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A Son's Memoir of a Famous Father

As the son of one of America’s most famous preachers, John S. Peale, of Washington and Lee’s Class of 1958, saw a side of his father, the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, that few others ever glimpsed.

John has written about his experiences in a new memoir, “Just How Far From the Apple Tree?: A Son in Relation to his Famous Father.”

A professor of philosophy emeritus at Longwood College, John, who lives now in Charlottesville, majored in philosophy at W&L and thought he would please his father when he enrolled in Union Theological Seminary. As he told the Charlottesville Daily Progress in a story about the new book, his father’s reaction was surprising.

“Dad wrote me a one-sentence letter, which I’ll never forget,” Peale said. “He wrote, ‘Dear John. I do not know why you are going into the seat of my most implacable enemies. Love, Dad.’

“I guess he thought I was leaving him, but I thought he wasn’t letting me make my own decisions. I thought I could be loyal, loving and respectful to him and go to this really good school.

“That’s the whole tension in my background. Finding my own way for myself, and dealing with my love for my dad.”

Called “God’s salesman” by one biographer, Norman Vincent Peale is widely known for his 1952 book, “The Power of Positive Thinking,” which sold millions of copies. He was the minister at Marble Collegiate Church, in New York City, for 52 years. He broadcast sermons on radio and television, and the congregation grew from 600 to more than 5,000 during his tenure there. In 1945, he and his wife, Ruth, started Guideposts magazine, a nondenominational periodical that shares inspirational accounts from famous and ordinary people and is still being published.

As John explained in the Daily Progress interview, his memories of his father concern his detachment from the family.

“From the early 1940s, a pattern developed in our home, which was an apartment in New York City. My father would lead services and preach on Sunday as the pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan.

“Then he would leave and go on speaking engagements around the country…. Back he’d come on Thursday afternoon or Friday, closet himself in the study to prepare for services on Sunday, and leave again on Monday.

“Mother did a lot of what she did to support his work. She was on boards and committees connected with the church, so she was absent a lot, too. The only thing that meant anything in our home was what he was doing. Everything revolved around that.”

John called his father one of the best public speakers he’s ever heard and said that he was committed to what he wanted to do, including helping people.

In addition to his B.A. from W&L and his M.Div. from Union, John has an M.A. from Boston University and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The memoir is his third book. He has also written “Biblical History as the Quest for Maturity” and “The Love of God in China: Can One Be Both Chinese and Christian?” He has made numerous trips to China and has conducted research on the resurgence of the Chinese Christian Church.

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