I began my academic career in 1952 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with the goal of becoming a scientist. Spiritual matters were not prominent in my agnostic perspective, but a year of immersion in the material and mathematical worlds changed me. I wondered whether there wasn’t more to existence than empiricism.
One spring evening I went up onto the roof of Burton Hall to meditate. As I gazed out upon the Charles River and the Boston skyline, an odd feeling came over me. I knelt down and said my first deep prayer: “God, if you are there, help me know what life is all about.” Suddenly, a serene feeling came over me and my skin tingled. My mind seemed to open up and I sensed that there was something way beyond science. But I didn’t know what it was.
I soon consulted an academic adviser and asked whether I could pursue a different curriculum than engineering and physics in my second year, something more like the required Humanities class I had taken and enjoyed. I was told to try “General Science.” When I demurred, he told me about an MIT collaborative program with several select liberal arts colleges. After some deliberation, I chose Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and arrived there in the fall of 1953. The year at Reed significantly altered my life. I became engrossed in philosophy, psychology and art history, while gradually shedding my obligations in the math and physics courses.
More importantly, I met five brilliant young Mormons, the most significant being Marian Shafer, who was from Utah and Alberta, Canada. I gradually came to love Marian, who taught me the basics of the restored Gospel of Christ. She was only seventeen when we met but she held valiantly to her testimony against the scientific and philosophical arguments I threw at her religion. At the same time, I was buffeted by the atheistic orientation of my roommate, John Blake, who hailed from Greenwich Village in New York City. The year at Reed thus shook up my construction of the world both in coursework and in the ongoing informal debates that laced conversations everywhere on campus.
So it was that, when summer arrived, I left for construction work in Alaska with a large box of books on topics such as eastern religion, biological evolution, and Mormonism, including The Book of Mormon. I thus entered into an intensive study that added the possibility of revelation to the empirical and rational modes of inquiry to which I was accustomed. This became a mental “free-for-all.”
The Book of Mormon was stunning and challenging to my inquisitive mind. One day, after completing my study of the entire volume and lacing it with critical notes and questions, I hiked into the forested hinterland along the beautiful Tanana River. There, alone, I knelt reverently and asked God in the name of Christ if the book was true. What I experienced next is impossible to fully describe. It was an epiphany and a witness of truth, most sacred and desirable. The rejoicing by Enos and Ammon (Alma, chapter 26) reminds me of how I felt. I thirsted to know more and to feel again the Love of God that had encompassed me, but it would take time. More study, lifestyle alterations, careful reasoning, and religious experience were necessary before I could detach from my skeptical views and fully embrace the restored gospel and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Near that time, Marian surprised me with the news that she had decided to leave Reed College and enroll at BYU on an enticing scholarship. I knew zero about BYU but decided to visit there at the end of the summer. As I explored Provo, driving east on Center Street toward the stunning mountains, I was impressed to stop and pray in the car. The same kind of feeling occurred that I had experienced in Cambridge before I left MIT; but this time it was more direct, like “Coming Home.” So I transferred to BYU, my third school in three years.
At BYU, I continued my study of psychology, philosophy, and history while also adding courses in biological science and, particularly, in religion. By the end of my junior year, I had chosen to major in psychology, to become a member of the LDS church, and to marry Marian—which she agreed to! I was baptized in Provo on March 13, 1955, by BYU professor Robert K. Thomas, a Reed College and Columbia University alumnus. An academic leader, he was our teacher, counselor, and dear friend.
My conversion involved a continuing series of inquiries and divine inspirations, accompanied by a concerted effort to integrate, balance, and resolve conflicts among the different ways of knowing. Through study, prayer, and a repentant heart, revelation came, not as a light nor a voice, but by brilliant perceptions so vivid as to never be denied. I came to know that Jesus Christ is my Savior and the head of His Church. I know too that He has called and chosen an unbroken succession of Prophets, Seers and Revelators from the time of Joseph Smith to the present.
After receiving bachelors and masters degrees at BYU, I received my PhD in clinical psychology at Stanford (1957-60) under the supervision of Albert Bandura. I then spent a postdoctoral year at the Psychiatric Institute of the University of Wisconsin Medical School with Carl Rogers as my adviser, following which I became a professor in the clinical psychology PhD program at Teachers College, Columbia University, for eleven years (1961-72). My focus was psychotherapy research and, generally, how people change. During that time, I also served in church callings, including as a bishop in Emerson, New Jersey, counselor to the Eastern States Mission president, and adviser to the LDS Student Association at Columbia. For fifteen interesting years (1957-1972) I engaged in ongoing dialogues and debates with many intellectual Church critics and investigators, which frustrated and enlightened me and them.
I returned to BYU as a professor of psychology in 1972 and embraced opportunities to add research on religion and mental health to my scholarly agenda. This produced controversy, notoriety, and unexpected awards. It fulfilled my longing to integrate a religious perspective with psychological theory and practice. I also served in the church as a bishop, a stake president, and a member of the Sunday School General Board. My life became one of continuing service to others; of obedience to the laws, ordinances, and authorities of the church; and to nurturing Marian and my marriage and our family of nine children. The extended family now numbers about three dozen persons.
Marian, a clinical social worker, and I have both served the public through the practice of psychotherapy. This, in turn, helped us manage our own family problems and crises, of which there have been many. Our hearts are tender toward all people who experience severe stresses (which is most of us), including those who have felt hurt by the church and become estranged from it. We have personally experienced and observed in others the healing effects of competent counsel combined with wise spiritual guidance.
After retirement in 1999, I have done professional writing, missionary work, and, especially, family history and temple service. Marian has been my constant companion, adviser, and compensator for my deficiencies.
Another essay, “Life and Testimony of an Academic Clinical Psychologist,” gives a more extensive account of my experiences than could be given here. It is available in Susan Easton Black, ed., Expressions of Faith: Testimonies of Latter-day Saint Scholars (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996) and is available online.
A.E. Bergin & S.L.Garfield (eds.) Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change. New York: Wiley, 1971, 1978, 1986, 1994. (A Citation Classic). Fifth Ed. 2004, by M.J. Lambert, Ed.
P.S. Richards & A.E. Bergin. A Spiritual Strategy for Counseling and Psychotherapy. Wash, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1997, 2005.
A.E. Bergin. Eternal Values and Personal Growth. Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2002.
Allen E Bergin, PhD (Stanford University), now retired, taught clinical psychology at Columbia University (1961-1972) and Brigham Young University (1972-1999).
Among his many honors, he received the Distinguished Professional Contribution to Knowledge Award from the American Psychological Association, served as president of the Society for Psychotherapy Research and received its Distinguished Career Award, received various awards from the Association of Mormon Counselors and Psychotherapists and served as its president, and received the Oskar Pfister Award in Religion and Mental Health from the American Psychiatric Association.
Posted March 2011