Healing Souls: Psychotherapy in the Latter-Day Saint Community

By Slovenko, Ralph | American Journal of Psychotherapy, July 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Healing Souls: Psychotherapy in the Latter-Day Saint Community


Slovenko, Ralph, American Journal of Psychotherapy


ERIC G. SWEDIN: Healing Souls: Psychotherapy in the Latter-Day Saint Community. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2003, 272 pp., $34.95, ISBN 0-252-02864-3.

In 1971 a senior at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah-the flagship of the Latter-day Saint educational system-informed her therapist by telephone that she was going to commit suicide. She thereupon consumed a variety of pills. The therapist called the police and an ambulance arrived. The student refused to give the paramedics permission to administer medical care. They waited for her to fall asleep, then took her to a hospital, where her stomach was pumped. She spent the next three weeks in the psychiatric ward of the hospital. She was diagnosed as suffering from severe depression and general confusion.

Eric G. Swedin opens his book "Healing Souls/Psychotherapy in the LatterDay Saint Community" with this story to illustrate the circumvention of the Church's principles. The author is on the faculty at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. He writes, "Because her religious feelings were such an integral part of how she defined herself, her treatment included dealing with these feelings. She was fortunate to have competent therapists who shared her religious background. She worked with her bishop in his ecclesiastical role, and she worked with professional counselors. Eventually she entered a fulfilling marriage and left her suicidal urges behind her" (pp. 2-3).

Some fifty years ago this anonymous woman would not have had the assistance of professionals in psychology. Before World War II, the Latter-day Saints (LDS) largely ignored the modern psychologies, and to some extent they still do. Mainline Protestants were the first religious groups to embrace psychodynamic psychotherapies that affected the training of ministers and the course of theological understanding. The LDS community's experience, on the other hand, was different. They rejected the philosophical foundations of mainstream psychiatry and psychology. The LDS community and other fundamentalist communities continued to believe in the objective reality of their theology and literal truthfulness of their scriptural stories. To use a metaphor, their theology was the "glue" of their collective personality.

This book demonstrates that psychotherapy and religion perform the same set of functions for individuals in modern American society. It also demonstrates the extent to which the modern psychologies have substantially affected the modern LDS community. The LDS experience in integrating modern psychologies is different from the experience of other Protestant denominations. The mainline Protestant churches redefined the Bible as a moral work composed of symbols and myths, not a literal work as maintained by the LDS community.

Early in the twentieth century religion in the United States was weakened by the forces of modernism, including urbanization and science. By moving away from the literalness of the Bible and transforming its stories into moral myths, mainline Protestants are said to have weakened their commitment to their traditional beliefs. Their religion became intellectual, and ceased to feed the spiritual hunger of its membership. The LDS community and other religious communities that clung to scriptural literalness, on the other hand, retained an emphasis on their traditional beliefs.

The question arises, Why did LDS and similar religious communities not just ignore the modern psychologies altogether? This solution, the author explains, would have been possible only in communities that cut themselves off from mainstream society. …

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