Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station during the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Challenging the Great Physician: Mental Pathogens and Spiritual Contagion in Late-19th Century America

Body Politics

While for the most part, the field of psychiatry remained immune to and dismissive of Christian attempts to influence them, these conversations led to the incorporation of psychiatric (and sometimes pseudo-psychiatric) modalities into the pastoral counseling movement.

If religion is understood as a mode of creating communities of meaning through discourses, then contagion is a religious category because it is the threatening flip side of the constructive process of shaping a collective identity. That is, if discourses—stories, concepts and practices—shape groups into religious communities, then competing discourses threaten their cohesion and reproduction. Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, many churches’ insistence on their freedom not only to meet in defiance of public health orders but to actively defy those orders by hosting camps, Covid-parties, and sharing anti-mask propaganda seems inexplicable. But by attending to their forebears’ understanding of contagion, such defiance becomes clearer. 

Such discursive threats were seen and understood by nineteenth-century Americans as transmissible and potentially deadly. They regularly used the newly trendy word, contagion, to label the spread of these threatening ideas and practices. When they used this term, they were not using it as a metaphor. As Richard Evans explored in “Religious Madness and the Logic of Contagion,” many nineteenth-century Americans believed that false religious ideas could literally cause mental illness. Members of Charles Taze Russell’s Bible Student Movement, for instance, claimed that other Christians’ doctrine of hell actually drove people insane. Explaining the proliferation of long-term asylum residents, Russell’s The Golden Age Magazine suggested that “degeneracy and a fixed belief in hell … keep their week minds polluted with poison.”[1] While the Bible Student Movement had a distinctive theological anthropology, it is not as aberrant as many imagine; Christians and non-Christians alike had imbibed the New Thought belief that mental stages manifest physical reality. Even though few Christians directly identified with Phineas Quimby and other mind cure proponents, they nevertheless were influenced by the contemporary belief that false ideas are a root cause of disease. And for many of them, the categories, underlying assumptions, and modalities of psychiatry were false, a mental contagion that was spreading and challenging Christians’ power to define human flourishing. 

I find Bruce Lincoln’s approach to religion as a specific type of hegemony that vies with other hegemonies for cultural dominance in a contest of persuasion with high stakes helpful in exploring this period. In the nineteenth century, new discourses grounded in scientific and material models of reality directly threatened the hegemonic worldviews created between and among Christian groups. Psychiatry was a new and threatening hegemony for several reasons: it posited that personhood was grounded in the body not the soul, that mental illness could therefore be caused by diseases of the body rather than the soul, that mental illness could be caused by sexual repression of exactly the sort Christian churches advocated, and that its own talking cure should supersede Christian pastoral care and other methods of Christian healing such as the sacraments, holy water, exorcism, prayer, confession, the laying on of hands, anointing with oil, and others. It also physically moved the mentally infirm from charitable, religiously sponsored asylums, to secular, professionally run institutions of healing, or, as quickly became evident, confinement. In this shift, Christians were literally losing ground.

While most Christians identified psychiatry as a hostile threat to their cultural dominance, Christian groups responded to that challenge in different ways. Catholics, for instance, responded with institutional controls and protocols that attempted to quarantine contagious discourses. The Vatican prohibited monasteries, for example, from participating in psychoanalytic evaluations or treatment or promoting psychiatric ideas. This prohibition lasted well into the 20th century when an ecclesiastical trial was held to determine the guilt of Benedictine prior Father Gregoire LeMercier on the charge of “illicit use of psychoanalysis.”[2] He was found guilty and left religious life in 1966. While the Church had less control over the choices of lay Catholics, they were also consistently discouraged from seeking psychiatric treatment. After decades of prohibition, in 1962, Pope Pius the 12th outlined several grave conditions under which it was permissible for Catholics to seek such care while admonishing that, “supernatural means must always take first place.”[3] Part of the reason Catholics began to cautiously allow psychiatric modalities to transgress their community borders was that, by the early 20th century, hundreds of Catholics had become professional psychiatrists. Since ideas are difficult to keep out, the Catholic hierarchy began a process of retrenchment in which they sought to reassert control by engaging more directly with the content of psychiatry and determining its congruence with Catholic anthropological and moral doctrines. This process involved a series of International Catholic Congresses on Psychotherapy and Clinical Psychology in which Catholics struggled to discern which psychiatric discourses were congruent and which incongruent with the faith. During these conferences, Catholic leaders expressed particular concern that psychiatric modalities not eclipse the Church’s role in spiritual healing, nor negate the relevancy of categories such as guilt, spiritual anxiety, and demonic oppression, nor promote sexual freedom. 

In another approach, many culturally dominant Protestants groups, often termed “mainline,” attempted to take a posture of shared professionalism and friendship. Under various auspices, they held many conferences intended to influence psychiatric organizations to perceive them as serious, professional partners in the healing of the mentally infirm and to plead with them for respect and a sphere of influence. A representative quote comes from University of Wisconsin chaplain Richard Henry Edwards at the “Christianity and Mental Hygiene” Conference held at Happy Valley, Lisle, New York (August 31st to September 6th, 1936), an annual conference that began in 1929 under the joint auspices of The National Council on Religion in Higher Education and The National Committee for Mental Hygiene: “It seems to me that our attitude as religious persons here is, as it ought to be, one of humility before the achievements of mental hygiene. But is it not true that in the training of psychiatrists, psychologists, and others, there is inadequate training in religion, which should be familiar to these persons? Mental hygiene needs very much to incorporate the rich findings of spiritual religion into itself. We have great need of the principles of Jesus for fullest integration on the highest level.”[4] As is evident in this quotation, conference proceedings reveal prominent pastors, year after year, begging for professional consideration while psychiatrists condescendingly explain to them the danger of their offering spiritual solutions to the mentally ill and the need for them to relinquish their parishioners to those who can really help them. While for the most part, the field of psychiatry remained immune to and dismissive of Christian attempts to influence them, these conversations led to the incorporation of psychiatric (and sometimes pseudo-psychiatric) modalities into the pastoral counseling movement.

 Another approach is exemplified by Presbyterian minister and eugenicist Newell Dwight Hillis, who identified psychiatric discourses as a kind of contagion, but who responded with optimism rather than fear. Hillis assured his readers that free speech is not dangerous and need not be suppressed. In fact, he asserted, the free competition of ideas is like a bright, airy room, where truth, like health, flourishes, while false ideas, like other pathogens, wither in the sunlight. In his popular 1911 book, The Contagion of Character, Hillis expressed this triumphalist approach, reminding his readers that Christians were guaranteed victory in any contest of ideas. He began the book with the following anecdote:

It was a brilliant saying of one of the great orators of the last generation that he could have built a better world than this one by simply making good health catching rather than disease. With all the force of his unrivaled eloquence, he indicted Nature and God because the thistle spreads faster than the rose, the plague outruns all the cures of doctors; while the slavery that landed at Jamestown the same year that liberty landed at Plymouth, so far outgrew freedom that at last the demon threatened to choke to death the most beautiful spirit that ever blessed the earth. And yet all the time that audience was vociferously applauding the orator’s sentiment, they were surrounded by a thousand proofs that the world had already been made by God so that good health is catching rather than disease, while truth, liberty, and love are a contagion that spreads from soul to soul, and city to city, and state to state. … Nothing can stay the progress of liberty of thought and speech. The principal is catching and the contagion will yet touch all nations of men that dwell in the earth.”[5]

For Hillis, mental illness was caused by sin, alcohol, cowardice, and poor parenting. But these vices would be destroyed by the guaranteed victory of Christian progress. In his view, psychiatric modalities could not address the roots of mental illness, which can only have a spiritual cure, but if there were aspects of psychiatry that might happen be useful and true, those would survive God’s progressive purification of culture. 

These are just a few of the myriad responses of Christians grappling with the rise of psychiatric discourses. While many Christians in the 19th century, like some today, regarded the healing of mental illness as the sole work of Jesus, the Great Physician, others like the attendees of the 1936 Christianity and Mental Health conference, jointly sponsored by the National Council of Religion and the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, struggled to arrive at a position of compromise that would maintain Protestant cultural authority.  The Rev. John Suter, Rector of the Church of the Epiphany in New York City, summed up the position of many at the conference by admonishing his listeners that, “As pastors … we must be ‘realistic soul-physicians,’ even though we are also guardians of a tradition.”[6]

Many Christian leaders today remain “realistic soul-physicians,” following and promoting the advice of public health officials as modern medicine-embracing professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic. But for those who inherited the anti-medical mindset that was consolidated in these anti-psychiatric battles, contagion remains an ideological rather than a physical concept. While the individual body may be victim to illness, God is the God of history. Therefore, history moves in God’s direction––whether toward health and restoration or toward mass (apocalyptic) tragedy, God’s will is both inevitable and inherently good. This view, often coupled with a premillennial theology that predicts crises before deliverance, suggests God’s people must be primarily concerned with avoiding the contagion of materialistic thinking rather than the contagion of a virus. Indeed, God’s contagious truth, as they understand it, must spread in defiance of compromise with other discourses. Such Christians continue to defend their territory in light of both governmental and scientific threats to their cultural authority. And their belief in God as the Great Physician must trump modern insights into physical safety and well-being. 


[1]Bond, Eliza, “Abuse of the Insane,” The Golden Age (Easter 1921): 349.

[2]“Psychological Testing for Clergymen Undergoing Scrutiny,” The Week in Religion, Religious News Service (Oct. 20, 1962).

[3]Ibid.

[4]“Christianity and Mental Hygiene,” Confidential Report of the Conference at Happy Valley, Lisle, New York August 31st to September 6th, 1936, sponsored by joint auspices of The National Council on Religion in Higher Education, The National Committee for Mental Hygiene, Report Prepared by the Rev. Seward Hiltner.

[5]Hillis, Newell Dwight, The Contagion of CharacterStudies in Culture and Success, New York (Chicago Fleming H. Revell Co., 1911): 11, 15.

[6]Hiltner, Seward, “Religion Evaluates Mental Hygiene,” Confidential Report of the Christianity and Mental Hygiene Conference at Happy Valley, Lisle, New York August 31st to September 6th, 1936, sponsored by joint auspices ofThe National Council on Religion in Higher Education and The National Committee for Mental Hygiene (Wednesday Evening, September 2, 1936).

Contagion, a Lament

Symposium Essays

Revisiting Reflections on Relics and Contagion in Two Parts

Life after violence and profound loss requires that we find ways to hold and contain that pain. Relics help us do this. As we wrap them in our words, craft beautiful containers, or place them in vitrines, we keep these memories alive. We acknowledge and respect their ongoing presence in our lives.

Immersions in a Contagious Summer

Given the history of othering and control of women’s bodies, it may surprise you to learn that the mikveh has become a central site of Jewish feminist, and more recently, queer and trans activism. Across the United States, Canada, and Israel, participants in a grassroots Modern Mikveh Movement have been collectively reclaiming what many have considered to be among the most irredeemable misogynistic forms of bodily disciplining.

Contagions, Earthly and Otherwise

According to Burroughs and Gysin, the power of language was the thing. There was something queer, indeed, about the capacity of any language to channel all manner of patterns and directives that had nothing, essentially, to do with the words that comprised that language.

Religious Madness and the Logic of Contagion

By the first decade of the nineteenth century, a new idea had entered the Western world. Psychiatrists, naturalists, politicians, and theologians throughout Europe and North America came to believe that there existed a form of insanity that caused its victims to express false religious opinions, to hold clearly unreasonable religious beliefs, or to dwell too deeply on religious issues.

Challenging the Great Physician: Mental Pathogens and Spiritual Contagion in Late-19th Century America

While for the most part, the field of psychiatry remained immune to and dismissive of Christian attempts to influence them, these conversations led to the incorporation of psychiatric (and sometimes pseudo-psychiatric) modalities into the pastoral counseling movement.

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