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American Protestant Responses to Mental Illness

By Heather H. Vacek

Hardback, 283 pages $39.95
Published: 1st August 2015
ISBN: 9781481300575
Format: 9in x 6in

Subjects: All History, All Sociology, All Theology, American History, Social & Economic Ethics

Madness is a sin. Those with emotional disabilities are shunned. Mental illness is not the church’s problem.

All three claims are wrong.

In Madness, Heather H. Vacek traces the history of Protestant reactions to mental illness in America. She reveals how two distinct forces combined to thwart Christian care for the whole person. The professionalization of medicine worked to restrict the sphere of Christian authority to the private and spiritual realms, consigning healing and care—both physical and mental—to secular, medical specialists. Equally influential, a theological legacy that linked illness with sin deepened the social stigma surrounding people with a mental illness. The Protestant church, reluctant to engage sufferers lest it, too, be tainted by association, willingly abdicated care for people with a mental illness to secular professionals.

While inattention formed the general rule, five historical exceptions to the pattern of benign neglect exemplify Protestant efforts to claim a distinctly Christian response. A close examination of the lives and work of colonial clergyman Cotton Mather, Revolutionary era physician Benjamin Rush, nineteenth-century activist Dorothea Dix, pastor and patient Anton Boisen, and psychiatrist Karl Menninger maps both the range and the progression of attentive Protestant care. Vacek chronicles Protestant attempts to make theological sense of sickness (Mather), to craft care as Christian vocation (Rush), to advocate for the helpless (Dix), to reclaim religious authority (Boisen), and to plead for people with a mental illness (Menninger).

Vacek’s historical narrative forms the basis for her theological reflection about contemporary Christian care of people with a mental illness and Christian understanding of mental illness. By demonstrating the gravity of what appeared—and failed to appear—on clerical and congregational agendas, Vacek explores how Christians should navigate the ever-shifting lines of cultural authority as they care for those who suffer.

Introduction: Christianity and Mental Illness

1. Making Theological Sense out of Suffering, Sin, and Sickness: Cotton Mather

2. Christian Vocation and the Shape of the Secular Profession: Benjamin Rush

3. Advocating for the Helpless, Forgotten, and Insane: Dorothea Dix

4. Reclaiming Religious Authority in Medicine: Anton Boisen

5. A Passionate Plea to Engage Finds Lukewarm Reaction: Karl Menninger

Conclusion: Suffering, Stigma, and Hospitality

"Vacek has written a scholarly jeremiad in which she has weighed her co-religionists’ responses to mental illness in the moral balance and found them wanting. The organization of the book highlights what she persuasively argues is a perennial gap between belief and practice in her faith community...The prose is clear, the documentation thorough, and her stance heartfelt."

—Lawrence B. Goodheart, Bulletin of the History of Medicine

“By telling the story of mental illness, faith, and ministry through and around the lives and stories of five prominent leaders since colonial times, Madness will help us recognize eternal questions and needs as well as the historical foundations on which new collaborations between ministry and medicine can be built for the sake of more holistic care in clinics, communities, and congregations.” 

—Bill Gaventa, Director, Summer Institute on Theology and Disability 

"Vacek’s book serves as an important reminder of how conceptions of mental illness and the structure of care for the mentally ill has a long and complicated history, shaped by everything from religious reformers, the emerging field of professionalized medicine, and the evolution of often grossly underfunded state institutions."

—David Eagle, Sociology of Religion

"In sum, Vacek combines top-notch historical inquiry with a concern for effective theological responses to mental suffering. She carefully contextualizes the lives of her subjects in relation to broad religious and medical trends, and her in-depth biographical studies facilitate insightful, comparative analysis. The book is accessible to a broad audience and represents an excellent addition to the growing scholarly literature addressing the intersection of religion, medicine, and healing."

—Joseph Williams, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences

"This timely and deeply moving study has garnered wide media attention. It shows how American Protestants have addressed and, more often, failed to address mental illness in their congregations."

Christian Century

"I recommend this book, and especially its final chapter, to pastors and church leaders who are seeking to reflect on and develop a congregation’s ministry among people with mental illnesses, whether they be church members or strangers. It will also appeal to readers with an interest in the history of American mental health attitudes and practices, or, more generally, the history of Christian influences on American society."

—Christine Guth, Anabaptist Disabilities Network

"Madness is a fine accomplishment, weaving together a theological point with historical analysis."

—Sean Cosgrove, Journal of Religious History

Madness offers a sensitive, in-depth treatment of the important and under-discussed subject of mental illness. Heather Vacek makes a signal contribution to histories of mental illness, medicine, and religion, and her book should be of great interest to scholars in each of these fields as well as to general audiences seeking to understand and respond to mental illness.”

—Candy Gunther Brown, Professor of Religious Studies, Indiana University

“Vacek’s exquisitely researched and written book gives us an account of the Protestant response to mental illness from the beginning of the nation. Though this is history done at its best, Vacek’s passion for her subject makes this a book of theological significance. I heartily recommend it.” 

—Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law, Duke Divinity School

Heather H. Vacek is Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dean of Faculty, and Assistant Professor of Church History at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. 

Publication Details:

 Hardback , 283 pages
 9in x 6in

  HIS036000, REL067000, SOC029000
 Baylor University Press

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