Quakers have been associated with mental illness since their beginnings in seventeenth century England. Early Quakers were accused of insanity because of their radical religious ideas and their ecstatic mode of worship. Quaker theology, especially the idea that everyone had access to that of God within them, and therefore did not need to rely on external authority, was very radical. The Quaker way of worship was also alarming. Early Friends interrupted church services to argue with priests, shook and cried during Meeting for Worship, and even wandered naked through the streets decrying sinfulness. Quakers performed these actions because they felt led to do so by that of God within them, and following their leadings was more important than maintaining public order. To outsiders, these actions looked like those of mad people.
By the nineteenth century, Quakers had become much more respectable. As part of this transformation, the more extreme parts of early Friends’ witness disappeared from Quaker worship. The structures of Quaker Meetings and communities worked to contain and shape Friends’ leadings. Especially in the 1810s and 1820s, Quakers struggled to determine the right balance between Inner Light-led worship, which could look extreme, and the more orderly worship they had begun to practice. Their struggle was compounded by the fact that Quakers had not completely escaped their radical roots, and outsiders often still believed negative stereotypes about Quakers. For example, the renowned doctor Johann Spurzheim wrote that Quakers were more prone to insanity than the general population because they married within their group (79). These factors meant that, when the Asylum was founded, Quakers were associated in the public mind with insanity.
In the early nineteenth century, Quakers were concerned with trying to find a balance between inward authority (the Inner Light) and outward authority (the Bible, elders, etc.). The majority of the Quakers who were in charge in Philadelphia were interested in purifying and codifying Quaker beliefs, which often meant disowning people who did not agree with them. They thought that individual Quakers’ leadings should not override the truth as found in the Bible, or as stated by Quaker elders. These Quakers, who would become known as Orthodox Quakers after the schism, were worried about the preaching of minister Elias Hicks and his followers. Hicks believed that people found the truth experientially, through the Inner Light, and that truth was more important than tradition. In 1827, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting split because of the conflict between these two factions of Quakers. The Orthodox group, which put a priority on order, made up the majority of the Quakers in Philadelphia. However, there was a sizable minority who agreed with Hicks, and they became known as Hicksites. The Hicksite-Orthodox schism was an incredibly acrimonious one, and it was not completely healed for over one hundred years.