Science in Christian Perspective



Christian Beliefs and 
Personal Adjustment In Old Age*
Bethel College, St. Paul, Minnesota

From JASA 10 (December 1958): 8-12.

Much has been written and said about the contributions of Christian faith to the mental health- of the individual, but relatively little systematic or scientific investigation has been made of these contributions. The effects of religious faith can logically be expected to be the most pronounced among the aged on whom religious beliefs and doctrines, or the absence of them, have operated over the longest period of time.

Because of the economic stresses and other strains of middle age, people sometimes depart from the religious "faith of their fathers." Allen has found that in later maturity many of these return to religion' consciously or subconsciously seeking consolation as they think of "the hereafter."' This may appear to be an illusional compensation to some, but to others the thought that they will be with their loved ones again in a better world is a source of true comfort.

A renewed interest in religion in old age has been noted by many other observers. When persons reach later maturity, they often are more interested in religion than they have been since adolescence. Sometimes their physical condition prevents them from taking an active part of organized institutional religious activities, but their personal beliefs have a tendency to become modified, perhaps to be changed toward the beliefs instilled into them in childhood if they have since turned away from them. Psychologist Lawton has tried to explain this tendency of many old people by indicating that the longer we live, the more experiences we have to reflect upon and the greater our attempt to learn the underlying cause and meaning of joy and suffering.10 We hence have reduced interest in the purely material sides of life and a growing concern in spiritual things. Searching for a principle of unity in the whole process of life, the older person has an increased hunger to explain his life to himself, to justify the world, and to discover justification for human nature as he has found it.

*Paper presented at the Twelfth Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation, Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, August, 1957.

The nation-wide Catholic
Digest survey of the religious beliefs and practices of Americans aged 18 and over gives us further evidence of the religion of the aged. Older people were found to be more certain than young and middle aged adults that there is a God. They also were discovered to be more serious about preparing for life after death than in trying to live comfortably, and they tend to read Scripture more than the young.5

In a study of about 50 persons whom he interviewed in 1941 Lawton found that next to health the greatest source of contentment in later life is "health of the spirit" or "trust in God."" Belief in an afterlif e has also been reported to be related to good personal adjustment in old age in several more recent studies of retired school teachers, recipients of old age assistance, and others.2,14,15,7 These findings suggest the hypothesis that the tendency of many old people to cling to or to return to religious faith is related to good personal adjustment in old age.

To test that hypothesis, Moberg divided the 60 church members in a sample of 68 elderly persons into 2 groups on the basis of religious beliefs pertaining to the person of Jesus Christ and the Bible.12 Those who responded in a questionnaire to the Bible as being the infallible Word of God or as the absolute and final authority of faith and practice and who also considered Jesus to be truly God as no other person can ever be or the Savior who shed His blood for our sins were classified as "fundamentalists;" those who did not fully qualify as such were "non-fundamentalists" for the purpose of this study. The 51 "fundamentalists" were matched individually with the 7 "non-fundamentalists" on the basis of 11 characteristics used as controls (sex, white race, age, occupational background, education, marital status ' health, presently unemployed, Protestants, frequency of religious service attendance when age 12, and age of joining church). The matched control and experimental groups of six persons each showed greater differences in mean personal adjustment scores than those that prevailed between the unmatched groups, the "fundamentalists" in both cases having higher mean personal adjustment scores. These differences were not statistically significant, perhaps because of the small size of the sample, but it was believed that the increase in differences in favor of the "fundamentalists" which resulted from triatching might be indicative of some very real difference between the two groups. This, therefore, was a stimulus for the larger study reported in the remainder of this paper.


The hypothesis that religious beliefs are related to personal adjustment in old age was tested as part of a larger study.13 Questionnaires were completed, by interviewers in all but 2 cases, for 219 persons who were residents of 7 institutions in the Twin City Metropolitan Area (Minneapolis-St. Paul and vicinity), 5 of which are homes for the aged and 2 public homes in which others are cared for in addition to the aged. Included as part of the questionnaire was the Burgess-CavanHavighurst Attitudes Inventory which was used to measure personal adjustment in old age.4 The validity and reliability of this widely-used instrurnent have been satisfactorily established.6

Five items in the questionnaire were combined to form a single religious belief score. The items included and the weights assigned were as follows:

1. The Ftiture. Looking forward the most in the future or during the next year to the future life, eternity, "God's call," heaven, "looking for the Lord," etc.-2; looking forward to events that may or may not have a religious significance-1 ; looking forward to nothing, "never thought of it ... .. can't say ... .. don't know," etc-0.

2. Prayer. Prays because of belief that God listens and answers prayer-2; prays for other reasons-1; does not pray-0.

3. Sin. Belief in sin with the belief that one's own sins are forgiven-2; belief in sin with the hope that one's own sins are forgiven, or thinks they are forgiven-1 ; all other responses-0.

4. The Bible. Belief in the Bible as God's perfect Word -2; dubious responses-I ; belief in the Bible as inspired only like other great pieces of literature-A

5. Jesits. Belief in Jesus as the Savior who shed His blood for our sins-2; dubious responses-1 ; belief in Jesus as merely a great man-0.

In the questionnaire only open-end responses were used to indicate the scoring of the first item, so it is possible that some persons who failed to mention otherworldly future hopes and plans did so, not because they did not believe in heaven, but because they felt such a belief and hope to be so obvious as not to be worth mentioning. Also it is possible that some who said they wished to die, "go home," "reach the end," etc. were thinking of heaven when they did so, even though they did not specifically mention it. It was therefore decided to give one point for having such plans and hopes even though spiritual or religious beliefs were not mentioned directly. Likewise with number 2, the mere fact of praying indicates a belief that prayer performs some function or does some good, so everyone who prayed was given credit for it.

Scoring was done by simple addition of the weights representing responses. The highest possible religious belief score is therefore 10, and the lowest possible score is 0. A high score indicates one who believed in heaven or a future life, and who mentioned that belief, believed in a prayer-answering God, believed that there is sin and that his own sins were forgiven, believed in the Bible as the perfect Word of God, and believed in Jesus Christ as the Savior who died a vicarious death. Persons with high scores were therefore called "believers," and those with low scores were called "nonbelievers," even though the latter in doubt have beliefs in the common meaning of that word about the included topics. "Believers" as thus defined could be classified as those whom some call conservative, fundamental, evangelical, or orthodox Christians, while the "nonbelievers" are more like those who are sometimes called liberal or modernistic Christians, or in some cases non-Christians.

One weakness of the questionnaire items on which the religious belief score is based, and hence a weakness of the score itself, was a tendency of many respondents to think to themselves, "What ought I believe about this?" Sometimes this was outwardly expressed in the words, "What should I say?" or "What is the right answer?" It is very likely, therefore, that conventional answers tended to predominate over the individuals' own covert beliefs when and if there were differences between the two. It is possible that this tendency reflects a realization on the part of many that Christianity is divided into various groups on these issues, and they wish to be true to the groups with which they have identified themselves.

            Preliminary Findings

Religious beliefs were found to be closely associated with religious activities. The religious belief score had a product-moment correlation with a similarly-constructed religious activities score of .660 with a standard error of .038. This high correlation may in part have occurred because prayer was an aspect of both scores, but it also reflects the possibility that those who believe in the Bible as the perfect Word of God are most apt to read it reverently and consistently, and those who believe in Jesus as a vicarious Savior are most apt to engage in the religious activities of worship and praise.

The data summarized in Table 1 indicate the close relationship between the scores of personal adjustment in old age and the religious belief scores. The product moment correlation of the two sets of scores is .462 with a standard error of .053. It is interesting to note that "believers" in the highest belief score category who were not church men-ibers at the time of interviewing had higher personal adjustment scores than church members in the same category. Also, church members with low religious belief scores tended to have lower

personal adjustment scores than non-members who had similar belief scores. Is this an indication that deviant church members have a sense of guilt because of the inconsistencies between their personal beliefs and their implicit profession as church members which tends to make them poorly adjusted?

To test more precisely the hypothesis that religious beliefs are related to personal adjustment in old age, an ex-post-facto experimental design was developed in which an experimental group of persons in the 4 highest belief score categories (scores of 7 through 10; hereafter called "believers") was matched by pairing of individuals with a control group of persons in the lowest 5 belief score categories (scores of 0 through 4: hereafter called "non-believers"). Of the 219 subjects of the entire study 155 had religious belief scores of  7 or more, and 35 had religious belief scores of  4 or less. The matching of individuals from these two groups, pairing them on the basis of seven controlling characteristics (sex, self-rating of health, marital status, number of living children, education on the same level or within 3 years of each other, present employment status, and similar club activities in the past and present), caused a loss of 146 persons, leaving 22 "believers" matched with 22 "non-believers" of similar backgrounds.

Two null hypotheses were used for increasing objectivity in testing the hypothesis that religious believers have higher personal adjustment scores in old age than non-believers: (1) There is no difference in personal adjustment in old age between persons who have high religious belief scores and persons who have low religious belief scores when other characteristics of the 2 groups, are held constant by matching of individuals in the 2 groups, and (2) the observed differences in personal adjustment in old age between persons who have high religious belief scores and persons who have low religious belief scores are no greater than those that occur between 2 groups selected by random sampling from the same universe.

The matching of the 155 "believers" with the 35 "non-believers" had very little effect upon the mean personal adjustment scores of the 2 groups. The average score of the 155 "believers" before matching was 28.0, compared to 27.2 for the 22 "believers" who remained after matching. The 35 initial members of the control group of "non-believers" had a mean personal adjustment score of 19.9, and the 22 who remained after matching had an identical score. The first null hypothesis was therefore rejected for these 22 matched pairs. The critical ratio of the difference between mean scores of the 2 groups after matching was 3.7; this indicates that a difference of this magnitude could have come about by random selection of the 2 groups from the same universe less than once in a hundred samples. The second null hypothesis was therefore also rejected, thus again verifying the positively stated hypothesis (for these 22 pairs of persons) that "believers" have higher personal adjustment scores in old age, and hence presumably better personal adjustment, than "nonbelievers."

It is possible that if a sufficient number of per sons who have religious belief scores of 0 were avail able for matching with persons who have the highest possible score of 10, the observed differences in personal adjustment between the two groups would be even greater than those discovered in this ex perimental design which included several categories at each end of the continuum of belief scores.


The observed difference between the personal adjustment scores of the "believers" and "non-believers" may be explained in various ways. It is possible that "the non-believer" who sees death approaching may be subconsciously, if not consciously, disturbed at the thought of dying and at his lack of assurance of life beyond the grave. Such a person may be bothered by feelings of guilt in not being certain his sins have been forgiven, even though he may say he does not believe in sin. (One of our respondents said she did not believe in sin at all and then went on to assure the probing 'interviewer that her own sins had been forgiven.)

The "believer" may feel a greater sense of usefulness than the "non-believer" because he believes that God hears and answers his prayers and that he therefore can help others by interceding for them even though he may be physically unable to offer any tangible or material assistance to those around him who are in need. The Christian "believer," even while recognizing his own imperfections and sins, may be rejoicing in his faith that the confession of his sins to God brings him forgiveness because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for him. The "believer" may be happy and well-adjusted even when suffering from physical infirmities and afflictions because of his assurance that there is a purpose in everything that comes into his life, even though at the time only God may know that purpose, and because of his assurance that God will make all things work together for good.

It is possible that adaptability is the key to the observed relationship between religious beliefs and good personal adjustment in old age. E. W. Burgess has indicated adaptability to be one of the important factors related to successful adjustment in marriage.3 Hulett has similarly suggested the possibility that for life in modern society the "capacity to adjust to the eleinents of the future as they emerge" will give the individual the best promise of continuing ego-security.8 As the older person loses status occupationally,

socially, economically, and otherwise in our society, is it not possible that the adaptable person is the one who remains well-adjusted, while the unadaptable person becomes poorly adjusted? If the adaptability of the Christian "believer" is increased by his faith in the teachings of the Bible that "all things work together for good to them that love God" (Romans 8:28), that "my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:19), and no trial comes to the Christian except as it is permitted by God (I Corinthians 10:13), then we should expect such persons to be better adjusted in old age than those who are "non-believers" and presumably therefore less adaptable to circumstances. A double hypothesis is therefore suggested for testing: Adaptability makes for 'good personal adjustment in old age, and the Christian religion contributes to adaptability. It may be the presence of this factor that has led to the observation that the "graceful old person" almost invariably was welladjusted in his youth,16 and that "the best possible preparation for age is the habit of learning to adjust at all ages."9

Obviously, an important limitation of this study is that it is only one study on a limited population. The subjects of this study were reared in an age when what we have called "believers" were the predominant type of Christian. It is possible that the religious faith of one's childhood and youth is what gives the greatest comfort and contributes the most to good personal adjustment in old age. The findings of this study may hence be related directly to the type of Christian religion that was most common 60 to 70 years ago; if persons are reared in childhood and youth in a different religious atmosphere, they may experience the best personal adjustment in their later years of life when they conform to a type of religion similar to that of their own formative years. Additional research on other groups of older people in our own society who have different types of backgrounds, divergent life experiences, and various current living conditions, as well as groups of persons who have come from diverse religious backgrounds in childhood and adolescence, would undoubtedly help us to understand better the relationship between religion and mental health in old age,


Present knowledge indicates that, for the samples that have been studied, the holding of orthodox or Conservative Christian beliefs is related to good personal adjustment in old age. Additional research may result in the reinforcement, modification, or elimination of the possibility that this is a casual relationship, or it may lead to the discovery that both Christian beliefs and good personal adjustment in old age result from a common set of causal variables.


1. Allen, E. B.: Psychological Factors that Have a Bearing on the Aging Process, in The Social and Biological Challenge of Oar Aging Population. Columbia University Press, New York, 1950.

2. Britton, J. H.: A Study of the Adjustment of Retired School Teachers. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Chicago, 1949.

3. Burgess, E. W.: New Factors in redicting Success or Failure in Marriage. Lecture, University of Minnesota, April 27, 1950.

4. Burgess, E. W., Cavan, R. S., and Havighurst, R. J.: Your Activities and Attitudes. Science Research Associates, Chicago, 1948.

5. Catholic Digest: Survey of Religion in the United States. Vols. 17 and 18, November 1952 to May 1954.

6. Cavan, R. S., et al.: Personal Adjustment in Old Age. Science Research Associates, Chicago, 1949.

7. Gray, R. M.: A Study of the Older Person in the Church. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Chicago, 1954.

8. Hulett, J. E., Jr.: The Person's Time Perspective and the Social Role. Soc. Forces, 23:155-159, 1944.

9. Kempfer, H.: Education for a Long and Useful Life. Vederal Security Agency, U. S. Office of Education, Bulletin 6, 1950.

10. Lawton, G.: Aging Successfully. Columbia University Press, New York, 1946.

11. Lawton, G.: Happiness in Old Age. Ment. Hygiene, 27: 231-237, 1943.

12. Moberg, D. 0.: The Influence of Religion on Personal Adjustment in Old Age. Unpublished ms.

13. Moberg, D. 0.: Religion and Personal Adjustment in Old Age. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Minnesota, 1951.

14. Schmidt, J. F.: Patterns of Poor Adjustment in Old Age. Am. J. of Social., 57:33-42, 1951.

15. Shanas, E.: The Personal Adjustment of Recipients of Old Age Assistance. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Chicago, 1949.

16. Thewlis, M. W.: The Care of the Aged. C. V. Mosby Co., St. Louis, third ed., 1941.