Enthusiasm and Religious Melancholy
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  • Enthusiasm and Religious Melancholy

    Politics, the soul, and distemper
    Comparing symptoms and religion
    naughty and sometimes blasphemous thoughts
    Treatment or Conviction?

    Psychiatry, religion and politics in seventeenth century England

    Were the mad doctors right?

    Politics, the soul, and distemper

    If we consider seventeenth and eighteenth century ideas of enthusiasm and religious melancholy in relation to the religious and political conflicts of the time, we find that labelling these states as distemper, instead of treating them as genuine experiences, was contentious. The medical idea of distemper was being applied to the religious experiences of Quakers and Baptists - experiences on which such sects based their demands for political and social reform.

    Enthusiasm is a term used to denote possession by a superior power. Maurice Causaubon published the first separate treatise on it in 1655:

    Causaubon divided enthusiasm into two kinds:

      supernatural or "true possession"

      natural, often mistaken for the real thing, but caused by insanity

    Causaubon's book was published in the period between the execution of the English King Charles 1st in 1649, and the restoration of Charles 2nd in 1660. At this time, religious sects were multiplying profusely and their conflicting demands for a restructuring of society were creating a threat to political stability in England.

    Enthusiasm is a state of religious excitement associated with many of these groups. Nowadays we remember particularly the behaviour of the Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), because this group survived and became an established denomination. The early "Friends" were noted for the paroxysms of violent shaking when the spirit of God was working in them. Hence the nick-name "Quakers". To suggest that these paroxysms might not be evidence of God's inspiration, but an effect of nature, was not only to question their religion, but the social and political demands that they based on these experiences.

    Comparing symptoms and religion


    Sir Richard Blackmore (1635-1729), in 1725 wrote in his Treatise of the Spleen and Vapours that:

      "diffidence, scruples and fears concerning the sincerity of faith and repentance and their everlasting state", are by "distemper increased, even sometimes to so deep a despondence and self-condemnation as borders on despair"

    John Moore, in 1692, in a sermon On Religious Melancholy said that a symtom of distemper was:

      "being plagued by dread of punishments which God has threatened to inflict on unrelenting sinners, despite that they have a 'sincere love of God'"


    The religious leaders, George Fox and John Bunyan, both report how for years they suffered from experiences that sound very like those described as symptoms by Blackmore and Moore - despite their earnest seeking after truth.

    Bunyan, for example, writes:

      "also would I pray wherever I was; whether at home or abroad; in house or field ... yet I knew not where I was. Neither as yet could I attain to any comfortable persuasion that I had faith in Christ but ... began to find my soul assaulted with fresh doubts."

    and Fox writes that:

      "frequently in the night I walked mournfully about by myself, for I was a man of sorrows in the times of the first workings of the Lord in me." (Fox's Journal 1647)

    The despondence and doubts were not milder than Blackmore would have called "distemper". Bunyan does not say that they "bordered on despair", but that "these things did sink me into a very deep despair." (my emphasis)

    naughty and sometimes blasphemous thoughts

    Bunyan's autobiography had been in circulation for some years before John Moore preached his sermon On Religious Melancholy in 1692. In this sermon, Moore spoke of people being overpowered by "naughty and sometimes Blasphemous Thoughts" which "start in their minds, while they are exercised of God".

    Such occurences are frequently referred to by Bunyan. For instance, he records how, when in company with other Christians:

    or again:

      "In those days, when I had heard others talk of what was the sin against the Holy Ghost, then would the tempter so provoke me to desire sin, that I was as if I could not, must not, neither should be quiet until I had committed it; now no sin would serve but that: If it were to be committed by speaking such word, then I have been as if my mouth would have spoken such word, whether I would or no: And in so string a measure was this temptation upon me, that often I have been ready to clap my hands under my chin, to hold my mouth from opening; and to that end also I have had thoughts at other time, to leap with my head downward, into some muckhill- hole or other, to keep my mouth from speaking."

    Treatment or Conviction?

    Such states of mind as Bunyan describes require some resolution. A physical treatment may remove them, or the resolution may be of the mind or soul. If there is no resolution, the sufferer still presses for one.

    Some doctors attempted to treat such states physically. The Rev. George Trosse was treated with "Physic, a low diet, and hard keeping", but others fared better. In 1700, David Irish considered a good diet to be most effective. He claimed to

      "cure all that are curable, whether they be afflicted with any sort of sickness, or Melancholy, Madness, or any strange Convulsion-Fits"


      he allows the Melancholy, Mad, and such whose Consciences are Opprest with the sense of Sin, good Meat every day etc."

    But, whatever treatment, and however effective it was, the outcome would be tragic in the eyes of people like Bunyan, Fox and (later) Wesley. As far as they are concerned, it is not distemper that causes this distress, but the hand of God. To be assured of one's salvation is the goal, and to be conscious of the need for that salvation is infinitely more desirable than being made oblivious of it.

    Bunyan writes:

      "And though I was much troubled and tossed and afflicted, with the sight, and sense, and terror, of my own wickedness, yet I was afraid to let this sight and sense go quite out of my mind. For I found, that unless guilt of conscience was taken off the right way, that is, by the blood of Christ, a man grew rather worse for the loss of his trouble of mind than better."

    Half a century later, Susannah Wesley writes anxiously to her son, John, about a man who has been visited by Monroe, the physician at Bedlam and owner of a private mad-house:

      "The reason for my writing so soon is I'm somewhat troubled at the case of poor Mr Mac-Cune. I think his wife was ill advised to send for that wretched fellow Monroe for by what I hear the man is not lunatick, but rather under strong conviction of sin; and hath much more need of a spiritual than bodily physician."

    Psychiatry, religion and politics in seventeenth century England

    Ernest Troeltsch, and many other sociologists have made a broad division in Christian forms between the church type and the " sect type.

    The former, typified by the Catholic Church, accepts the secular order, dominates the masses and desires in principle to cover the whole life of humanity. In doing so it rejects the primitive communion of believers that was the basis of primitive Christians and the direct experience of divinity that typified them. The divine power was instead mediated through the ecclesiastical structure of the church.

    The sects reasserted the directness of believers' communion with God, rejecting the ecclesiastical mediation of divine power, and organising their church as a communion of believers, excluding unbelievers from membership.

    "Their attitude towards the world, the State, and Society may be indifferent, tolerant, or hostile, since they have no desire to control and incorporate these forms of social life; on the contrary, they tend to avoid them; their aim is usually either to tolerate their presence alongside of their own body, or even to replace these social institutions by their own society."

    The latter tendency was a prominent feature of the period under review. The English sects that proliferated under the Commonwealth sought to transform the country and the consequent problem of social order largely accounts for the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

    In England, a simple three part typology will help us to explicate the relevant developments of 1660 to 1717.
    Christian Type Secular Government Religious Experience
    Anglican State Church Mediated
    Presbyterian (Moderates) Church State Direct, moderated by church
    Sects (Independents) Godly, secular state Direct: authority in Bible or Holy Spirit

    This typology is not supposed to correctly define the position of Anglicans, Presbyterians and Independents. These groups were products of the religious political conflicts of the seventeenth century, and nothing short of a book could do justice to the complexity of positions that developed. The typology serves only to indicate broad connections between church types, favoured forms of government and modes of religious experience.

    The Restoration was a victory for the Anglicans, and critical decisions were taken within the following two years as to who should be included within the orthodox church.

    Compromise with the groups I have denoted as Presbyterians was theoretically possible and some in fact conformed whilst others did not.

    Compromise with the sects was not possible for they rejected a priori any ecclesiastical mediation of divine power.

    Bunyan, for instance, was immediately imprisoned, whilst Richard Baxter - the leader of the Presbyterian party, who "consistently endeavoured to exert a moderating influence" was offered the see of Hereford, declined it, and was later persecuted by Judge Jeffreys.

    1662 to 1689 marked a period of penal sanctions against all dissenters, but in 1689 the Act of Toleration for dissenting Worship was passed.

    It is in this period following the Act of Toleration that the majority of texts on "Religious Melancholy" that Hunter and MacAlpine quote date from. They are not written predominantly by those who are furthest away from the "sects" in religious experiences and convictions. That is they are not written by those to whom the experiences of Quakers and Baptists might seem the most strange or unaccountable. Apart from the Sermon on Religious Melancholy, they are all, in fact, written by moderate dissenters, people who are themselves very close in religious belief and experience to the sects, and had themselves been persecuted for their religious practices prior to 1689. Timothy Rogers and George Tross, in fact, base their accounts on their own experiences.

    It seems to me that these facts need to be related to the political circumstances following on the revolution of 1688. Prior to the ascent of William and Mary to the English throne the legitimacy of the monarch was defended by the doctrine of the divine right of Kings.

    To dissent from the established church, and to claim recourse to religious knowledge that could contradict the authority of that church was necessarily a political act at the same time as being a religious act.

    Dissenter and traitor would appear to be synonymous terms, or at least dangerously close. Under such circumstances no group of dissenters would have any political motive for dissociating himself from any other. The act of dissent was the crime.

    By participating in a political change of sovereign, however, the Tory party conceded that the legitimacy of sovereigns did not rest on divine right, but that under certain circumstances the ruled could determine who ruled them. By this constitutional change the toleration of dissent was made politically possible and the Act of Toleration followed a year later.

    In the new circumstances the dissenters do have political motivation for differentiating themselves from one another, for the political situation is far more flexible. One can, for instance, lawfully continue to worship as a dissenter, but technically qualify for political office by the practice of "occasional conformity". To the groups susceptible to such compromise with the world, the representation of certain extremes of religious experiences as the product of distemper would thus:

      a) Enable them to deny the authority of such experiences in their own lives and so accommodate to "the world" with a good conscience

      b) Demonstrate their political reliability by dissociating them from the extreme enthusiasme of the sects which were the source of such politically dangerous doctrines as the Quakers refusal to fight for the King and their attitude to the civil magistrates.

    Were the mad doctors right?

    The experiences of many of the early dissenters seem so weird that it is difficult for us not to feel convinced that the mad doctors were on the right track when they suggested these experiences were exacerbated by distemper. Bunyan and Fox both had visions, heard voices, and acted out the most amazing convictions.

    For example:

    "I lifted up my head and saw three steeple house spires, and they struck at my life... the word of the Lord came to me, that I must go thither ... I was commanded by the Lord to pull off my shoes ... it was winter, but the word of the Lord was like fire in me ... I went up and down the streets, crying with a loud voice: Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield. As I went down the town, there ran like a channel of blood down the streets, and the market-place was like a pool of blood." (Fox, writing about an experience he dates Winter 1651, shortly after his release from prison)

    Our beliefs and experiences of what is normal today should not be allowed to cloud our judgement with respect to the past.

    The credibility of Fox and Bunyan's accounts was not so low in their time that anyone tried to inter them as mad. Maybe if their social position had been weak enough, or there had been a family dispute over property, it would have been different.

    Cruden, who was interred in the eighteenth century proved difficult to keep in a mad-house because of his single-minded conviction of purpose. He escaped, and convincing the Lord Mayor of his sanity was "set at liberty".

    Neither was Wesley, in the same period, ever at risk himself, only his followers and those showing signs of being his followers.

    From accounts such as those that Wesley gives, it would appear that the "sufferer" needed to be ambiguous enough in his conviction to be willing, under pressure, to co-operate with the doctor, before his experience could be successfully invalidated as exacerbated by distemper.

    This situation is analogous to one described by Jock Young in his analysis of 1960s drug-takers. Two roles are open to the dissenter and the drug- taker, the normal one of his subculture or the sick role. The latter role tends to be adopted by isolated deviants, people under particularly intense social strains and in ambiguous positions that can be resolved by becoming tame deviants.

    A major difference is that the dissenters experiences were far more culturally acceptable as normal in their time than those of drug-users in ours.

    The orthodox (Anglican) church was, of course, a far more influential authority in the late seventeenth century than now. It taught and maintained belief in the literal truth of the Bible where such things as the dissenters experienced are described, and it taught belief in the active intervention of God and the devil in human affairs. Furthermore, its teachings established the importance of such issues for human affairs, for the unbeliever and the unregenerate were condemned to a life in Hell during the hereafter.

    The culture of the seventeenth century thus maintained the conditions in which Bunyan and Fox's testimony was likely to be believed, and accepted as evidence of the hand of God rather than a distempered imagination.

    Nor is this climate of opinion necessarily due to superstitious credulity on the part of the "masses" which led them to believe in the reality of hallucinations rather than their own senses. In other words the mad doctors were not simply urging an empirical scientific approach to the problem as against the simple credulity of the populace. Beliefs can determine perceptions to a large extent as Paul Feyerbend points out in a lengthy footnote to Problems of Empiricism. There is, he says, a

    "partial dependence of perception upon belief. What we receive from the outer world (and from the so-called 'inner' world are certain clues, which most of the time are pretty vague and indefinite. Perception is the result of the reaction of the total organism to these clues."

    "In this reaction, the knowledge acquired, the beliefs held, the emotional condition of the receiver, his fears and his expectations, play a most important role. It is these that are (partly) responsible for the formation of well-defined wholes out of indefinite patterns of stimuli ... the tendency to perceive a well-defined objective situation may make the observer see things that are not really there .. The very same process is responsible for the existence of genuine observational reports (emphasis given by Feyerbend) concerning devils and gods. We are all aware of thoughts, impulses, feelings that run counter to our conscious intentions. Usually we disregard them, for they do not occur in a very coherent fashion. It is quite different with a person believing in the existence of demons. He would perceive a meaningful pattern in such occurrences." (Feyerbend, P. 1965, note 8, p.220)

    The sensual experiences that Bunyan and Fox had, of supernatural direction are perhaps the most incredible aspect to our minds of their reports. But these may well have been fairly commonplace to their contemporaries. Indeed, contemporary doctors emphasise the persistent melancholy rather than the visions. They laid emphasis on the period of conviction of sin which was the part of the religious experience where the sufferer was actually suffering and was most likely to be willing to accept help from a mad-doctor. Furthermore, the argument for considering this the product of distemper rather than the hand of God appears to have been theological in origin not medical or an empirical observation of incidence.

    "We must very much take heed lest we ascribe Melancholy Phantasms and Passions to God's Spirit .. I advise all ... to take heed of placing Religion too much in Fears and Tears and Scruples."7

    An attempt has been made by Murphy, Wittkower, Fried and Ellenberger (1965) to identify those of the accepted symptoms of schizophrenia which are most likely to vary with culture. They found, in their cross-cultural study, that delusions of destruction and religious delusions were frequently reported from Christian and Mohammedan cultures and quite infrequently from Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto and other East Asian religious cultures. They say that these types of disturbance cannot therefore be considered an intrinsic part of the schizophrenia process.

    This finding would appear to indicate that techniques of cultural analysis rather than medical analysis are the correct ones to the religious experiences of the sects in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

    This web page is based on Psychiatry and Social Conflict. A Study in the History of Psychiatry in England during the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries an essay by Andrew Roberts, 1973. Typescript.

    © Andrew Roberts 1973-

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