Mental Health and Quaker Theology | Quakers & Mental Health

Mental Health and Quaker Theology

woman moved by the Spirit to speak in a Quaker style meeting
J. Walter West, The Silent Meeting. Undated Collection 850, Quaker and Special Collections, Haverford College, Haverford, PA.

Early Quaker Worship

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.

Origin of the term "Quaker"

Early Quakers did not call themselves Quakers; they called themselves the Religious Society of Friends in the Truth (now usually shortened to the Society of Friends). The term Quaker started as a derogatory one, referencing the way that some Quakers shook while worshipping. By the nineteenth century, the term Quaker was no longer a negative one, but had become the main name that people used to refer to members of the Religious Society of Friends. However, Quakers were more likely to refer to themselves as Friends than Quakers.

Nineteenth Century Friends

Quakers in religious frenzy
A Short Examination of the Spirit of Quakerism. Undated, Print. Collection 850, Quaker and Special Collections, Haverford College, Haverford, PA.

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.

The Hicksite-Orthodox Schism

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.

The Hicksite-Orthodox Schism and the Friends Asylum

The Quakers who were involved in starting and managing the Friends' Asylum nearly all became Orthodox Quakers in the split. Their roles as leaders of the Friends' Asylum indicated that they held a privileged position in the Quaker community, which made them more likely to become Orthodox Quakers. Their place on the top of the Quaker hierarchy gave them a particular viewpoint on insanity. Historian Patricia D’Antonio argued that the Orthodox Quakers were “less tolerant of behavioral eccentricities than… their Hicksite brethren” (50). Some of these eccentricities were probably related to mental illness. The Orthodox control of the Asylum gave the Orthodox Friends a place where they could take care of eccentricities without having to disown people.

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