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The Puritans and Mental Illness


[David Murray (D.Min.) is our blogger for the month of December. David is Professor Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Seminary, where he teaches counseling and leadership. He is also the Pastor of Grand Rapids Free Reformed Church. He is the author of Christians get depressed tooHow Sermons Work, and Jesus on Every Page. You can read his blog at HeadHeartHand.org/blog or follow him on Twitter @davidpmurray. David is married to Shona and they have five children ranging from 1 to 17 years old, and they love camping, fishing, boating, and skiing in the Lake Michigan area.]

“Depression is simply a modern idea dreamt up by God-defying psychiatrists, soul-denying psychologists, money-making drug companies, and blame-shifting sinners.”

Thought it?

You’ve almost certainly heard it.

However, depression has been around for much longer than you might think, and it has been accepted as genuine and treated seriously by some of the greatest Christian experts in soul care that God has ever given to His church – the Puritans. Yes, way back then, in days of spiritual revival and reformation, these spiritual giants and geniuses had deep insights into depression’s causes and cures that we would do well to learn from.

Richard Baxter, for example, wrote The Cure for Melancholy and Overmuch Sorrow, By Faith.

“Ah-ha! See. By faith. They saw it as a spiritual problem with a spiritual cure! So much for the Puritans backing up your modern theories.”

But read on! For sure, most of Baxter’s book is taken up with describing and curing spiritual depression. However, he does this only after carefully distinguishing spiritual depression (which is cured by faith) from physical depression (which is cured “by physic,” or as we would say, “by medicine”). In fact he has a whole section on “Medical care for those with depression” which we’ll get to in the next blog.

Causes and cures
Baxter asks, “What are the causes and cure of melancholy?” and answers:

“With many people most of the cause is in distemper, weakness, and disease of the body, and by it the soul is greatly disabled to any comfortable sense. But the more it comes from such natural necessity, it is the less sinful, and less dangerous to the soul, but still just as troublesome.”

He then goes on to identify “three diseases that cause too much sorrow.”

  • Those that consist in such violent pain as natural strength is unable to bear.
  • A natural passion, and weakness of that reason that should quiet passion (often seen in the elderly or debilitated).
  • When the brain and imagination are impaired, and reason partly overthrown by the disease called melancholy, or depression.

Baxter then goes on to list the signs and symptoms of this third category of disease.

Symptoms of clinical/medical depression
1. The trouble and disquiet of the mind becomes a settled habit. They can see nothing but matter of fear and trouble. All that they hear or do feeds it…In a word, fears, and troubles, and almost despair, are the constant temper of their minds.

2. If you convince them that they have some evidences of Christian sincerity, and that their fears are causeless, they may not disagree, and yet it does not take the trouble away, for the cause remains in their bodily disease.

3. Their misery is so much that they cannot but think of it. You may almost as well persuade a man not to shake in an fever, or not to feel when he is pained, as persuade them to cast away their self-troubling thoughts, or not to think all the enormous, confounding thoughts as they do, they cannot get them out of their heads night or day.

4. And when they are grown to this, they often seem to feel a voice within saying this or that to them, and they will not believe how much of it is a diseased imagination.

5. In this case they often think they have had revelations from God, often confusing Scripture or falsely applying it, and sometimes taking up errors in religion.

6. But the sadder, better sort, feeling this talk and stir within them, are sometimes apt to be confident that they are possessed by the devil.

7. Most of them are violently haunted with blasphemous suggestions of ideas about God or Scripture, at which they tremble, and yet cannot keep them out of their mind.

8. When it is far gone, they are tempted to lay some law upon themselves never to speak more, or not to eat, and some of them starved themselves to death.

9. And when it is far gone, they often think that they have apparitions or some spirit touched or hurt them.

10. They avoid company, and can do nothing but sit alone and muse.

11. They cast off all business, and will not be brought to any diligent labour in their callings.

12. And when it comes to extremity, they are weary of their lives, sometimes become strongly tempted to take their own lives, which, alas, too many have done.

13. And if they escape this, when it is ripe, they become quite distracted.

Medical cures?
Next week we’ll look at the cures Baxter suggests for this kind of melancholy, but note that at least part of it is medical. He says: “Choose a physician who is specially skilled in this disease, and has cured many others.” He advises against consulting “young, unexperienced men” and “hasty, busy, over-worked men, who cannot have time to study the patient’s temper and disease, but choose experienced, cautious men.” We would also add “women!”


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