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.2 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  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.”5
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.