Mushrooms & Mysticism: The Marsh Chapel Experiment

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Mushrooms & Mysticism: The Marsh Chapel Experiment

One of the last experiments to use hallucinogens before the War on Drugs, the Marsh Chapel experiment opened the eyes of many to the power of magic mushrooms.

Before the war on drugs began, scientists were reasonably free to explore both the healing and mystical properties of now illegal drugs. One of the most famous examples of such a study was the Marsh Chapel Experiment, also known as the Good Friday Experiment, in which budding theology students were given a dose of magic mushrooms.

The idea was to explore the entheogenic properties of psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in magic mushrooms, in religiously disposed people. The experiment was conducted by Walter Pahnke, a theology student of the Harvard Divinity School, under the supervision Timothy Leary and the Harvard Psilocybin Project. It took place in Marsh Chapel at the University of Boston.

Exploring The Entheogenic Potential of Mushrooms

On Good Friday, 1962, 20 theology student volunteers were divided into two groups, one of whom would receive psilocybin, and the other a placebo. Once it was clear that the drugs were taking a hold, the volunteers were escorted into the chapel proper, where they watched the Food Friday service. As you can probably imagine, giving religiously inclined people a dose of psilocybin on a religiously significant day, and allowing them to be at the service had some pretty profound effects; of which the experimenters explored in much more depth once the drugs had worn off.

It allowed the experimenters to conclude that yes, magic mushrooms and other psilocybin containing drugs can indeed be used for entheogenic purposes. Whilst this may not be a surprise to the modern day mushroom user, who could first hand tell you about the profound spiritual experiences mushrooms can cause, at the time, the psychedelic scene was only just beginning to emerge, and many were still unaware of the recreational and entheogenic applications they could be used for.

Unfortunately, this experiment was to be the last of its kind for many, many years. Magic mushrooms were soon outlawed as the War on Drugs began, and all further delves into the nature of magic mushrooms had to be done anecdotally by those that used them.

Through The Eyes Of The Participants: The Death Of The Ego

Of the recollections described by the participants in the Marsh Chapel Experiment, there was one very profound and memorable one. It was that of the now Reverend Mike Young, one of the volunteers involved in the psilocybin group of participants. The following is an excerpt from his description of the experience, recorded some years after the experiment took place.

"I was awash in a sea of colour. These bands of swooshing liquid. It was like being underwater in an ocean of different colour bands. Sometimes, it would resolve into patterns with meaning, and other times it would just be this beautiful swirl of colour. It was by turns threatening and awe-inspiring. It was a radial design, like a mandala, with the colours in the centre leading out to the sides, each one a different colour and pattern." Young felt that he was in the centre of this circle, frozen until he made a decision. "I could see that each colour band was a different life experience. A different path to take. And I was in the centre where they all started. I could choose any path I wanted. It was incredible freedom, but I had to choose one. To stay in the centre was to die. I couldn't choose. I just couldn’t pick one. And then I died.”

During the ordeal, Young wrote a note to himself. Once the trip had passed, he found it and saw it read “NOBODY SHOULD HAVE TO GO THROUGH THIS. EVER!” "I wasn't talking about the drug trip," he later said. "I was talking about having to make this choice of what to be. I was talking about having an ego and having to have it die in order to live in freedom. I had to die in order to become who I could be. I did make a choice, in that willingness to die.“ Young spent another few hours tripping after this experience, in what he described as a pleasant comedown. It allowed him to reflect on the death of his ego, and how it had freed him as a person in a profoundly religious way.

Long Term Effects: Following Up On The Participants

25 years later, Rick Doblin, the founder of MAPS, decided to follow up on the work of Phanke, who had unfortunately passed away. All of the participants he spoke to still describe the experience as one of the most spiritually significant experiences of their lives.

It effected Reverend Young so significantly that he now works to educate people on the way drugs effect our lives. He found the experience to be extremely significant; but he has also seen the way drugs can tear people’s lives apart, and believes that they should be used in an educated and controlled manner. To this end, he works to try and help people make informed choices about drug use, instead of advocating or condoning their use.

Exploring the Marsh Chapel Findings Today: Replicating The Experiment

The War on Drugs has effectively halted all further research into the matter, but in recent years, things have been easing up. In 2006, Roland Griffiths published the findings of his research that aimed to replicate the Marsh Chapel experiment in a much more controlled and scientific setting. It was found that 79% of participants reported a sense of well-being and satisfaction after the use of psilocybin, with a 14 month follow up finding that the majority of participants rated it as one of the most profound spiritual experiences of their lives.

Psychedelics today

Today, psychedelics are taking a much larger role in scientific research. Just like the work of Griffiths, science is now beginning to explore the practical and spiritual application of hallucinogens, and are finding a whole array uses. For example, Swiss research has found that LSD given to terminally ill patients greatly reduced the anxiety of death, making them feel at peace with themselves, which continued long after the drug had worn off. Magic mushrooms have also been shown to have a hugely significant impact on the lives of those suffering from PTSD when used as part of their therapy, improving their lives for at least a year.

It just goes to show what happens when governments ban things they don’t understand for their own monetary or political gain. Psychedelics are a tool that have wrongfully been held back. They are to be harnessed for both medical and spiritual purposes, with minimal risk of danger (certainly less danger than some of the legal substances we are encouraged to buy). Hopefully more scientists will explore the true nature of psychedelics, and help move towards their responsible and beneficial use.