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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 30

Religion: In its Connection with Insanity

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Religion: In its Connection with Insanity.

I Do not propose to deal with this subject in any sense as an expert. Until my special duties (as the chaplain at Sunnyside) directed my attention towards it, I shared the popular ignorance, or, if it is knowledge, the very superficial amount which commonly exists, as to the connection of body and mind and of the modes in which they act and react on each other, and—lest it may, at the outset, be thought that my subject is one which would be more suitably dealt with by the "Doctor" than the "Parson," as some excuse for my temerity in attempting to grapple with it, I may say that I feel sure that it is one of little less importance to the one than to the other. On the first blush of it, a work on medical science may seem as much out of place on a clergyman's table as "Coke upon Lyttelton," or "Chitty on Contracts," but the contrast of two familiar saws will point the direction and the distinction of the moral I would draw; the one which depicts a "man who is his own lawyer as having a fool for his client," the other which describes a man, of ordinary intelligence I presume, as being "at 40 either a physician or a fool but—I am not proposing that the parson should set himself up as a rival to the doctor—the study of medicine, followed up by practical experience in the diagnosis of disease, is a life-long one, and especially in connection with insanity, and makes the idea of lay rivalry absurd; but I do not regard it altogether as an extravagant idea to look forward to the time, not perhaps so far distant, when no one will be considered as a man of education unless he possesses, at all events, such an amount of elementary knowledge of the human frame as will serve him in good stead in cases of accident, protect him may be from the imposition of his own disordered fancies, or his wife's too susceptible nerves, and, in the case of the parson, enable him to shield his less-informed parishioner from the rampant evil of the nostrum-vendor or quack.

If to this it is said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, which has a tendency to turn men into meddlers, or hypochondriacs; I believe that it will have the opposite effect. Superficial knowledge, which is commonly ignorance wrapped up and disguised in words, is one thing, but the knowledge for which I would plead of the corporeal machine, and which is, as far as it goes, exact, will guard its owner from tampering with disease, and I submit, as a point not altogether page 11 unworthy of consideration by those interested in higher education, that if a man is not satisfied to remain in ignorance of the many philosophies of the universe, why should he be content to remain ignorant of the philosophy of his own microcosm? What we have to bear in mind is this, that the most brilliant intellect is enshrined in a casket of construction so wonderful and delicate, and upon the well-being of which so much depends, that upon the self-control or otherwise of the individual the intellect, which in the one case might have been the delight and glory of the age, in the other serves but as a beacon telling of wasted power and untimely wreck! This latter, a result brought about manifestly from ignorance or violation of physical laws, as certain and as well-known in their operation as those affecting the inanimate Creation. Some knowledge, then, of the laws concerning the body, with an elementary, yet an accurate, acquaintance with the primary laws of hygiene, should, I think, form a part of the curriculum of study in our Public or other schools. Our schoolmasters would then recognise points affecting their pupils, now sometimes overlooked. Weariness at lessons, apparent dulness or obstinacy, would not invariably be treated as moral delinquencies, but would sometimes be relegated to the physician rather than to the whipping-stool.

And here I would leave my few words of preface, only adding that, strong as is my conviction of the general importance of my subject, I am still more impressed with its value with regard to the clergy. If, as I feel sure, the medical man should know philosophically the influence of the mind upon the body, which elevates his profession out of the mere knowledge of drugs and bone-setting to the high place which it so justly holds amongst the sciences, so should the clergyman be able to estimate the influence of the body on the mind, which lifts religion out of the mazes of superstition and priestcraft, or the region of sentimental emotion, to the place it is meant by the Creator to occupy as the salve of body and soul. And whatever value I claim for my paper, at least, is on this ground, that the conclusions are arrived at after fair enquiry, with an earnest desire to obtain, even if I do not throw light on the subject of such interest and importance. My duties have given me the great advantage—from my present point of view—of much personal intercourse with the insane; and the benefit which Dr. Hacon, the medical superintendent at Sunny side, has done me in allowing me from time to time to accompany him in his rounds, and hearing his opinions on the various cases of his patients, but he is in no way answerable for any crudities of opinion which these pages may unfold. I shall have occasion to quote soon the opinion with which he has favoured me as regards religious insanity generally, and I have read such books as Bucknill and Tuke on Psychological Medicine, Acton, Maudesley, Cheyne and others, more or less bearing on it, but out of consideration for your patience I shall only produce of my reading what I may deem sufficient to establish my point, which is to come to a satisfactory conclusion as to whether religion is ever, and, if so, in what degree, the cause of insanity. By the term "religion," for the purpose of my present paper, I mean the Christian faith, a belief in Jesus Christ in all the beauty of His divine character, the example of what man duly constituted and divinely led may attain to, to be page 12 "perfect in Christ Jesus and by no possible perversion, that lean conceive of, can that belief rightly held and that faith duly exercised be said to drive men to madness. It is true that what has been termed "the borderland of religion," in the awakened conscience, in the remorse which follows consciousness being aroused in a man that he has either spent ill or wasted his life, there is much mental distress sometimes, if not actually distraction, and the question occurs at once in such cases, if the symptoms are at all outside the common run of things, how are we to distinguish between the sound or the unsound state of the natural conscience or mental condition as affected by religion. The physician of the body and the physician of the soul are hero alike concerned. What is the cause of your compunction or remorse? Has the state of your bodily health nothing to do with it? or your method of living and disregard of the ordinary laws of health? These, and such like, are the questions which have to be put by both. If it is discovered that there is disproportion between cause and effect, great mental disturbance—whether approaching, as our medical experts would term it, exaltation or melancholia, and arising from no adequate cause; that the man once bright and companionable is now morose; that he who was once neat and orderly in dress has become a sloven, irritable in temper, impulsive, where before he acted only after due thought and deliberation, and couples these with morbid talk touching religion, religious subjects forming, perhaps, the main part of his talk, it surely is not philosophical to put this disturbing element in the man's bodily and mental state down to religion. It is not my province to say what the cause is, but the medical scientist tells us that religion has in the main nothing to do with it, although it occurs often in those who have had a strictly religious training. But there is another aspect in which our subject has to be regarded. Take the case of a person who in time of health was devoted to religion, and who has become insane; as in every case of insanity the mode adopted is, I believe, to ascertain what the initial symptoms were, what faculty, or sentiment or affection or function first showed signs of giving way, as we shall see when I bring my medical evidence to bear, the case is not one necessarily to be classed under the head of madness from religion. Experience confirms this. One illustration I will give. A woman who was devoted to religion, and to sacrificing herself for the good of others, committed suicide. She had for some time previously shown symptoms of melancholia. The question is, of course, asked at once, Was religion the cause of her insanity? When her history was written it revealed this much. She had been suffering from an attack of jaundice. In order not to interfere with her work, and over anxious for a speedy cure, she puts herself into the hands of a plausible vendor of a patent medicine, who promises all she seeks. That the drops he supplied her with were of a "kill or cure" character was evident, from the cautions given to avoid spilling them on her clothes. She gets, anyhow, temporary relief; but there can be small doubt that fatal injury was done to the stomach, ascending to and upsetting the brain. Unless God had worked a miracle on her behalf, interfered with her power of free will, which for one thing distinguishes man from the brute creation, the result was inevitable. In no sense could the woman's religion be page 13 held accountable for the mischief. I am prepared to find (hat as the subject is investigated there will be less and less disposition on the part of the medical expert to ascribe religion as the exciting cause of insanity—true religion, which often removes or mitigates the exciting cause, which explains to us the many social problems which without it we should in vain attempt to solve, which reconciles us to duties else hard for flesh and blood to fulfil. I am ready to accept what all medical authority points to, that mental derangement may originate in the predisposed in any cause which unduly excites and agitates the mind. It is the match laid to the magazine, the fire to the tow.

Dr. Hacon, of Sunnyside Asylum, says, "Religious excitement as a cause of insanity is really only a symptom showing preponderance of religious delusions, and, therefore, we have to ask ourselves the reason for the preponderance of such delusions. We know that such cases are generally melancholic, and we know that when a man is feeling particularly well, in rude health, he is more likely to forget religion, and I take it that the excessive religious excitement is only a sign of the extreme prostration of a civilised brain. At the same time I am bound to confess, although, as Dr. Maudesley says, 'Religion is necessary to the healthy mind 'that the immoderate indulgence in religious observances and practices is liable to lead to an unhealthy state of mind, which may be best seen in the mistaken devotion of nuns. And inasmuch as religion increases our self-reliance, by teaching us to rely on a Supreme Being, and by self-observation and by self-examination teaches self-culture, it strengthens us for the battle of life. Here we may touch on the point that lunatics, with religious delusions, are full of self-accusations; but inasmuch as the religion that teaches self-accusation teaches also forgiveness on repentance, I cannot see that it can have the slightest evil influence on a healthy mind, and when I hear a melancholic patient stating that he is doomed for hell, and past forgiveness, I prefer to believe that that man, when sane, was a good rather than a bad man: and, on the other hand, the disease of the brain which, above all, is produced by a fast and immoral life, shows itself commonly by delusions of perfect happiness, coupled with highly exaggerated ideas of wealth and prosperity." I should like to couple with Dr. Hacon's view some notices of patients who have come under my own observation at Sunnyside.

A. B. was the case of a man who certainly had not been a religious man previous to his becoming insane. He believed himself to be very specially the object of Divine favour, and to be living in Tory close communion with God, heard voices and carried on conversations with the Almighty. A casual observer passing through the wards, and conversing with A.B., would undoubtedly have called it a case of religious insanity, which it was not. C.D., on the other hand, was a patient whose case there seemed to be some ground for classing under the head of religion as the exciting cause. If so, it was a favourable case, and, as far as religion went, with a deal of method in his madness. It was his practice to engage in prayer at what to us in general would seem unsuitable times and places. In talking the matter over with him he said, in a way which I did not see my way to answer, "Why, sir, if I had blasphemed at the railway page 14 station, or got drunk in the streets, the worst that would have happened to me would be to get run in by the police, but because I kneel down and pray in such places I am called mad and sent to Sunnyside." I believe he had really got into a low state of bodily health, and showed feebleness of brain power in a want of ability to manage his property. Another case, XY., was melancholic, full of self-accusation, was ready for and expectant of instant execution. To words of comfort his cry was always, "Too late." The man had his brain upset resulting from exertion and exposure in a noble attempt to save life. Both this case and that of Z., which follows, an ordinary observer would be disposed to think wrongly to classify under the head of religion. In Z.'s case there was much religious profession, and previous to admission no suspicion of insincerity, but, coupled with insanity, it assumes a combative and troublesome type. Breaches of regulations are committed from a high sense of. duty and on conscientious grounds. It would be folly to call this insanity caused by religion. Its origin must be on far different grounds. Still, we are bound to give due weight to the evidence of statistics. Bucknill and Tuke say in p. 99 of their work on Psychological Medicine, that in the analysis of our collected cases we find religious anxiety and excitement assigned in 3 per cent of the total admissions. "Doubtless, it was the initial symptom of the disorder. Still we cannot for a moment doubt," they add, "that the form in which religion is but too frequently presented is a serious cause of insanity." In the 37th Report of the Commissioners in Lunacy to the Lord Chancellor, we find that out of a grand total of admissions in 1882, in the Asylums of England and Wales, numbering 13,581, no less than 431 are assigned more or less to religion as the exciting cause. In New Zealand, for the same year, out of a total number of 419 admitted during the year, 4 only or less than 1 percent., are assigned to religious excitement; but these 431 in England and Wales, and the New Zealand 4, ought they to be so classed as thus suffering from religion? Drs. Bucknill and Tuke will still farther help us. It bears so closely upon the point in question that I will make no apology for quoting it at some length—(p. 237). "Religious exaltation is less common than the opposite condition, that of religious melancholy or depression. It has been estimated that only 1 per cent of cases of excitement assume this form. In asylums, patients are not so commonly admitted in the early stage of excitement afterwards, when signs of depression are present. Dr. Prichard gives an excellent description of religious excitement as illustrative, in his opinion, of disorder of the moral faculties without lesion of the intelligence, in cases in which it has followed a state of supposed religious destitution. The strain of excitement is too much, and the expressions of happiness too ecstatic, to be long mistaken. Pride and haughtiness succeed, accompanied by a violent deportment quite unlike the effects of a religious influence, and soon unfold the real nature of the case, or it is clearly displayed by the selfishness, the want of natural affection, the variableness of spirit, the irregular habits of the individual. Some of the founders of religious sects may with some probability be regarded as the subjects of religious insanity—having in some instances been themselves the dupes when censured for having duped their credulous page 15 followers. Irving, in modern times, is a familiar illustration of this class. A patient at the retreat at York believed it was his religious duty to have two wives and a concubine. It is easy to see that, under favourable circumstances, such a delusion might lay the foundation of a new sect—Mormonism, for instance. The founder of the sect might be deluded but sincere. Religious revivals, whatever opinion may be entertained in regard to their general or ultimate influence for good or evil, are doubtless the occasion for the outburst of some well-marked examples of intense religious excitement, in which excessive devotional feeling overrides the reason. In some cases a fearful state of prostration, either of mind or body, or mainly the former, occurs; but in others the condition is one of religious ecstacy or exaltation, complicated, in many instances, with hysteria. Some fall into a trance; others see visions. "Some of the convicted sec in their visions," we are told, "a black horse, others see a black man; others see Jesus Christ on the one side and the devil on the other, and they cry, "O, Jesus Christ save me from the devil." An eye witness of the Irish revivals speaks of "Theomania."

"Insanity," says the Rev. W. M'Ilvaine, of Belfast, "generally in one of its worst forms, Theomania, and not unfrequently in other forms of insanity equally to be dreaded, such as acute mania, has been developed to a fearful extent. Speaking guardedly, I may assert that, from unquestionable sources, I have come to the knowledge of at least 50 such cases within the last six months in this immediate neighbourhood. "Some of the disciples of Irving appear to have been in a very remarkable state of "religious exaltation. And, in passing it may be observed as a curious circumstance, that some of his congregation uttered a peculiar cry or sound, which Archdeacon Stopford, who heard it, instantly recognised 30 years afterwards as identical with that he heard in Belfast. Religious exaltation assumes a variety of epidemic forms. Assisted by the infectious influence of sympathy, it was exhibited in some phases of the dancing mania among the convulsionaires and among the American Shakers, who profess to have originated in the Camisards, or French Prophets." This is very remarkable evidence, but it is true to modern experience; as I think any reader of the Rev. Mr. Haslam's "From Death unto Life," an account of his own conversion and the revivals carried on under his agency in Cornwall, will say, but it seems to me as quite possible that insanity which has been developed through such means would, on closer enquiry, be found to arise from quite different causes from religious ones. Dr. Cheyne, a Dublin physician of great note some half-century ago, has left on record that the proportion of insane from religion, in an experience extending over 40 years, was not in the proportion of one in a thousand compared with those arising from emotional or moral insanity, wounded pride, disappointed ambition, worry, and such like. I have seen it stated that the May meetings of the great religious societies in London at Exeter Hall give rise, especially in the case of delicate and excitable women, to nervous diseases, sometimes culminating in insanity, and some cases in New Zealand which are ascribed to "Mrs. Hampson's mission," or the "Salvation Army" should, I think, be regarded in much the same page 16 way. A series of exciting religious services are unwholesome mentally, just as a regimen of highly spiced food is physically, and it would be just as reasonable in the one case to say that "religion" worked the mischief as to say in the other that "food "caused the indigestion or disordered palate. There may be mental as well as physical excess. In the one case, as in the other, it is true, "the board kills more than the sword." There is occasion for spiritual as for physical anatomy, where the clergyman should find abundant exercise for his vocation to minister to the mind diseased, and, I think, we are waking up to the fact that he has not done his work merely when he has written out his weekly sermon, however excellent, or delivered his oration in the pulpit or on the platform, however fluent and orthodox or otherwise! The point I want to urge is this, that a proper aspect of my subject, true philosophy, relieves the Christian religion of much for which it is unjustly or, at least, improperly made responsible. Religion does not pretend to work in spite of physical laws, but in full accord with them, and with the truth that there can be no contradiction in the Creator's work. It docs not claim that religion is necessarily a preservative against insanity, but, as Dr. Maudesley says (already quoted by Dr. Hacon), that it is essential to the healthy mind. "When fairly examined," says Dr. Combe, "the danger is seen to arise from the abuse of religion, and the best safeguard is found to consist in a right understanding of its principles and submission to its precepts. For if the best Christian is he who, in meekness and humility and sincerity, places his trust in God and seeks to fulfil his commandments, then he who exhausts his soul in devotion, and at the same time finds no leisure or no inclination for attending to the common duties of his station, finds himself at last involved in disease and despair, cannot be held to be a follower of Christ, but of a phantom assuming the aspect of religion. If insanity attacks such it is obviously not religion which is the cause. It is produced not by the Creed, but in spite of it. It is caused through disregard of the fact that the mind is awfully affected by the body, sometimes fatally so, and that therefore this practical truth, stands out in high relief that it should be a part of a man's education and of his religion to comprehend the demands which the body makes on his self-control and under God to submit to the trammels which it imposes on him. We cannot, then, too emphatically assert the truth that religion does not divorce those parts of our nature which God hath joined together, and that all matters concerning it come fairly and properly within her province. Were it merely and only a matter of corporeal disease, we clerics would be content to sit at the feet of the medical Gamaliels. But it is one which affects and lies behind every physical force with which we are acquainted and every material essence pertaining to the body—"there is an influence lying behind the nervous system and the bioplasms, a co-ordinating power, arranging the growth of the whole body', something which you cannot touch or see, or feel, but a force which you know is there, it is the soul—' the finest thing of all'—which exists in the physical organism, and is the true body, and which is affected so easily for good or ill." "It is not," says Julius Muller, in a passage of great power, which I should have liked to have quoted, "the 'sarx,' the mass of earthly material, but the 'soma' page 17 the organic 'whole.'" Was it not then true philosophy which made Paul say to the Romans, "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service," and which makes the Christian regard it as a high duty to keep under the body and bring it into subjection to the co-ordinate power which regulates the emotions. It may be answered to this, that the theologian should take higher ground, but the age we live in is a practical one, and if religion is to duly fulfil the great mission which is her claim to our consideration, and exercise the high prerogative which belongs to that noble work, she must not be relegated "ad nubes," but brought within the range of everyday life and within the reach of every man, composite as he is in feelings and sympathies and in the physical aspects of his nature. Many analogies subsist between them and are associated with, and indicated by corresponding intellectual and physical signs. "Laugh and grow fat" marks one shape it assumes. Another, where violent anger is indulged in, is followed by this physical consequence, "the secretions are disturbed, the bile is thrown back into the system and becomes absorbed, the whole nervous organism is unduly effected, the brain itself sympathises with the physical condition, and the man's jaundice shows itself not merely in the yellow skin but in beating may be his wife, or becoming bearish, or rather, unbearable to his friends. But this is not all, even more permanent ill effects sometimes follow if what Addison says in the "Spectator" is true, that we may trace to this head the peevish and quarrelsome folios of many an angry polemic. I am sure our medical friends will endorse what Addison prescribed as a palliative for such a condition, viz., a certain game which, under the free translation of "muscular Christianity" has in these latter days been so largely adopted, and which, without bowing down to it as a new gospel, yet contains the germ of that principle on which so much hangs, viz., the intelligent appreciation of that physical nature in us which so closely affects the spiritual and mental. One of the admirable "Aphorisms for attendants at the Hospital for the Insane at Sunnyside" embodies this, "Try and get the patients to employ themselves; when in the wards converse with them and amuse them. A want of occupation gives no rest; a mind quite vacant is a mind distressed." The summing up of the whole matter, as regards religious insanity, appears to me to be this, that it lies, after all, within a very narrow compass. (1.) That it arises sometimes undoubtedly from an exaggeration of a natural bent or inclination. Its victims, in this case, being found oftener outside than inside the walls of an asylum, but that, (2.) the most fertile source of religious insanity arises from the form in which religion is presented to the mind in which the predisposition to insanity exists and who are affected by it injuriously. Happily the instinctive feeling of mankind is casting aside the grave clothes of a theology which rules by terrorism instead of love, thus outraging alike conscience and reason—a system which has much to answer for, if in the throes of emancipation the goodly garments which belong to a purer faith are cast away as well. Can we wonder if the highly sensitive brain reels sometimes before such teaching as this with which Jonathan Edward regaled a past generation: "That God holds the sinner over the pit of page 18 hell much in the same way as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire." This of a God who teaches us to regard Him as one whose love is deeper than that of a mother for her child and whose tender mercies are over all his works; or need we be surprised that the mind stretching out its perhaps feeble hands towards God, recoils distraught and distracted before the appeals with which Spurgeon delectates, or, I should rather say, shocks our own day, when he says, "Thou wilt look up there on the throne of God, and it shall be written, 'For ever!' When the damned jingle the burning irons of their torments, they shall say, 'For ever;' when they howl, Echo cries, 'For ever!' 'For ever' is written on their racks, 'For ever' on their chains; For ever' burnetii in the fire; 'For ever' ever reigns." Well may Archdeacon Farrar ask, with reference to the above, whether those who dwell in such ghastly imaginations try to realise the significance of these expressions. There is abundance of evidence, he says, to show that the outcome of such delineations, taken alone, where not rejected as they are by the instinctive faith of man, could only be hysteria, terror, and religious madness in the weak; indignant infidelity or incredulous abhorrence in the strong. Let us exorcise, then, this demon of excess, which applies as truly to language as to liquor, and join the 44 army" of rescue to the beleaguered brethren who are yet out in the desert of mental temptation, and who are not to be won—men never have been yet—by mere brutal threatenings, although they may succumb, as men in panic will sometimes do, before the intensity of selfish fear. Can that be considered by them or by us a "Gospel," which means good news, but which is terribly bad news if it hands over the vast majority of our race to perdition, and which brings in its recruits as those who have been "shaken over hell until they smell its brimstone," as I heard it forcibly put by a preacher of this school. Perhaps the advancing tide of knowledge, which has washed away many cobwebs which affected our appreciation of physical truths will do the same for our moral faculties. We shall learn to regard those which are more closely allied to the spiritual condition as capable of being improved by due exercise or weakened by persistent neglect, and we shall learn to be cautious in ascribing to Divine agency those ills and evils which we have brought on ourselves and our children by our own persistent folly or ignorance. "Whence our race has come; what are the limits of our power over Nature and of Nature's power over us; to what goal we are tending, are the problems which present themselves anew and with undiminished interest to every man born into the world." These questions, which Huxley formulates, we believe physical science will never respond to, as being outside her domain, but find their true solution in that Gospel of Reconciliation and Renewal which shall make even the victims of insanity new creatures. And whatever doubt may exist as to the exact relation which religion bears towards insanity as an exciting cause, there is none concerning religion in its connection with insanity as a holy function ameliorating the condition of the sufferers; a condition which moves to pity, and strikes with something of awe even the most unthinking; religion which helps many thus afflicted to bear in their lucid intervals with patience and resignation the heavy cross which, may be from no fault of their own, they have page 19 inherited. And who can say how often, through her offices, even to the most clouded brain, penetrates a stray but not fruitless beam from the Divine source of all Light and Life and Love. Happily the days are over when the chain and whip were in vogue as remedial agencies for insanity—gone, with the burning of witches, and other time-honoured, and not to be in their departure deplored, customs of our ancestors. Now, all that skilful medical help, kind treatment, and most jealous care for their rights can do, is provided by the Legislature for those mentally afflicted, and religious ministration, if not provided here for them by the State, as in England, is recognised by the public conscience and by the Church as equally incumbent in rendering which, walking in the footprints of the Saviour, who found that not even the insane were outside the wide embracing power of His love, and who recognised as the only claim upon His help the sufferers need coupled with his desire to be relieved of the burden of his woe.