Competent to counsel? The history of a conservative Protestant anti-psychiatry movement

David Arthur Powlison, University of Pennsylvania


In 1970 Jay Adams, a Presbyterian minister, launched an anti-psychiatry movement among American, conservative Protestants. Partly inspired by O. H. Mowrer and Thomas Szasz, Adams made a three-fold claim. First, modern psychological theories were bad theology, misinterpreting functional problems in living. Second, psychotherapeutic professions were a false pastorate, interlopers on tasks that properly belonged to pastors. Third, the Bible, as interpreted by Reformed Protestants, taught pastors the matters necessary to counsel competently. Adams's "nouthetic counseling" rapidly developed the institutional forms that typically signal a profession. But it was environed by three powerful professional neighbors. Secular psychological professions dominated twentieth-century discourse and practice regarding problems in living. The mainline Protestant pastoral counseling movement had shaped religious counseling from the 1940s. A rapidly professionalizing community of evangelical psychotherapists shared Adams's conservative Protestant faith but looked to integrate that faith with modern psychologies. A conflict over professional jurisdiction ensued between Adams and evangelical psychotherapists. This conflict has never been documented historically. I studied it almost exclusively from primary sources: interviews, publications, case records. Adams's intellectual system contained six main parts. First, his epistemology arose from Reformed Protestantism, and featured the Bible. Second, he defined problems in living morally, as expressions of sin. Third, he treated physiological and social constraints as the context of personal problems, not their cause. Fourth, he proclaimed the grace of Christ as the comprehensive solution to life's problems. Fifth, he defined counseling as pastoral and church-based. Sixth, he subjected secular psychologies to a program of suspicion, debunking their intellectual and professional claims. Adams gained followers among pastors and their parishioners, but largely lost the interprofessional conflict. In the 1980s evangelical psychotherapists successfully asserted their claim to cultural authority over problems in living, extending their institutional power in higher education, publishing, and the provision of care. The nouthetic counseling movement became isolated from the mainstream of conservative Protestantism; its institutions languished; fault lines emerged internally. But in the 1990s, nouthetic counseling again began to prosper.

Subject Area

Science history|Religious history|Clergy|Psychotherapy|Mental health|Biographies

Recommended Citation

Powlison, David Arthur, "Competent to counsel? The history of a conservative Protestant anti-psychiatry movement" (1996). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9712988.