A Short History of the Early Friends Conference on Religion and Psychology
written for the 75th anniversary, May 2017
The first Friends Conference on religion and psychology took place on Easter weekend in 1943 in Haddonfield, New Jersey. Thirty-seven women and seventeen men from six states, representing twenty-one Quaker meetings met for dinner at Haddon House Hotel and Restaurant on that Good Friday evening. They then likely took the short walk to the Haddonfield Meeting House. After Meeting for Worship, Elined Prys Kotschnig, the group’s “chairman,” offered opening remarks and introduced the first speaker, Dr. Seward Hiltner, Secretary of the Federal Council on Churches, who spoke on religion and health (and the interconnectedness of mind, body, and spirit). By the final evening meal on Sunday, April 23, the group had heard three additional speakers and two four-person panels. Each event began and ended with silent worship.
The “Friends Conference on the Nature and Laws of Our Spiritual Lives,” as the conference was initially called, had grown out of several Quaker study groups focused on how the “new sciences of the mind” (specifically psychology and psychiatry) could contribute to and support spiritual life in religious communities, and most particularly Friends meetings. War—the impact of the First World War and the beginning of a new one—was affecting everyone’s faith and mental balance. As church pastors and priests became schooled in psychology to better minister to those with problems in their congregations, Friends recognized their own clergy-free meetings might be falling behind the curve. Quakers’ role as medics and other service workers such as ambulance drivers in World War I—and the incarceration and institutionalization of some conscientious objectors—had left many spirits wounded. Such traumas, coupled with the growing psychological problems of modern life, presented new challenges within Quaker meetings where every member could act as lay minister.
Psychology, nevertheless, was a fairly new discipline. And some Quakers were suspicious of it, according to Mrs. Kotschnig, “associating it with the hedonism of Freud” or “the realm of experimenting on rats.” But those who gathered for the first conference understood that these new sciences of the mind and emotions—rather than undermine the value of Quaker traditions—could support spiritual growth and offer tools to help chronic individual emotional problems that impaired spiritual development.
“Have we the right just because it is difficult and we might do the wrong thing to shirk the responsibility of assisting those in need of religious and personality adjustment?” the leaders wrote in their publication, Inward Light, after the first conference. “The resources of inner poise and mutual help which the Friends’ way of life contains may be more thoroughly examined than has been customary.”
Importantly, it was not just those with difficult “personality traits” who could profit from what was being called “pastoral psychology” among the clergy. Some attending the conference wondered if Quakers were not being drawn away from the core of Quaker faith and practice—the inner life and the mystical experience of the Divine—by too much busy-ness and “good work” in the world.
“We feel that for modern man a discovery of the unconscious and its exploration with the help of Jungian psychology will lead him back to his source and a sense of the true leading of the Spirit that was the source of strength of early Friends,” early board member Joseph Myers wrote in a letter to Elined Kotschnig. “In my opinion, we are trying to interest the Society of Friends and its fringes of influence in the reality of the Spirit as contrasted with [Quakers’] philosophical humanism that has increasingly dulled the sense of God’s Immanence,”
In a panel on “the development of the individual inner life” at the first conference, Myers along with Robert English, Teresina Rowel, Dora Willson, and Rachel Cadbury had focused on “obstacles which block the growth of the spirit—the preoccupation with trivialities; conflicts with others; self-centeredness.” They discussed how psychological approaches could “prove helpful in overcoming [such obstacles] and might “open the spirit to the disciplines which train it for steady growth.”
Even as the group shared a deep conviction about the value of silence as a direct experience of the Divine, they also recognized that personality patterns hampering spiritual growth might need something more than prayer to change.
“Certainly we all would suggest a generous use of silence, but it is my opinion that this alone is not sufficient,” J. Calvin Keene of Howard University wrote in Inward Light. “In the silence, the materials of our spiritual studies and experience take shape for us,” he continued, but not if the individual “lacked such experiences and studies.” He added, “Over and over we find groups who want to live more fully in the spirit but have no notion of how to proceed. If this could be investigated, with concrete suggestions based on sound psychology of how to proceed, I believe this would have great value.”
Elined Prys Kotschnig did not have to be convinced of the value of psychological exploration as part of a deep spiritual path. By the time she arrived in America in 1936, emigrating from Switzerland with her husband Edward and two young children, she had found her life’s work in the study and practice of Jungian psychology and understanding its similarities to the mystical elements of Quakerism. While in analysis with Tina Keller (whose own analysis was with C. G. Jung and Toni Wolff) and while in training at the Jung Institute to become an analyst herself, Kotschnig started a study group on Quakers and Jungian thought. Thanks to Keller, the group eventually met with Jung, an event, Kotschnig appeared to be still thrilled to recount many decades later, writing in Inward Light.
“An international group from the Friends Meeting of Geneva, Switzerland, once had the unusual privilege of discussing with Jung himself the relation between Quakerism and his psychology. The group had spent the season 1934-5 studying his ideas, and on a fine June day three carloads of us drove across Switzerland to Zurich and were received by Dr. and Mrs. Jung at their beautiful home by the lake. Over tea in the garden, with home-grown strawberries, we had several hours of remarkably free exchange of ideas. Dr. Jung agreed with us on the affinity we found between Quaker ideas and experiences and his own psychology, and he met our sincere desire for more than intellectual answers to our questions with equal sincerity and candor.”
Kotschnig understood that Jungian psychology and Quaker faith shared the conviction that the “God within” was the source of spiritual growth and strength. This source, which Jung called the “Self,” was below ego consciousness, so did not originate with the “I” personality with which most of us lead our lives. Centering down in the silence of Quaker worship opened up the territory of the unconscious from which guidance flowed. This was this same below consciousness dynamic energetic center that sustained the spiritual and intellectual discoveries of the soul’s journey in the analytical process of Jungian psychology.
Writing in Inward Light, Kotschnig spelled out the parallels: “Jung sees images like the Light and the Seed as dynamic symbols of the Self, the central reality of the psyche, expressive of its illuminating quality and its power of growth respectively,” she wrote. “Quaker’s hallowed phrase, ‘the Christ within’ is in Jung’s estimation [also] a Self-symbol,” Kotschnig explained, saying that Jung equated it with the ego-free territory of “St. Paul’s declaration, ‘Not I live, but Christ liveth in me.’”
In Quakerism, there was an inherent trust in the divine nature of the messages which arose in Quaker meeting; it was part of the mystery of faith. With Jungian psychology, there was also a deep belief in the value of the material that came up from the unconscious, showing itself in dreams, waking fantasies, and outward projections. But a more difficult process of discernment was required to harvest the insights and wisdom in the Jungian analytic process.
One vital difference—a difference that would make it difficult for some Quakers to embrace Jungian psychology—was the value placed on the dark elements that came out of the unconsciousness. “Of its many elements, some are in harmonious combination, others at loggerheads with one another,” Kotschnig wrote about the dynamic, pulsing world of the unconscious. “Our ego identifies with some, resigns itself to others, rejects or represses yet others, and of many more it remains quite unaware.”
The Self, both she and Jung believed, would lead the individual psyche toward wholeness, the Light, and harmony. But the process required witnessing and integrating parts of the dark rather than sidestepping or ignoring them or trying to force them back underground. Focusing on the Light alone, as Quakers were more likely to prefer to do, would not achieve the same end.
“Friends, it is suggested, usually ignore or deny negative feelings, dwell solely on the Inner Light, and identify with it,” Kotschnig wrote in Inward Light. But it was important to understand, she said, that “negative feelings can be used, if accepted. Negative feelings are symptoms of conflict, due to parts left out of the pattern we try to make of our lives.” When Quakers turn away from an examination of the Dark along with the Light, Kotschnig said, they “risked losing the energy produced by the flow back and forth between positive and negative poles.”
This core tenet of Jung’s psychology would reliably shake up the membership and leadership of the Friends Conference on Religion and Psychology, sewing both discord and wonder, throughout its history. Kotschnig and other early leaders’ efforts to explore depth psychology, which supported the health of the spirit and the whole Self, rather than just the “Holy” self, would continue to create a dynamic polarity among conference members and leaders, keeping the energy of ideas and spirit flowing.
On the practical side, after that first conference over Easter Tide in 1943, the Friends Conference on Religion and Psychology—the name it adopted in 1945—would continue to be held annually in the spring, though not on a fixed weekend or in the same place. The second conference used Third Street Meeting House in Media, Pennslyvania, as a gathering place; Quaker hospitality in the area was supplemented by lodging at Pendle Hill. The following year, the conference was held at Arch Street Meeting in Philadelphia. In the years to come, it would go back to Media, but also to Swarthmore and Haverford campuses. There was sometimes a keynote speaker, but more often, there were a number speakers and panels. And there were small break-out discussion groups led by conference members, the earliest version of the conference’s small interest groups.
From the start, great reliance was placed on the satellite study groups dotted around the East Coast, with their ambitious reading lists. The groups’ lively seasonal meetings helped guide the conference’s intellectual and spiritual agenda. The group’s journal, Inward Light, a collection of essays, poetry, and even illustrations, was published several times a year in an effort to keep the scattered membership connected. (Inward Light ceased publication in 1980s and is available in archival open stacks at the Friends Historical Library in McCabe Library on the Swarthmore College campus.)
From very early, a topic of discussion was whether the Friends Conference on Religion and Psychology was a professional conference—or a personal growth experience. One of its founding board members, Robert A. Clark, a psychiatrist who eventually traveled to study at the Jung Institute in Zurich—and who later still was named director of the Friends Hospital in Philadelphia—argued for a non-hierarchal, egalitarian approach.
“My innocent conception was that we (the faculty included) were to set down together and learn from each other, everyone contributing what he could,” Dr. Clark wrote in a 1945 letter to the recording secretary Emma Conroy. “It is true that we ‘experts’ might contribute technical knowledge in our special spheres, but I for one make no pretense to be an expert on the ‘nature and laws of our spiritual life.’” He concluded, that what made Quakers unique was their lack of theological expertise—and that in fact ministry came from everyone. “It is the essence of Quakerism that special learning, theological or otherwise, has little to do with genuine spirituality,” Dr. Clark wrote.
For its first thirty years, the conference remained a two-night, two-day weekend, with events generally bookended by dinner Friday and Sunday evenings. The speaker roster ranged from the lesser known to the illustrious, and included: Fritz Kunkel, Ira Progoff, Gerald Heard, D.T. Suzuki, Harmon Bro, Christine Downing, Paul Tillich, Douglas Steere, Howard Brinton, Henry Cadbury, and M.C. Richards.
In 1972, the conference arranged with Haverford College to use its facilities over the holiday weekend of Memorial Day. It was the first three-day and three-night conference, and it was a formula, place, and time that would endure. In 1987, in part because of the large group anticipated for keynote speaker Robert Bly, the conference moved to Cedar Crest College in Allentown. By 1991, it moved again, settling at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania where it would remain for twenty-seven years.
Among the other speakers in the more than five decades of three-day conferences were: Joseph Campbell, Linda Leonard, James Hall, Joseph and Terasina Havens ( the same Terasina Rowel above), Robert Johnson, David Hart, Douglas Hitchings, Matthew Fox, David Whyte, Marion Woodman, Sylvia Brinton Perera, Lionel Corbett, Donald Kalsched, Michael Conforti, Joanna Macy, Mary Orr, Alan Chinon, and Mary Watkins.
Mrs. Kotschnig was still attending the conference in the 1970s—and her writing continued to argue that George Fox himself grasped that only by owning the power of dark within ourselves could we come fully into the Light. When people mention Fox’s famous vision of the ocean of Light, she wrote, they too often failed to recognize that Fox had to confront his own dark inside. Kotschnig quoted from Fox’s journal in which he wrote about the great crisis of faith that preceded his vision:
“The Lord showed me that the natures of those things which were hurtful without were within [emphasis, mine] in the hearts and minds of wicked men. The natures of dogs, swine, vipers, of Sodom, of Egypt, Pharoah, Cain, Ishmael, Esau, etc. The natures of these I saw within, though people had been looking without. And I cried to the Lord, saying, ‘Why should I be thus, seeing I was never addicted to commit those evils?’ And the Lord answered that it was needful I should have a sense of all conditions; how else should I speak to all conditions; and in this I saw the infinite love of God. I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. And in that also I saw the infinite love of God; and I had great openings.”
The ebb and flow of the dark and the Light that Fox envisioned and the witness of both with a trust that the Light would lead has been at the core of the Friends Conference on Religion and Psychology, even as it has honored many different spiritual paths to reach the wholeness that was at the heart of Jungian psychology.
“To those Friends who have felt in our latter-day Quakerism a too complacent assumption of the supremacy of the Inward Light and too little readiness to recognize the shadow side of our nature, this insistence of Jung’s on the Darkness has been a bracing challenge to overcome our blind spots as individuals and as a religious Society,” Kotschnig wrote in a late Inward Light. “It has become newly important therefore to understand how early Friends envisioned the forces of Darkness and Light.”
“[But] In enlightened moments one ceases to feel the ego as the prime directing center of one’s total self,” she added. “Our ego is not the central reality in our own psyche.”
The writer wishes to thank the Friends Historical Library located in the McCabe Library on Swarthmore College Campus for access to early archives of the Friends Conference on Religion and Psychology.