History of Pastoral Care in America

Thanks to Patrick Fore

Thanks to Patrick Fore

I finished E. Brooks Holifield’s A History of Pastoral Care in America: From Salvation to Self-Realization. The book has been a grounding or a re-grounding for me since my seminary days. As the title tells, it is a history of pastoral care and pastoral theology in the United States of America.

Holifield walks through several Christian theological lanes, surveying and summarizing some of the major figures in pastoral theology broadly and pastoral care more specifically. He intends the book to be narrow in the sense of covering Protestant pastoral counseling and ministry.

I found it broad in how it went about telling that history. The author named several primary voices in pastoral work, drawing out the thoughts and conceptions of thinkers and preachers and teachers who shaped the practical ministry of pastors and the academic institutions who trained ministers. Holifield wanted to show specifically how the “self” was revealed in history, how attitudes about the self developed in American religion, and wrote in that direction.

Any history that covers centuries has to be clear in its scope and intention. Holifield told of theological traditions and how they dealt with (i.e., defined, taught, and constructed meanings for) sin and spiritual development, two primary foci of pastoral care and those seeking such care throughout history. How a church defines sin directly relates to how a person in that church develops him/herself, whether they develop at all.

I appreciate learning names and dates that I was not thoughtful of. Holifield named preachers and leaders who framed debates that I know of but didn’t know the progenitors. One criticism is that the historical debates were framed around churches and communities which regularly disallowed the names and thoughts of non-white people.

That lack of voice is loud in Holifield, and I found myself wondering why he wrote about the influence of Jonathan Edwards but didn’t discuss with equal precision the thoughts and impact of Richard Allen or Alexander Crummell, the Episcopal priest who started what was essentially a society for African American intellectual and theoretical development. The omission is both honest from the historical perspective–since Allen wasn’t “invited to the debate” in his time–and discouraging because I don’t note Holifield walking through his work with the sense of loss with which I read him.

He presented a lot of philosophical material that made me feel informed, and he made the connections to keep me interested because he used several local church pastors to offer what could have been, simply, heady stuff. A central event in American history of the Protestantism Holifield writes about is the Great Awakening. He writes of the psychology of the Awakening and how with the best of intentions, leaders disagreed (meaning argued) about conversion and cure.

He notes the remark of one historian who says that the central conflict of the time was not theological but psychological, about opposing views of human psychology. Holifield points to how misleading that comment was, but it as helpful as it is misleading. As he says, “the theological context of any clerical assertion about psychology profoundly affected the interpretation of the psychological claims” and “the antagonists had far more in common than any such dichotomy might suggest.” Both are true then and seem true still.

The book covers material that can’t, or shouldn’t be covered in a review. There’s stuff about will and affections, comfort, cure, accountability, capitalism, and urban culture which I hardly would relay as urban in contemporary sense. He develops in solid detail the early therapeutic movements which we see but don’t see in pastoral counseling and therapy offices. He documents the beginnings of the Emmanuel Movement, explains less popular figures like Harry Stack Sullivan (whose work I appreciate), and points to how clinical focus moved from adjustment to insight.

He opened up for me a connection between mainstream culture in the US post-Civil War and the accompanying shifts of emphases in counseling and ministry and which established the primary contexts for the 20th century pastoral care movement. The same was true after World War 2. National violence, world violence directly impacted the needs for, methods of, and providers for pastoral care and mental health. Power and achievement and success were foci. Warlike metaphors abound from that time in clinical history, and the residuals of that period are still with us.

The last half of the book was much more relatable. He employed names and methods I have been introduced to, and the book did a good job unearthing the nuanced theories from which today’s approaches in pastoral theology stem. He dealt with the ever popular client-centered therapy and its large reception among pastors, as well as the derivative therapies thereafter. He mentioned early to mid-twentieth century pastoral heavy weights like Hiltner and Boisen and Oates and Wise.

I remember thinking about something one of my Bible professors said. Perhaps they are words I put in a professor’s mouth: the people who write our texts are the people whose stories stuck. Their stories endured. In other words, those we quote continue to be those we hear.

I felt Holifield reminding us of good historical stuff while also, in my view, choosing certain voices and neglecting others relative to a history of United States of American pastoral care. I certainly am developing a personal project to augment Holifield’s good work, thinking through whose voices are missing but shouldn’t be.

In summary, as good as this history is, it is short-sighted in the direction of white, male perspectives which is nothing surprising. Most of theological scholarship bends in that direction. Certainly most recognized histories bend there too. I could see more complementary texts coming alongside this book in order to illuminate the less-told stories of women and people of color. Indeed, I know the work of folks like Carroll Watkins-Ali and Archie Smith should be read with Holifield’s book.

Now, I’m on the hunt for another pastoral theological history that captures and enriches the story by adding the voices that Holifield didn’t include. That said, this quote, pages from the end, summarize well the good ground the author did cover and offers a kind of vista into the next places historically minded theological scholars may next dig:

Pastoral conversation–whether understood as counsel or as counseling–has never been a disembodied activity, isolated from social and cultural expectations and ideals. The strategies of pastoral discourse, the tone and vocabulary of private communication between the minister and the person in distress, always have borne the dim reflection of a public order. One begins to understand something about pastoral counseling by looking closely not only at prevailing conceptions of theology and psychology but at popular culture, class structure, the national economy, the organization of the parishes, and the patterns of theological education. And one must also look at the past.

 

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