Starbuck, E. D.

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STARBUCK, E. D. (18661947), was a prominent figure in the early academic study of the psychology of religion in the United States and the first scholar to use the phrase "psychology of religion." Edwin Diller Starbuck was born in Indiana to a devout Quaker farming family. After undergraduate work at Indiana University, he went on to Harvard University, from which he received his master's degree in 1895, and then to Clark University, where in 1897 he received his doctorate. In 1890 he was stirred by F. Max Müller's Introduction to the Science of Religion and decided to start studying religion. In 1893, at Harvard, he circulated two questionnaires, one on sudden conversion and the other on "gradual growth" toward religious commitment. In 1894 and 1895 he presented papers on his research before the Harvard Religious Union. After graduating from Clark University, he remained there as a fellow in the late 1890s, together with James H. Leuba.

Starbuck's 1899 book The Psychology of Religion was based on studies he started at Harvard under William James and continued at Clark under G. Stanley Hall; it enjoyed three editions, was reprinted several times, and was translated into German in 1909. Starbuck had the support and encouragement of James in his work, but as Starbuck himself reports in a frank autobiographical statement, there was some tension in his relationship with Hall, and mutual criticism is much in evidence.

After the turn of the century, Starbuck devoted most of his creative energy to "character training" and devised selections of fairy tales, novels, and biographies that would contribute to the moral education of the young. He taught a variety of subjects at a number of institutions, including philosophy at the State University of Iowa (19061930), and philosophy (19301938) and psychology (19381943) at the University of Southern California. Starbuck's important contribution remains his early survey of conversion cases, which work was immortalized by James, who used Starbuck's data in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). While the basic findings of the survey have been accepted, and seem to fit with classical and modern notions of conversion, the theoretical construction seems hopelessly naive today. Together with Hall, Starbuck regarded conversion as an adolescent phenomenon, and had the data to show it. His findings are still quoted today, and are beyond dispute, but his psychology and his definition of religion as an "instinct" no longer find serious adherents.

Starbuck's attitude toward religion was clearly positive, and he saw the importance of the psychology of religion as contributing to religious education. According to James, Starbuck's aim in starting his research in the psychology of religion was to bring about reconciliation in the feud between science and religion. According to Starbuck's autobiographical account, his interest in religion was very much an attempt to answer, via systematic study, both doubts and curiosities about religion. If one attempts an evaluation of Starbuck's work from the perspective of several generations, one might conclude that it will be remembered more by historians of the field than by practitioners. His work may belong with the classics of the field, but it must be numbered with the unread classics, even among scholars.


Argyle, Michael, and Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi. The Social Psychology of Religion. Boston, 1975.

Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin. "Psychology of Religion, 18801930: The Rise and Fall of a Psychological Movement." Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 10 (1974): 8490.

Starbuck, E. D. The Psychology of Religion. London, 1899.

Starbuck, E. D. "Religion's Use of Me." In Religion in Transition, edited by Vergilius Ferm, pp. 201256. New York, 1937.

New Sources

Hay, David. "Psychologists Interpreting Conversion: Two American Forerunners of the Hermeneutics of Suspicion." History of the Human Sciences 12, no. 1 (1999): 5573.

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi (1987)

Revised Bibliography