The History of The Master Key System and Its Influence on Future Generations

Table of Contents: Introduction • The Context of The Master Key System • The “Master Key” Before the “System” • The New Thought Movement • The Law of Attraction • Hidden and Banned? • The Napoleon Hill Letter • The Bill Gates Connection •The Master Key System Today

The Master Key System banner header

The Master Key System header from original correspondence course.


The history and background of Charles F. Haanel’s perennial workThe Master Key System is quite interesting, but more blasé than some of the stories would lead you to believe. For example, the belief that Haanel’s books were banned in 1933 and that his publication disappeared from the market is a fabrication. Not only is there no record of a banning (by anyone, including the Roman Catholic Church), it can be shown that he was still advertising, publishing and printing The Master Key System in 1935.

Likewise, the story about Bill Gates reading The Master Key System and it being a “hot commodity” in Silicon Valley is more than likely false as no positive proof could be found to corroborate the story.

Lastly, as was shown in Mr. Haanel’s biography, there as no reason to believe that Haanel wished his work and ideas to be hidden and kept secret amongst a select few. Not only did he market The Master Key System, it is quite probably that he innovated many of the marketing techniques that he used, such as the “correspondence course” to his marketing pamphlets and brochures.

The question most ask is from where did Haanel get his ideas forThe Master Key System? How did it originate? Was Haanel a lone genius that worked in solitude? Did he have influences?

This essay shall endeavor to answer those questions and many more.


The Context of The Master Key System

The Master Key System must be looked at within the context of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The New Thought philosophy was in full swing with many books and magazines publishing the new beliefs for a seemingly ravenous audience. Based on Christian Science as espoused by Mary Baker Eddy, the Christian Scientists and many New Thought-ers held firmly to the belief about what Jesus Christ said about the powers available to each and every person.

“Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.” (John 14:11-13)

Thus, with enough faith and belief, one could perform miracles as Christ did. Even a cursory reading of The Master Key Systemwould reveal to someone that this was something in which Haanel believed deeply.

That being said, the monotheistic ideas that Haanel espouses is more than likely derived from his participation in Freemasonry. While the Masons do not define their God, their only prerequisite is a belief in one God. It is then through this God that miracles and extreme human potential can occur.


The “Master Key” Before the “System”

Before going further into this, it is worth pointing out that there were at least two other publications that emphasize the words “The Master Key” prior to the Twentieth Century. The actual phrase has been used since the 17th Century by the Freemasons and in an 18th century publication Hiram, or the Master Key to the Door of Freemasonry, published in 1760.

Isis Unveiled by Madame Blavatsky.

Isis Unveiled by Madame Blavatsky.

Another use of the phrase can be found in Madame Helena Blavatsky’s famous (or should that be infamous) 600-page Isis Unveiled, with its sub-title A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology, published in 1877. One shouldn’t underestimate the popularity and influence of Blavatsky and those who followed her teachings — the Theosophists.

The Master Key by Frank Baum (1901)

The Master Key by Frank Baum. (1901)

In the Twentieth Century, two authors released books with “Master Key” in the title. The first comes from L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wizard of Oz fame, and is an early science fiction novel. It was called The Master Key and subtitled An Electrical Fairy Tale. It told of the adventures Rob and the Demon of Electricity. This was published in 1901.

Another book came out at around the same time Haanel was working on his correspondence school. Its advertisement showed a book and a man reading a book inside an hour glass. The advertisement read:

“The Master Key ~ Reveals Things You Never Thought Possible. The Hour Glass of Success. You Will Never get Another Book Like ‘The Master key’.”

The Master Key by L.W. de Laurence. (1914)

The Master Key by L.W. de Laurence. (1914)

It was written by L. W. de Laurence and published by The de Laurence Company of Chicago, Illinois, USA, in 1914. To quote a few lines from it will show obvious similarities with Haanel’s The Master Key System.

“THE MASTER KEY is divided into Six parts: contains Thirty-seven full Chapters embracing Thirty-five Lessons of graduated difficulty covering Forty individual numbered Exercises in which the fundamental principles of Concentration and Mental Discipline are fully explained.”

L. W. de Laurence, whose full name was Lauron William de Laurence, was an American author, publisher, and owner of a supply mail order house in Chicago. He has been accused of plagiarism and the illegal publication of various occult works. The number of publications by this man seems to be considerable.

De Laurence was active at the same time as Haanel and was in fact only two years younger than him. De Laurence, who was born in 1868 and died in 1936, had connections with AMORC. It is unclear whether there was any connection between the two authors.


The New Thought Movement

This brings us to the main influence of Charles F. Haanel: the New Thought Movement.

When you read Haanel’s The Master Key System, it isn’t long before he starts to use terms that can be cross-referenced. To be fair to Haanel, many quotes he uses have nothing to do with the New Thought Movement. He was a man of his time and a well-read one. He used references from eminent people of the 19th Century and talks about the inventions of that time and the early years of the 20th Century. Other quotes come from the Bible but all are rather enigmatic and symbolic, which could point to being influenced by New Thought writers, the Christian Scientists, the Freemasons, or the Rosicrucians. There are several hints of a possible knowledge of Hinduism, but it is unclear of Haanel’s exact knowledge of that subject as references like “Pranic Energy” or “Pranic Ether” may be from the Rosicrucian teachings or possibly, and more likely, Theosophy.

There are several words and phrases that may be of interest:

  • The “Great Architect of the Universe”
  • “Secret Place of the Most High”
  • “Universal Mind”
  • The “I”
  • “The Law of Attraction”

The “Great Architect of the Universe” is a phrase often used to represent God or Supreme Being by Christians, Freemasons, and Rosicrucians. It may go back to the Middle Ages or beyond. Thomas Aquinas used a similar phrase but using “Grand” instead of “Great.”

“Secret Place of the Most High” can be found in the Bible in Psalms 91:1. “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.”

The “Universal Mind” seems to come from Friedrich Von Schelling and was expanded on by Georg W. F. Hegel. Ralph Waldo Emerson also made use of this term.

The concept of the “I” also seems to have its origins in the works of early German philosophers. It would seem that “I” was the first principle of Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre — “Doctrine of Science.”


The Law of Attraction

The phrase that is on the tip of the tongues of many today is “The Law of Attraction.” Like the other terms used by Haanel, this was probably not of his own inventing. It seems to have come to light first in the works of William Walker Atkinson (1862 – 1932) and particularly in Thought Vibration or The Law of Attraction in the Thought World published by The New Thought Publishing Co., Chicago, Illinois, USA, 1906. Though the phrase itself is much older, its meaning became somewhat different with Atkinson and Haanel.

The Law of Attraction also appears in the syllabus of the S.R.I.A. — The Society of Rosicrucians. However, it is not known how old this syllabus is and it is likely that it is quite modern. The S.R.I.A. was formed in 1909 with the idea of teaching to the general public rather than Masons as with previous Rosicrucian groups. Some other aspects of the S.R.I.A. syllabus bears similarities to Haanel’s works. However, it may be that both this syllabus and Haanel’s ideas are from an older source — or just a coincidence. It is unknown which came first.

Ultimately it may be possible to trace the idea of the Law of Attraction back to certain phrases from Jesus Christ in the New Testament of the Bible.

“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8, King James Version)

Kybalion: Hermetic Philosophy (1908)

The Kybalion: Hermetic Philosophy by Three Initiates. (1908)

Another book that cannot be ignored was published in 1908 and was called The Kybalion: Hermetic Philosophy by Three Initiates and published by The Yogi Publication Society, Masonic Temple, Chicago, Illinois, USA. It cannot be ignored that this book may have played a part in the development of Haanel’s The Master Key System. It certainly wasn’t a collection of lessons and exercises, but the wording throughout this book is remarkably similar to Haanel’s publications. At one point the phrase “Mental Chemistry” is used, perhaps influencing Haanel’s later work Mental Chemistry. And though there is nothing in the title remotely similar to Haanel’s work, the phrase “Master Key” is used in the Introduction and several times in the body of the book. The Kybalion also delves into the power of thought.

“…[T]he Hermetic Philosophy is the only Master-Key which will open all the doors of Occult teachings…. One of the old Hermetic Masters wrote, long ages ago: ‘He who grasps the truth of the Mental Nature of the Universe is well advanced on the Path to mastery.’ These words are as true today as at the time first written. Without this Master-Key, Mastery is impossible, and the student knocks in vain at the many doors of the Temple…. The Principles of Truth are Seven; he who knows these, understandingly, possesses the Magic Key before whose touch all the Doors of the Temple fly open.”

It is believed that The Kybalion is not some ancient document but was written by William W. Atkinson and the other “Initiates” have been guessed at as Paul Foster Case and Mabel Collins.

Atkinson was certainly active in the years leading up to the publication of The Master Key System and it is hard to believe that Haanel would not have known of either the man or his works.

In the time period in which Haanel lived, the self-help/personal development movement (although not called by those terms) was quite large and actually very similar to today’s “scene.” As the saying goes, the times may have changed but things remain the same. By some counts, Haanel was a somewhat important player, although he never had the infamy of Blavatsky or a few others of the time.

It was all of these elements (at least) that came together in Haanel’s mind to form one of the greatest books about personal development and self-mastery.


Hidden and Banned?

It has become part of the lore of this book that The Master Key System was sold only to a select few and then at prices well over $1,000. But having helped certain unnamed people to become extremely wealthy, Haanel then made the knowledge available to the great “unwashed masses” at a reasonable price. When the 24 weekly parts were eventually produced in book form it has been stated that 200,000 copies were sold before “the Church” banned it in 1933. After that we are told the book disappears from records.

The Master Key System as published by the New Psychology Publishing Company in 1951.

The Master Key System as published by the New Psychology Publishing Company in 1951.

There is no sign anywhere that Haanel’s book was kept secret or that it was banned by the Church, which can be presumed to bethe Roman Catholic Church. Only one book was banned by the Church in 1933 and that was Congrès d’histoire du christianisme by Jubilé Alfred Loisy. Many versions of The Master Key System have an introduction by Frederick H. Burgess, who seems to be connected with The Master Key Publishing Company in London, and it can be shown that they continued to publish Haanel’s works into the 1940s.

Another point to ponder is what effect the Church banning the book would have. While the Church was a powerful organization at the time, it certainly did not enjoy the power and influence it once held. The United States was a growing industrialized nation based on the separation of church and state. Even if the Church chose to impose a ban on the book, would it have any real effect? Would the book have been taken off the shelves and destroyed — all because the Church said so? In all likelihood, probably not. Unless the community at large became upset with what was written, nothing at all would have happened — and there is no indication that there was any upset at all.

The American Mercury mentioned The Master Key System in 1950 and 1951. There was an advert in a magazine called The Saturday Review, published in 1952, which stated that there was “a scientific method with unlimited potential possibilities in every field of human endeavor.” It also gave an address: “The Mystic Key System, St. Louis, Mo.” Advertisements for Haanel’s publications can be found in 1954 and one version of The Master Key System was published in 1977.

As for Haanel keeping The Master Key System hidden, from the evidence that has been found, nothing can be further from the truth.

For one thing, as has been shown in the previous sections, Haanel’s wasn’t the only book about the mental aspects of success that was written at the time. While the book that Haanel penned was indeed superlative, it wasn’t original, either in message nor in form.

In 1917, “Chas. F. Haanel” ran the following advertisement in The Nautilus, a magazine of the New Thought movement published by Elizabeth Towne. (See Advertisement 1.) The advertisement boldly declared “There is a Master-Key” before making an offer to the reader: “FREE! There is no charge for the Master Key. It is FREE! … NOTE—There is a Master Key for every reader of theNautilus. Write me for yours today!”

Many advertisements for The Master Key System as well as other books that Haanel wrote can be found in the other books that Haanel wrote. In other words, like publishers today, Haanel liked to cross-promote. The ad in Advertisement 2 shows an ad that Haanel used in a later book that he wrote entitled A Book About You.

The last piece, seen in Advertisement 3 and Advertisement 4 are perhaps the most interesting. “The Master Key Psychological Chart” was an advertising brochure Haanel used to entice people to order The Master Key System. In addition to the “Master Key Psychological Chart” that Haanel wrote (the full text can be found in Kallisti Publishing’s Master Key Arcana), it contains a plethora of testimonials for The Master Key System from “students.”

The most interesting part of this brochure, though, is the list of “Master Key Publications” on the back. Items — presumably advertising materials of some sort — could be bought for ten cents a piece. On the bottom of the page, Haanel implores the reader to “Send Master Key Literature to you Friends.”

Advertisement for The Master Key System in The Nautilus in 1917.

Advertisement for The Master Key System as it appeared in The Nautilus in 1917.

Advertisement for The Master Key System in You.

Another advertisement for The Master Key System.

The Master Key Psychological Chart.

The Master Key Psychological Chart.

Master Key Brochure List.

The Master Key Publications list of brochures.

With all this evidence, does this sound like a person who wished to keep what he had hidden? Haanel advertised in magazines. He advertised in his books. He produced and sold marketing materials. The answer is an overwhelming negative.

In fact, it can be posited that Haanel was quite ahead of his time with his marketing techniques. The practice of offering The Master Key System as a correspondence course in which chapters were sent one at a time and for which the student paid per section effectively tripled — or even quadrupled! — the cost of the “System” had he sold it simply in book form.

Haanel's General Instructions to Students.

Charles F. Haanel’s General Instructions to Students.

In his “General Instructions to Students,” Haanel wrote this: “The bound volume is never sold to any one at any price, unless they have completed the study and made payments in full.” In other words, Haanel had the student pay for each section of the course and then had them buy the book.

(Other aspects of the “General Instructions” are interesting as well. “Students who complete the course and who hold a receipt in full for all payments, will be entitled to receive a diploma.” What is this diploma? That has not been answered. A “diploma” — or as it is also called, “The Fellowship Diploma” — has not been found as of the writing of this article.)

Obviously Haanel was a smart man. He was not only educated, but he marketed intelligently. That being stated, whether The Master Key System was a success or not cannot be determined. The 200,000 sales number that is often quoted cannot be verified. It can be extrapolated that if 200,000 copies of the book were sold, then we would have more examples of it in existence today. We do not.


The Napoleon Hill Letter

In 1919, future author of probably the best-known personal development book Think & Grow RichNapoleon Hill, penned a letter to Charles F. Haanel about the influence The Master Key System had on him.

In the letter Hill wrote “I believe in giving credit where it is due, therefore I believe I ought to inform you that my present success and the success which has followed my work as President of the Napoleon Hill Institute is due largely to the principles laid down in The Master-Key System.”

The letter Napoleon Hill wrote to Haanel about The Master Key System.

The letter Napoleon Hill wrote to Charles F. Haanel about the influence of The Master Key System on Hill’s life.

The letter in its entirety reads:

“April 21, 1919.
“Mr. Charles F. Haanel,
“St. Louis, Mo.

“My dear Mr. Haanel:

“You probably know, from the editorial in the January issue of the Golden Rule, copy of which my Secretary sent to you, that I began twenty-two years ago as a coal miner at a dollar a day.

“I have just been retained by a ten million dollar corporation at a salary of $105,200.00 a year, for a portion of my time only, it having been agreed that I shall continue as editor of the Hill’s Golden Rule.

“I believe in giving credit where it is due, therefore I believe I ought to inform you that my present success and the success which has followed my work as President of the Napoleon Hill Institute is due largely to the principles laid down in The Master-Key System.

“You are doing a good work by helping people to realize that nothing is impossible of accomplishment which a man can create in his imagination. Surely my own experience proves this.

“I shall cooperate with you in getting your course into the hands of the many who so greatly need your message.

“Cordially and sincerely,
“Napoleon Hill,
“Editor, The Golden Rule
“Chicago, Illinois”

The fact that Hill entitled one of his later books The Master-Key to Riches reinforces the fact that Haanel was a direct influence on Napoleon Hill.


Did Bill Gates of Microsoft Read The Master Key System?

Somewhere around 2001, a story began to appear on the Internet. The “rumor,” as it was called, stated that while Bill Gates was a student at Harvard, he came across a copy of The Master Key System. After reading it, he proceeded to drop-out of school and begin Microsoft, which lead to him becoming the richest man in the world.

This story has never been verified. That being said, much of it doesn’t make sense. For starters, Gates showed an early proclivity for computer programming. Added to that was that fact that his family was somewhat well-off, which allowed him to pursue his interest in that activity. From Wikipedia:

“He scored 1590 out of 1600 on the SAT and enrolled at Harvard College in the autumn of 1973. While at Harvard, he met Steve Ballmer, who later succeeded Gates as CEO of Microsoft. In his sophomore year, Gates devised an algorithm for pancake sorting as a solution to one of a series of unsolved problems, presented in a combinatorics class by Harry Lewis, one of his professors. Gates’ solution, which was later formalized in a published paper in collaboration with Harvard computer scientist Christos Papadimitriou, held the record as the fastest version for over thirty years; its successor is faster by only one percent. Gates did not have a definite study plan while a student at Harvard and spent a lot of time using the school’s computers.”

In other words, he was smart — very smart — and he practiced his craft relentlessly. Would there even be time to peruse a book as dense as The Master Key System?

His decision to drop-out of school was not done on a whim either. From Wikipedia:

“He remained in contact with Paul Allen, joining him at Honeywell during the summer of 1974. The following year saw the release of the MITS Altair 8800 based on the Intel 8080 CPU, and Gates and Allen saw this as the opportunity to start their own computer software company. He had talked this decision over with his parents, who were supportive of him after seeing how much Gates wanted to start a company.”

It seems from this — as well as other sources — the decision to start “Micro-Soft” was a decision made by both Gates and his friend Paul Allen (Microsoft’s co-founder). Additionally, Gates consulted his parents on his decision.

In all likelihood, the story of Bill Gates reading The Master Key System is something that was created by a savvy marketer and has no basis in truth.


The Master Key System Today

Since 2000, when Kallisti Publishing began publishing The Master Key System, there has been a renewed interest in Charles F. Haanel. The surprising success of the 2006 movie The Secret only amplified that interest as the movie used Haanel’s perennial book as the basis for the film and quoted from it extensively in the companion book.

The Master Key System and all of Haanel’s works are kept alive by Kallisti Publishing and Anthony Michalski, who since 2000 have published the de facto versions of all of Haanel’s materials. Mr. Michalski writes articles and speaks extensively about the man and the philosophy and is considered the world’s foremost authority on the subjects.

Haanel’s philosophy continues to inspire people around the world and educate them in a form of self-mastery that, while not actually read by Bill Gates, definitely delineates the method of thinking Gates used. People around the world attribute their successes to their study and application of The Master Key System. With his books now in the open, it is safe to say that Charles F. Haanel is here to stay.