Life and Testimony of an Academic Clinical Psychologist

In 1955, at the age of twenty, I became a Mormon.1 Now, in 1995, at the age of sixty, I have been honored by a request to reflect upon my life and testimony. Nineteen fifty-five seems like yesterday. My decision then was difficult because I loved the scientific method and believed that observation, experimentation, and reason were the most useful avenues to truth. My high school academic training in Spokane, Washington, was devoted especially to science and mathematics. The arts, humanities, and other intuitive disciplines seemed “soft” and unimportant. Religion seemed chaotic and confusing, though intriguing.

My freshman scholarship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was a dream come true. The trip to Cambridge was a pilgrimage. There I was, a poor boy from an uneducated family, the first to finish high school, putting my luggage down on the sidewalk outside the MIT rotunda, pausing to absorb the drama of the moment. That memorable pause marked an epochal transition for me as I entered the high-powered world of the secular intelligentsia.

Our studies ranged from Thucydides to Einstein. Our exposure included daily contact with famous scientific contemporaries. Modern microwave radar had been developed there during World War II; Norbert Wiener was discussing cybernetics; my chemistry teacher had worked on the first nuclear fission reaction at the University of Chicago; and my ingenious roommate was working on one of the first modern computers, a giant three-story machine that we could walk around in. (It literally had bugs in it!) Our informal contacts spread to Harvard and the myriad centers of learning in the Boston area. There was intellectual excitement in 1952—virtually more than a down-home boy could absorb.

Oddly, the MIT experience was so thorough an immersion in hard science that I gradually became saturated with it and found myself surprisingly unhappy with the inadequate attention to the human dimension. I was puzzled by the purpose of it all and spent time with a research psychiatrist who was studying group dynamics, a campus rabbi, and a Catholic roommate who seemed very clear about his beliefs.

As the year drew on I found myself searching harder to redefine myself, my purposes, and the meaning of life. I dipped into psychology and philosophy books. Once I prayed the agnostic’s prayer: “Dear God, if you are there, let me know what this is all about.” When I discovered that MIT had joint programs with some outstanding liberal arts colleges, where I could concurrently obtain a B.S. from MIT and a B.A. from the designated college, I decided to enroll. Reed College in Portland, Oregon, was my choice. I knew Portland and had been admitted to Reed the previous year.

Though it seemed impossible, the year in Portland was even more dramatically transforming than the one in Cambridge had been. Intellectual debate on the major issues of human history and contemporary life was endemic and epidemic. Radical dissection of every belief, value, and cultural norm was our daily bread. Some vulnerable people became suicidal over it; others thrived and won Rhodes Scholarships. I wavered between depression and exhilaration. It remains the single most intellectually stimulating year of my life—a year of intensive philosophy and psychology courses, in addition to my standard fare of math and science. Reed brought me past the scientific method to a level of logical and philosophical analysis that soared beyond the technical wizardry of MIT. I came to love analysis of ideas as much as science, and the idea of God seemed even more remote. Now I had both science and philosophy—the keys to knowledge. But another drama unexpectedly intervened, and nothing has been the same since.

I met a young woman at Reed by the name of Marian Shafer. A Mormon from Alberta, Canada, who had just finished high school in Utah, she was on a creative writing scholarship. She was seventeen and had won an award for a short story that was to be published in Seventeen magazine. She seemed to have everything—intelligence, good looks, a vivacious personality, and clear religious convictions. She was an anomaly at Reed, having only the first of these traits (intelligence) in common with most of the students.

Our relationship started at a dance just before school began and gradually developed through fall semester. Her Mormon habits were different, but her theology was out of this world. Certainly, I had been searching for a frame of reference, but the disjuncture between modern revelation and secular empiricism was dramatic.

Though I had grown up in a family mixture of nominal Protestantism and Catholicism, my Christian convictions had been learned largely by osmosis and then had gradually faded away, although the Bible continued to resonate faintly in my mind. Mormonism suddenly put new light upon religious history and upon my sense of the world. My knowledge of this new faith slowly grew while my relationship with Marian continued to evolve. Both of these objects of interest provoked approach-avoidance tendencies, but by the end of the year I was hopelessly entangled in both theology and romance. Could I ever disentangle the two?

My opportunity came with summer and an offer from my father, a construction superintendent, to join him on a project in Alaska. I collected a box of books on Mormonism, evolution, philosophy, and eastern religion and headed north. Before leaving Reed, I read every anti-Mormon critique I could find in the library, of which there were many. I also found a used 1920 edition of the Book of Mormon in the Reed Bookstore, which I purchased for fifty cents and packed with my other items. I still have this little volume, with notations I wrote in the margins during the summer of 1954.

One of these notes was written in response to 2 Nephi 33:5, which says “no man will be angry at the words which I have written save he shall be of the spirit of the devil.” I had written beneath this: “Then, I am.” The dogmatic certainty of Nephi’s words flew in the face of my scholarly devotion to tentativeness and care in making strong assertions. But, ironically, I later found Nephi’s testimony powerfully convincing, and eventually I wrote a tribute to him.2 It surprised me later to find that Marian possessed an identical 1920 edition of the Book of Mormon given to her by her aunt, Marjorie Wight, in February 1946. In the back of the book Marian had written: “Started July 21, 1946. Finished reading it December 21, 1946.” She was ten years old.

That summer in Alaska I read the Book of Mormon thoroughly, along with the Bible, the other LDS scriptures, and several volumes of speeches and writings by Church leaders. This intensive effort was spiced by a great variety of other, contrary readings. However, the key events of this time concerned my efforts to pray. This activity was new to me, but I went alone into the Alaskan wilderness on many occasions and prayed with youthful energy that God would reveal to me the truth about these matters and his will for me. There, on the banks of the Tanana River, my heart and mind were opened to a new way of experiencing the world. I felt things I had never felt before. The spirit of God came upon me undeniably. At moments, my awareness of spiritual realities became transcendent. Sense perception and reason were no longer the only sources of light and wisdom. My heart overflowed with a sense of goodness and warmth. My test of God, the Prophet Joseph Smith, and the Book of Mormon (Moroni 10:3–5) yielded far more than I had anticipated.

Despite such powerful manifestations of the sacred world, I was so steeped in a secular way of looking at things that I frequently reverted to it and questioned everything I had experienced. Conversion, for me, would eventually require a thousand checks and double checks on whether I was engaging in wish-fulfilling self-deception, which I believed most of humanity was duped by. My year of psychology and philosophy had crystallized an already skeptical nature.

Equally important, I missed Marian and we corresponded frequently and in depth. Toward the end of the summer she made the surprise move to transfer from Reed to Brigham Young University, a school about which I knew nothing. So I traveled to Utah for a visit with her and to see BYU. The university and its setting had a magnetic effect upon me, and Marian’s presence there cemented my motivation to transfer too. Fortunately, I was able to gain immediate admission, go back to Portland and Spokane for my belongings, and make the switch.

The fall of 1954 was tempestuous. I began to love Utah and the new gospel as much as I loved Marian; then, however, we had personal and emotional differences and split up. Our friend and mentor, Robert K. Thomas, became our counselor. (A young English professor, he later founded the BYU Honors Program and ultimately became academic vice president.) He was a Reed College alumnus, and we felt immediate rapport with this man of prodigious intelligence, great human warmth, and an unwavering faith in the restored gospel. His Book of Mormon class became a weekly challenge to my views. It was difficult to maintain skepticism in the face of one who was simultaneously so spiritual and so intellectual. His advanced training at Columbia University combined with his degree from Reed had equipped him with a formidable spectrum of secular knowledge. I had to ask myself: “How does he contain both of these in the same mind?” I also had to ask: “If he can do it, can I?”

It was during this turbulent fall semester that I first attended BYU devotionals and the LDS Church general conference. I was also studying, praying, and testing the LDS lifestyle. My mind was open to the messages and the witnesses of General Authorities. I listened intently and felt things that took me beyond the earlier experiences along the Tanana River.

At the same time my study of psychology intensified and I immersed myself totally in Robert Howell’s History of Experimental Psychology course. History shows that psychology as a discipline arose out of a marriage between philosophy and science. So I was back again reviewing the history of philosophy and the rise of modern science, but this time with the focus on human behavior. I loved this course, as many dimensions of my recent experience came together.

During the period of deeply exploring psychology and the gospel on two separate tracks, my relationship with Marian was on hold on a third track and mostly out of mind. Later I realized that this turn of events allowed me to grapple profoundly with my whole life—intellectual, spiritual, and emotional—without the distractions and disturbances of romance. It also provided an acid test of the sincerity and objectivity of my conversion process, disentangled from the biasing effect of loving a person who was identified with the beliefs I was assessing. My deep interest in her had focused my attention upon God and his will. Now I had to face him alone on his terms.

Doing so was a struggle. I already held perspectives that made religious belief difficult, if not impossible. The conversion process became a self-study, a jockeying between opinions—all in my own head. What was I to do with the Book of Mormon, the testimonies of the authorities, the faith of Bob Thomas? What about the secular searchers for truth whom I studied and respected who had chosen a life of uncertain open-endedness blended with positive human valuing?

The decisive moment came when I realized that I had not given God a full and complete test. I had never totally given myself, entirely and consistently, to spiritual inquiry comparable to my intellectual devotion. I scanned again the numerous invitations and bold challenges throughout the scriptures and in the words of contemporaries that specified, like an experiment, how to approach God. Once again, the Book of Mormon set forth a provocative and powerful recipe (see Alma 32; Moroni 10; 2 Nephi 9; 33).

As I began to sincerely pursue this, a tremendous feeling of peace came over me. My being began to settle into the orthodox Mormon frame of reference. I began to know God and to walk in his ways and feel his spirit. The scales of secularism fell daily from my eyes. A whole new way of seeing the world was being grafted into my intellect. Unlike my previously analytical outlook, this one was accompanied by warmth and hope, and it colored all relationships and aspects of life.

Coincidentally, Marian came to visit and we began to talk and to review our feelings for each other. Also, psychology was gripping my soul as well, since its blend of both the deeply personal and the objectively scientific seemed congruent with my changing orientation to life.

Thus it was, as the fall quarter drew to a close in December of 1954, that a momentous transformation occurred. I accepted Mormonism as a faith, chose psychology as a discipline, and asked Marian to be my eternal companion. The rest were details: plans for baptism in March 1955 by Bob Thomas, marriage in June to Marian, and a doubling-up of psychology courses in order to catch up on this new major by the end of my junior year.

All of the preceding context is important because it shows that spiritual knowing is multidimensional. It touches everything and is touched by everything. Detached intellectual knowing is one-dimensional and incomplete: such inquiry cannot reach into the godly realm, and its effects upon relationships, lifestyle, and values are often negative. The eternal principles of living and the values that guide their application are learned by a composite of studious examination, careful life testing, critical ratiocination, and opening of self to the intuitive free-flow of spiritual communion. There is a balance among these ingredients that leads to the good, the true, and the beautiful. Omitting one of these factors from (or entering too much or too little of a given factor into) the equation for one’s life orientation results in a failure to equate.

Another two and a half years at BYU seasoned and strengthened my formulation of what life and truth were all about. It also resulted in a master’s degree in psychology, our first two children, a marriage anchored in the restored gospel and its associated lifestyle, and an invitation to work on a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Stanford. Thus, I recycled into the powerful world of the secular intelligentsia but with an entirely new and vibrant perspective. The next fifteen years became a profound odyssey.

I had spent so much time evaluating Mormonism and scrutinizing it with the Reedian blend of scientific objectivity, philosophical analysis, and skepticism that no challenge from secularized Stanford professors or naturalistic psychological theories came close to undermining my new faith. On the contrary, I began slowly then, and continue to the present day, to turn my mental and spiritual skills upon psychology—dissecting and reorienting it for myself, hopefully improving its capacity to reach the broad spectrum of human phenomena, including the spiritual. Psychology had abandoned religion at the turn of the century. Unfettered by superstition, the discipline was supposed to become the wave of an enlightened secular future. Colleagues wondered why I wanted to return to the “myths of the past.”

My view was very different. I did not consider it necessary to include the erroneous baggage of religious history in order to restore a spiritual dimension to behavioral science. Indeed, I agreed with many of the criticisms of religious traditions. The restored gospel provided abundant advantages in such an effort. Nevertheless, my efforts to include spirituality in psychology were muted by consistent rejection from many prominent and powerful professors I encountered as a graduate student at Stanford, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin’s Psychiatric Institute, and a junior faculty member at Teachers College, Columbia University. Though there was mutual respect, virtually all expressed skepticism toward my views.

Thus, for fifteen years—three at Stanford, one at Wisconsin, and eleven at Columbia—I found some of my keen interests difficult to express. Clearly I, and everyone like me, was boxed in by a coercive ideology that pervaded the great universities of western civilization—an ideology that was laced with mechanistic, naturalistic, humanistic, and secular themes.3 I understood this very well and could even sympathize with it because the yoke of ancient religions and myths had so often stifled freedom and the search for truth. To a degree, I thrived in the modernist atmosphere because I had the right tools of analysis and method. Indeed, I thoroughly enjoyed and became well-known for my psychotherapy research on understanding and changing psychological disorders.4 Although I was unable to bring my deep interest in moral values and a spiritual perspective to fruition, I was able to achieve some satisfaction by including material on the topic within my own classes at Columbia. Still, it was frustrating to regularly face the undercurrent of opposition from students and faculty. In addition, there was little literature or research to draw upon from the mainstream of professional scholarship. It is true that there were voices of support over the decades, such as those of William James, Carl Jung, Gordon Allport, Viktor Frankl, and others, but the core direction of modern psychology was essentially unaffected by them.

I did have many deep discussions with faculty members and some of their families over the years about my faith and its basis. These discussions were penetrating and mutually respectful. I often identified the Book of Mormon as a powerful evidence in support of the restored gospel. It is a tangible object, observable by the senses. Where did it come from? Was Joseph Smith a prophet? Some were intrigued and investigated to a degree. Very few were convinced. Most were honest enough to acknowledge that they had no answer for the book. These were brilliant and sincere individuals who made their peace with this evidence by choosing an honest course of benign avoidance. When I read contemporary critiques of the Book of Mormon, I am amazed by their inadequacies. Many of the more sophisticated doubters tend to leave it alone lest they risk their reputations against a document inspired by the mind of God.

Although I became a tenured full professor at Columbia and received offers from many universities to further pursue psychotherapy research, I chose to accept an invitation to join the BYU faculty in 1972. This created many professional difficulties for me, but it opened the way to pursuing spiritual issues in a more concerted way. Despite opposition among various scholars, including some at BYU, there was enough support to provide me and like-minded individuals, such as Victor Brown, Jr., the freedom and opportunity to explore the spiritual side of emotional distress and treatment. This was truly a breath of fresh air provided, paradoxically, by a university thought by some to be too parochial. My experience had been the opposite. It was the major research universities that were, from my perspective, parochial and entrenched in conceptual tradition.

There were several years of transition at BYU during the 1970s, characterized by starts and stops, trial and error; but for the past fifteen years (1980–95), the spiritual force in psychology and related disciplines has grown abundantly and has gained a place of respect. My own work5 has earned national awards from three organizations, including the American Psychological Association (APA); those of us who desire to put spirituality back into understanding and healing the psyche have made tremendous progress in gaining recognition for our viewpoint. One of my papers6 elicited more than a thousand responses, including letters from many prominent professionals, some of which are excerpted below. They imply a strong but hidden interest in these issues that has since become public.

I congratulate you for saying what I believe has needed to be said for a long time . . . . I very much hope that this paper will, in retrospect, be considered one of the most important to have been published in the area in the new decade.

—Ellen Berschied, Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Minnesota

I think this is a landmark article that says several things that many people must have been thinking for years.  You have done us all a great service.

—Ted Lorei, Veterans Administration, Washington, D.C.

 [I] am extremely sympathetic with the hypotheses you describe.

—Lisa Wallach, Lecturer, Department of Psychology, Duke University

I commend you on your excellent article.

—Karl Menninger, the Menninger Foundation, Topeka, Kansas, Past-President of the American Psychiatric Association

On the whole, I am very much in agreement although we may differ on some aspects . . . .Major values in human relations are woven into various religious systems, and they seem to be universally true regardless of what a therapist’s attitude toward a Supreme Being might be.

—Hans Strupp, Distinguished professor, Department of Psychology, Vanderbilt University, Past-President, APA Division of Clinical Psychology

Whether it be the role of religious values in the science and practice of psychology, humanism, radical behaviorism, or social learning theory, such ideas touch the lives of people in the field because certain proponents were willing to state them, whatever the reactions of others might be.  It is through writings such as yours that religious values will receive greater consideration in psychotherapy.

—Albert Bandura, professor, Department of Psychology, Stanford University and Past-President, APA

I don’t disagree as much as you might think. . . . I do believe there is some kind of a transcendent organizing influence in the universe which operates in man as well. . . . My present, very tentative, view is that perhaps there is an essential person which persists through time, or even through eternity.

—Carl Rogers, Center for Studies of the Person, La Jolla, California, and Past-President, APA

These new trends did not occur in a vacuum. People gradually became more supportive throughout the discipline. BYU and other religiously sponsored institutions provided a safe haven for the incubation of a new trend in psychological thought. A broad cultural shift also occurred in western culture during the 1970s and 1980s that was evident in resurgent public interest in spiritual matters, along with steady growth of organizations, publications, and conferences devoted to such matters. Religious social scientists and mental health professionals have led the way. I share common spiritual feelings with many of these people. They come from diverse persuasions, but we have high regard for each other’s perspectives, and we share the conviction that there are God-given, universal moral standards.

Symbolic of this new trend is a book on religion and the clinical practice of psychology to be published by the APA; the book includes a chapter I coauthored with BYU faculty members Reed Payne and Scott Richards.7 Success in this effort is already challenging us to demonstrate that these new views will make a positive difference unattainable in other ways. The chance to rigorously bring this to pass is a great opportunity and responsibility.

I am proud of my colleagues around the world who are engaged in this movement,8 including many at BYU who are making names for themselves as competent, original, and provocative thinkers. There are too many to name individually, but of the centers for new thought about human behavior, BYU has to be considered a leader.

This is all refreshing and rewarding to me. I am excited about the future as cadres of younger faculty and students have their own visions of what can be done. They have an open field, relatively unfettered by traditional obstacles. Beachheads have been won and a new day is on the horizon—one that I believe will be marked by open faith in religious truth as it guides us to new ways of thinking and living anchored by spiritual subspecialities in the behavioral and mental health fields. As this happens, younger spiritually oriented social scientists might consider the following points of advice:

¥  Become competent and establish professional credibility in at least one area of nonspiritual specialization or expertise. This will provide your passport into the academic or professional world.

¥  Build all spiritual inquiries on a solid base of scholarship and be willing to absorb negative evidence about your views. Don’t make a career out of attacking other people’s positions; positively pursue your own. Be caring toward others, including academic authorities who disagree with you. Militancy may win battles in the short run, but in the long run we all have to live together—peacefully, we hope.

¥  Seek divine inspiration in your work and your life; if you receive specific direction, keep it private. Let your scholarly products speak for themselves as a witness of your insight and creativity.

¥  Be courageous in holding to your beliefs and moral values despite derision or opposition.

¥  Be gracious in giving credit to others for helping you advance your goals for the field, including those whose views differ from yours but from whom you have learned much.

Let me return, in closing, to the quest for faith with which I began this essay. I have never found my hard-won new faith to be wanting. I only find myself wanting in my ability to keep up with its momentum as it courses forward into a new millennium under the leadership of the Lord and his servants. Naturally, like others, I see some defects in the culture of church and university that cause me a measure of consternation. I believe that, despite its imperfections, this religious culture is the embryo of the kingdom of God on earth. The deficiencies are part of the human condition and not fundamental. The cure is not in making a career out of criticism. The cure is to do our own duty well—creatively, with compassion and inspiration.

The key for me, as I look back to my conversion forty years ago, in 1955, has been to give the revealing will and Spirit of God top priority in the ways of knowing. Research and reason are essential allies in the search for truth, but if either of them becomes dominant, God’s natural order is upset. We become, to paraphrase Emerson,9 professional monsters—a good analyst or thinker, a great methodologist, or a penetrating writer, but never a whole human being.

At the same time, I glory in the academic. Universities, research centers, writing, study, and publication are my world. But I have discovered that Bob Thomas was right. It is possible to contain spiritual conviction and academic excellence in the same mind. I am thankful that my church generously supports Brigham Young University, an institution dedicated to a knowledge of Jesus Christ and his ways, and to truth in general. I hope the future brings even more support and more freedom with which we can explore the whole truth of every subject in innovative and inspired ways. To the extent that our inquiries are absolutely penetrating, they can become absolutely revealing.

I know, however, that if every academic trapping were stripped away, I would still thrive, because of more important things—my family of nine children and twelve grandchildren, my eternal marriage with Marian, and my faith in God. I know that God, our Eternal Father, lives. His influence is a daily spiritual experience for me. Nothing is more precious. It affects everything else. There is no trial or doubt that can displace or subsume this conviction of the holy.

His son, Jesus Christ, is not an abstraction to me. He is real. He has commissioned his church and sanctioned its leadership. He is my Redeemer. I have faith in him whom I know through unseen experiences. He has guided me during forty eventful years. I feel his love and aspire to be his disciple. My feelings for him are beyond words, and my knowledge of him is priceless.

Given such a foundation in spiritual knowledge, additional truth flows abundantly. Albert Einstein said, “I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon . . . I want to know His thoughts, the rest are details.”10 Becoming attuned to the mysteries of God opens the way for discoveries that transcend ordinary inquiry. I hope for such at BYU and among the community of faithful scholars everywhere. May we conduct our inquiries with an eternal vision that embraces whatever is honest, true, chaste, benevolent, and virtuous. Then, we shall know by personal experience that “to be learned is good if [we] hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:29).


1. An earlier version of this article was delivered as the Kenneth and Mary Hardy Annual Lecture, a Brigham Young University Psychology Forum address, March 28, 1995.

2. Allen E. Bergin, “Nephi, a Universal Man,” Ensign, September 1976, 65–70.

3. Allen E. Bergin, “Psychotherapy and Religious Values,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 48 (1980): 95–105.

4. Allen E. Bergin and Sol L. Garfield, eds., Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change (New York: Wiley, 1971).

5. Allen E. Bergin, “Values and Religious Issues in Psychotherapy and Mental Health,” American Psychologist 46 (1991): 394–403.

6. Bergin, “Psychotherapy and Religious Values.”

7. E. Shafranske, ed., Religion and the Clinical Practice of Psychology (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1996).

8. D. B. Larson and S. S. Larson, “The Forgotten Factor in Physical and Mental Health: What Does the Research Show?” (Arlington, Virginia: National Institute for Healthcare Research, 1992).

9. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar,” delivered at Harvard University in 1837. In The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. B. Atkinson (New York: Modern Library, 1950), 45–64.

10. Albert Einstein, quoted in Ronald W. Clark, Einstein, the Life and Times (New Work: World Publishing Company, 1971), 19.