restricted access Psychology and Mysticismin 1940s Religion: Reading the Readers of Fosdick, Liebman, and Merton
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“I can’t help but feel that we are on the brink of a great spiritual renaissance ,” wrote reader Marian Grassley1 to Harry Emerson Fosdick in 1956. Grassley had recently come across Fosdick’s 1932 best seller As I See Religion in her local public library in Columbia, South Carolina. Having read with frustration other popular religious books of the day, she praised Fosdick for “telling us what we want and need to hear. . . . Your essays and books written in the twenties, thirties, and forties are even more apropos now then [sic] they were then.” Ms. Grassley—or as she signed her letter, Mrs. John Grassley—was not only an admirer but also an astute cultural observer. She made note of a widespread, growing realization that materialism and social striving do not bring greater happiness, then added: “World War II had something to do with bringing this realization about. I know that there are many more people like myself who are searching in current religious books for the answers.”2 Ms. Grassley was indeed right that Americans were consuming religious books more than ever after the war. After a lull during the Depression , sales of religious books, in both absolute and percentage terms, 243 > Psychology and Mysticism in 1940s Religion Reading the Readers of Fosdick, Liebman, and Merton  .  increased dramatically in the postwar period.3 Professor Halford Luccock of Yale, a frequent commenter on religious publishing, went so far as to declare the trend in 1953 “one of the most striking changes in feeling , mood, and taste which has occurred in centuries . . . telescoped into a very few years.”4 But more importantly, Grassley was also right that the culture was on the verge of a great spiritual transformation—a transformation commonly referred to as, simply, “the Sixties.” The seismic social and cultural forces of the era—the civil rights movements; the antiwar movement; the sexual, pharmaceutical, musical, and social experimentation of the counterculture; and the 1965 immigration reform act—all shaped the spiritual revolution of this watershed decade. Ms. Grassley, in her letter, recognized a key turning point in World War II; the war, indeed, set in motion many of the trends that would culminate in “the Sixties.” But she also hinted at another, less often examined, cause of this spiritual renaissance—the print culture of liberal religion itself, especially in the immediate postwar years. To fully develop that thesis would require a thorough investigation of the changing business practices and agendas of mass-market religious publishing in this era and the impact of the major best sellers—and that is beyond the scope of this essay. However, three texts, each representing a different tradition of faith, stand out from among the religious best sellers of the mid-1940s for their combination of immense national popularity , intellectual sophistication, and practical applicability. An examination of the print history, readership, and reception of these books, all number-one best sellers, illuminates the emergence of psychology and mysticism in popular American religion, the place of religious reading in American spiritual practice, and the way in which the national experience of war shaped these developments. The first two books, On Being a Real Person (1943) by Harry Emerson Fosdick, a leading liberal Protestant , and Peace of Mind (1946), by Joshua Loth Liebman, a Reform rabbi, helped bring depth psychology into the religious mainstream. They did so by placing psychological concepts into a liberal religious framework, couched in a religious idiom. The history of psychology in America has too often been dominated by scholarly studies of atheistic Freudianism, masking the complicated ways in which millions of Americans made use of psychology—as a complement to, and not a substitute for, religious faith. The third book, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) by Thomas Merton, a Roman Catholic convert and Trappist monk, is “an autobiography of 244  .  faith,” unlike the other two books, which are how-tos. Merton’s story popularized and humanized the otherwise esoteric matters of mystical experience and practice. Together, these three books presented to the reading public ideas that greatly influenced the new spiritual culture that began to emerge after the war and flowered in the 1960s. The dynamic interplay of the new psychology and ancient mysticism accelerated trends in American religious culture already moving toward an experience-based, instrumental, subject-focused spirituality.5 Modern psychology and mysticism were hardly new in the 1940s, but their presentation in best-selling books, marketed with the techniques of modern consumer culture, proved especially potent in...


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