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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

How Can Teachings Cause Religious Trauma?

This is the first of the teachings in a series of three and only one aspect of Religious Trauma.

little girl standing on beach

Why would children or adults say their hearts are dark or dirty? For those who experienced relational trauma as children, this feeling now can be understood as shame—but religious teachings most often give it a different name—sin.

I often wondered how the idea of the heart being dark or dirty became so prevalent in religious cultures—specifically Christianity. I intuitively sensed it might be because of the Wordless Book (Information Warning: this material may be dysregulating). Many well-intentioned people shared this book with thousands upon thousands of children, and still may be doing so. Even if not familiar with the Wordless Book, the belief that children were born sinful, as discussed in a previous blog, has had a similar impact.

The concept was first taught (1866) by Charles Spurgeon, a revivalist preacher. He used three colors and asked the audience to consider the blackness in their hearts. (The original teachings said the heart was black--some still do. Others teach it as dark and dirty--which is what I have chosen to use.)Those in the audience were children brought in from orphanages across London to hear him preach. Krispin Mayfield explains:

His audience was composed of hundreds of children who presumably had significant attachment trauma, suffering from all types of disconnection from or the complete absence of caregivers. Unsurprisingly, the message resonated deeply. It only makes sense that when Spurgeon talked about feeling all rotten inside, hundreds of traumatized children felt that it matched their exact experience. The shame of attachment trauma that psychologists have observed feels like a dirty heart, something disgusting at our core. (Source)

These children were so responsive to the message that the idea took hold and eventually became the way Sunday school teachers, children’s ministry leaders, and other organizations taught the story intended to be "Good News". It was not good news that children were told that their hearts were dark or dirty, especially those with trauma histories

At the time, the message may have felt like good news. Both children and adults likely felt validated about what they already sensed in their hearts. Owning the darkness as sin (incorrectly) did not heal the wound of trauma. In fact, doing this kept many adults from seeking help because, when the darkness did not vanish, they felt even more unworthy. When this occurred, they believed it was a spiritual problem and were told the solution was to try harder. This did not heal the trauma.

How did this idea occur to Spurgeon? I have sought out the childhood and adult life stories of many teachers, preachers, and theologians who have influenced the teachings of various church denominations. It is an eye-opening experience if you understand the many ways trauma impacts a life. The trauma they experienced was significant. Much of their dark-heart teachings and personal testimonies sound much like the shame-filled words of trauma survivors. Were we taught that our hearts were dark and dirty by those who felt that way about themselves? Or told that it was the correct thing to believe?

It is worth reading the entire discussion in the chapter of Mayfield’s book that includes the above quote. I appreciate how he begins by telling how his beloved grandmother was the one who introduced the Wordless Book to him and many other children. Because the teachings cause harm—especially to children who have experienced relational trauma—doesn’t mean the harm was intentional. That also doesn't change the impact.

Red heart with bandaid

Those who listened to Spurgeon preach were given incorrect religious words for a feeling caused by attachment trauma and shame. When something resonates deeply, it feels true. Without the understanding that the feeling was trauma induced, the idea of a dark, dirty heart and the solution as spiritual became embedded in church culture. The only verse used to convince people this is true actually means that the heart is sick, like a sickly child. In context, the chapter provides a clear picture of being wounded (trauma) and the need for healing.

If you grew up in the church, please take note—Jesus never said your heart was dark or dirty. If you experienced trauma as a child while hearing these teachings, you likely internalized them. It may feel true, even if you logically know it isn't. Many like myself cannot identify shame since we for so long believed it was sin or conviction. Unidentified feelings of shame can certainly sabotage your healing process. Shame caused by teachings is a form of Religious Trauma.

Again, you are worthy of love. That was the true meaning of the Good News. Inside of you is a core of goodness that may be buried under this teaching (including others we will discuss in the next two weeks) but was never lost. Hug that precious child, and continue on your healing journey!

Please Note:

  • If you utilized the Wordless Book while teaching children, please be gentle with yourself. I did too. This book was included in the curriculum. Until healing what I now understand as trauma, I could not have known any different.

  • And again, my intent in this blog series will never be to persuade you to follow any spiritual path! Part of my story is how I wrestled faith to the mat. I am very comfortable with where that struggle ended and I am also very comfortable with others landing in a different place.

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