HTP Prints

James Jackson Putnam and the Legacy of Liberal Protestant Protestantism in Early American Psychotherapy

Rosner, Rachael I. (2000) James Jackson Putnam and the Legacy of Liberal Protestant Protestantism in Early American Psychotherapy. In Proceedings Cheiron, University of Southern Maine.

Full text available as:


Early 20th century psychotherapy gained widespread popularity as a result of a church-based Emmanuel Movement in which ministers, with the sanction of leading neurologists, employed psychotherapy to treat a variety of psychoneuroses with great and popular success. Eric Caplan and other historians agree that the Emmanuel Movement was short-lived, at least in part, because physicians were threatened by the ministers’ enormous success in treating otherwise entrenched functional disorders. The leading Boston neurologist James Jackson Putnam, in particular, quickly rescinded his support of the movement with a flourish of rhetoric about the necessity of retaining clear lines between the institutions of religion and science and keeping the practice of psychotherapy in the hands of physicians. Most historians have followed Putnam’s lead in fashioning a story of American psychotherapy that emphasizes the centrality of the medical model and all but ignores the influence of religion in the post-Emmanuel Movement years. Despite Putnam’s rhetoric about keeping the institutions of religion and science separate, the content of his work on a theoretical level brought the ideas of the two fields together under the jurisdiction of medicine. Putnam believed that it was the medical practitioner, not the minister, who had the authority to preach a moral gospel in the treatment of functional disorders. Putnam furthermore set a precedent by assuming the task of offering moral explanations of human suffering as the basis for medical psychotherapeutic treatment. Indeed, I would like to argue in this paper that liberal Protestant theology remained central to the task of psychotherapy even in the hands of these ostensibly scientific, medical and secular men. Putnam’s new, "secular" moral theology focused on assisting the individual to reach up to God to achieve higher and higher levels of perfection – a philosophy of human perfectability derived from Emerson’s Transcendentalism as well as from liberal Protestantism more generally. Putnam preached these values in his 1915 Human Motives, a treatise for the layman that tried to "bring encouragement to all oppressed by the seeming impossibility of reconciling the intuitions of religious faith with the dictates of modern science." When Putnam and his colleaugues assumed authority in the practice of psychotherapy they also found themselves having to demonstrate their authority and expertise in the moral realm as well. As such, psychotherapy became an agent for helping otherwise healthy "sufferers" to overcome their ailments through a medically-sanctioned search for human perfection. American psychotherapy, when viewed from this perspective, can be seen as an ongoing product of the social gospel agenda that Putnam and his colleagues promoted within the ranks of medicine.

EPrint Type:Conference Paper
Keywords:psychotherapy history protestantism
Subjects:Psychology > Psychotherapy
History > Intellectual
History > Social
ID Code:18
Deposited By:Rosner, Rachael I.
Deposited On:15 October 2003