Book Review: Lowell Fillmore, Unity’s Unsung Hero

Published on: June 1, 2015

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Lowell Fillmore, Unity’s Unsung Hero: The Untold Story of How Unity Grew, by Neal Vahle, reviewed by Rev Michael A Maday

When I first learned that Neal Vahle wanted to write a biography of Lowell Fillmore, I wondered why.  After all, he had already written comprehensively on the subject in his masterwork, The Unity Movement: Its Evolution and Spiritual Teachings, championed by Connie Fillmore and published by Templeton Foundation Press back in 2002. I noted there that an entire chapter had already been devoted to Lowell, the eldest son of Charles and Myrtle, who “probably did more to popularize the Unity teaching in the twentieth century than either of his parents” by being editor of Weekly Unity magazine and author of the column “Things to Be Remembered. ” Lowell, who was president and CEO for at least 50 years, was well-loved and respected, and well-presented in this scholarly book of Unity’s history.

Vahle has since admitted that his understanding of Unity has evolved. When he published his first biography of Myrtle Fillmore, Torch-bearer to Light the Way, he was very familiar with both Unity and New Thought. His meticulous research in the Unity Archives and his numerous discussions with key Unity people willing to help him gave him a strong feel for the teachings and confidence that he was giving them their proper due.  Even so, over the years, especially throughout the incredible work on the Unity movement book, but also his other Templeton title, The Spiritual Journey of Charles Fillmore: Discovering the Power Within, his Unity knowledge deepened. Then through the titles that followed, including Eric Butterworth: His Life and Teaching, and especially his second Myrtle Fillmore biography Lighting the Way that opened him up to his direct, intimately felt sense of Myrtle leading his way, Neal began to realize that his perspective had found new roots.

Unity: Thriving Under Lowell’s Tenure

So Neal’s new perspective had him revisiting Lowell and asking what was it about him that allowed him to thrive, and for Unity to grow, in such amazing ways during his long tenure? The answer seemed to call for another book, one that gave much greater attention to Lowell himself, and I would say there are four aspects to this answer.

First, there are the prosperity banks, Lowell’s “Spiritual Brainchild,” which gave people a way to save money to afford to pay for Unity’s publications. Through this modest process, prosperity teachings themselves were taught, thereby erasing old ideas of poverty and replacing them with thoughts of abundance. In an ingenious way, the motivation to save enough money to buy magazines brought you more than money, it brought a whole new way of looking at money! It became a way to look to God for supply and thus became a completely new understanding of God. In other words, the banks became a powerful Unity teaching with a built-in practice that changed consciousness!

Approximately nine and a half million banks were sent out between 1910 and 1972, which greatly added to the subscriptions of all four of Unity’s publications—Weekly Unity, Unity Magazine, Daily Word and Wee Wisdom—generating millions of new subscriptions.

The huge success of these magazines leads us to the second aspect. Each periodical included testimonials to the effectiveness of the prosperity bank program that was generating better financial prosperity and improved over-all life circumstances for readers. So the program blended beautifully with the purpose and mission of each of the magazines, all of which not only grew the subscription base but also the movement of Unity.

In 1927, Unity Magazine advised bank “patrons” on how to select which of their friends or family members could receive a free year’s subscription to a Unity periodical. There were four criteria but I myself most like the first one, that of finding the “wide awake, well-read person who rather prides himself on keeping informed on any current line of thought that is attracting attention.” The second was the “mother and housewife” who was seeking “help, sympathy, understanding and advice about her problems.” Third was anyone battling with issues of poor finances, ill-health, or business challenges. Fourth, was any earnest Bible student or Sunday school teacher looking for a more practical interpretation of the Bible. In practice, then, here was a way to identify and enroll new Unity Truth students.

The third aspect to the answer was not only did the magazine subscriptions radically increase, they contributed to the growth and development of the Unity movement by creating outreach that affected the expansion of the Village, the educational programs taught by Unity School, and the books published by Unity Books. As Vahle points out, the prosperity bank program is probably most responsible for the growth of Silent Unity that allowed Unity to purchase the property and build the structures that housed Unity School of Christianity.

Of course, interest in Unity beyond the Village would also grow exponentially as people sought Unity spiritual communities around the country—and the world—to attend. Unity was a hot item!

Neal Vahle laments the discontinuation of the Prosperity Bank Program. The decision to end Weekly Unity in 1972 foreshadowed the decision to no longer promote them in the periodicals. But just because Lowell was no longer able to edit or write for it may not have been a good enough reason to stop the hugely popular magazine that had 350,000 subscribers at that time. Another editor could have been found and the Prosperity Bank Program continued. It was a huge decision that may well have changed the course of Unity’s history.

The fourth aspect may well be the most important influence, that the Prosperity Bank Program involved the Bank Drill, which involved using daily affirmations and meditations, implementing the teachings of prosperity and wholeness. Thus each patron became a spiritual practitioner and could directly see their life change for the better.

Unity is a spiritual path that is meant to be practiced, not a set of teachings to be merely believed.”

I believe this to be a crucially important point. Unity is a spiritual path that is meant to be practiced, not a set of teachings to be merely believed. Belief is important, yes, and powerful in its own way, but it is when a person practices those beliefs on a daily basis that the results show and begin to blossom. The prosperity banks gave ordinary people the direction and reason to do this for themselves.  As the bank program came to an end, it is possible that the emphasis on spiritual practice also diminished in the movement, and to that degree, Unity might have lost its focus on the spiritual teachings, and thereby its effectiveness. Or, at least, it was an influence towards that diminishment.

All of which brings us back to Lowell Fillmore, who did practice the teachings and live them in his daily life, and obviously so. The book’s last chapter, “His Whole Life was Unity,” is a true tribute to Lowell, and it deserves to be widely read. Lowell was celebrated for love of the Unity message and for his embodiment of it, for believing in the power of prayer and for actively listening to its answers. At last, he finally gets his due here. Even so, it is how he lived his life as a practitioner of the teachings that is most salient, and helping us realize this simple truth is, for me, anyway, the single most important idea in this new biography. To say we need good models of practicing Unity is an understatement.

 

Editor’s Note: Copies of Lowell Fillmore, Unity’s Unsung Hero, can be obtained from Open View Press, 659 14th Avenue, San Francisco CA 94118, or visit Neal Vahle’s website at www. moonsong.us/neal_vahle.

Michael Maday
Rev Michael A Maday, M. A. was ordained in 1984, served churches in Michigan and Missouri, and is adjunct faculty for Unity Institute and Seminary, as well as former editor of Unity Books and Unity House.

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