Religion 371

Introduction and Reading Guide for the Varieties of Religious Experience.


Personalizing the man: First off, whenever I think of William James I always think of his fine house at 95 Irving Street in Shady Hill a few blocks from Harvard's Campus.

Second, I think of William James Hall, Harvard's tallest academic building

(If you don't like its looks, you'll be reassured to know that, unlike Samford, Harvard is not cursed by a penchant toward architectural uniformity.)


Third, you might be happy to know that unlike his brother, he kept his head vertical when there was a camera around:

For more pictures of the man himself, his parents, his children, and his study visit: or


Resources:  Over a century after its publication, The Varieties of the Religious Experience may no longer be the most important contribution to the study of religion by a native-born American, but it is still the most famous.  As with most of our subjects, you will find many resources on the web.  Among others, I recommend where you will many other resources, including videos of lectures by scholars accessing his work.


Introduction: William James (1842-1910) was the son of Henry James, a Swedenborgian theologian, and the brother of the novelist Henry James.  (Emmanuel Swedenborg was a liberal mystic, very influential in the nineteenth-century, practically forgotten today.) He earned an M.D. from Harvard and worked throughout the 1880s to founded psychology as a biological science.  His landmark Principles of Psychology (1890) served as the discipline's basic text for decades.  After the publication of this book, he turned his attention to religion and philosophy.  James's life profoundly affected his work, for more information on his biography and his writings in philosophy and psychology see the entry on him by Horace M. Kallen in the Encyclopædia Britannica (on-line through Samford's library).


The Varieties is the published version of James's Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion given in Edinburgh.  The Giffords are a prestigious Scottish lecture series inaugurated by Max Müller in 1888 (for more information see  In these lectures, James seeks first to describe the varieties and then describe the essence of religious experience.


Advice on Reading: Often counted as one of the classics of American letters, the Varieties like Schleiermacher's On Religion bares the marks of its origins in the lecture hall.  The author is in no hurry to get to his point.  He entertains and woos his audience.  Unlike Schleiermacher, however, I don't think James will confuse you by initially conceding his opponents 'argument only to slowly dismantle them.


James is not overly succinct, but neither is he overly difficult.  Generations of students have been advised to "skim the examples," though that leaves out lots of the fun.  Be sure, however, you identify his major arguments in each lecture.


Lecture 1, in your packet, makes a few simple important points.  What does he think is the relationship of a psychological explanation of an experience its religious role and use?

Lecture 2, (also in your packet) outlines his working definition of religion and his selection of data.

After this follow the lectures on the various varieties  Much of the contribution of the work was in classifying these various varieties and it is here that he offers the evidence and subclaims that lead to his conclusion.  You must read and study the table of contents of the book.  They are available online at

If you are interested, you can also read the whole book at that site.  If you don't have that kind of time, but still want to know more.  You could do worse than reading Glyn Hughes's "squashed" version

Hughes's short biographical introduction is also quite good, but being a philosopher, he neglects James's very important work in psychology.


Returning to the assigned reading in your packet, the next item is Lecture 9, on conversion.  When you reach the end of the chapter, you'll find that James does not conclude but asks you to return.  You should look at the next chapter, at least its conclusion.  It (and the whole book) is available on line at or


Returning the packet, Lecture 20, Conclusion contains his conclusions about the nature of religion.  Note well, he offers more definite claims here than in lecture 2.  There he defends the working definition or approach that leads him to his conclusion about religion.

The postscript, is just that.  Here is offers a few "second-thoughts" about things he said in lecture 20.


Questions to guide your reading:

How did his selection of data differ from others we have studied?

What is his method?

What is his working definition of religion?  How does he defend it and refine it?

What sources does he use?  How does he analyze them?

What does he conclude?

James is a committed scientist and empricist who struggled to determine if there was a place for faith, prayer, and mystical experience in the modern world, and if so what that place was.  What do you think he concluded?


Among the significant aspects of James's work that we want to explore are his:

approach to the data.

contribution to the focus of students of religion on the study of religious experience, esp. in the early twentieth-century.

influence on later scientists who, while perhaps rejecting his particular conclusions, have explored religion through the biological sciences and sought to find room, or even evidence, for God and evidence for the personal benefits of a religious life.