THE AMERICAN RECEPTION OF SIGMUND FREUD
When Sigmund Freud introduced
psychoanalysis into the
In Europe, Freud had a sprinkling
of followers, notably in
That Freud was an atheist and a Jew
no doubt weighed very heavily against a fair hearing for psychoanalysis in
A study of the American religious
reaction to psychoanalysis shows on the contrary that, with Catholics in the
minority, there was no significant outcry against Freud from either Protestants
or Jews. Protestant ministers were among the first to popularize Freud,
declaring as early as 1909, the year of Freud’s visit, that as physicians of
the soul, clergymen had a close interest in Freudian psychology and this new
therapeutic method. There were Jewish rabbis who claimed Freud as a great
Jewish healer in the tradition of the ancient prophets. It is striking
how many of Freud’s early followers in the
The favorable Protestant response to psychoanalysis stemmed from the partnership it had established with scientific psychology in the late 19th century, seeking an understanding of the nature of religious belief as well as insight into mental illness at a time when the medical sciences were unprepared to deal with the functional approach to neurosis. Freud probably received more abuse from the conservative core of the American medical profession than from the entire ministerial profession. This is not to say that Protestant clergymen, liberal or conservative, were not offended by Freud’s anti-God pronouncements. But they did not let Freud’s religious views prejudice them against psychoanalysis as they understood it.
William Langer, speaking of the
rapid and enormous popular reception of Martin Luther, said: “It is
inconceivable that he should have evoked so great a popular response unless he
had succeeded in expressing the underlying unconscious sentiments of large
numbers of people in providing them with an acceptable solution to their
Could the same be said of Freud? Was the rapid growth of the
psychoanalytical movement in the
It has been said that those who accepted psychoanalysis during its first decade had already given up their belief in a personal God. Freud had noticed “an extraordinary increase” in the neuroses with the decline of orthodox religious faith. Jung was also impressed by this correlation, feeling that a religious problem was involved in most, if not all, of his cases.
The American soul had been disturbed by not only the scientific challenge to orthodox Christian belief in the latter part of the 19th century, but by the rapid economic and cultural changes taking place in American life – changes resulting from the transformation of the American economy from rural and small-town to industrial and urban. Traditional ways of life had eroded, producing a host of so-called “nervous disorders”. If diet, sedatives, patent medicines, rest and work cures, hypnosis and electric shock failed, the neurotic was almost certain to find himself at best tolerated, and at worst distinctly unwelcomed by his physician. The clergy, as traditional caretakers of the soul, had also been unsuccessful in healing their disturbed parishioners.
In 1908, a year before Freud’s
visit, the Reverend Robert MacDonald of the
Man’s modern way of living with all its hurry and scurry has gotten on his nerves. He sleeps poorly, is depressed and melancholy. He is dyspeptic and sluggish and miserable. The same man who will not listen to a purely spiritual appeal wants help and wants it badly….Now for the first time, psychology reveals an immense subconscious realm which in everyday life is susceptible to impression, suggestion and influence – to spiritual hypnosis.
The term “spiritual hypnosis” used
by the Reverend MacDonald reflects the interest of numerous Protestant
ministers in this psychological technique, employed when traditional pastoral
counseling failed. Indeed, Freud’s lectures at
Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science
was the most prominent of the mind-cure movements and eventually became a
church. Horatio Dresser’s New Thought worked within the Protestant
churches. The Emmanuel Movement established a partnership between the
Episcopal Church in
Christian Science had its roots as
far back as 1840 when Mary Baker Eddy’s mentor, Phinneas Parkhurst Quimby, the
son of a blacksmith in
Quimby, whose unpublished papers have been available in the Rare Book Division of the Library of Congress, eventually gave up hypnosis for what he called the “talking cure”. Instead of putting the patient into a mesmeric sleep and, by suggestion, implanting the idea of his getting well, Quimby would sit by his patient, listen to a detailed account of his troubles and talk things over. When he had some idea about the patient’s problems he made suggestions for a change of attitude – to remove the “error” in the patient’s mind and establish the “truth”. Error for Quimby did not preclude the existence of physical disease as it did for his famous patient, Mary Baker Eddy.
Like Freud, Quimby needed a theory to explain why his method effected cures. Unlike Freud, he turned to religion to find it. He studied the New Testament for clues to Jesus’ success in healing and came to the conclusion that Jesus healed through “Divine Efficiency” and that he, Quimby, had received some of this “Divine Efficiency”. He referred to his method as “spiritual healing”.
Mary Baker Eddy had been cured by Quimby after years of neurotic suffering. From Quimby she borrowed the idea that disease was an “error”, or wrong thinking, and had to be removed so that the “truth” could take its place.
In 1866, two years after Quimby died, Mary Baker Eddy was out on the road preaching first “moral science”, then Christian Science. Many of her students in the early days of the movement went forth as “mental healers” after a course of twelve lessons. Eddy’s metaphysics resembled extreme philosophical idealism. Mind was real, body unreal. Mind was moral truth, matter was mortal error. Disease, for Eddy, did not exist except in the mind. Despite its strange theories, the movement grew. Science and Health, her “Key to the Scriptures” first published in 1875, was by 1900 in its 190th edition.
In 1908, the Reverence William D.
The Christian Scientists have a larger number of adherents than the Episcopal Church with all its learning, power and wealth. They have gained in 20 years more than we have gained in 300 years….This multitude of people is just as great a reproach to the medical profession as to the church.
The social standing of the average Christian Scientist was in the upper brackets of the middle class. How many of these adherents went all the way with Mary Baker Eddy’s extreme metaphysics is a question. It could be assumed that, as in the case of psychoanalysis, many were glad enough to get some relief from their sufferings without worrying about the theory. William James, for example, said he could make nothing of Freud’s dream theories and suspected Freud of being what he called a “regular hallucine”. Yet James felt the future of psychology lay in Freud’s direction.
It has been said that Christian Science churches would not have been built but for the fact of the “mental cure”. A spirit of genuine religion was worked into mental healing.
Christian Science and psychoanalysis had common appeals for many Americans:
1. They were optimistic, promising cures at a time when the medical profession had little insight into the nature of the neuroses and were, therefore, unable to help the increasing number of unhappy, “nervous” Americans.
2. Both were posited on the assumption that health and happiness could be attained by individual effort rather than by changing society – the more difficult task.
3. Both offered a modern faith – in man and reason. Salvation could be equated with not “a life hereafter” but with its original Greek meaning – to heal.
4. Both laid claim to science when science was “in the air”.
Mary Baker Eddy was not the only
patient of Phinneas Parkhurst Quimby to believe in “faith healing”. Three
years after Quimby’s death in 1866, another patient, the Reverend Warren Felt
Evans, published what could be the first book on mental healing in the
The sexual or conjugal love is more intimately connected with the inmost life of the spirit and is the fountain of more unhappiness or misery than originates with any other affection…
The Mental Cure was widely read. Along with his other works, Mental Medicine, Soul and Body, and the Divine Law of Cure, it served as raw material ten years later for Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health (1875).
In 1884, an editorial in the Boston Morning Journal noted the expanding activity in mental healing:
Christian Science, is called by people outside of New England a
It is perhaps no coincidence that
There were many who could not go
along with the theories of Christian Science but who, nevertheless, were ardent
supporters of mental healing as a method. Under the leadership of Julius
Dresser, another patient of Phinneas Parkhurst Quimby, a rival movement was
organized under the name “Mental Science” to distinguish it from Christian
Science. This movement was made up of small independent groups which
formed the Metaphysical Club in
To promote interest in and the practice of a true spiritual philosophy of life and happiness; to show that through right thinking one’s loftiest ideas may be brought into perfect realization; to advance the intelligent and systematic treatment of disease by mental methods.
The Club brought together many
writers in the mental science field and attracted a number of liberal religious
leaders. Unitarians and members of the Society of Friends became
interested in the mental healing aspects of New Thought. This movement’s
leaders, while addressing themselves primarily to mental health, applied their
basic principles to allied topics of social and religious import. New
Thought did not ask its followers to leave their churches but to exert the New
Thought influence within them. The New Thought movement spread beyond
Unlike Christian Science, New Thought recognized the physical reality of disease. Health was considered not so much a bodily condition as the accompanying mental state. Health meant a sound mind in a sound body. As one New Thought writer stated:
The science of mental health springs out of an art of life which each individual must acquire through far more intimate self-knowledge than the average man possesses.
One acquired this intimate self knowledge through a New Thought Healer, who “finds a subconscious condition that is fundamental to the physical disorder….Having admitted all the facts he reserves the right to interpret them in his own way. He then defines disease as a state of the whole individual….beliefs, fears, sensations, subconscious conditions, habits, dispositions….”
After Freud’s visit, the New Thought leaders believed New Thought and psychoanalysis had much in common. Its founder, Horatio Dresser, in writing up a history of New Thought, stated:
Psychoanalysis as practiced by Freud and his school is nearer to New Thought than suggestive therapeutics or hypnotic therapeutics, for the psychoanalysts do not practice hypnotism or mere suggestionism, their efforts being to understand the hidden motive or mental cause of disease. New Thought healers do not employ the Freudian technique, they do not analyze dreams or specialize in nervous disorders traceable to sexual suppression. But they might well assimilate some of the results of Freudian psychology. That psychology is profound. It throws light on the nature of desire, the will, and the love nature.
Devotees of New Thought wished that Freudian psychology were more spiritual, but this limitation did not dim their appreciation of Freud’s contribution. Freudian psychology, by its very neutrality, could be incorporated into the gospel of healing, and Christianity was a gospel of healing for New Thought followers.
The New Thought movement grew steadily from its origin in the 1800’s up into the 20th century. It divided and subdivided into small “centers of truth” and metaphysical clubs. While Christian Science had one text, Science and Health, New Thought devotees published a variety of texts, many of which had a large sale.
William James was attracted to New Thought, referring to it as “mind-cure”. In his Varieties of Religious Experience, he describes his experience with a mind cure healer, and, in a personal letter to a friend in 1894, he wrote:
I had a pretty bad spell….It is barely possible that the recovery may be due to a mind-curer with whom I had 18 sittings….Two other cases of brain trouble, intimate friends of mine, treated simultaneously with me, have entirely recovered. It is a good deal of a puzzle.
James believed that mind-cure had
made great use of the “subconscious life” by employing passive relaxation,
concentration and meditation and invoking “something like hypnotic
practice.” He stated further that, “To the importance of mind-cure the
medical and clerical professions in the
The gospel of health and happiness
embodied in Christian Science and New Thought, like psychoanalysis, was a movement open to charges of quackery and cultism.
Yet these movements had to be reckoned with. Charles Reynolds Brown, Dean
Where physicians are indifferent to the value of mental and spiritual forces in overcoming disease, then we may look for a full crop of queer cults which have been misleading large numbers of people in recent years. The people want to know what help there is along this line….The rapid growth of these strange cults covered all over with such nonsense as would tend to crush them is a significant symptom of our twentieth century life. Let the physician be more fully instructed in the medical schools and in the principles of psychology. The mood and the need of our age imperatively demand it.
It is apparent that, by 1909,
Christian Science and New Thought had created a stir sufficient to put both
clergymen and physicians on the defensive. Freud could not have come at a
more auspicious time. The
“Scarcely a day passes,” wrote the
Reverend Lyman Powell of the Episcopal Church in
Rest, Mental Therapeutics, Suggestion (Darcum)
The Influence of the Mind on the Body (Dubois)
Hypnotism or Suggestion and Psychotherapy (Ford)
The Psychic Treatment of Nervous Disorders (Dubois)
Nerves in Order (Schofield)
Nerves in Disorder (Schofield)
The Unconscious Mind (Schofield)
Power Through Repose (Call)
Health and the Inner Life (Dresser)
In Tune with the Infinite (Trine)
The Gospel of Good Health (Brown)
The Will to Believe (Patterson)
Trine’s In Tune with the Infinite placed responsibility for health and happiness upon the individual, not upon society. This book had a remarkable response. After the original printing in 1908, it was published in translation in 20 countries, in Esperanto and in raised letters for the blind. In 1957 it received its eighth printing, passing the 75,000 mark.
Three years before Freud’s visit, the Reverends Elwood Worcester and Samuel McComb of the Emmanuel Episcopal Church of Boston brought the Protestant church into “mental healing” through what came to be known as the Emmanuel Movement. In so doing they prepared the way for the Protestant acceptance of psychoanalysis and laid the cornerstone of modern pastoral psychiatry.
While Christian Science and New Thought operated without reliance upon the medical profession, the Emmanuel Movement sought to establish a working partnership between the Protestant minister and the neurologist with the hope of placing mental healing on a truly scientific foundation.
The Reverends Worcester and McComb both had studied the “new psychology” in Germany and were well versed in the latest developments in abnormal psychology and neurology, particularly those segments that were pioneering in the functional approach to mental illness. Worcester said, “Our psychology is the psychology of the schools….We range ourselves on the side of such writers as Wundt, Fechner, Paulsen, Janet, Forel, Freud, Prince, Sidis, James.”
At the first morning’s clinic some 198 persons turned up who were suffering from a wide variety of complaints including rheumatism, paralysis, indigestion and other purely physical ailments wholly outside the concept of their work. As a practical joke, one of the institutions for the insane had sent several busloads of its patients down to the church to embarrass Doctor Putnam, a dramatic illustration of the derisive attitude, in those days, of medicine toward the concept of functional neuroses.
The church clinic procedure called first for a physical-neurological examination of each patient by the medical staff. Those who were found to have organic diseases were referred to a medical specialist outside. Those who were diagnosed as having functional disorders were received in the rector’s study, where “in the confidence of the confessional, the patient unlocks the hidden wholesomeness of his subconscious.” These sessions went far beyond the confessional of the Catholic Church, which did not attempt to probe the unconscious.
Although much of the therapeutic work done by Worcester and McComb at the Emmanuel Church clinic was the conventional pastoral counseling, they did not hesitate to use hypnotic suggestion to “re-educate” their patients.
Dr. Richard Cabot, medical consultant to the clinic, described the Emmanuel method as follows:
Of the classical methods of mental healing, explanation, education, psycho-analysis, suggestion, rest-cure and work-cure, suggestion is the one most used at Emmanuel Church. Suggestion is given to patients who have been brought, by means of a quiet room, a comfortable chair, and soothing words, into a relaxed and somnolent or sleeping state. Besides the direct personal treatment of individuals in the morning and evening clinics (for such they essentially are) Emmanuel Church maintains weekly public exercises which may be chiefly described as Wednesday evening prayer meetings, with a twenty minute talk on mental healing instead of a sermon, and a supper afterwards….Among the topics discussed in the past year are: insomnia, suggestion, anger, worry, peace in the home, what the will can do, Nervousness and its cause, and prayer as a curative power.
The majority of cases treated in the Emmanuel Church clinic were diagnosed as neurasthenia, insanity, alcoholism, fears and fixed ideas, sexual neurosis and hysteria.
The Emmanuel Church clinics became daily affairs, so great was the popular response. The movement caused excitement from the start and led to controversies about the theories and practices of its leaders. Questions arose both within the ministerial and medical professions as to whether the ministers were competent to perform the functions they had assumed.
Some of the Emmanuel Church’s own
parishioners objected, questioning the propriety of so many depressed specimens
of humanity queuing up day after day in the church’s halls waiting for
treatment. The issue reached the bishop of the diocese, the Right
Reverend William Lawrence, who settled it by letting
The Emmanuel Movement received wide
publicity in the popular literary journals of the day. Edward Bok, editor
of the Ladies Home Journal, invited
Some medical critics charged that
Worcester and McComb were unfitted to engage in such psychotherapy and felt
they were usurping the rightful territory of medicine. Neurologist Ralph
W. Reed of
I am totally unable to find anything in the literature of the cult that convinces me that their methods are religious at all. Dr. McComb, himself, refers more frequently to the authority of Janet than of Jesus.
The sensational press published
weird stories to the effect that the Reverend Worcester at Emmanuel Church had
raised a man from the dead by auto-suggestion. A
In response to this adverse
criticism of their “Religious Therapeutics”, Worcester, McComb, and Dr. Isadore
H. Coriat published Religion and Medicine (1908), subtitled The Moral
Control of Nervous Disorders. This book called for the revival of the
minister as “physician to the soul” and exhorted the Protestant church to
reactivate the original mission of the Christian church as a ministry of
healing. It urged ministers to utilize the findings of modern psychology
and warned of the increasing threat of Christian Science to the established
churches. This work, Religion and Medicine, included a section
written by Dr. Isadore H. Coriat, one of
The Emmanuel Movement was not
On the West Coast, the Rector of
the Church of the Good Samaritan in
… no movement in the church has travelled so rapidly in modern times….In every section of the country it is being talked about favourably and unfavourably by both the church and the medical profession, while suffering humanity, hitherto unaided, reaches forth its trembling hand with at least a faint hope that the day is not far distant when there will come the long sought relief from pain and suffering.
In Chicago, Bishop Samuel Fallows of the Reformed Episcopal Church called his “psychotherapic” work “Christian Psychology” and stated with “positive authority that religious therapeutics could cure want of confidence, sleeplessness, nervous dyspepsia, melancholia, fear, mental depression, hysteria, anger and weak will.”
In San Francisco, the Reverend Thomas Parker Boyd in his book The How and Why of the Emmanuel Movement showed the art of healing had been practiced from earliest times, from the witch doctor of old driving out the devil, to the modern therapist. “Between these extremes of development are all the pathies, shrine cures, bones of the saints, holy waters, quackery, charlatanism, allopath, homeopath, isopath, osteopath, electric, botanic, magnetic, Christian Science, mind cure, divine healing and what not.”
In 1909, due to the unfavorable publicity the Emmanuel Movement received, Worcester and McComb adopted a policy of eliminating as much as possible further attention to their work. They discontinued the Church clinic but continued their therapeutic counseling quietly, referring patients to outside physicians when indicated.
Freud apparently heard about the Emmanuel
Movement at the time of his visit to
When I think that there are many physicians who have been studying psychotherapy for decades who yet practice it with the greatest caution, this introduction of a few men without medical or with only superficial medical training, seems to me of questionable good.
William James was disappointed that Freud should have taken this negative view. In a letter to Theodore Flournoy, James wrote:
A newspaper report of the congress said that Freud condemned the American religious therapy (which has had such extensive results) as very ‘dangerous’ because so ‘unscientific.’ Bah!
Despite Freud’s lack of enthusiasm
for their work, Worcester and McComb continued to support Freud and
psychoanalysis. In 1912, McComb wrote in Century magazine: “We owe
to the genius of Professor Sigmund Freud of
It is quite clear that the Emmanuel method of therapy was not psychoanalysis but counseling and hypnotic suggestion. Worcester and McComb, like numerous neurologists in 1908 and during the first few years after Freud’s visit, did not clearly understand the difference between psychoanalysis and suggestion. James Putnam’s first encounter with psychoanalysis led him to the conclusion that “the psychoanalytic method does not differ much in principle from the other methods.”
There may be a correlation between the decline of the mental healing movements and the introduction of psychoanalysis after 1909. The mental healing movements at their height between 1890 and 1910 had given exclusive attention to conscious thought as the “greatest power in the world,” and had relied on the power of suggestion to change attitudes and effect cures. Christian Science and New Thought were posited on the belief, deeply rooted in 19th century American evangelical and transcendental thought, that spiritual insight could tap hidden sources of energy. This optimism was one facet of what has been termed “American innocence”. The Emmanuel Movement, on the other hand, drew less upon 19th-century idealism and more on 20th-century science. The Emmanuel Movement, in aligning itself with medicine, had laid the cornerstone for the continually developing cooperation between religion and psychiatry.
In 1939, the Committee on Religion
and Health of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in
Whatever one may think about the specific theories of Freud and his followers, he must be recognized as the Galen or Darwin in the field of psychotherapy. It was he who first mapped out the new road and devised a vehicle by which it might be traversed. Certainly his most lasting contribution will be the methods he devised for uncovering the hitherto unrecognized underground motives of the mind.
Today, although the psychoanalytic star that shone so brilliantly for half a century has been dimmed somewhat by new insights into mental illness and new methods of treatment, among religious leaders there is a continuing interest in Freudian insights into human nature and the use of those insights in pastoral counseling. Freud and the gospel of health and happiness are still alive.
Those early religious movements – Christian Science, New Thought and the Emmanuel Movement – attracted many Americans who believed that mental health was, or should be, a function of religion. This ideological kinship strengthened the image of Freud as a mental healer and thus favorably influenced the American reception of psychoanalysis.
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About the Author
Ruth Pedersen Hunsberger received her M.A. in American Intellectual History from the
Copyright © 2005 Ruth P. Hunsberger. All rights reserved.