Mrs. Norman Vincent Peale had an Elora connection

Those who make a habit of reading daily newspapers may have spotted an obituary notice in early February for Ruth Staf­ford Peale, widow of Norman Vincent Peale, who died at the advanced age of 101. The wire service obituaries did not note that she was a grand­daughter of William Staf­ford, founder of the Stafford clan in Elora.
The Peale name will mean little to younger readers of this column, but back in the 1950s and early 1960s, the name was widely known. He was the minister at the Marble Colle­giate Church on New York’s Fifth Avenue for more than a half century, beginning in 1932. His enduring legacy rests with the Guideposts organiza­tion, established in 1945 with the indispensable help of his wife. Perhaps more important was his book, The Power of Pos­i­tive Thinking, the most fam­­ous motivational book of its generation.
The Staffords are best known locally through their con­nection with the building and contracting trades that con­ti­nued through five generations of the family. But the Staffords produced almost as many cler­gymen as masons. The founder of the clan, William Stafford Sr., arrived in Elora in the 1850s. He worked on many of the buildings constructed in Elora in the 1860s, including the Methodist Church, now the United Church, built in 1862.
Stafford was married twice, and had 11 children. Young­est son Frank trained as a Meth­odist minister. After gradu­ating he began his career in the American Midwest. Like most Methodist ministers, he mov­ed every few years. His daugh­ter, Loretta Ruth Staf­ford, was born on Sept. 10, 1906, in Fonda, Iowa. Several transfers later the family moved to Detroit. Ruth graduated from high school and attended what is now Wayne State University. She com­plet­ed her university education at Syracuse Univer­sity, majoring in mathematics. Ambitious and energetic, she worked part time at a department store to pay for her education, and to help her two brothers with uni­versity training. Both did well: one was a senior adminis­trator with the United States Chamber of Com­merce; the other had a successful career as a professor of business at Pen­nsylvania State University.
On graduation, Ruth began a career as a high school teach­er in 1928. She always said her childhood had not been a pleasant one, with frequent moves and close scrutiny of families of ministers. She vowed that when she married, it would not be to a clergyman. Never­theless, that is what happened. A friend introduced her to Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, eight years her senior, who was preaching in Syracuse. She de­murred for more than two years before ac­cepting his proposal of marri­age in 1930.
Two years later they moved to New York City. Nor­man de­voted a great deal of energy to his sermons and work with the congregation. Ruth took over much of the ad­ministrative work at the church, as well as looking after a family of two daughters and a son.
By the 1940s, Norman Vin­cent Peale had built a repu­ta­tion with the church, and for his radio broad­casts of sermons on several New York stations. Increas­ingly, non-religious or­ga­niza­tions asked him to speak at meetings and conventions. Ruth continually urged him on with those endeavours, chiding him occasionally for his nega­tive attitude.
“I don’t have as much self-doubt as he did,” she told one interviewer. “I always felt I could do something if I put my mind to it and I wanted to.” She wrote many of Nor­man’s sermons, based on rough ideas that he discussed with her.
Ruth Peale was the guiding force behind the Guideposts organization and magazine, es­tablished in 1945, to distri­bute “true stories of hope and in­spiration,” many based on Nor­man’s sermons and speech­es. The magazine eventually had a circulation of more than two million.
In the late 1940s, Norman began work on a book sum­mar­izing his ideas, but no publisher seemed interested. At one point, Ruth rescued the manu­script from the waste basket and sent it to one more pub­lisher, who accepted it. The Power of Positive Thinking be­came an instant best seller. It is still in print, and has sold more than 20 million copies world­wide in dozens of editions. The book turned Norman Vincent Peale into a celebrity, and the highest-paid motiva­tional speaker of the era, in de­mand for appearances every­where.
Despite their hectic sched­ule, the couple accepted an in­vitation in 1953 to come to El­ora. Norman Stafford, Ruth’s cousin and the self-appointed guardian of the Stafford legacy in Elora, sent the note. He ask­ed the Peales to take part in the dedication ceremony of the new church hall wing at the rear of the United Church.
The event attracted a huge crowd to see and hear the fam­ous minister. He spoke of challenges to the church, and of the stresses and strains of mod­ern life. He said that only through faith and divine power could those pressures be over­come.
Ruth Peale also spoke, stres­sing family connec­tions to the congregation. She enjoyed meeting mem­bers of her family: cousins she had not seen in years, and younger members she was meeting for the first time.
The Elora visit was just a brief interlude in the hectic schedule maintained by the Peales through the 1950s. They enjoyed considerable acclaim and success, although there was criticism as well. Norman first drew controversy in the late 1930s with a counseling pro­gram at his church that com­bined religion and Freudian psychology. Critics claimed that it was nothing more than a form of self hypnosis.
During the 1950s, others claimed the Peales urged a life of greed, deception, and mater­i­al success that was not really Christian at all. Others scoffed at the mixture of glib platitudes and undocumented success stor­ies that peppered Peale’s writing and sermons. Critics found it absurd that a person’s life could be changed in a maj­or way simply through their own thoughts.
Though her role in her hus­band’s success was a vital one, Ruth preferred to remain largely in the background dur­ing the 1950s. There seems little doubt, though, that Nor­man Vincent Peale would never have become famous without her organizational abilities, busi­ness sense, or driving am­bition.
The reputations of Ruth and Norman Vincent Peale suffered a major blow in 1960, when they denounced the candidacy of John Kennedy for president, warning that the republic would be in great danger with a Catholic occupying the White House.
After that controversy, Nor­man Vincent Peale began to fade from public view, though his guideposts organization remained strong and his radio broadcasts continued, and would air until 1989.
In later years, Ruth Peale play­ed an increasingly public role with Guideposts and other Peale organizations. She pub­lished several books, including Secrets of Staying in Love, in 1971. It offered advice for mar­ried women. “It’s best if both spouses study their partner," she insisted, “but I think it’s more of a responsibility of the wife to do so. There has to be an understanding of the rela­tionship and the personality.” It was a message out of step with modern feminism, but  the book still managed to find many readers.
Norman Vincent Peale died in 1993, at the age of 95. By then, Ruth was the head of the various Peale organizations, particularly the Peale Center for Christian Living. She re­mained active well into her 90s. One of her last initiatives was the establishment of an on-line prayer organization, still based on the principles she and Nor­man had developed in the 1930s and 1940s.
Despite her contempt for feminism, and her preference to stand out of the limelight of her husband, Ruth Stafford Peale was a remarkable women, and yet another accomplished fig­ure with a connection to Well­ington County.

Stephen Thorning