The Story Behind the Boisen Books Project

An Interview with general editor and Verbum Icon publisher David Roth      by William Scar








WS: David, many months ago, you shared with me your excitement about searching for Anton Boisen’s works.  How did the Boisen Books Project come about?

It’s not a short story, and for me it became a true adventure. When it started I was really just trying to satisfy my own desire to have copies of Boisen’s writings in my hands. Very quickly I realized it was nearly impossible to get hold of his books except in old, hard to find, and therefore overpriced, out-of-print copies that were printed between the 1930s and ‘60s, His first book, Exploration of the Inner World, was and still is an important book not only for chaplains but in the whole psychology of religion and so it was re-released by a university press in 1971 but again allowed to go out-of-print.

WS: Why do you think Boisen’s works have not stayed in print’?

That question truly baffled me. When I was in my CPE residency, my supervisor, John Valentino, introduced me to Anton Boisen. There was a copy of Boisen’s autobiography Out of the Depths in our CPE program library. When I read it I realized it was a very important book. I wanted to have my own copy but I couldn’t buy one anywhere. I’ve always collected books that were important to me but back then I couldn’t lay my hands on a single copy.  When I finally found one, and it wasn’t in very nice condition, the bookseller had it listed for over a hundred dollars.

WS: What other efforts had been made to keep Boisen’s legacy alive? The man who coined the phrase “living human documents” was seemingly becoming lost to succeeding generations of chaplains.

Thankfully, Boisen never entirely vanished. Glenn Asquith edited an anthology of some of his shorter pieces along with some articles about him. But I wanted to get Boisen’s really important major works back into print. That meant, first off, I needed to know who owned Boisen’s copyrights. I didn’t know if they were in the public domain, which would have made republishing easy. I consulted Robert Powell, and Raymond Lawrence was a part of those early conversations.  Bob’s great knowledge of Boisen motivated me to keep searching.

WS: It sounds like you were interested in the man as well as his documents.  Where did you begin to look for answers?

We began with the archives at Indiana University. Boisen was a lifelong bachelor so there were no wife or children as heirs. One of his family members, however, inherited Boisen’s very modest estate and we thought that, apart from his professional books and papers and other ephemera, everything went to this relative and then to Indiana University where Boisen’s family had deep historic ties.  The university was very familiar with this so when I contacted them they were pleased to work with me. But no one seemed to know if Boisen had renewed the copyright on his first book – the one that put him on the map. That was Exploration of the Inner World. It came out in 1936. Back then copyrights were registered with the US Copyright Office for 28 years. They could then be re-registered for an additional 28 years but if that renewal didn’t happen the work went into the public domain, meaning anyone could reprint it freely without any compensation to the author.

WS: Just listening to your efforts is exhausting.  This was becoming a project for a committee.

We didn’t find any record of the copyright renewal in the Boisen papers. In fact, it may be there, but we just didn’t find it. So my wife, Asha Allen, started going page by page, line by line, through the U.S. Copyright catalogues of re-registered copyrights and found it! In fact it had been kept under copyright protection – and the copyright law has since been changed so that it remains protected – so no one could just put out a new edition as if it were Charles Dickens or Mark Twain.

From there we started working on a contract with Indiana University, a three-book publishing deal for The Exploration of the Inner World, an important but largely forgotten book called Religion in Crisis and Custom, and the autobiography, Out of the Depths. Just as we were getting close to signing with IU, Bob Powell emailed me a link to a webpage. It was an announcement of a new printing of Out of the Depths through the Association of Professional Chaplains. APC clearly knew what we all know: this important book needs to be in print and readily available. But they didn’t have the publication rights.

WS: This is beginning to sound like a melodrama.  Can you talk about your experiences in the legal aspects of this adventure?

First, I let Indiana University know about the issue of publication rights. The IU attorney became involved and the sale of the unauthorized printing was shut down.  We were finally ready to sign with IU and get to work on getting the books back into print and into people’s hands, but the day before we scheduled to sign the contract I heard from the IU attorney that there was another problem. It was a big one: they found out that they didn’t own the Boisen copyrights after all.

WS: You must have been devastated.

For a moment, yes, I felt defeated. But they said that they knew who did own all Boisen copyrights and it was Chicago Theological Seminary where Boisen taught and where his archives are maintained. Of course, I immediately contacted CTS.  It took a while for them to get on board with what I was proposing to do. We started with the contracts already negotiated with IU, made a few minor changes, and then about a year ago the deal for the Boisen Books Project was done. All the effort had been worth it.

WS: I know you have been published yourself and you have other experiences in the field.  What plans have you made for the actual publishing of the Boisen material?

With digital technology we could have simply scanned and reissued the books as reprints but I made an editorial decision to go beyond that. While the books have stood the test of time, I believed that new readers would benefit from each book having a new introduction, foreword and afterword.  I hoped to give readers some background and context as well as a way to bridge Boisen from his time to today and into the future.

WS: Whom did you ask to participate in shaping this background and context for the Boisen materials?

Robert Charles Powell is not only a psychiatrist but a historian as well. He has been studying the beginnings of the clinical pastoral care movement since he was in medical school. He has a PhD in history and this has been his area of expertise since the 1970s. I asked Bob to write new introductions to all three of the books to create continuity throughout. Pamela Cooper-White, whom I believe is doing the most important new writing in the pastoral care field today, contributed the afterword for Exploration.  J. Harold Ellens, who is prolific in the field of pastoral care and also biblical psychology, wrote the foreword. 

For the foreword of Out of the Depths I turned to Glenn Asquith who edited the Boisen anthology that is still in print. Glenn has been studying and teaching about Boisen since he wrote his dissertation back in the 1970s. I met Glenn when he was teaching at Moravian Seminary in Pennsylvania just a few miles from where I did my CPE residency. The founding spirit of CPSP, Raymond Lawrence, has studied and written about Boisen over many years. In his book Sexual Liberation there is a very important chapter on Boisen’s sexuality and unrequited love for Alice Batchelder. Raymond wrote the afterword for Depths.

Bob Powell’s intro to Religion in Crisis and Custom is written, but the foreword and afterword have not been completed.

WS: When will the books be available?

Boisen died 50 years ago this year. My hope from the very start was to get him back into print for that anniversary. I’m now confident we’ll be able to release the two books in 2015 and Religion in Crisis and Custom will be out in 2016.

WS: On a personal note, I know that you love and collect books in various fields.  I understand you own some very special Boisen books.

I do. When I was a kid I collected two things, books and autographs. The autographs were mostly in the form of letters. In recent years I’ve kept my eye open hoping to find just one signed Boisen letter that someone is willing to part with. I have a little note but so far I’ve had absolutely no luck with a real letter. But I have hit the jackpot twice with Boisen books. Some years ago I was able to get my hands on the copy of Out of the Depths that Boisen signed to Arthur Cushman McGiffert, Jr., the president of Chicago Theological Seminary at the time Boisen was on the fall faculty. In fact the two of them taught Psychology of Religion together and McGiffert was one of Boisen's great champions.

But even more fortunate was my acquiring the signed first edition of Exploration that Boisen inscribed to his classmate and closest friend, the man who was his supporter in the dark days leading up to and including his first hospitalization and also the one who introduced him to the writings of Freud. That person is Fred Eastman. So I own Fred Eastman’s copy, inscribed and signed by Boisen, a real treasure. I cherish it. As special as it is to me, though, I’m looking forward even more to seeing the new editions at long last in the hands of more Boisen readers than ever before. 


William Scar is a pastoral psychotherapist and president of the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy (2015-17).