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Born in Bloomington, Indiana, Boisen was the son of Hermann Balthsar Boisen and Elisabeth Louisa (Louise) Wylie. Both his father and his maternal grandfather, Theophilus Adam Wylie from whom his middle name stemmed, were professors at Indiana University. When his father died in 1884, his family moved into Theophilus Wylie’s home .
Boisen graduated from Indiana University in 1897 and taught French and German, first in high school then later as a tutor at the university. During this period he suffered the first of several major psychotic episodes he would experience. Recovering from it, Boisen went on to study forestry and graduate from the Yale University School of Forestry in 1905. He went on to work for the U.S. Forest Service for several years before suffering a second psychotic episode.
He entered the Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York and graduated in 1911. Boisen moved from the Presbyterian to the Congregational Church, and worked for the next ten years in rural church survey work, in pastorates in both Kansas and Maine. For two years during World War I, Boisen worked with the YMCA in Europe. In 1917, Boisen returned from Europe and experienced another breakdown, but recovered to accept an offer to join the Interchurch World Movement. As part of that work, he moved to North Dakota to conduct a rural survey.
When the Interchurch World Movement collapsed in 1920, Boisen again fell victim to psychosis, and his family had him hospitalized at Westboro State Hospital, where it took him fifteen months to recover. While at Westboro, Boisen experienced a religious calling to work to bring religion and medicine closer together.
After his release, Boisen began studies in the psychology of religion at Andover Theological Seminary where he remained from 1922 to 1924 working especially with the physician and ethicist Richard Cabot. In 1924 William Bryan of the Worcester State Hospital invited Boisen to become a hospital chaplain, and the following year he began a program at the hospital for the clinical training of theological students.
Also during this period, Boisen began a five-year stint lecturing each fall quarter to students in the social ethics department of Chicago Theological Seminary. Boisen's ideas about mental illness began to mature during this period. He explored the concept that mental illness represents a crisis brought about by the failure to grow into higher social loyalties, including loyalty to God. In this way mental illness was purposive, he believed, and could be cured by the power of religion.
In 1930 he joined with others in forming the Council for the Clinical Training of Theological Students, which would expose students for extended periods to people suffering illness and crisis, mainly in mental hospitals.:60–62 In the same year, however, the death of his mother helped to precipitate still another brief period of mental illness.:57 This breakdown caused Cabot to withdraw his support for Boisen as chaplain at Worcester State Hospital and Boisen influence in the Council to wane.
In 1932 Boisen became chaplain at Elgin State Hospital:50 near Chicago to be closer to Chicago Theological Seminary and to Alice Batchelder, a love interest who worked in Chicago. While there Boisen organized a Chicago Council for the Clinical Training of Theological Students, functioning effectively until he learned in 1935 Alice Batchelder was dying of cancer. The discovery resulted in his brief hospitalization in Baltimore, Maryland, but in December 1935 he returned to his chaplaincy post at Elgin where he remained as chaplain until 1954, then chaplain emeritus at Elgin until his death.
Boisen believed that some mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, could be interpreted as one's attempts to solve "problems of the soul". Later, he explored the concept that mental illness represents a crisis brought about by the failure to grow into higher social loyalties, including loyalty to God. In this way mental illness was purposive, he believed, and could be cured by the power of religion.
In 1936 he published his ideas about religion and mental health in Exploration of the Inner World, which he dedicated to Batchelder.:51,56 The book was praised by the New York Times Review of Books as being a "significant contribution to the religious literature field." Boisen continued to expound his religious views in additional articles and books, notably Religion in Crisis and Custom (1955) and Out of the Depths (1960), his autobiography.
- Hart, Curtis W. (1994). "Anton Boisen: Madness, Mental Health and the Ministry". Journal of Religion, Disability & Health 1 (2): 49–65. doi:10.1080/15228969409511257. (subscription required)
- Leas, Robert. "History Corner". Association for Clinical Pastoral Education.
- Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling. Rodney J. Hunter, ed. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1990. Article entitled "Anton Boisen," by E.B. Holifield.
- Marseille M. Pride. "Boisen, Anton Theophilus" American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
- Asquith, Glenn H. Vision from a Little Known Country. Journal of Pastoral Care Publications, 1992.
- 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.; Powell, Robert C. (2003). "Discrete varieties of care in the clinical pastoral tradition: continuing the dialogue". Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling 57 (2): 111–6. PMID 12875119. Reprinted Miller, Perry N.; Lawrence, Raymond J.; Powell, Robert C. (9 July 2005). "Discrete varieties of care in the clinical pastoral tradition". Pastoral Report. College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy.
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.
- 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 (November 1977). "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. PMID 335420.
- 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 (4 March 2002). "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.
- Powell, Robert Charles (2005). "‘The Challenge to Our Seminaries’—Worldwide (Guest Editorial)". Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling 59 (4): 317–21. PMID 16392642. 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".