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William James’ Influence on Psychology and Spiritual Healing
By Dr. Sonia Soneson Werner
William James (= WJ),  who lived from 1847  to 1910,  was considered the father of American Psychology. He also came from a Swedenborgian family.  Approximately a century ago, he combined his interests in theology, philosophy and physiology and started the first college program in Psychology at Harvard University. Probably every academic Psychology Department in this country can trace its roots back to William James and the first Psychology textbook: The Principles of Psychology. In fact, many campuses even name major campus buildings after him, including the Psychology Department’s building on the Harvard University campus (right across the street from Cambridge’s  Swedenborg Chapel, by the way!). There is no doubt about the fact that WJ was a major historical figure in the study of the social sciences in this country.  But did his Swedenborgian perspective travel along with this influence in academia?
 “James inherited his lifelong interest in religion from his Swedenborgian father”, Henry James, Sr. (Niebuhr, 1997).  They both felt that religion was the most important aspect of a human being, and that it had the capacity to change lives. One would hope that with all of WJ’s  fame and notoriety among the well educated people at the turn of the century, that the New Church would spread through his influence on academic curricula. This seems like the obvious path of the transmissions of these ideas.
But something happened that filtered out the emphasis WJ placed on religion, even though his focus on the human mind was adopted. Perhaps it was due to the emerging modern age of science. Maybe it was because Darwin wrote a widely read book during that same era, entitled  the Origin of Species, which de-emphasized theology.  For whatever reason, religion went out of vogue on college campuses, around the same time that psychology was established as a new discipline. Even though WJ  was a theist and encouraged people to study the spiritual aspect of human life, this “most important of all human functions” according to WJ,  was not widely studied by most of his students and followers on college campuses (Gorsuch, 2003.  So, the majority of the psychologists of the twentieth century studied people, but ignored religion, as if it was irrelevant.
One might think that an academic setting would be an ideal place for curious minds to come together and seek the truth about man’s relationship to God. But at least during most of the previous century, secular college campuses have not become the setting for spreading the New Church. Ironically, a completely different setting has emerged as a place where people are seeking to invite the Lord into their lives, and WJ  has been credited with influencing this other setting, even though it began 20 years posthumously.  The setting is in self-help, Twelve-Step meetings held by recovering addicts and alcoholics (Walle, 1992, Finlay, 2000).
Just as the birth of Jesus Christ occurred in a humble stable rather than in a grand palace, perhaps New Church ideas are being born in people’s hearts while they are in a small, simple, rented room for a Twelve-Step meeting; rather than in a beautifully designed, college campus building listening to a famous lecturer of Psychology.
As the story goes, WJ  wrote a book entitled Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902 and this book has been in print continuously since that time (Gorsuch, 2003). He was one of the first authors to describe the many ways that people come to know God, or their “Higher Power”.  He did not focus on the specific dogma of every religion, but rather he emphasized the individual’s experience of knowing God. In his analysis of the various states of mind an individual might encounter, WJ described one key state which he named “sick-souled”. Not everyone goes through this state of mind, but for those who do, they reach a point of utter despair. These people acknowledge that their lives have gone out of control, and then in their desperation they surrender their lives and seek a “Higher Power” to help them experience sanity again. For some people this conversion is rather sudden, as it was for the founder of the Twelve-Step movement, Bill W; while for others it is a gradual change (Harting, 2000, Raphael, 2000).
In the 1930’s, Bill W had been struggling with alcoholism, and had reached an extremely low point in his life. Although I have often heard the legend that Bill W had a wife named Lois Burnham, who had relatives in the New Church, I am not convinced that this is the line of influence of New Church ideas on the Twelve-Step movement. Bill W was notorious for NOT listening to his wife, unfortunately. I think the Swedenborgian influence which helped him the most was through WJ.
Up until this low point of despair, Bill W had kept a distance from any organized religion. But one night in a hospital, when he felt extremely discouraged, he said, “If there is a God, let Him show himself. I am ready to do anything, anything!” (Raphael, 2000). Soon after that, Bill W claims that he saw a bright light and he was caught up in a peaceful ecstasy, which changed him forever.  From then on, he decided to turn his life over to the Lord, and to dedicate his time to the charitable work of helping others recover from addiction. He never drank again.  A friend gave him a copy of WJ’s book, Varieties of Religious Experience, and Bill W states that this book was the only thing he ever read that explained what happened to him in that moment of conversion. Since then, Bill W considered WJ  to be one of the founders of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement (Venable, 2003, Bridgers, 2001, C’de Baca & Miller, 2003).
…“The conversion is the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong,  inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities… To say that a man is converted means in these terms, that religious ideas, previously peripheral in his consciousness, now takes a central place, and that religious aims form the habitual centre of his energy…
Religion is the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (James, 1902).                

In Swedenborg’s Writings we read, “There are three things through which man is regenerated: the Lord, faith and charity.” (TCR 619). And further, “ The reason no one can come into the Kingdom of God unless he is born again, is that man is born into evils of every kind, with the faculty that by the removal of these evils he can become spiritual; and unless he becomes spiritual, he cannot come into Heaven. From being natural to become spiritual, is to be born again, or regenerated.” (DP 83)

Did WJ read about regeneration in the Writings of Swedenborg, or was he drawing ideas from other philosophers and theologians?     
Although WJ  was home-schooled by his father and studied Swedenborg’s Writings for many years under his tutelage, he rarely gave direct references to the Writings. Therefore, we can speculate that he borrowed unique ideas from this source and described spirituality in his own words, particularly when he wrote Varieties of Religious Experience (James, 1902).  We know from several biographies that during WJ’s mid-life that he was striving to distance himself from his Swedenborgian father, who had the reputation of being a religious eccentric (Simon, 1998). Perhaps this is why WJ avoided direct reference to Swedenborg, so as not to appear that he was just like his father. However, as WJ entered into his own elderly years, he often wrote in letters  that he was becoming more receptive to his father’s religion. Perhaps he was finally willing to discuss the impact that Swedenborg had on his life, when he was less concerned with what his more secular peers thought of him.
According to Eugene Taylor (currently a Professor of the History of Psychology at Harvard Medical School), “James’s proper intellectual lineage and the true spiritual roots of the pragmatist movement in America, I maintain, and the archival documents show, is the intuitive, literary, and philosophical inheritance of the Swedenborgian and transcendental milieu…The origin of his philosophy is neither Cartesian, Kantian, nor Hegelian, but rather Swedenborgian and transcendentalist in the sense of his father’s interpretation of the Swedish seer, Emanuel Swedenborg, and in the tradition of Emerson’s ‘American Scholar’…James , however, was generally ignored by the discipline he helped to found, on the grounds that psychology was just then aligning itself with the basic sciences and had only just recently ejected all the philosophers, whom they encouraged to go and found their own national associations.” (Taylor 2003) So throughout most of  the twentieth century, the discipline of psychology in academic circles has been based on reductionistic materialism. In other words, they focused more on the psychology of the external human rather than on the internal spirit.  

In summary, the line of influence in the applied psychology movement of self-help groups appears to be that Swedenborg’s Writings were read thoroughly by Henry James, Sr., who home-schooled his son,WJ. WJ  later wrote Varieties of Religious Experience, which Bill W read nearly 30 years later, soon after his ’flash’ conversion experience.  Then Bill W established the Twelve-Step program, about having a spiritual awakening and surrendering to one’s Higher Power in order to change one’s life. (In addition, the Oxford Group which held meetings in the 1930’s for individuals trying to live their religion more completely, was influenced by WJ, and they, in turn, guided Bill W as he wrote up the “Big Book” and the Twelve-Steps to recovery.) 

If this is the case, then I stand in awe of the workings of Divine Providence, and the amazing ways which the Lord’s truths will reach people who are receptive. Participants in the Twelve-Step movement are not required to join a specific church when they attend meetings and they may remain anonymous. They do not actually sign up and become counted as members of an organized church. However, they state at every meeting that they are ready to turn their lives over to God, as they know Him. Sounds like the Church Universal!  

When any of us might become discouraged by our small number of official members, let us take heart that the Lord’s truths are traveling to people and places across the globe, just when they are most needed. This outreach might be even broader than the sending of a newsletter to a list of members in our congregations. The Lord is in charge of this progression of the spread of His church and it may happen in ways we haven’t even dreamed of yet. 

As a postscript….The good news is that there has been a shift in academia that I never would have predicted when I entered this secular profession in the 1970’s. In the past decade, the American Psychological Association (which WJ founded and served as President) has added a subgroup called “The Psychology of Religion”, which I have joined. There are journals and meetings being offered as a growing number of psychology professors are beginning to embrace the study of spirituality in mental health. With this remarkable shift among academic psychologists, the works of WJ  are once again coming to the forefront. Perhaps, even on secular college campuses, there may be a growing number of receptive listeners to the truths offered in the Writings of the New Church.  In fact this very year, a Swedenborgian Psychology Professor at the  University of Hawaii is offering a new seminar on theism and psychology, with a special emphasis on New Church ideas.  Maybe the time has come for Psychology to finally focus on the whole human being, including the body, mind and spirit.
By Dr. Sonia Soneson Werner  sswerner@brynathyncollege.edu


Bridgers, L. (2001). Closer to the Threshold: Kagan, Temperament and WJ’s Varieties. Streams of William James, Volume 3, Issue 2, Summer, p. 28-33. 

C’de Baca, J. and Miller, W.R. (2003). Quantum Change: Sudden Transformation in the Tradition of James’s Varieties. Streams of William James, Volume 5, Issue 1, Spring, p. 12-15.  

Finlay, S.W. (2000). Influence of Carl Jung and William James on the origin of Alcoholics Anonymous. Review of General Psychology,  Volume 4, Issue 1, p. 3-12. 

Gorsuch, R.L. (2003). James on the Similarities and Differences Between Religious and Psychic Phenomena. Streams of William James, Volume 5, Issue 1, Spring, p. 26-29.  

Harting, F. (2000). Bill W,  New York: St. Martin’s Press. 

James, W. (1902) . The Varieties of Religious Experience, New York and London: Longmans, Green and Co. 

Raphael, M.J. (2000). Bill W and Mr. Wilson, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.  

Simon, L. (1998) Genuine Reality: A life of William James, New York: Harcourt.  

Taylor, E. (1995). Oh those fabulous James boys! Psychology Today, March/April, p. 56-66. 

Taylor, E. (2003). Have we engaged in a colossal misreading of James’s Varieties? Streams of William James, Volume 5, Issue 1, Spring, p. 2-6. 

Venable, P. (2003). Overcoming Half-Hearted Surrender. Streams of William James, Volume 5, Issue 1, p. 25. 

Walle, A.H. (1992). William James’s legacy to Alcoholics Anonymous: An analysis and a critique. Journal of Addictive Diseases, Volume 11, Issue 3, p. 91-99.





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