The queer history of ‘Biblical Counseling’
In Evangelical church life there’s a widespread service known as ‘Biblical Counseling’—an alternative to psychotherapy.
I’d heard of it, but didn’t know it had a queer history. The practice was theorized, and conceived, by O. Hobart Mowrer, a famous, brilliant psychologist who discovered that therapy couldn’t ‘cure’ his homosexuality. He began to think about religion.
It isn’t a history that Evangelicals would tell.
I started reading up on Biblical Counseling after I noticed that Dr. Jay E. Adams died last year. Throughout my youth he was the religion’s go-to for mental health issues. He led a remarkable life. He convinced America’s largest religion that concepts like ‘mental health’ and ‘self-esteem’, and ‘psychology’ itself were basically Satanic.
Christians, he said, just have to understand—sin.
But Adams, I learned, hadn’t actually come up with the therapy practice he’d become known for. He’d took the core concepts, at least, from Mowrer.
The story of Biblical Counseling really begins in 1947, when Mowrer declared—to the media’s astonishment—that psychotherapy, i.e. all that ‘Freud stuff’, didn’t really work.
It led to his 1961 book, The Crisis in Psychiatry and Religion, where he suggested that if you had to choose between concepts for dealing with wrongdoing and anxiety, ‘sin’ might be the best.
Mowrer became famous to Evangelicals.
In 1961, Christianity Today reports excitedly: “Mowrer is no religious crank, nor even a theologian, but an eminent psychologist.”
Mowrer was very interested in Christianity and the experience of being in church. The way it read, publicly, was a famous psychologist was affirming conservative Christianity.
Unacknowledged at the time, the fuel for the foment was what Mowrer called his “ugly sexual perversion,” or his “secret.” In an essay, he wrote:
“For a long time I tried to keep my depressions, along with a lot of other things, secret, feeling that if they were known it would stigmatize and disadvantage me professionally.”
In 2017, the historian Corbin Page published a paper noting that colleagues had considered Mowrer a “latent homosexual.”
Therapy hadn’t worked—but Christianity did?
Mowrer turned to Christian concepts, like rules around sex he attributed to the Bible, and confession when they’re broken.
It had seemed to really work when he confessed to his wife about his gay side life. As Page narrates: “He told her about what he called his ‘perversion’ and revealed that he had been unfaithful to her.”
And Mowrer recalls he felt much better. It seemed that ‘confession’ worked better than therapy. As Page adds: “Like many psychologists and psychoanalysts, he believed that he could generalize from his own case.”
Mowrer set out to cultivate relationships with American clerics. Page writes: “Many pastoral counselors were enthusiastic about Mowrer’s vicious attack on not just Freud but the whole fields of psychology and psychiatry.”
And so Mowrer met Jay E. Adams.
Both men were firing on personal drama.
A 1996 Ph.D. thesis by David Powlison, a colleague of Adams, narrates the history of Biblical Counseling. Adams’ dad was a Baltimore cop, and his mother a secretary. They weren’t Christian. That’s all he’d say.
The scene that mattered to his peronal myth happened was when Adams was age 15, and heard talk about the Bible. As Powlinson narrates: “Adams’s interest was sparked; from a pile of old books in his pantry, he dug out a khaki New Testament that his father had been given during World War I.”
A short biography at the website Adams’ organization says the Bible was “given to him by a friend.” But he liked the idea that he’d dredged up a new program for instilling order to the world. As Powlison writes:
“Central to his vision was the notion that human life is meant to be lived under benign authority — parental, pastoral, ecclesiastical, and, ultimately, immediate theocratic authority as articulated in the Bible . . .”
If a key guide to Evangelical people, Adams was not beloved.
He wrote over a hundred books, but they all seem to be impersonal statements of “rules” and procedures he finds in the Bible. He had a wife and four children, but never writes about them.
He landed a pastor gig, and had his next meaningful encounter. A parishioner came to him, but wouldn’t say what he wanted. “I simply did not know what to do,” Adams writes. “I was helpless.”
The man died a month later. Adams was haunted by their failure to communicate.
Adams thought to be a seminary professor, and went to get a Ph.D.—in speech! So often known as Dr. Jay E. Adams, an authority on mental health, his training was in how to teach Christian men to speak. It seems the real drama of his life was learning to—talk to men?
The story Adams liked to tell was being a seminary professor having to teach a class on ‘practical’ pastoring.
His notes for the class—taught in 1967—would become, he’d say, his 1970 book, Competent to Council.
But actually he’d been working on the project for years, with a range of other Christian clergy. The clerics were in the mood to develop a therapy alternative. Psychoanalysis was competition! People had a place to go and work through their problems — instead of ‘praying them away’.
Adams and Mowrer were corresponding and in 1964 met up for a summer session. Mowrer was looking to train clerics in his ideas.
Adams followed Mowrer into some work in mental institutions, confirming his idea that ‘mental illness’ was just sin. “I came home deeply indebted to Mowrer for indirectly driving me to a conclusion that I as a Christian minister should have known all along,” he writes.
Adams frames Mowrer’s methods as not having the special ingredient of Christian belief. He writes: “But because he has no Savior, Mowrer is like the priest that stands daily ministering the same sacrifice that can never take away sin.”
It was the only description that Adams seems to leave of Mowrer—his patron and benefactor whom he never seemed to know.
Adams developed a session that had a pastor doing a quick hearing of the ‘problem’.
He didn’t believe in long therapy ordeals, or what he called “promiscuous confession.” It was to be tightly focused on the issue at hand.
The pastor was not a warm, sympathetic listener. As David Powlison writes: “His ideal counselor projected an aggressive, impatient, and business-like stance towards counselees, rather than communicating a caring and patient presence.”
The whole point of the session was to drive toward a confession, as the pastor would then issue a program of ‘biblical’ guidance to follow.
Adams’ book came out in 1970, and was a bestseller. Competent to Counsel was the good news what Evangelicals wanted to hear.
Mowrer, meanwhile, had developed a different session he called “integrity groups.”
It seems to have been his effort to re-think the experience of ‘church’ into a group of people getting together, without an authority figure, to support each other, and to make each other tell each other the truth. These “integrity groups” are considered a key influence on the emerging ‘self-help’ genre.
Adams found it all irrelevant, and notes being especially bewildered by Mowrer’s idea of “telling your story” to the group. He notes: “It is very painful for Mowrer to tell his story, but he believes suffering pain helps to take away the feeling of guilt.”
He refers to Mowrer’s “personal unrest” — without explanation.
Adams spent his next years churning out books and doing ‘counseling’ sessions.
It seemed an exciting new ground for church activity. The Evangelical world had especially liked a possibility that Adams had broached in a footnote to Competent to Counsel.
“But precisely because homosexuality, like adultery, is learned behavior into which men with sinful natures are prone to wander, homosexuality can be forgiven in Christ, and the pattern can be abandoned and in its place proper patterns can be reestablished by the Holy Spirit.”
Though not clearly linked to the emerging practice, Adams strikes me as the inventor of “conversion therapy”—the Evangelical effort to change sexual orientation by religious means.
But, to the extent that Mowrer had set Adams up, it seems that “conversion therapy” was inspired — or invented by — a self-loathing gay man.
Adams was regularly cited, quoted, and studied.
He was proclaimed a religious hero — a new Martin Luther!
There were critics too. In a 2011 study, the scholar John Weaver writes:
“Biblical counseling is dangerous, not because it is a religious therapy, but because it masks its clearly psychological goals under a religious trapping.”
Mowrer kept up his career—developing the idea of small groups of people who would ‘confess’ everything to each other. But his secret seemed to weigh on him more heavily all the time.
Shockingly, he drifted into believing in eugenic solutions for the mentally ‘unwell’, with strong hints at wanting to exterminate gay people.
He writes in 1974: “Personally, I would like to see a widespread eugenic attack made on this and several similar problems; but there are many highly informed persons in this field who are against such a program.”
By the early 1980s, Mowrer was in despair.
A colleague writes: “With Mollie gone, his children grown, his work as he saw it done, the zest went out of him, and the depressions that had plagued him all his life finally had their way.”
In 1982, Mowrer killed himself. As Corbin Page notes, he was really just living out his own ideas.
“He believed throughout his career that deviating from the norm was the cause of most psychological and social problems. Mowrer was consumed by the desire to stamp out deviation both in his own life and in society.”
No Christians seemed to notice that he was gone. 🔶