We ended the first article of our series by noting that Timothy Rogers, a Puritan, acknowledged the physiological reality behind many mental illness. We will elaborate more on this in the present article by providing abundant citations from his important work on melancholy, entitled “Trouble of Mind and the Disease of Melancholy.” More specifically, we will consider this work and what it has to say about the physiological roots of much mental illness within the context of its citation by the Presbyterian Archibald Alexander, who quotes from it a great deal in his “Thoughts on Religious Experience.”
Archibald Alexander, in his “Thoughts on Religious Experience,” notes the following, mentioning Timothy Rogers, who received an endorsement from no less a luminary as Charles Spurgeon himself, who said “Yes, a child of God may be in despondency for many a year. Timothy Rogers was the victim of despondency for many years, and yet he came out into the light, and then wrote his experience in his memorable book upon “Trouble of Mind,” which has been of great service to others in like condition.”
The Reformed Christian ought to note in reading the following that Charles Spurgeon endorsed Timothy Rogers’ book, which contains abundant suggestions concerning the physiological root of mental illness. Spurgeon does not seem to have anything negative to say about this fact at all. We thus have here an implicit endorsement of the idea that mental illness can come from physiological causes from Charles Spurgeon himself.
“It is…remarkable that very generally, they who have been recovered from such diseases [of melancholy] attribute no small part of their troubles to a morbid temperament of body, and accordingly, in their counsels to the melancholy, they lay particular stress on the regular, healthy state of the body.
About the close of the seventeenth century, the Rev. Timothy Rogers, a pious and able minister of London fell into a state of deep melancholy; and such was the distressing darkness of his mind, that he gave up all hope of the mercy of God, and believed himself to be a vessel of wrath, designed for destruction, for the praise of the glorious justice of the Almighty. His sad condition was known to many pious ministers and people throughout the country, who, it is believed, were earnest and incessant in their supplications in his behalf.”
Indeed, Alexander devotes an entire chapter of his work on religious experience to the question of mental illness, terming the chapter “Causes of diversity in experience continued—Effect of temperament—Melancholy—Advice to the friends of people thus affected—Illustrative cases—Causes of melancholy and insanity.” Having begun with a description of the mental anguish to which Timothy Rogers was subject, he quotes Rogers himself:
“1. Look upon your distressed friends as under one of the worst distempers to which this miserable life is obnoxious. Melancholy incapacitates them for thought or action: it confounds and disturbs all their thoughts and fills them with vexation and anguish. I verily believe that when this malign humour is deeply fixed and has spread its deleterious influence over every part, it is as vain to attempt to resist it, by reasoning and rational motives, as to oppose a fever, or the gout, or pleurisy…I leave you to advise with such as are skilled in physic, and especially to such doctors as have experienced something of themselves; for it is impossible to understand the nature of it any other way than by experience. There is danger, as Mr. Greenham says…that the…spiritual physician will totally disregard the body, and look only at the mind.”
Note how Alexander emphasizes the importance of having compassion on the afflicted person, rather judging him as being susceptible to some sort of moral fault, according to which he would be responsible for his own misery. Yes, the “root” of mental illness is sin, but oftentimes, this sinfulness which results in mental illness has to do with the consequences and effects of sin wrought large and broadly considered, insofar as the whole creation is infused with its effects, rather than having to do with the personal sins of the afflicted individual. It is no more the case that all mental problems are the result of personal sin than it is the case that all physical problems are the result of personal sin, although it is clearly the case that in both cases, the superior cause of these afflictions come from the Fall of Adam.
He goes on:
“If you would possesss any influence over your friends in this unhappy state of mind, you must be careful not to express any want of confidence in what they relate of their own feelings and sitresses. On this point there is often a great mistaken. When they speak of their frightful and distressing apprehensions it is common for friends to reply, ‘that this is all imaginary’ – ‘nothing but fancy,’ ‘an unfounded whim.’ Now the disease is a real one, and their misery is as real as any experienced by man. It is true, their imagination is disordered, but this is merely the effects of a deeper disease. These afflicted persons never can believe that you have any real sympathy with their misery, or feel any compassion for them, unless you believe what they say…Do not urge your melancholy friends to do what is out of their power. They are like persons whose bones are broken, and who are incapacitated or actions. Their disease is accompanied with perplexing and tormenting thoughts…But you will ask, ought we not to urge them to hear the word of God? I answer, if they are so far gone in the disease as to be in continual, unremitting anguish, they are not capable of hearing, on account of the painful disorder of their minds.”
Alexander describes the phenomenon, all too well-known to those afflicted with mental illness, of an individual dismissing and even chiding or rebuking the afflicted individual as somehow willfully involving himself in his own suffering, and of attempting to abusively invalidate that individual’s lived experience by saying “oh, it’s just in your head!” or “Just get over it,” as though it is something which they can pull themselves out of by their own wills or moral correction. Likewise, many Christians will insist that the afflicted individual simply needs to spend more time reading the Bible or praying, and that, if they only more dutifully performed their spiritual disciplines, they would not be suffering as they do, so that even if their mental illness may not be the direct result of personal sins, yet their failure to free themselves from it is due to the sin of omission of not taking the necessary (though not necessarily sufficient) steps to alleviate this suffering.
He again continues:
“Do not attribute the effects of mere disease to the devil; although I do not deny that he has an agency in producing some diseases; especially by harassing and disturbing the mind to such a degree that the body suffers with it. But it is very unwise to ascribe every feeling and every word of the melancholy man to Satan; whereas, many of these are as natural consequences of bodily disease, as the symptoms of a fever, which the poor sufferer can no more avoid than the sick man can keep himself from sighing and groaning. Many will say to such an one, ‘Why do you so pore over your case and thus gratify the devil? whereas, it is the very nature of the disease to cause such fixed musings. You might as well say to a man in a fever, ‘Why are you not well, why will you be sick?’ Some, indeed, suppose, that the melancholy hug their disease, and are unwilling to give it up, but you might as well suppose that a man would be pleased with lying on a bed of thorns, or in a fiery furnace. No doubt the devil knows how to work on minds thus diseased, and that by shooting his fiery darts, he endeavours to drive them to utter despair. But if you persuade th em that all which they experienced is from the devil, you may induce the opinion in them, that they are actually possessed of the evil one; which has been the unhappy condition of some whose minds were disordered. I would not have you bring a railing accusation, even against the devil, neither must you falsely accuse your friends by saying that they gratify him.“
Again, he continues:
“Do not express much surprise or wonder or wonder at anything which melancholy persons say or do. What will not they say, whoa re in despair of God’s mercy? What will not they do, who think themselves lost, for ever? You know that even such a man as Job cursed his day, so that the Lord charged him ‘with darkening counsel by words without knowledge.’ Do not wonder that they give expression to bitter complaints; the tongue will always be speaking of the aching tooth. Their soul is sore vexed, and although they get no good by complaining, yet they cannot but complain, to find themselves in such a doleful case. And they can say with David, ‘I am weary with my groaning: all the night make I my bed to swim, I water my couch with my tears;’ yet they cannot forbear to groan and weep more, until their very eyes be consumed with grief. Let no sharp words of theirs provoke you to talk sharply to them. Sick people are apt to be peevish, and it would be a great weakness in you, not to bear with them, when you see that a long and sore disease has deprived them of their former good temper.”
Of melancholy, Archibald Alexander goes on to say:
“This is, in fact, a bodily disease, by which the mind is influenced and darkened. Thus it was received by the ancient Greeks; for the term is compounded of two Greek words which signify black bile. How near they were to the truth, in assigning the physical cause which produces the disease, I leave to others to determine. Casuists have often erred egregiously, by referring all such cases to mental or moral causes. It is probable, even when the disease is brought on by strong impressions on the mind, that, by these, physical derangement occurs. To reason with a man against the views which arise from melancholy, is commonly as inefficacious, as reasoning against bodily pain! I have long made this a criterion, to ascertain whether the dejection experienced was owning to a physical cause; for, in that case, argument though demonstrative, has no effect…Cases often occur, in which there is a mixture of moral and physical causes; and these should be treated in reference to both sources of their affliction. Melancholy is sometimes hereditary, and often constitutional. When such persons are relived for a while, they are apt to relapse into the same state, as did William Cowper. The late excellent and venerable ames Hall, D.D. of North Carolina, was of a melancholy temperament; and after finishing his education at Princeton, he fell into a gloomy dejection, which interrupted his studies and labours for more than a year. After his restoration, he laboured successfully and comfortably in the ministry for many years, even to old age; but at last was overtaken again, and entirely overwhelmed by this terrible malady. Of all men, that I ever saw, he had the tendereset sympathy with persons labouring under religious despondency. When on a journey, I have known him to travel miles out of his way to converse with a sufferer of this kind; and his manner was most tender and affectionate in speaking to such. I have remarked, that persons who gave no symptoms of this disease until the decline of life, have then fallen under its power; owing to some change in the constitution at that period, or some change in their active pursuits. I recollect two cases of overwhelming melancholy in persons, who appeared in their former life, as remote from it as any that I ever knew. The first was a man of extraordinary talents, and eloqeunce; bold and decisive in his temper, and fond of company and good cheer. When about fifty-five or six years of age, without any external cause to produce the effect, his spirits began to sink and feelings of melancholy to seize upon him. He avoided company; but I had frequent occasion to see him, and sometimes he could be engaged in conversation, when he would speak as judiciously as before; but he soon reverted to his dark melancholy mood. On one occasion, he mentioned his case to me, and observed with emphasis, that he had no power whatever to resist the disease, and, siad he, with despair in his countenance, “I shall soon be utterly overwhelmed.” And so it turned out, for the disease advanced until it ended in the worst form of mania, and soon terminated his life. The other was a case of a gentleman who had held office in the American army, in the revolutionary war. About the same age, or a little later, he lost his cheerfulness, which had never been interrupted before, and by degrees, sunk into a most deplorable state of melancholy, which as in the former case, soon ended ind eath. In this case, the first thing which I noticed, was, a morbid sensibility of the moral sense, which filled him with remorse, for acts, which had little or no moral turpitude attached to them.”
He goes on:
“True Christians, as being subject to like diseases with others, may become melancholy; but not in cosnequence of their piety: but in this melancholy condition, they are in a more comfortable, as well as in a safer state, than others.”
He goes on:
“The casuist…thinks only of moral causes, and attributes the disease to such of this class as are known to have existed, or flees to hypothesis, which will account for every thing.”
“After spending so much time in speaking of melancholy as a disease, I anticipate the thoughts of some good people, who will be ready to say, ‘What, is there no such thing as spiritual desertion—times of darkness and temptation, which are independent of the bodily temperament?’ To which I answer, that I fully believe there are many such cases; but they deserve a separate consideration, and do not fall within the compass of my present design. The causes, symptoms, and cure of such spiritual maladies are faithfully delineated by many practical writers; and although these cases are entirely distinct from melancholy, they assume, in many respects, similar symptoms, and by the unskillful philosopher are confounded with it. These two causes, as I have before intimated, may often operate together and produce a mixed and very perplexing case, both for the bodily and spiritual physician.”
Thus, mental illness, for Archibald Alexander, as for Timothy Rogers, is something which can only be studied from a holistic perspective. We cannot and ought not explain it purely in physiological terms, as though the human being were nothing but highly evolved pond scum or the interaction of atoms in space and time, but instead, as embodied, ensouled creatures. To consider mental illness from a purely spiritual or moral perspective is, far from being the distinctly Christian way of perceiving mental illness, no less serious or disordered a way of looking at the phenomenon as the reductive materialist who understands mental illness as a purely physiological phenomenon.
Indeed, Jonathan Edwards himself notes that William Perkins distinguished between depression caused by sin vs. depression caused by a brain disorder:
“The famous Mr. Perkins distinguishes between those sorrows that come through convictions of conscience, and melancholic passions arising only from mere imagination, strongly conceived in the brain; which, he says, “usually come on a sudden, like lightning into a house.”
Edwards’ quote is itself a footnote to the following paragraph:
“And the terrors which some persons have, are very much owing to the particular constitution and temper they are of. Nothing is more manifest than that some persons are of such a temper and frame, that their imaginations are more strongly impressed with everything they are affected with, than others; and the impression on the imagination reacts on the affection, and raises that still higher; and so affection and imagination act reciprocally, one on another, till their affection is raised to a vast height, and the person is swallowed up, and loses as possession of himself”
He also writes:
“And where neither a good nor evil spirit have any immediate hand, persons, especially such as are of a weak and vapory habit of body, and the brain weak and easily susceptive of impressions, may have strange apprehensions and imaginations, and strong affections attending them, unaccountably arising, which are not voluntarily produced by themselves. We see that such persons are liable to such impressions about temporal things; and there is equal reason, why they should about spiritual things. As a person who is asleep has dreams that he is not the voluntary author of; so may such persons, in like manner, be the subjects of involuntary impressions, when they are awake”
Indeed, there are times in this work when Edwards sounds like a thoroughgoing epiphenomenalist:
“ideas may be raised only by impressions made on the body, by moving the animal spirits, and impressing the brain.—Abundant experience does certainly show, that alterations in the body will excite imaginary or external ideas in the mind; as often, in the case of a high fever, melancholy, &c. These external ideas are as much below the more intellectual exercises of the soul, as the body is a less noble part of man than the soul.”
“It is by impressions made on the brain, that any ideas are excited in the mind,
“by the motion of the animal spirits, or any changes made in the body. The brain being thus weakened and diseased, it is less under the command of the higher faculties of the soul, and yields the more easily to extrinsic impressions, and is overpowered by the disordered motions of the animal spirits; and so the devil has greater advantage to affect the mind, by working on the imagination. And thus Satan, when he casts in those horrid suggestions into the minds of many melancholy persons, in which they have no hand themselves, he does it by exciting imaginary ideas, either of some dreadful words or sentences, or other horrid outward ideas. And when he tempts other persons who are not melancholy, he does it by presenting to the imagination, in a lively and alluring manner, the objects of their lusts, or by exciting ideas of words, and so by them exciting thoughts; or by promoting an imagination of outward actions, events, circumstances, &c. Innumerable are the ways by which the mind might be led on to all kind of evil thoughts, by exciting external ideas in the imagination”
So far as the metaphysics of causation are concerned, Edwards was an occasionalist, of course. But he emphatically affirms the inextricable link between body and mind, and that between brain and mind.
Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones likewise laments the ignorance of the connection of the physiological to the psychological rampant among so many Christian pastors:
“Many Christian people, in fact, are in utter ignorance concerning this realm where the borderlines between the physical, psychological and spiritual meet. Frequently I have found that such [church] leaders had treated those whose trouble was obviously mainly physical or psychological, in a purely spiritual manner; and if you do so, you not only don’t help. You aggravate the problem.”
Or as he says elsewhere:
“Christians don’t understand how physical, psychological and spiritual realms interrelate because Satan muddies the boundaries. Many of our troubles are caused because we think a problem is spiritual when it is physical or we think a problem is physical when it is emotional or spiritual”
Murray, David (2010-11-29). Christians Get Depressed Too (Kindle Locations 370-372). Reformation Heritage Books. Kindle Edition.