Religious Melancholy and Protestant Experience in America

Religious Melancholy and Protestant Experience in America

Religious Melancholy and Protestant Experience in America

Religious Melancholy and Protestant Experience in America

Synopsis

This original examination of the spiritual narratives of conversion in the history of American Protestant evangelical religion reveals an interesting paradox. Fervent believers who devoted themselves completely to the challenges of making a Christian life, who longed to know God's rapturous love, all too often languished in despair, feeling forsaken by God. Ironically, those most devoted to fostering the soul's maturation neglected the well-being of the psyche. Drawing upon many sources, including unpublished diaries and case studies of patients treated in nineteenth-century asylums, Julius Rubin's fascinating study thoroughly explores religious melancholy--as a distinctive stance toward life, a grieving over the loss of God's love, and an obsession and psychopathology associated with the spiritual itinerary of conversion. The varieties of this spiritual sickness include sinners who would fast unto death ("evangelical anorexia nervosa"), religious suicides, and those obsessed with unpardonable sin. From colonial Puritans like Michael Wigglesworth to contemporary evangelicals like Billy Graham, among those who directed the course of evangelical religion and of their followers, Rubin shows that religious melancholy has shaped the experience of self and identity for those who sought rebirth as children of God.

Excerpt

This book is about religious melancholy in American Protestant experience from colonial settlement to the present evangelical awakening. Melancholy here refers to an affect, a distinctive stance toward life, a grieving over the loss of God's love, and an obsession and psychopathology associated with the spiritual itinerary of conversion. The religious melancholiac desired, above all else, to foster, through godly living and the practice of piety, an inward devotional life marked by a warm, personal relationship with God. Yet, those who would know God in moments of rapture and contemplation so frequently found themselves forsaken by God.

I first encountered cases of religious melancholy during my doctoral research in sociology. I began reading the medical records and correspondence of mental patients admitted to the Hartford Retreat during the 1820s through the 1840s. This period coincided with a religious revival called the Second Great Awakening in America. Asylum records frequently included letters from referring physicians, ministers, family, and friends that introduced the patient to the asylum staff. Here, captured in the exquisite handwriting of the Retreat's scribners, were the accounts of hundreds of cases of persons who felt forsaken by God, immobilized by spiritual crisis, trapped in a slough of despondreligious melancholia. The modern asylum sequestered and concentrated cases of religious melancholia, collecting within one institution Millerites in despair when prophecy failed, disconsolate ministers and missionaries, those convinced they had committed the unpardonable sin (blasphemy against the Holy Spirit), others who felt that they had grieved away the Spirit during protracted meetings or New Measure revivalism, and self-accused sinners who attempted to fast unto death. These examples provide only a partial anatomy of religious melancholiacs in nineteenth-century asylums.

I have long wanted to investigate and understand the origins and "career" of religious melancholy, a disease and concept that was once commonplace among Americans but by the early twentieth century had become relegated to the status of a delusion associated with an underlying mental disease. This book is research in the spirit of Michel Foucault, to uncover from the multi- layered stratigraphy of our historical archeology of knowledge the spiritual . . .

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