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THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SUGGESTION

Boris Sidis, Ph.D.

© 1898. New York, D. Appleton and Company.

 

CHAPTER XXXIII

AMERICAN MENTAL EPIDEMICS

        TURNING now to American social life, so radically different from that of the middle ages, we still find the same phenomena manifesting themselves. The social spirit runs riot in mobs, crazes, manias, pests, plagues, and epidemics.

        American religious epidemics hallowed by the name of "revivalism" are notorious. A Jonathan, a McGready, a Sankey, or a Moody is stricken by the plague, falls into a delirium, and begins to rave on religion. The contagion spreads, and thousands upon thousands pray wildly in churches and chapels, rave furiously, and fall into convulsions in camp meetings. A revival epidemic has come, rages violently for some time, and then disappears as suddenly as it came. To take a few instances of the many cases of revival:

        In l800 a wave of religious mania passes over the country and reached its acme in the famous Kentucky revivals. The first camp meeting was held at Cabin Creek. It began on the 22d of May and continued four days and three nights. The crying, the singing, the praying, the shouting, the falling in convulsions made of the place a pandemonium. Those who tried to escape were either compelled to return, as if drawn by some mysterious force, or were struck with convulsions on the way. The pestilence spread, raging with ubabated fury. Families came in wagons from great distances to attend the meetings. The camp meetings generally continued four days, from Friday to Tuesday morning, but sometimes they lasted a week. One succeeded another in rapid succession. The woods and paths leading to the camp meeting were alive with people. "The labourer," writes Dr. Davidson,1 "quitted his task; age snatched his crutch; youth forgot his pastimes; the plough was left in the furrow; the deer enjoyed a respite upon the mountains; business of all kinds was suspended; bold hunters and sober matrons, young men, maidens, and little children flocked to the common centre of attraction." As many as twenty thousand people were present at one of these meetings.

           The general meeting at Indian Creek, Harrison County, continued about five days. The meeting was at first quiet. The suggestion, however, was not slow to come, and this time it was given by a child. A boy of twelve mounted a log and began to rave violently. He soon attracted the main body of the people. Overcome by the power of emotions, the little maniac raised his hands, and, dropping his handkerchief wet with tears and perspiration, cried out: "Thus, O sinner, shall you drop into hell unless you forsake your sins and turn to the Lord!" At that moment some fell to the ground "like those who are shot in a battle, and the work spread in a manner which human language can not describe." Thousands were wriggling, writhing, and jerking ill paroxysms of religions fury. So virulent was the revival plague that mere indifferent lookers-on, even mockers and sceptics, were infected by it, and joined the exercises of the raving religious maniacs and fell into jerking convulsions of religious hysteria. The following case may serve as a fair example:

        "A Gentleman and a lady of some note in the fashionable world were attracted to the camp meeting at Cone Ridge. They indulged in many contemptuous remarks on their way about the poor infatuated creatures who rolled over screaming in the mud, and promised jestingly to stand by and assist each other in case that either should be seized with the convulsions. They had not been long looking upon the strange scene before them, when the young woman lost her consciousness and fell to the ground. Her companion, forgetting his promise of protection, instantly forsook her and ran off at the top of his spell. But flight afforded him no safety. Before he had gone two hundred yards he, too, fell down in convulsions."2

        In many places the religions epidemic took the form of laughing, dancing, and barking or dog manias. "Whole congregations were convulsed with hysterical laughter during holy service. In the wild delirium of religious frenzy people took to dancing, and at last to barking like dogs. They assumed the posture of dogs, "moving about on all fours, growling, snapping the teeth, and barking with such an exactness of imitation as to deceive anyone whose eyes were not directed to the spot.3 Nor were the people who suffered so mortifying a transformation always of the vulgar classes persons of the highest rank in society, on the contrary, men and women of cultivated minds and polite manners, found themselves by sympathy reduced to this degrading situation,"4 The baneful poison of religious revivalism turns its victims into packs of mad dogs.

        In l8l5 a religious revival swept over the country, and ended in the excesses of camp meetings.

        In l832 a great revival epidemic raged fiercely in this country. An excellent description of this revival is given by Mr. Albert S. Rhodes.5 I give his account verbatim:

        "What is usually called 'the Great American Revival' began simultaneously in New Haven and New York in l832, and does not seem to have been set in motion by any particular individual or individuals, but to have been in a full sense a popular expression. It was in men's minds and in the atmosphere. It broke out and raged like a fire over a certain portion of the country known by the old inhabitants as the 'burnt district.' It was especially felt along the shore of Lake Ontario and in the counties of Madison and Oneida.

        "The host that marched in this revival movement had many banners, but were without known chieftains. . . . The corporals and sergeants who marched with the uprising were men of mediocrity (unknown heroes of mobs). These did not make the revival, but it made them. They were of various religious colours, and formed a motley group gathered from the Wesleyan Methodists, Episcopal Methodists, Evangelists, Independents, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians.

        "The characteristic signs [of revivalism] attended this spiritual tempest. Ballrooms were turned into places of prayer and theatres into churches. . . . Clergymen who reasoned logically were told that they held the sponge of vinegar to the parched lips of sinners, instead of leading them to the brook of life where they might drink to completion. They met with the treatment unusual in such popular upheavalsthey were pushed aside to make room for the new expounders and prophets, ignorant men full of faith and vociferation, who preached night and day the golden streets of the New Jerusalem and the wrath to come.

        "The apple of Sodom grew out of this religious mania; the followers soon became incapable of sin.6 . . . 'And when a man becomes conscious that his soul is saved,' proclaimed one of their spiritual leaders, 'the first thing that he sets about is to find his paradise and his Eve.' The leaders could not find paradises in their own homes, nor Eves in their own wives, and sought their 'affinities' elsewhere. One of their leaders had a vision of an immense throng of men and women in heaven who wandered hither and thither in search of something necessary to their happiness with an expression of longing depicted on their faces. The men hunted for wives, as women did for men. The spirit of yearning for an incomplete joy was everywhere visible in these great hosts. The seer have an interpretation of his vision that men and women were wrongly joked on this earth, and that this may be remedied by a proper and spiritual union in the terrestrial sphere. The interpretation was received with favour, and even with enthusiasm. The man who saw the vision set the example by putting his legitimate wife abide and taking to his bosom the comely wife of one of his brethren. Others quickly followed the example. . . .The union was popularly designated among them as spiritual wedlock. . . . Old ties were given up. The kingdom of heaven was at hand. Old rules were no longer binding, and old obligations were set aside. Men and women, regardless of marital ties, selected their celestial companions.

        "At first such unions were to be of purely spiritual character, but, of course, in the end became sexual. . . . Before long the spiritual union was found to be incomplete, and it assumed the ordinary character of that which exists between man and woman who live together in close intimacy. Men who lived with the wives of others, and women who lived with the husbands of others, produced a strange confusion. . . . Children were abandoned by their natural protectors.

        "It resulted in evil still worse. Men and women discovered that they had made mistakes in their spiritual unions, and, after having lived for a certain period together, they separated to make new selections. It soon came to pass that they made new selections in comparatively short periods of time, and the doctrine of spiritual affinity thus inevitably merged into gross licentiousness.

        "If the facts were not before us, some of the unions would appear incredible. These were what the French would call mariages à trois. The lawful husband and the spiritual one lived under the same roof, in some cases with the same wife, who denied all conjugal rights to the husband in law, and accorded them freely to the husband in spirit; and there are remarkable instances furnished of the husbands submitting to such a state of thins as being in accordance with the divine will. And such examples of degradation, according to the annals of the time, do not appear to have been rare.

        "Such were some of the results which the revival of 1832 left behind in the 'burnt district' . . . Such was the revival in its moral aspect. It had still a physical and mental side, which was worse to contemplate, in the number of deluded people who were placed in the hospitals and insane asylums."

        About the year 1840 the so-called "Miller mania" broke out.7 "This delusion originated in the readings, reflections, and dreams of one William Miller, of the State of New York, who came to know about the year 1840 at what time 'the Lord was to appear in the heavens' and the end of all things to come. He soon found adherentsas will the author of any humbug, however palpablewho with a zeal worthy of a better cause set themselves to proselyting. They went abroad preaching their doctrine to all who would hear, and publishing their views to the world through periodicals and newspapers. . . . At the outset they pitched not only upon the year, but the day and hour on which the 'Son of Man should come with power and great glory.'
A doctrine like this, solemn and momentous beyond expression, spread abroad with all the rapidity that novelty could lend to it; the zeal of its adherents . . . soon collected around its standard throngs of men and women who hugged the delusion as the announcement of great events, and the support of raptures and glorious ecstasies.

        "The beggarly amount of intellect with which its deluded followers were possessed soon yielded to the farce of religious excitement, and long before 'the time drew near when they were to be received up' they forsook their respective callings, closed their shops and stores, left their families to suffer, or abandoned them to the cold charities of the world, attending meetings for prayers and exhortations, 'rendering night hideous by their screams' and by ceaseless prayers and watchings, intending to open in 'the great day of the Lord.'

        "The excitement, of which the above brief presentation furnishes by no means an exaggerated description, soon began to produce its effects upon both the bodies and minds of these wretched beings. A pale and haggard countenance, indicative at once of physical exhaustion and great mental solicitude, strange and erroneous views in reference to their worldly relations and affairs, together with their conduct, which showed that the controlling power of reason was swallowed up in the great maelstrom of Millerismall indicated the shock which had been produced by the terrors of this fearful delusion. As the time for the great dénouement approached meetings increased, their prayers were heard far and wide around; converts were multiplied; baptisms were celebrated, not by sprinkling, but by immersions which lasted sometimes longer than life. The gift of tongues was vouchsafed, ascension robes of snowy whiteness were made ready, property was freely given away, and on the morning of 'the great day,' with hearts prepared, and decked in robes of peerless white, they went forth to meet the 'bridegroom.' Some, not content to meet him upon earth, actually ascended trees in order first to greet his approach.

        "The day first announced passed off quietly. . . . Great was the disappointment of the followers of the doctrine of Miller. Their time for weeks and months had been lost, their business broken up, and their property gone. Yet, to exhibit, as it were, still more forcibly the strength of religious fanaticism (religious suggestion) operating upon (weak) minds, they still clung to their delusion, again 'searched the Scriptures,' and happily found that they had been in error. It was on a certain day and hour of the Jewish year 1844 on which their calculation should have been based, instead of the corresponding year of our calendar. The joyful news was spread abroad throughout the realms of Millerism, and the zeal and fervour of the followers rose higher than before.

        "Meanwhile institutions for the insane were daily furnishing new proofs of the mental ravages Millerism was producing throughout the country. Miller maniacs were almost daily brought to the doors of the insane asylums. Worn out and exhausted by ceaseless religious orgies, many broke down completely and became hopelessly insane. Some were already in heaven, clothed with the new bodies provided for the saints; others, like spectres, were hastening to convert to the the faith their fellow-victims to disease; while a third class refused to eat, having no further need of other than 'angels' food.' So strictly did many of the believers adhere to the cherished passages of the sacred Scriptures that they declined to go abroad to respond to the calls of Nature, because, forsooth, we were commanded 'to become as little children,' and hence soiled their underdresses. None slept, or slept but little; all were waiting, waiting in obedience to a divine command. . . . Sleep, in fact, was far from their eyes in consequence of the long-continued watchfulness which had been imposed. They had passed the point of sleep; some of them even passed the rallying point of exhausted nature, and sank to rise no more. Scores of the victims to this modern delusion (epidemic) were known by all to be the tenants of madhouses, and it was promulgated far and wide by the most respectful authorities that this was a legitimate result of their misguided views and acts, yet it fell unheeded upon the ears of those for whom in kindness it was designed.

        Meanwhile the period approached when the correctness of their last reckoning was to be verified. . . . If possible, a more firm conviction of the truth of Millerism existed in the minds of its followers generally than before; converts to it had increased, and all the elements of prodigious and extended commotion were concentrating preparatory to this event. The scenes which were enacted in view of the fulfillment of this second interpretation greatly exceeded the first. Like the first, it proved to be a baseless fabric of a vision. . . .The epidemic, however, did not abate. The Cry of November 22, 1844, announced the fact that our 'brethren and sisters are not only strong, but much stronger than ever. Our brethren are all standing fast, expecting the Lord every day.'"

        Well may President Jordan, of Stanford University, exclaim: "Whisky, cocaine, and alcohol bring temporary insanity, and so does a revival of religionone of those religious revivals in which men lose their reason and self-control. This is simply a form of drunkenness no more worthy of respect than the drunkenness that lies in the gutter." Prof. Jordan was attacked on all sides by the small fry of the pulpits. But Prof. Jordan was, in fact, too mild in his expression. Religious revivalism is a social bane, it is far more dangerous to the life of society than drunkenness. As a sot, man falls below the brute; as a revivalist, he sinks lower than the sot.

        In 1857-58 a great industrial panic occurred in this country. Business was pressed to its utmost limits. The greed of gain became a veritable mania. Commercial centres, cities, towns large and small, and even villages were possessed by the demon of financial speculation. Speculation rose to a fever heat; the wildest projects were readily undertaken by the credulous business public. Finally the crash came. Social suggestion began to work the other way, and the stream of business life turned in the opposite direction. Every one ran for his life, not so much because he perceived danger, but simply because he saw his neighbours runninga stampede, a panic, ensued.

        In this morbid condition of the body politic the toxic germs of religious mania, the poisonous microbes of the revival pest, once more found a favourable soil. A fierce religious epidemic set on and spread far and wide. The religious journals of the country gloried in it. "Such a time as the present," writes triumphantly one of them,8 "was never known since the days of the apostles for revivals. Revivals now cover our very land, sweeping all before them. . . . Meetings are held for prayer, for exhortation, with the deepest interest and the most astonishing results. Not only are they held in the church and from house to house, but in the great marts of trade and centres of business. In New York there is a most astonishing interest in all the churches, seeming as if that great and populous and depraved city was enveloped in one conflagration of divine influence. . . . Prayer and conference meetings are held in retired rooms connected with large commercial houses, and with the best effects (!). The large cities and towns generally from Maine to California are sharing in this great and glorious work."

        A Boston journalist caught a glimpse of the true nature of this religious revival. "For the last three months," he writes, "a revival of religion has spread like an epidemic over a wide extent of the country. Prayer meetings noon and night; prayer meetings in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago; prayer meetings in Richmond, Charleston, Mobile, New Orleans; prayer meetings in town, village, hamlet, North and South, crowded with expectant listeners and accompanied with a copious outpouring of the Divine Spirit. The whole thing is emotional contagion without principle."

        This religious revival then spread to Ireland, where it raged with as great a fury as in its native place, the United States, the country of the revival plague.

        "I am unwilling to give the details," writes Rev. J. Llewelyn Davies,9 "of the kinds of affected which have prevailed. They are painful, and in many cases, to speak frankly, simply disgusting." The attacks have so far the character of an epidemic that they have had a singular resemblance to one another. The prevailing symptoms have been a state of perfect helplessness beneath an overwhelming sense of guilt and danger; . . . sudden prostrations, shrieks and cries, cataleptic rigidity, oppression at the heart and stomach, in some cases temporary blindness, deafness, and numbness."

        American society oscillates between acute financial mania and attacks of religious insanity. No sooner is the business fever over than the delirium of religious mania sets in. Society is thrown from Seylla into Charybdis. From the heights of financial speculation it sinks into the abyss of revivalism. American society seems to suffer from circular insanity.

        The friends of revivalism are not unaware of this fact. Thus Rev. H. C. Fish, who made a text-book of revivalism, naïvely tells us: "It is an interesting fact that they [revivals] frequently succeed some great [public] calamity, a prevailing epidemic, financial embarrassment." The germs of religious insanity require for their development a diseased and exhausted body politic.

        Women in general, and American women in particular, are highly suggestible.10 The woman's crusade of 1873 may serve as a good illustration.11 The crusade commenced in Hillsborough, Ohio, on a Christmas morning. After a lecture by Dr. Dio Lewis on the potency of Woman's Prayer in the Grogshop, the response was general. A meeting for prayer and organization was held, the women, led by a distinguished Methodist lady, the heroine of the mob, marched forth on their first visit to drug stores, hotels, and saloons. The crusade mania, like a true epidemic, spread rapidly into adjacent towns, the women visiting saloons, preaching, singing, and praying. Ladies of all denominations joined the crusade. Neither threats nor harsh treatment nor rough weather could check the fervent religious zeal of the female mobs. In many places the ladies suffered severe privations; they were oftentimes kept standing in the cold and rain; they were often offended and ill treated; but of no availcrusade epidemic kept on raging with undaunted fury. The churches were crowded day and night. Like all things taken up by women, the enthusiasm of this crusade did not last long; it soon died out. Social suggestibility is too strong in woman to permit her to remain long under the influence of suggestions that are out of tile way of commonplace life. Woman can not leave long the routine of her life, the beaten track of mediocrity; she can rarely rise above the trite; she is a Philistine by nature.

        Such were, in the main, some of the religious epidemics that befell American society for the brief space of its existence. Who can enumerate all the commercial "revivals," the "business bubbles," and the economical panics closely following in their wake? Who can tell of all the crazes and maniassuch, for instance, as the football mania, the baseball mania, the prize-fight insanity, the Trilby craze, the bicycle frenzy, the new-woman pestthat have taken possession of the American social self? Who can count all the industrial, political, and lynching mobs in which the spirit of American society has manifested itself? Their name is legion, for they are innumerable, countless.12

        Sad and melancholy are the mental aberrations of the social mind, but very painful is it to find that they flow from the inmost soul of society. Society by its very nature tends to run riot in mobs and epidemics. For the gregarious, the subpersonal, uncritical social self, the mob self, and the suggestible subconscious self are identical.


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l.  History of the Presbyterian Church in Kentucky.
2. Gospel Herald. Prof. D. W. Yandell, Epidemic Convulsions, Brain, October, l88l.
3. McNemar.
4. Prof. D. W. Yandell, Brain, October, 1881.
5. Appleton's Journal, December 11, 1875.
6. The sense of guilt and that of regeneration and elevation after conversion are good symptoms of revival mania. Mr. D. Starbuck, to whom my thanks are due for placing at my disposal his rich material on religious conversion, in his article "A Study of Conversion" (The American Journal of Psychology, January, 1897), comes to the conclusion that "revival meetings play an important part in conversion," and that "the sense of sin" and "the sense of elevation" are its main characteristics. What Mr. Starbuck does not realize is the fact that it is not healthy normal life that one studies in sudden religious conversions, but the phenomena of revival insanity.
7. Esquirol, Mental Maladies, English translation.
8. H. C. Fish, Handbook of Revivals. For the use of Winners of Souls.
9. Macmillan, vol. 1, March, 1860.
10. I take here the opportunity to mention the interesting fact of revivalism among the American Jewish women. The revival of acient Jewish customs and the separation from the Gentile world are among the aims of this religious mania. "Those who take part in this revival," a well-known rabbi informs me, "consider themselves superior to other women." This sense of superiority of those who were "saved" is a well-marked symptom of the revival plague. The germs of this epidemic seem to be very active. Although they started their career in Chicago, at the World's Fair, in the year of our Lord 1893, they have invaded nearly every city of the United States. Rich Jewish ladies form the main body of victims; they are very susceptible to this religious disease. The interesting peculiarity of this Jewish revival plague is that it attacks only women and rabbis.
11. Cyclopædia of Methodism, Bishop Matthew Simpson.
12. While this work was in progress a great economico-political epidemic, the so-called silver movement, was raging over the country. The work was hardly completed when the excitement of the silver mania subsided, but only to give place to a different form of social malady, the speculative "gold-mining mania," the Klondike plague.

 

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