Religious Deviance and Psychological Medicine in the Second Great Awakening: The Asylum Narratives of Elizabeth T. Stone (b. 1811)


Abstract: In 1842, after her release from McLean Asylum in Boston, Elizabeth T. Stone (b. 1811) published an exposé detailing her experience as a patient confined for religious insanity. Documenting a prison-like environment in which patients endured the hostility of attendants, the humiliation of invasive physical examinations, and the ravages of seizure-inducing drugs, the book warned the public of the threat that asylums posed ....

This article analyzes Stone’s writings with a view to highlighting the distinct challenges to the free exercise of religion that certain people faced in antebellum America. Our article draws upon various archival sources—including Stone’s own works, the annual reports of asylums, medical publications, and religious periodicals—many of which, to our knowledge, have not been examined in depth. For historians and scholars of church and state, we hope that this article makes a modest contribution to their respective fields, shedding light upon a largely unknown figure while further illuminating the societal challenges that she and others faced.

We structure the present article as follows. First, we sketch Stone’s journey to the asylum, emphasizing the gradual formation of her “mad” spiritual identity as well as the complex set of social, theological, and therapeutic reasons for which she was institutionalized. Next, we explore ideological and social considerations which led evangelical leaders to support the confinement of deviant members of their own flocks. From there, we investigate Stone’s experience as a patient at McLean, highlighting the ways in which asylum medicine imposed upon patients a particular notion of how the religious self should relate to American society. We then conclude by considering Stone’s legacy as it pertains to long-standing debates about religious liberty.

By Mark W. Lee (Crandall University) and Edward A. David (Oxford University).


Extenal contributors: 
Mark W. Lee