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Anton Boisen

Anton Boisen (1876-1965) is widely regarded as a pioneering figure in the hospital chaplaincy and clinical pastoral education movements. He introduced the concept of each person being a 'living human document,' to be respected, valued and learned from. Boisen graduated from Union Theological Seminary, and served as a rural Presbyterian minister and YMCA Expeditionary Force prior to finding his way into hospital chaplaincy.

In the 1920s, the emerging form of theological education known as Clinical Pastoral Education developed out of the innovation of Dr. William A. Bryan, Superintendent of the Worcester State Hospital , Worcester , MA when he hired Rev. Anton T. Boisen, a former mental patient, to serve as the hospital chaplain. Thus the research interests of this Congregational/Presbyterian minister became the motivation that began clinical pastoral education.

Anton Boisen had been hospitalized for psychotic breaks from 1920 to 1922, and during his time in the hospital, he felt a calling to "break down the dividing wall between religion and medicine." He believed that certain types of schizophrenia could be understood as attempts to solve problems of the soul.

In the summer of 1925, he invited four students, to participate in a clinical training group with him at Worcester State Hospital. He had learned the case study method from Dr. Richard Cabot, under whom he had studied social ethics at Harvard. One of the students, Helen Flanders Dunbar, a pioneer in the field of psychosomatic medicine, came as a research assistant. Dr. Flanders Dunbar later became the Medical Director of the Council for Clinical Pastoral Training of Theological Students in New York City.

In 1931, Boisen was followed by Rev. Carroll Wise at Worcester State Hospital . Wise had a different philosophy of what clinical training was all about. Boisen was primarily a researcher of religious experience connected to mental illness. Carroll was interested in a pastoral emphasis. Carroll remarked, “He (Boisen) finally forgave me for changing the Worcester program from a research to a pastoral emphasis.”

Where is Boisen in the midst of these various rivalries, factions, fights, and formations? In 1930, he had another mental breakdown after the death of his mother. (He had five episodes during his life.) Cabot felt that his ability to function as a supervisor was at risk, and he withdrew his support to Boisen. His influence in the day-to-day activity of Clinical Pastoral Education was diminished in the eyes of the Council for Clinical Training for Theological Students after this episode of mental illness.

In 1932, Anton Boisen transitioned to Elgin State Hospital near Chicago. This move brought him close to Chicago Theological Seminary where he was teaching one semester a year; and to Alice Batchelder, the unrequited love of his life, who worked in Chicago. He was a hospital chaplain and supervisor at Elgin until 1954.

He continued to make an impact on the pastoral care and education movement through his lecturing and writings. He contributed more than 150 articles, letters, and reviews, along with 4 books, and one hymnal for use in mental hospital settings. In 1936 he wrote his book, The Exploration of he Inner World that he dedicated to Alice who had died recently. The book was highly praised by the New York Times Review of Books as being a “significant contribution to the religious literature field.”

In his autobiography, Out of the Depths, published in 1960, he offers candid reflections on his struggles with mental illness and valuable insights he gleaned from these experiences, along with his pioneering work in chaplaincy.

For Boisen, a student of George Albert Coe, crisis periods in life also bring creative possibilities. He associated crisis with religious “quickening.” He writes, “In times of crisis, when the person's fate is hanging in the balance, we are likely to think and feel intensely regarding the things that matter most.” Amidst such circumstances new ideas flash into the mind so vividly that they seem to come from an outside source. They are moments bringing forth change either for better or for worse.

Boisen's work, leadership and vision helped lay the foundation for hospital chaplaincy, and continues to be influential today.

References

  • College of Pastoral Supervision & Psychotherapy - http://www.cpsp.org/
  • ACPE History Corner
  • Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling. Rodney J. Hunter, ed. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1990. Article entitled "Anton Boisen," by E.B. Holifield.

Additional References for those wishing to do further research on Anton T. Boisen:

Lawrence, Raymond J, Jr: "Anton Boisen's Contribution to the Sexual Revolution." Chapter 15, pp. 96-104, in Lawrence's Sexual Liberation: The Scandal of Christendom. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007.

Miller, Perry N, Lawrence, Raymond J, and Powell, Robert C: “Discrete Varieties of Care in the Clinical Pastoral Tradition” Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling 57(2): 111-6, 2003. “Anton Theophilus Boisen, who founded the clinical pastoral training movement over 75 years ago, was insistent from the very beginning that effective help for others cannot be achieved by assuming that ‘one size fits all.’ Boisen spoke repeatedly of the need for a ‘systematic attempt to diagnose’ where the suffering person stands, so that ‘we may be able to bring to bear, according to the needs of the particular case, the forces of healing and power’ which lie within religion. One must assess the situation in order to apply the most appropriate assistance.” on the internet at http://www.pastoralreport.com/the_archives/2005/07/discrete_variet_1.html abstract in www.pubmed.gov Powell, Robert Charles: Anton T. Boisen (1876-1965): "Breaking an Opening in the Wall between Religion and Medicine”, pp.47, Keynote address, presented before the Association of Mental Health Clergy, Miami Beach, May 1976. special supplement to the AMHC Forum, 29(1), October 1976.

Powell, Robert Charles: "Questions from the Past (on the Future of Clinical Pastoral Education). keynote address, presented before the 50th Anniversary Conference, Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, Minneapolis, October 1975. 1975 Conference Proceedings: 1-21, 1976.

Powell, Robert Charles: “Anton T. Boisen's ‘Psychiatric Examination: Content of Thought’ (c. 1925-31): An Attempt to Grasp the Meaning of Mental Disorder.” Psychiatry 40 (4): 369-75. 1977.

Powell, Robert Charles: "Empirical Theology, 1916-1946: A Note on the Contribution of Anton T. Boisen." invited address, presented before the Autumn Convocation, Chicago Theological Seminary, September 1976. Chicago Theological Seminary Register 67: 1-11, 1977.

Powell, Robert Charles: "Boisen, Anton Theophilus," Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 7:1961-65. New York: American Council of Learned Societies, 1981. reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2006. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC

Powell, Robert Charles: “Whatever Happened to ‘CPE’ -- Clinical Pastoral Education?” keynote address, presented at the Plenary Meeting, of the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy, March 1999, Virginia Beach. on the internet at http://www.pastoralreport.com/the_archives/1999/03/whatever_happen.html

Powell, Robert Charles: “[Anton T. Boisen’s] ‘Cooperative Inquiry’ in Pastoral Care: Some Thoughts on Dr. Rodney J. Hunter’s Article [“Spiritual Counsel: An Art in Transition.” Christian Century 118: 28, 2001].” College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy Pastoral Report, 04 March 2002. on the internet at http://www.pastoralreport.com/the_archives/2001/04/cooperative_inq_1.html

Powell, Robert Charles: “Religion in Crisis and Custom: Formation and Transformation – Discovery and Recovery – of Spirit and Soul.” opening address delivered August 2005 at the 8th Asia Pacific Congress on Pastoral Care and Counseling, Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong, China. on the internet at http://www.icpcc.net/ [click on “Materials”] and at http://www.pastoralreport.com/the_archives/2006/01/formation_and_t.html#more

Powell, Robert Charles: “‘The Challenge to Our Seminaries’ – Worldwide.” Guest Editorial. Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling 59(4): 318-21, 2005. includes digest of Boisen, Anton T. “The Challenge to Our Seminaries.” Christian Work 120: 110-112, 1926, reprinted, Journal of Pastoral Care 5:8-12, 1951.

Powell, Robert Charles: “A Call for Chaplaincy that IS Measured, Weighed, and Cut Down to Size – BUT By and On Behalf of the Persons in Need: Thoughts upon Chaplain Anton Boisen's "Empirical Theology": Honoring the 60th anniversary of Boisen's Problems of Religion and Life. on the internet at http://www.pastoralreport.com/the_archives/2006/09/a_call_for_chap_1.html

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