Religious Life | Quakers & Mental Health

Religious Life at Friends Asylum

drawing of quaker silent meeting
J. Walter West, The Silent Meeting. Undated, Print. Collection 850, Quaker and Special Collections, Haverford College, Haverford, PA.
"[The] Asylum… is intended to furnish besides the requisite medical aid, such tender sympathetic attention and religious oversight as may soothe [the patients'] agitated minds and thereby under the Divine blessing facilitate their restoration of this inestimable gift [reason]."
- Contributors to the Friends' Asylum, Sixth Month, 4, 1813

Attending Meeting for Worship

drawing of Quaker Meeting House
"Frankford Friends Meeting." Undated, Print. Collection 911, Box 1. Quaker and Special Collections, Haverford College, Haverford, PA. Available at: link.

Bonsall allowed patients who he thought could sit quietly to accompany him and his family to Frankford Meeting each week. Many of the patients valued their time at Meeting. Hannah J. told Bonsall that, “the first time she went from here to Meeting it was very Mortifying. [S]he was very much humbled indeed[,] not doubting but that she would be looked upon as one of the Insane riding in the Crazy Carriage &c. but after getting to Meeting she felt sweet peace” (Fourth Month, 12, 1818). For Hannah J., Meeting provided a place where she was seen as more than her illness. Shortly after Hannah J.’s conversation with Bonsall, Bonsall noted, without any hint of disapproval, that Hannah J. had spoken in Meeting. No one was upset or embarrassed that a patient from the Asylum had given a message. Although Hannah J. had worried that the Frankford Friends would judge her, she was able to move beyond her fears and gain comfort from attending Meeting, as well as contribute to the worship of others. However, sometimes attending Meeting for Worship proved to be too much for some patients. See Ruth S.’s story in the Patient Profiles to learn about her experiences at Frankford Friends Meeting.

Religious Treatment

Bonsall used religion as a part of his treatment for some patients, like Benjamin W., who entered the Asylum depressed because he was convinced that he had ended his traveling ministry in Ireland and England too early. Although depression was often valued in the Quaker community as a part of the spiritual journey towards virtue, Benjamin W.’s depression was more extreme. As a way of reassuring Benjamin W. about the value of his ministry, Bonsall took him to Quarterly Meeting, and had him read the certificates from Britain and Ireland Yearly Meetings about his time in Britain and Ireland. Bonsall thought that hearing weighty Friends praise Benjamin W.’s spiritual gifts and actions would help Benjamin W. to see that his depression was not sensible. However, two months later, Bonsall wrote that Benjamin W. still suffered from “occasional depression which will probably be felt by him very frequently thro’ his life as his apprehension that he left England before he had fulfilled all the service required of him has made a deep impression on his mind and cannot easily be eradicated” (First Month, 5, 1820). Bonsall’s attempts to reason Benjamin W. out of his depression through contact with the Quaker world did not succeed, and Bonsall recognized his failure. However, religious comfort was not the only way that Bonsall attempted to cure Benjamin W. Bonsall also subjected him to an early form of electrical therapy.

Religious Life at Other Asylums

The Friends' Asylum’s overt emphasis on Quaker spirituality in treatment was unique among early American asylums because the Friends' Asylum was the only American asylum made both by and for Quakers. Quakers involved in running other asylums, like Thomas Kirkbride of the Pennsylvania Hospital and Thomas Eddy of the New York Hospital, might have felt led by their Quaker faith to help with asylums, but they could not overtly use that Quaker faith as a part of their treatment method because their patients were not all Quaker. Thomas Eddy did argue that religious means could be used to help treat patients if “done with great care and circumspection” (11). However, Eddy did not mean Quaker faith. Since the New York Hospital was a public institution, it served patients of a variety of religions, and Eddy went on to write about the usefulness of helping each patient recreate his or her individual religious rituals as much as possible. Eddy’s version of religious therapy in asylums could not be strictly Quaker, unlike that of Friends' Asylum.

Religious Life for Non-Quakers

The community’s shared values, like the Quaker religion, were used create a bond and a motivation for improvement at Friends’ Asylum. It meant that, like many families, only one religion was practiced within the Asylum. Non-Quaker patients received the same medical and moral treatments but did not have the opportunity to attend their own religious services. Records do not mention whether or not patients could bring their own bibles or prayer books so they could practice their religion on their own. Instead, if patients wanted to attend any form of religious services they attended Quaker meetings. In fact, many non-Quaker patients did go to meetings. William Garrow, an Episcopalian, attended meeting multiple times while at the Friends’ Asylum and he was not the only one(First Month, 19th, 1840). Many other patients who were not members or professors attended meetings occasionally as well. Perhaps this was a way to become a part of the community at Friends’ Asylum.

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