Author and Psychologist
The Emmanuel Movement–Faith and Psychology Mix in Early Psychotherapy

The Emmanuel Movement–Faith and Psychology Mix in Early Psychotherapy

“Here for the first time psychology and Christianity openly join hands and demonstrate each day their willingness to work together in a God-intentioned unity.  For the first time physician and priest combine in psychotherapeutics against the ravages of disease” (MacDonald, 1908, p. 24).  This is not a passage one would expect to find in a modern textbook on clinical psychology, yet, the Emmanuel Movement it refers to established the foundation for the modern notions of pastoral counseling, group psychotherapy, health psychology, the holistic psychology movement, and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) (Caplan, 1998; McCarthy, 1984).

The Emmanuel Movement was founded in 1906 by Dr. Elwood Worcester, rector of Boston’s Emmanuel Episcopal Church (McCarthy, 1984).  As MacDonald’s (1908) quote alludes to, this movement was a combination of moral philosophy, psychology, and religion for the purposes of exposing the American layperson to the world of psychology and by doing so, assist them in living healthier.  Their hope was to engage and excite individuals’ interests in “…psychology and philosophy and mental hygiene” (Caplan, 1998, p. 289).  The purpose of this article is to trace the history of the Emmanuel Movement’s importance in the development of modern psychology and why such an important movement is rarely acknowledged outside of very specific academic circles.  In order to better understand how the movement began, it is important to look at the zeitgeist of that era and some of the forerunners to the Emmanuel Movement.

Forerunners to the Emmanuel Movement

There were three important groups and movements during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that developed to address mental illness through a spiritual or religious lens.  These included Christian Science, New Thought, and the Emmanuel Movement.  While each movement began at slightly different times and ultimately went in separate directions, their initial purposes were similar and a result of the public’s interest in healing.

Christian Science

The roots of the first of the three movements, Christian Science, began in 1840 with Phineas Parkhurst Quimby and his growing interest in mesmerism.  Quimby became quite adept at this skill, and soon followers were asking him to use hypnosis to cure the sick.  He ultimately abandoned the idea of putting individuals into a mesmeric sleep and implanting ideas of wellness into them, in favor of a new talking cure.  Quimby would listen to his patients recount their concerns and once he believed he understood their problems, he would attempt to “…remove the error in the patient’s mind and establish the truth” through active listening and talking with the sick (Pedersen-Hunsberger, 2005, p. none).  In order to further explain and advance his practice, Quimby was forced to develop a theory to explain why this talking cure was effective.  He turned to the New Testament of the Bible to find his answer and came to believe that Jesus healed through “divine efficiency” and so that he, too, must have received some of this ability, which he referred to as spiritual healing (Pedersen-Hunsberger, 2005).

One of Quimby’s patients was Mary Baker Eddy, whom he cured after years of neurotic suffering.  In 1866, two years after Quimby’s death, Eddy borrowed Quimby’s theory in expressing the belief that the cause of mental illness was wrong thinking that had to be removed in order for the health-inducing truth to take its place.  She began preaching this moral science, which eventually became known as Christian Science and similarly resembled extreme philosophical idealism.  She believed that, “mind was real, body unreal.  Mind was moral truth, matter was mortal error,” thus her opinion was that disease did not exist, except for in the mind (Pedersen-Hunsberger, 2005, p. none).

The New Thought

During the same time Eddy was preaching Christian Science, another disciple of Quimby’s, Julius Dresser, was organizing a rival movement named Mental Science.  Carried on by Dresser’s son, Horatio Dresser, individuals in the Mental Science movement eventually organized the Metaphysical Club and published New Thought magazine.  The two main purposes of New Thought were to advance the treatment of disease by mental methods and to promote the practice of a spiritual philosophy of life and happiness.  While these goals were similar to Christian Science, a fundamental difference was that Christian Science was characterized by its creator as a separate religion.  New Thought included Protestants, Unitarians, Quakers, and other denominations, asking that the movement’s ideals be incorporated into their churches, rather than establishing a separate congregation.  New Thought provided a very liberal interpretation of the Bible’s New Testament, which appealed to intellectuals during that time (Pedersen-Hunsberger, 2005).

A proponent of New Thought, William James, referred to the movement as a mind-cure, which had the potential to make use of one’s subconscious life.  Followers of the New Thought, unlike those in the Christian Science movement, recognized the reality of disease.  For those following New Thought, health was defined as having a sound mind in a sound body (Pedersen-Hunsberger, 2005).  Just at the beginning of the new century, another mental and spiritual movement would begin at an Episcopal Church with a class on tuberculosis (Koenig, 1998).

The Birth of the Emmanuel Movement

In 1904, Dr. Elwood Worchester, an Episcopal Minister, began a tuberculosis class to help individuals diagnosed as such, with their suffering.  The success of the class led Worcester to want to serve the larger community of people suffering from physical complaints, nervous issues, and addictions (Koenig, 1998; Caplan, 1998).  In contrast to Christian Science and New Thought, the Emmanuel Movement drew less on the idealism present during the 19th century and more on science.  The Movement also enlisted medical professionals to give their movement a more scientific basis (Pedersen-Hunsberger, 2005).  Thus, in 1906, Worcester, Samuel McComb, also an Episcopal Minister, Dr. James Putnam and Dr. Richard Cabot, physicians from the Harvard medical community, and others delivered a series of four lectures on what they called religious therapy.  They informed their audience that the next day, these experts would be available to advise anyone suffering from moral problems or psychical disorders.  To their astonishment, 198 people showed up for treatment with ailments such as rheumatism, paralysis, indigestion, neuroses, addictions, anxiety, and a range of other maladies (MacDonald, 1908; Pedersen-Hunsberger, 2005; McCarthy, 1984).

The Emmanuel Movement had officially begun.  The movement ended up including one of the first free medical clinics that was open to men and women of all races and creeds, a weekly health class, private psychotherapy sessions, numerous books, and a series of articles in Good Housekeeping, The New York Times, Century Magazine, The Women’s Home Companion, and Scientific American (Worchester & McComb, 1909; Caplan, 1998; Rogers, 1909).  The aspects that made the Emmanuel Movement unique from other movements of the time were the amount of press coverage they received, the social and academic standing of its followers, the involvement of the medical community, and for opening American’s eyes to psychotherapy (Dennis, 2011).


The Emmanuel Movement was the first psychological movement to successfully engage the medical community’s attention and interest.  Prior to this, physicians held the belief that spirituality had no place in healing the sick and made little attempt to treat mental suffering by examining the mind (Caplan, 1998).  Psychotherapy was equated with New Thought and Christian Science as unscientific, confusing moral philosophy with true science (Dennis, 2011).  With the backing of some prominent physicians and members of society’s elite, psychotherapy and the Emmanuel Movement were strong forces that demanded attention.  Ironically, it is this backing that fueled heated debates between the medical community and religious leaders, causing the Emmanuel Movement to become even more publicized.

The public’s sense of frustration with the medical community for what was seen as a lack of insight into the treatment of diseases of the mind also increased the intensity of the debates.  In addition, the Emmanuel Movement soon turned their focus to treating the distress of women, ethnic minorities, substance-addicted individuals, and other mentally ill; who were otherwise ignored (Dennis, 2011).  This created tension between society’s elite class and lesser-educated individuals.  Many individuals in the elite class during that time believed that it was a waste of time to focus scarce resources on women and minorities while the working class often supported and encouraged programs to benefit these ignored groups.  Nonetheless, the treatments used by the Emmanuel Movement intrigued people of all social and economic classes.

During 1907, the only available methods for treating mental ailments consisted of explanation, education, psychoanalysis, suggestion, rest-cure, and work-cure.  The treatment of choice at the Emmanuel Church was suggestion.  Patients were placed in a quiet room with a comfortable chair and soothed, by words, into a relaxed state.  Phrases of health and healing would be spoken while the patient was thought to remain subconsciously open to these beneficial suggestions.  Besides individual counseling, the Emmanuel Church offered morning and evening clinics, which consisted of prayer, a talk on mental healing, and a meal (Pedersen-Hunsberger, 2005).  During its peak from 1907 to 1909, the Emmanuel Movement addressed such topics as insomnia, suggestion, peaceful homes, nervousness, anger, hysteria, sexual neurosis, and prayer as a curative power (McCarthy, 1984; Pedersen-Hunsberger, 2005).  Even though the term psychotherapy was becoming more commonplace, the movement was unable to win the support of its opponents.  These naysayers towards the Emmanuel Movement increasingly pressured medical doctors that supported the movement to align against the incorporation of psychotherapy into medicine.

The End of an Innovative Method

While the Emmanuel Movement successfully laid the groundwork for an increasing interest in disorders of the mind, by 1910, focus was turning towards Psychoanalysis and a less religious, mental healing viewpoint.  Sigmund Freud’s 1909 trip to America’s Clark University fueled this movement.  Freud disapproved of the Emmanuel Movement and its religious ties.  He reportedly stated, “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” (Sigmund Freud as quoted in Pedersen-Hunsberger, 2005, p. none).  This significantly deflated America’s confidence in spiritual mental health cures.

By 1914, spirituality, the Emmanuel Movement, and the field of psychology were distinguishing themselves from each other.  It became important to discredit psychical research in favor of establishing the new psychology of the future.  Led by Hugo Munsterberg, a prominent psychologist of that era, a series of criticisms of the Emmanuel Movement were published.  He asserted that this movement was an “attempt to imitate the savages in combining the functions of priest and doctor in a single practitioner…the separation of those functions was one of civilization’s greatest achievements, and its abandonment…a return…to barbarism” (Dennis, 2011, p. 117).  Munsterberg, along with other critics of the Emmanuel Movement, dedicated their career paths to derailing any efforts to combine religion and psychotherapy.

With the beginning of World War I, society’s views on the importance of psychology centered on the invention of the lie detector test, industrial applications, and mental intelligence tests; none of which necessitated a focus on the mind, body, and spirit connection (Dennis, 2011).  During times of war, there is often a focus on the practical and industrial concerns of keeping a country running.  This period was no different.  The luxury of focusing on one’s mental health did not come back until the returning World War I soldiers necessitated it.

Worcester resigned from the Boston parish in 1929 and the Emmanuel Movement name disappeared from public discourse.  Worcester, however, continued to treat the mentally ill until he died in 1940 (Koenig, 1998).  While the actual Emmanuel Movement ceased to exist, many of its core constructs it did not.  The movement reinvented itself into several new movements.

The Emmanuel Movement Morphs

While the Emmanuel Movement ended, its influence continued in several ways, manifesting itself in the Jacoby Club, modern pastoral counseling and the Oxford Club.

The Jacoby Club

At the height of the Emmanuel Movement’s influence, in 1909, Ernest Jacoby established the Jacoby Club in the basement of the Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Boston.  This club was designed for people with drinking problems to meet and help each other.  Due to its rapid growth, the Jacoby Club separated from the Emmanuel Movement in 1913.  By the early 1940’s Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was formed and coexisted with the Jacoby Club for a brief period of time.  Many individuals from the Jacoby Club began organizing and forming their own AA groups.  The Jacoby Club faded over time (Dubiel, 2004); however, their principals remained active.

Modern Pastoral Counseling

Spiritual psychology stayed largely dormant until 1939 when the Committee on Religion and Health held a gathering of religious leaders from various American churches.  The symposium was called Christianity and Mental Hygiene.  It focused on Freudian principles and integrating these concepts into the ministry (Pedersen-Hunsberger, 2005).  This led to an increased popularity in pastoral counseling, lasting to the present time.

The Oxford Group

Frank Buchman, a Lutheran minister, had first become involved in a group called A First Century Christian Fellowship in London.  Then, in 1928, the movement was renamed the Oxford Group and continued to aid those afflicted with addiction problems.  The four main tenants of this movement focused on the kind of spiritual life that it was thought God wished people to lead, which included absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love (The Layman with a Notebook, 1933).  Ten years later, the Oxford Group was renamed the Moral Re-Armament (MRA), which reflected England’s increased valuing of military activities.  This movement lasted until 2001, when it was succeeded by the Initiatives of Change (lofC) program, which focused more on global change through changes made by individuals (Initiatives of Change, n.d).


Though the Emmanuel Movement lasted less than 30 years, it had an enormous impact on the development of psychology.  It forced the medical community to stop ignoring verbal ways of healing the mind, brought concepts of psychology to the attention of the public, and spawned numerous self-help and group psychotherapy movements.  Despite these accomplishments, the Emmanuel Movement is rarely discussed in the history of psychology.

The Emmanuel movement eventually gave way to negative pressure from the medical community and psychoanalytic leaders of the time.  Physicians wanted to secure their standing in society and used their political power and money to suppress any movement that appeared to usurp their power or purpose.  In addition to this suppression, the Emmanuel Movement focused on the treatment of women, minorities, and addicted individuals.  These groups, throughout the history of psychology, have often been neglected and ignored.  Any movement associated with their treatment was also likely ignored and lost any prominence in popular literature.  Although it may not be written about as extensively as other trends in psychology, the Emmanuel Movement has clearly influenced current psychological beliefs on the connections between the mind, the body, and the spirit.

Tara L. Richter, PsyD, LP

Special thanks to Tara for sharing this excellent summary of a key moment in the early development of American psychotherapy. Tara is presently employed at St. Luke’s Hospital and Clinics in Duluth, Minnesota.

To read more about the connection of the Emmanuel Movement to the history of Humanistic Psychology, link here.

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