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New Thought opens mind to the God living inside us

About 200 gather for a conference on the philosophy that stresses the teachings of Jesus and promotes the power of mental energy.

Edwene Gaines implored the members of the audience to tithe 10 percent of their income.

"My belief system is, you tithe where you receive your spiritual food," she told them, even if it comes from a waitress in a diner.

Gaines was one of about 40 speakers at the 84th annual congress of the International New Thought Alliance, a grass-roots umbrella organization for individuals in the New Thought movement. About 200 followers of the century-old belief that humans can affect their health, wealth and relationships through mental energy attended the conference, which was held last week at Safety Harbor Resort and Spa.

The three largest branches of New Thought are Unity, Religious Science and Divine Science.

New Thought, a philosophy that dates to the 1800s and emphasizes the teachings of Jesus, is a positive approach to living that emphasizes the practice of the presence of God for practical reasons. Its principles follow a freewheeling Christian path with an openness to metaphysics and other philosophical thought.

It is such statements as Gaines' that may confuse mainline Christians who are told to give 10 percent of their income to their church. Yet it is this individualistic approach to spirituality and a lack of rituals that many New Thought converts find attractive.

"I came from a background of hellfire and brimstone and guilt," said Pat Buckley, president of Emma Curtis Hopkins College and Theological Seminary, which is at Unity Church of Clearwater at 2465 Nursery Road.

"We see God not as a person, but as a spirit who is within us and around us at all times," she said.

Buckley was raised a fundamentalist. In the mid-1980s, she turned to other religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. Five years ago, she embraced Unity after participating in a friend's wedding at the Unity Church of Clearwater, which hosted the six-day conference.

"The minute I walked into the building, I knew that I was home," Buckley , 50, said.

The Rev. Leddy Hammock of Unity Church of Clearwater served as chairwoman of the conference and is a member of the INTA executive board. "New Thought is meant to be an expression _ a 'new thought' about God and about humanity rather than thinking of God as an anthropomorphic being," she said. "The restrictive elements of mainstream religion are not present. It's preoccupied with how people think."

Drawing on many Western and Eastern sources, especially the healing tradition of Christianity, New Thought recognizes Maine clockmaker Phineas Parkhurst Quimby as the Father of New Thought. Quimby, who developed a philosophy of "'mind cure" in the early 1800s, taught that one's mental state could affect circumstances, especially illness.

The ideas of Quimby, who died in 1866, influenced other metaphysical leaders, such as Ernest Holmes, the founder of Religious Science; Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, founders of Unity; and Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science.

Originally known by such names as Mind Cure and Mental Science, the movement has been called New Thought since the 1890s. The INTA, a successor to earlier groupings, was formed in 1914 as an umbrella organization to further the work of New Thought groups and individuals. The organization has 300 churches, ranging from small, 50-member congregations to Christ Universal Temple in Chicago, which draws about 10,000 people every Sunday, said Mimi Ronnie, chief executive officer of the Meza, Ariz.-based INTA.

"The movement never really started to start churches," said Blaine C. Mays, president of the INTA and a leader in the organization for more than 25 years. "It simply started as people wanting to share their beliefs in God," he said. "God is with me. I am with God. We are one."

Many people in the New Thought movement stress it is founded on the teachings of Jesus. His life and what he taught and how he lived are considered to be important.

"New Thought is something that has more influence than it has recognition," said Deb Whitehouse, editor of New Thought, the official publication of the INTA.

For example, she said, New Thought is the background for many things accepted in today's American culture, such as positive thinking. "The link of the New Thought movement and success literature is well-established," said Whitehouse, who co-authored Practicing the Presence of God for Practical Purposes with her husband, Alan Anderson, a professor of philosophy and religion at Curry College in Milton, Mass.

Whitehouse cited positive thinkers Robert Schuller, founder of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., and the late Norman Vincent Peale, author of the best-selling The Power of Positive Thinking.

"In its early days, New Thought was a protest against orthodox religion," said Dewey D. Wallace Jr., a professor of religion at George Washington University.

Today, it is one of the sources of the New Age movement, Wallace said. "New Age has an awful lot of similarities," especially mind-over-matter principles.

While New Agers incorporate channeling, crystals and astrology in their spiritual practices, New Thought adherents follow a more divinely oriented approach to life, Whitehouse said.

"Both movements will continue to grow because that's where the action is in terms of human development," she said.

Since New Thought influence reaches beyond brand-name practitioners, the movement's true size is difficult to estimate. The INTA lists 90 New Thought ministries in Florida and 11 in Pinellas County.

Charlotte Starfire, 42, of Tampa attended the conference last week. She said she has never been interested in traditional Christian theology. In January, she decided to make the Unity Church of Clearwater her spiritual home. This month, she will begin seminary studies at Emma Curtis Hopkins College.

"The thing I love about New Thought is that there is only one power and one source and one God, and it's all good," she said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.