Madness, Civilization, and Mormonism; or “Are Mormons Monomaniacs?”

By October 28, 2007


 In Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, Michel Foucault revealed that as early as the 18th century, individuals in Europe were being institutionalized for religious enthusiasm and what was seen as too strict of devotion.  Doctors went so far as to recommend “solitary confinement for religious persons who believe themselves to be inspired and who seek to make proselytes.”1

Subsequent studies have shown that this was far from uniquely European, and the American hospitals and asylums likewise identified religion among the various causes of insanity.A few weeks ago, Spencer Fluhman  presented a lecture at the BYU American Studies Lecture Series entitled, “‘A Perfect Hallucination of the Mind’: American Encounters with Early LDS Spirituality.” The research and conclusions of the lecture are part of Fluhman’s larger study of “Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Antebellum America” that he completed as a PhD dissertation at University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2006.

Among other things, Fluhman explained that doctors of 19th-century American Insane Asylums would query the individuals accompanying (and committing) new patients the following, “Is the patient a professor of religion? If so, of what denomination?”3, and that it was not uncommon for the answer to be “Mormonism.”  In his dissertation, Fluhman summarizes one such case:

[One] superintendent … seized upon on the preponderance of what he regarded as troublesome religious movements to explain spikes in admittance to the asylum. “Of the 87 cases admitted during the past year,” he wrote, “13 were attributed. with as much certainty as can ever be obtained on this subject, to religious excitement.” The “unusually large” proportion of cases with a religious connection, he surmised, was due “no doubt, to the extraordinary variety and vehemence of the religious movements that have characterized the past year.” Not only had the year [1841] seen a “remarkabl[e] awakening of enthusiasm among the older and more regular sects” but “Mormonism, Millerism, and other eccentric manifestations” had “agitated the public mind” to an “alarming” degree. With “such moral epidemics” sweeping “over the face of society,” he concluded, it was no wonder that so many predisposed to insanity had been “overthrown by their restless force.”4

A few other interesting conclusions drawn by Fluhman’s study:

1.  Generally, Asylum patients who were identified as Mormon were diagnosed with “monomania,” or “partial insanity.” Fluhman points out that this “remains as curious explanation in the reports because it apparently describes those who were by all accounts mentally fit except for a particular obsession or preoccupation.”

2. It wasn’t only physicians and psychologists who identified Mormons as mentally ill. Fluhman points out, for example, that E.D. Howe, author of the early anti-Mormon book Mormonism Unvailed, “defined any Mormon as necessarily a monomaniac at very least.”6

3. Occasionally, patients committed to an Asylum would be identified as Mormon, even though the “symptoms” of their insanity and the evidence presented in legal trials against the accused insane reveal that they were often more likely to be Millerists or spiritualists.7

4. “Mormonism’s ‘extravagences’ … forced tough questions to the fore” for American Protestants because Mormons used the Bible as their justification for enthusiastic and visionary religious culture of early Mormonism.  Walking the difficult road of Biblical interpretation, “Protestant skeptics” were forced to present paradoxical arguments against the Latter-day Saints as being both “too Biblical” and “not Biblical enough” at the same time.8


1 Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1988), 215.

2 See Teresa Lynne Hall, “Religion, Madness, and the Asylum: A Study of Medicine and Culture in New England, 1820-1840” (PhD Dissertation, Brown University, 1991); William Sims Bainbridge, “Religious Insanity in America: The Official Nineteenth-century Theory, ” Sociological Analysis45, no. 3 (1984), 223-240; and Lawrence B. Goodheart, Mad Yankees: The Hartford Retreat for the Insane and Nineteenth-Century Psychology (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).

3 See The Twenty-Second Annual Report of the Officers of the Retreat for the Insane, at Hartford, Conn. May, 1846 (Hartford: Printed by Case, Tiffany and Burnham, 1846), 49.

4 J. Spencer Fluhman, “Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Antebellum America” (PhD Dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2006), 112.  Fluhman is quoting Third Annual Report of the Superintendents of the Main Insane Hospital, (Augusta: Severance & Dorr, Printers to the State, 1842), 14-15, 17-20.

5 Fluhman, “Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Antebellum America,” 116.

6 E.D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, Ohio, 1834), 73-74.

7 One such case is detailed in the dissertation. See Fluhman, “Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Antebellum America,” 117-119.

8 Fluhman,  “Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Antebellum America,” 120.


  1. I’d respond to this but it convinced me that I’m at least partially insane, afflicted with mormania, and am thus not mentally competent to say anything; but I can’t resist the impulse: i’m obsessed.
    This is an interesting case of the term “Mormon” being generalized beyond its normal descriptive boundaries, in this case including some Millerists and spiritualists. I know this kind of generalization has popped up frequently in regard to polygamy, usually in jokes. In Owen Wister’s The Virginian, a man who had been engaged to several women is derisively referred to as a Mormon. Also in foreign film translations, such as in the movie Witness, the term “Amish” was translated “Mormon” in Spanish versions of the film. But while the mistranslation issue suggests a lack of familiarity and blurred stereotypes, the monomaniac cases show the term “Mormon” being associated more with certain behavioral traits than with a claim to membership.
    You know of any other examples of this sort of generalization of the term “Mormon,? anyone? And what implications (if any) does this type of generalization have for Mormonism becoming (or being) an ethnicity in addition to a religion?
    (Not sure if this is the direction you wanted to go with this Chris; if not, a corrective is welcome.)

    Comment by stan — October 28, 2007 @ 8:05 am

  2. Fluhman also mentioned at the lecture that, aside from Mormonism, individuals could be institutionalized for celibacy and long hours of study. By that standard, all single Mormon grad students are headed for the looney bin.

    Comment by David Grua — October 28, 2007 @ 9:11 am

  3. This reminds me of a table in the January, 1913 Improvement Era, which delineated the causes for patients being committed to the Utah Mental Hospital from 1885-1910. While there are some expected causes:

    Alcohol: 89 cases
    Epilepsy: 133
    Heredity: 218
    Worry: 115

    There are some unexpected categories, including some that relate to the post:

    Religion: 47
    Spiritualism: 1 (Godbeite haters)
    Studying Prize-fighting: 1
    REading Novels: 1
    Masturbation: 89
    Onanism: 9
    Self Abuse: 14 (odd that they have 3 cats for the same thing)
    Nymphomania: 1

    I’ve been meaning to score Fluhman’s dissy for some time now. I understand that he treats healing a bit.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 28, 2007 @ 10:32 am

  4. Fascinating stuff. To me, it appears as another classic example of people struggling to classify “the other”.

    Comment by Ben — October 28, 2007 @ 10:43 am

  5. J.: Studying Prize-fighting, lol.

    Do they just list “religion” as a category or do they ever break that down a bit?

    Comment by David Grua — October 28, 2007 @ 10:43 am

  6. Yeah, unfortunately they don’t break religion down at all. Could resist the prize-fighting entry.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 28, 2007 @ 10:50 am

  7. I’m sure everyone’s aware, but I thought I’d mention that the Fluhman dissertation is available free, full-text on Proquest, but a bound copy’s gonna cost ya.

    Comment by Jared — October 28, 2007 @ 1:48 pm

  8. Stan,
    No corrective is necessary. I intentionally left personal thoughts out of the post to allow for more open discussion of various parts of Fluhman’s dissertation. It sounds to me like you just found yourself another thesis topic.

    David, all the more reason for you to join the married club before heading off for a PhD. 🙂

    J., I was unaware of the IE article. Fascinating stuff. My wife decided to read the blog today, and thanks to your comment, we spent part of our Sunday afternoon discussing “Onanism” and “Nymphomania.” If you don’t want to go to the trouble of downloading Fluhman’s diss. from Proquest, I have a PDF of it I’d be happy to send your way (my email info. can be found on the “About” page).

    Comment by Christopher — October 28, 2007 @ 7:04 pm

  9. I am curious if anyone has any thoughts regarding the final point explained in the post – that Mormonism presented 19th-century Protestants with a particularly difficult problem in trying to explain a religion that was both “too Biblical” and “not Biblical enough.”

    Does this paradoxical explanation hold true at all today? My gut feeling is that Mormons probably are seen as “not Biblical enough” by most Protestants. If that is indeed the case, what does in say about Mormonism today? Protestantism today? The modern understanding of what constitutes “Biblical” religion?

    Also, it seems that a similar situation exists today in trying to explain Mormonism; except instead of dealing with how “Biblical” Mormonism is, there seems to be some difficulty among other American in assessing whether Mormonism might be “too American” and at the same time “not American enough.”

    Comment by Christopher — October 28, 2007 @ 7:14 pm

  10. Stan: It seems that in popular media that “Mormon” usually refers to a prude. I can’t remember any specific examples, but I recall this as a typical dialogue: Friend: “Stan, let’s go get a beer!” Stan: “Sorry, but I don’t drink.” Friend: “What are you, a Mormon?” As for the question over whether or not we’re an ethnicity, that is a debate that may never be fully settled. Dean May thought that we fit pretty well, as does Patty Limerick. But Armand Mauss is pretty adamant that while 19th century Mormons may be considered ethnics, once we gave up most of our distinctive qualities we’re best seen as a subculture or something like that

    Christopher: That is an interesting question about the too biblical/not biblical enough divide. I agree with you that we’re seen as not biblical enough, which reflects our own routinization of charisma.

    As for the too American/not American enough, there is some disagreement among scholars as to whether our assimilated status helps us or hinders us. Quinn argues that much of our recent growth is due largely to our being seen as Americans. Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp however argues that being seen as different from other Americans aided proselytizing efforts in the Pacific during the 19th century because we weren’t associated directly with an imperialist power. I’m not sure where I come down in the debate, since I’ve seen anecdotal evidence to suggest that being American both helps us and hinders our proselytizing efforts today.

    Comment by David Grua — October 28, 2007 @ 9:25 pm

  11. Recently, as many of you might have read, the Church was characterized as the “fourth Abrahamic Religion” behind Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Though flawed, it seems that this type of approach places Mormons firmly in the Old Testament, though no more than Islam, which is certainly not Christian. At once it gives the Church a Biblical place, but then again, maybe not as much a place as it would want.,8599,1675308,00.html?xid=feed-cnn-nation

    I can’t think right off the top of any significant recent discourse that takes Mormons to task for being “too” Biblical.

    Comment by Jared — October 28, 2007 @ 11:13 pm

  12. Claims that Mormonism is too Biblical isn’t a current charge, however at the dawn of the restoration, I think that it was implicit in most anti-Mormonism. Sam is pulling a paper together that treats this.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 29, 2007 @ 9:09 am

  13. Martin Harris seems to have been a frequent target of the “monomaniac” label in nineteenth-century anti-Mormon texts. But then it didn’t help that the Millennial Star accused Harris of joining the Shakers “[i]n one of his fits of monomania.”

    Comment by Justin — October 29, 2007 @ 1:10 pm

  14. […] letterbook that may be housed at the Church archives, or is this a totally unique item? In light of Spencer Fluhman’s research on views of “monomania” and Mormonism in insane assylums, I find this an […]

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