Re-emergence in a Surprising Field
REBIRTH OF AMERICA’S SPIRITUAL PSYCHOLOGY — PART II
Ed. Note: The first installment of this two-part series appeared in our November issue.
For almost 300 years, from the founding of Harvard in 1636 until the early 20th century, almost every American college was run by a Christian minister. Although these clergymen represented a wide variety of denominations, they collectively developed an enormously popular student seminar on how to find spiritual satisfaction in the larger world beyond home and church — a discipline that eventually inspired the entire country through a series of bestselling books. The late-19th century saw the first wave of women college presidents who, although not ordained ministers, became equally passionate advocates for this transformative spiritual program.
Despite its influence, the spiritual psychology that grew out of the President’s Seminars quickly fell from favor at the start of the 20th century. There was no collapse of religion in the institutional sense. Americans still attended church in large numbers, had religious weddings, and wanted the clergy to say reassuring words before burying loved ones. But the goal of expressing God’s will in all one’s affairs was clearly yielding to a more materialistic outlook and, with it, a compartmentalization of worship that became ever more common in the decades that followed. At the same time, college trustees stopped appointing school presidents from the ranks of seminary ministers and turned instead to the most capable fundraisers, effectively depriving the clergy of their most culturally influential platform.
If only the psychology of their time had been capable of documenting the long-term benefits of faith, the last generation of clerical presidents lamented, then the wisdom of serving God in all one’s affairs would be obvious — indeed, scientific. Instead, those Christians perceptive enough not to confuse material representations of reality with reality itself would have to bear what Harvard president James Walker (1853-1860) called the “peculiar cross” of being thought backward — at least until the human cost of abandoning God became too painful to ignore.
To say that the intervening century has produced much of the discontent the Christian presidents of America’s early colleges had predicted would be an understatement. Technologically, we are more advanced than ever. Americans can communicate across the planet almost instantaneously, reside anywhere in climate-controlled comfort, enjoy an ever-expanding menu of recreations, and live on average to nearly twice the age of our not-so-distant ancestors. And yet, when it comes to the question of what makes life worthwhile, there appears to be growing agreement that our material progress has somehow increased the experience of unhappiness, especially rates of depression, anxiety, addiction, suicide, and family breakdown.
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