Allen is a literary mystery man. His inspirational writings
have influenced millions for good. Yet today he remains
None of his
nineteen books give a clue to his life other than to mention his
place of residence - Ilfracombe, England. His name cannot be
found in a major reference work. Not even the Library of
Congress or the British Museum has much to say about him.
Who was this man
who believed in the power of thought to bring fame, fortune and
happiness? Or did he, as Henry David Thoreau says, "hear
a different drummer"?
James Allen never
gained fame or fortune. That much is true. His was a
quiet, unrewarded genius. He seldom made enough money from
his writings to cover expenses.
Allen was born in
Leicester, Central England, November 28, 1864. The family
business failed within a few years, and in 1879 his father left
for America in an effort to recoup his losses. The elder
Allen had hoped to settle in the United States, but was robbed and
murdered before he could send for his family.
crisis that resulted forced James to leave school at
fifteen. He eventually became a private secretary, a
position that would be called "administrative assistant"
today. He worked in this capacity for several British
manufacturers until 1902, when he decided to devote all his time
Allen's literary career was short, lasting only nine years, until
his death in 1912. During that period he wrote nineteen
books, a rich outpouring of ideas that have lived on to inspire
finishing his first book, From Poverty To Power, Allen
moved to Ilfracombe, on England's southwest coast. The
little resort town with its seafront Victorian hotels and its
rolling hills and winding lanes offered him the quiet atmosphere
he needed to pursue his philosophical studies.
As A Man
Thinketh was Allen's second book. Despite its subsequent
popularity he was dissatisfied with it. Even though it was
his most concise and eloquent work, the book that best embodied
his thought, he somehow failed to recognize its value. His
wife Lily had to persuade him to publish it.
strove to live the ideal life described by Russia's great novelist
and mystic Count Leo Tolstoy -- the life of voluntary poverty,
manual labor and ascetic self-discipline. Like Tolstoy,
Allen sought to improve himself, be happy, and master all of the
virtues. His search for "felicity for man on earth"
was typically Tolstoyan.
According to his
wife, Allen "wrote when he had a message, and it became a
message only when he had lived it in his own life, and knew that
it was good."
His day in
Ilfracombe began with a predawn walk up to the Cairn, a stony spot
on the hillside overlooking his home and the sea. He would
remain there for an hour in meditation. Then he would return
to the house and spend the morning writing. The afternoons
were devoted to gardening, a pastime he enjoyed. His
evenings were spent in conversation with those who were interested
in his work.
described Allen as "a frail-looking little man, Christ-like,
with a mass of flowing black hair."
"I think of
him especially in the black velvet suit he always wore in the
evenings," the friend wrote. "He would talk
quietly to a small group of us then -- English, French, Austrian
and Indian -- of meditation, of philosophy, of Tolstoy or Buddha,
and of killing nothing, not even a mouse in the garden.
us all a little because of his appearance, his gentle
conversation, and especially because he went out to commune with
God on the hills before dawn."
philosophy became possible when liberal Protestantism discarded
the stern dogma that man is sinful by nature. It substituted
for that dogma an optimistic belief in man's innate goodness and
This reversal of
doctrine was, as William James said, the greatest revolution of
the 19th Century. It was part of a move toward a
reconciliation of science and religion following Darwin's
publication The Origin of Species.
himself hinted at the change in belief in The Descent of
Man. In that book he wrote, "the highest possible stage
in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our
embodies the influence of Protestant liberalism on the one hand
and of Buddhist thought on the other. For example, the
Buddha teaches, "All that we are is the result of what we
have thought." Allen's Biblical text says, "As a
man thinketh in his heart, so is he."
upon the power of the individual to form his own character and to
create his own happiness. "Thought and character are
one," he says, "and as character can only manifest and
discover itself through environment and circumstance, the outer
conditions of a person's life will always be found to be
harmoniously related to his inner state. This does not mean
that a man's circumstances at any given time are an indication of
his entire character, but that those circumstances are so
intimately connected with some vital thought element within him
that, for the time being, they are indispensable to his
Allen starts us
thinking -- even when we would rather be doing something else. He
tells us how thought leads to action. He shows us how to
turn our dreams into realities.
His is a
philosophy that has brought success to millions. It is the
philosophy of Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive
Thinking and of Joshua Liebman's Peace of Mind.
spiritually rich, Allen writes, when we discover the adventure
within; when we are conscious of the oneness of all life; when we
know the power of meditation; when we experience kinship with
is one of hope even in the midst of confusion.
"Yes," he says, "humanity surges with uncontrolled
passion, is tumultuous with ungoverned grief, is blown about by
anxiety and doubt. Only the wise man, only he whose thoughts
are controlled and purified, makes the winds and the storms of the
soul obey him."
souls," Allen continues, "wherever you may be, under
whatsoever conditions you may life, know this -- in the ocean of
life the isles of blessedness are smiling and the sunny shore of
your ideal awaits your coming."
And thus Allen
teaches two essential truths: today we are where our
thoughts have taken us, and we are the architects -- for better or
worse -- of our futures.