FCL has several subdivisions: dial-a-prayer, radio and TV, tape cassettes and the Peales’ newspaper column, which is syndicated to more than 700 papers. None of these ventures is notably youth-oriented. Rocco Murano, circulation director, profiles the typical FCL benefactor: “A woman who is 45 or over. She’s married; she lives in a community of 50,000 or less. Her children are grown.” That woman contributed $6,443,098 to FCL in 1980 and has given Peale’s Guideposts magazine, located in nearby Carmel and New York, a circulation of 3.5 million. Between Carmel and Pawling there is a media empire that even the most powerful press lords respect, all geared up for the promulgation of Peale’s buoyant Christian Couéism.

It began in 1948, when Peale wrote A Guide to Confident Living. No publisher would take it. Pessimistic for once, Peale threw his manuscript into the wastebasket. “I’m fed up,” he told Ruth, “and don’t you take it out of that wastebasket.” “So Ruth brought it down to Prentice-Hall, where I worked,” says Myron Boardman, now executive director of FCL, “and delivered it to my department in the wastebasket. We published it.” Ruth will insist now that she didn’t lug the wastebasket along, but, apocryphal or not, Boardman’s anecdote is true to her character. Ruth has never objected to judicious household manipulation. In 1971 she wrote The Adventure of Being a Wife (pre-Total Woman and without the see-through lingerie) and filled it with clever advice on husband management. “I don’t think I came out too well in her book,” says Norman with good humor.

His reputation, however, had been secure ever since Prentice-Hall brought out The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952. “In a manner of speaking, Peale baptized Dale Carnegie,” says one veteran religious commentator. “He took Jesus and made him into the greatest positive thinker of all time. It really doesn’t have much to do with Christianity.” Still, The Power of Positive Thinking was a sensation. It has sold 15 million copies worldwide and has stood as a prototype for all contemporary self-help literature. True, the book might be thought simplistic, somewhat forgetful of sin or guilt and dedicated overmuch to one proposition, namely: Do good, think positively and you’ll land in a higher income bracket. But Peale would not agree that the message is cynical. “If anyone practices the principles of abstention and honesty and friendliness and frugality and hard work and intelligence—which religion teaches—he’s almost bound to do well,” he maintains.

Certainly Peale has done well for himself. At present he and Ruth have a nine-room church-owned apartment on Fifth Avenue as well as their extraordinary homestead in Pawling. On Hill Farm’s 200 rolling acres, Dr. and Mrs. Peale can indulge in their favorite pastime, walking, and their indoor pool is close by. But there are no servants on the estate. “I’m chief cook and bottle washer,” Ruth will tell any guest. She is also chauffeur; the license plate on her Cadillac reads RSP5, and she doesn’t trust Norman to drive. Yet despite her exacting schedule, she created time for vigorous motherhood. The Peale children—Margaret Ann, 48, married to a Presbyterian minister, Paul F. Everett; John, 45, a professor of philosophy at Longwood College in Farmville, Va.; and Elizabeth, 39, whose husband, John Allen, is a vice-president at Reader’s Digest—have shown no sign of rebellion or unseemly negativism.

Peale isn’t at all embarrassed by his affluence. Born in Bowersville, Ohio, the son of a Methodist minister, he has never had much enthusiasm for poverty. “I hated being poor and wanted to get out of it,” he says. “Maybe that had an effect on me—that because of it I admired anybody who made what Americans used to call a success, which always involved some monetary achievement.” Nonetheless, after earning his B.A. from Ohio Wesleyan in 1920 and serving a short stint as a reporter at the Detroit Journal, Peale opted for the ministry—not a profession noted for lucre. While working toward his bachelor of sacred theology degree at Boston University, he was posted to a small strife-torn ministry in Berkeley, R.I. Success there was followed by an even greater success at Kings Highway Methodist Church in Brooklyn. He met Ruth (whose father, too, was a Methodist minister) while serving his third pastoral assignment, at University Methodist Church in Syracuse. Soon after their marriage, Peale was summoned to Marble Collegiate. The Fifth Avenue pulpit allowed him to escape a rather authoritarian Methodist hierarchy—Marble Collegiate is associated with the Reformed Church in America—and New York was a challenge. Yet Peale arrived to take up his post in 1932, not a propitious time for any new undertaking.

Immediately, though, Peale began to assert his fine instinct for modernism and self-promotion. At Kings Highway he had sent out a postcard mailing that read, “Do you remember the hymns your mother used to sing? You can hear them again, you know!” Peale was one of the first ministers to employ radio (and in time TV) extensively. He may have invented dial-a-prayer. Computers and direct-mail merchandising at FCL weren’t far behind. For Peale, the Gospel is still hot copy.

By moving Marble Collegiate, in spirit, from Fifth Avenue to Madison Avenue, Peale may have saved that venerable church. The area around it had become commercial and contained no native religious constituency. Shrewdly, Peale appointed himself Christ’s apostle to the business community. In a normal year he makes about 75 motivational speeches. Salesmen relate to him particularly well. After all, he and they are in the same line of work, and he adheres to no troublesome dogma. “Few preachers,” Ruth Peale will say, “have seen so clearly the mainstream of Christianity and stayed there.” He is Doctor Peale: That neutral and rather antiseptic title distances him from a too explicit, too sectarian theology. Jesus is a Messiah of common sense. Peale doesn’t care to realize just how nondescript his Christian witness has become. When shown an FCL brochure that mentions neither Jesus nor God, he can offer only amazement. “This is shocking to me. This bears looking into. No, no. We’re not trying to water anything down.”

A crustless sandwich nowadays is more controversial than Norman Vincent Peale. He resists the siren song of contention. Jerry Falwell, for example, can neither engage nor disturb him. “The Moral Majority? I take the position of letting people be what they want to be. And the nation will go along just the same.” Only with great reluctance does Peale even admit to being a New York Mets fan. This wasn’t so in 1930 or 1952. Then he rooted openly for Brooklyn. And during the Roosevelt regime Peale often ran a modest opposition government from his lectern. Conservative, Republican, he was intimate with Chiang Kai-shek and Richard Nixon. (David and Julie were wed in Marble Collegiate, and Peale, at Nixon’s behest, visited Vietnam to pray with and motivate American servicemen.) It may have been this political sectarianism, in part, that made Peale commit the one grave misjudgment of his otherwise immaculate career.

In the fall of 1960 a statement was given out by certain Protestant ministers suggesting that the election of John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, as President would jeopardize church-state separation. Peale, in a naive moment, lent his substantial name to this dubious idea. All heck broke loose, most of it headed in Peale’s direction. “I made a mistake,” he concedes. “You couldn’t get me near a politician now. Government isn’t moral or immoral. It’s just plain amoral.” Peale promptly offered to resign his pastorate. His congregation, just about as promptly, forgave him.

Today, beginning a sixth decade at Marble Collegiate, Peale has no thought of retiring—though he preaches at only one Sunday service now, and his hand-chosen successor, Dr. Arthur Caliandro, 48, is in the on-deck circle. “If I retired, I’d soon die,” Peale has said. And Ruth Peale adds: “I once asked Norman if we were going to work all our lives. He said, ‘Yes, Ruth, we are.’ ”

In fact, Peale still has a rigorous agenda in mind. “That’s to persuade as many people as I can that the only rational way to live is to follow the greatest thinker who ever thought, namely Jesus Christ. That’s the way to peace—within the individual, within the family, within the world. And it’s the way to serenity, excitement, enthusiasm and the real values of life. I’ve been preaching this now for half a century, and there’s still a few people I haven’t persuaded. So I’ve got my work cut out for me.”

If Peale’s message has, at times, seemed rather subjective and materialistic, he doesn’t hesitate to answer that criticism. “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” he says. “That’s one of the most subtle statements in the Bible. The more you esteem yourself, the more you’ll consider your neighbors with esteem.” If that is so, Norman Vincent Peale’s neighbors at least can expect the very best sort of treatment.

The author, who is an Eastern Orthodox Christian, will publish his seventh novel, Take Five, next month.