James W. Fowler

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James W. Fowler
James William Fowler III

(1940-10-12)October 12, 1940
DiedOctober 16, 2015(2015-10-16) (aged 75)
SpouseLurline Fowler[1]
Ecclesiastical career
ReligionChristianity (Methodist)
ChurchUnited Methodist Church
Academic background
Alma mater
ThesisThe Development and Expression of "the Conviction of the Sovereignty of God" in H. Richard Niebur's Thought (1971)
Academic work
Sub-disciplinePsychology of religion
InstitutionsEmory University
Notable worksStages of Faith (1981)
Notable ideasStages of faith development

James William Fowler III (1940–2015) was an American theologian who was Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University. He was director of both the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development, and the Center for Ethics until he retired in 2005. He was a minister in the United Methodist Church.[4][5] Fowler is best known for his book Stages of Faith, published in 1981, in which he sought to develop the idea of a developmental process in "human faith".

Life and career[edit]

Fowler was born in Reidsville, North Carolina, on October 12, 1940, the son of a Methodist minister.[4] In 1977, Fowler was appointed Associate Professor of Theology and Human Development at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.[1] He was later named Charles Howard Candler Professor of Theology and Human Development.[1][6] He died on October 16, 2015.[1]

Stages of faith[edit]

He is best known for his book Stages of Faith (1981), in which he sought to develop the idea of a developmental process in "human faith".[5]

These stages of faith development were along the lines of Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development and Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development.[7]

In the book, Fowler describes 6 stages of development.

Description of the stages[edit]

No. Fowler Age Piaget
0 Undifferentiated
0–2 years Sensoric-motorical
1 Intuitive-
2–7 years Pre-operational
2 Mythic-
7–12 years Concrete operational
3 Synthetic-
12+ years Formal-operational
4 Individual-Reflective 21+ years
5 Conjunctive 35+ years
6 Universalizing 45+
  • Stage 0 – "Primal or Undifferentiated" faith (birth to 2 years), is characterized by an early learning of the safety of their environment (i.e. warm, safe and secure vs. hurt, neglect and abuse). If consistent nurture is experienced, one will develop a sense of trust and safety about the universe and the divine. Conversely, negative experiences will cause one to develop distrust about the universe and the divine. Transition to the next stage begins with integration of thought and language which facilitates the use of symbols in speech and play.
  • Stage 1 – "Intuitive-Projective" faith (ages of three to seven), is characterized by the psyche's unprotected exposure to the Unconscious, and marked by a relative fluidity of thought patterns.[8] Religion is learned mainly through experiences, stories, images, and the people that one comes in contact with.
  • Stage 2 – "Mythic-Literal" faith (mostly in school children), is characterized by persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic. During this time metaphors and symbolic language are often misunderstood and are taken literally.
  • Stage 3 – "Synthetic-Conventional" faith (arising in adolescence; aged 12 to adulthood), is characterized by conformity to authority and the religious development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one's beliefs are ignored at this stage due to the fear of threat from inconsistencies.
  • Stage 4 – "Individuative-Reflective" faith (usually mid-twenties to late thirties), is a stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for his or her beliefs and feelings. As one is able to reflect on one's own beliefs, there is an openness to a new complexity of faith, but this also increases the awareness of conflicts in one's belief.
  • Stage 5 – "Conjunctive" faith (mid-life crisis), acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems. The individual resolves conflicts from previous stages by a complex understanding of a multidimensional, interdependent "truth" that cannot be explained by any particular statement.
  • Stage 6 – "Universalizing" faith. The individual would treat any person with compassion as he or she views people as from a universal community, and should be treated with universal principles of love and justice.

Empirical research[edit]

Fowler's model has inspired a considerable body of empirical research into faith development, although little of such research was ever conducted by Fowler himself. A useful tool here has been Gary Leak's Faith Development Scale, or FDS, which has been subject to factor analysis by Leak.[9] For criticism see Developmental approaches to religion.


  • Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (1981) ISBN 0-06-062866-9
  • Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian: Adult Development and Christian Faith (1984) (revised 1999 ISBN 0-7879-5134-X)
  • To See the Kingdom: The Theological Vision of H. Richard Niebuhr (1974), ISBN 978-0-687-42300-2
  • Faith Development and Pastoral Care (1987) ISBN 0-8006-1739-8
  • Weaving the New Creation: Stages of Faith and the Public Church (1991) ISBN 0-06-062845-6
  • Faithful Change: The Personal and Public Challenges of Postmodern Life (1996) ISBN 978-0-687-01730-0

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d e Osmer & Bridgers 2018.
  2. ^ a b Downs 1994, p. 114.
  3. ^ Downs 1994, p. 114; Osmer & Bridgers 2018.
  4. ^ a b Freightman, C. G. (October 22, 2015). "James W. Fowler, 75: Theologian, Author 'Embodied the Faith He Studied'". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Dunwoody, Georgia: Cox Media Group. p. B6. ISSN 1539-7459. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved August 26, 2020.
  5. ^ a b Evans et al. 2010, p. 196.
  6. ^ "James W. Fowler". Emory Centre for Ethics. Atlanta: Emory University. Retrieved August 27, 2020.
  7. ^ Evans et al. 2010, pp. 196–197.
  8. ^ Wolski Conn 1986, pp. 226–232.
  9. ^ Leak 2008.


  • Downs, Perry G. (1994). Teaching for Spiritual Growth: An Introduction to Christian Education. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House. ISBN 978-0-310-59370-6.
  • Evans, Nancy; Forney, Deanna; Guido, Florence; Patton, Lori; Renn, Kristen (2010). Student Development in College: Theory, Research, and Practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 978-0-7879-7809-9.
  • Leak, Gary K. (2008). "Factorial Validity of the Faith Development Scale". The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. 18 (2): 123–131. doi:10.1080/10508610701879399. ISSN 1532-7582. S2CID 143819966.
  • Osmer, Richard; Bridgers, Lynn (2018) [2015]. "James Fowler". Christian Educators of the 20th Century. La Mirada, California: Biola University. Retrieved August 27, 2020.
  • Wolski Conn, Joann, ed. (1986). Women's Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development. New York: Paulist Press.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Preceded by Oskar Pfister Award
Succeeded by