The Confounding of Archibald Dunn – Revivalism and the Asylum

Liz Gray is a part-time third-year PhD student at the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London. Her thesis is entitled: Nineteenth Comparative Psychology and the Role of Animals in the Asylum, exploring the role emotions played in the defining of a sub-discipline of Psychology and the ways animals were used scientifically and therapeutically in Victorian Asylums. She has presented papers on the disciplinary history of Comparative Psychology, concepts of ‘Communities of Disease’ and emotional madness in dogs. She has published the chapter ‘Body, Mind and Madness: Pain in Animals in Nineteenth-Century Comparative Psychology’ in Pain and Emotion in Modern History (ed. Rob Boddice). She tweets at @lizanngray and blogs at She has a general interest in the history of psychiatry, particularly in relation to Scottish asylums.

On the 15th September 1860, 34-year-old Archibald Dunn was admitted to The James Murray Royal Asylum (referred to as The Murray from this point on), with a diagnosis of Religious Monomania. The admitting physician wrote, ‘it would appear that it [his monomania] arose from the harmful effects of those dubious revivals, at present occupying so much attention in Perth and elsewhere…’. A friend ‘deprecated in no measured terms the barbarous excitement and injurious tendencies of such proceedings, and attributed the patients malady wholly to such treatment’.[i]

For the nineteenth-century asylum patient, a religious-related diagnosis was not uncommon. One of the most common diagnoses was religious melancholia, its sufferers presenting with delusions of having lost their soul, having committed terrible sins and being under the power of the devil. The causes of such illnesses were wide-ranging, from loss, overwork or excess of emotion. As I read through the physician’s casebooks of the James Murray Royal Asylum for the 1850s and 60s, I came across a series of cases in which the cause of the admitted patients mental disturbance was assigned to be, at least, partly, revivalism. These ten patients, admitted over the course of almost two years, demonstrated these common symptoms of melancholia, with some receiving this diagnosis, and others being labelled as suffering from mania – in a variety of forms. Historians of revivalism have acknowledged the physical reaction that some members of these congregations experienced. At Ferryden, near Montrose, in November 1859, when Hay Macdowell Grant gave a sermon ‘five people fell down with prostrations’; a week later ‘a girl fell into a trance’ whilst attending another gathering at which Grant spoke; the following day, whilst listening to Hugh Mitchell preach, a fisherman was seized by a fit, ‘sank into a semi-comatose state,…and felt a great gloom before springing up with thankfulness’.[ii] Yet, little has been else has been written on these physical reactions, on whether there were any long-term physical and mental results. So I ask the question – how do these reactions relate to those in the physician’s casebook – cases like that of Archibald Dunn?

Revivals were periods of revitalisation, regeneration and awakening of spiritual and religious beliefs. The first Scottish revival took place in the seventeenth century, and similar ‘happenings’ reappeared sporadically through until the twentieth century. This post focuses on the Third Great Awakening, as it has become known, which began in America in the early 1850s and appeared on Scottish shores in 1859. Among the many definitions of revivalism, Donald Meek explained it as ‘a movement which “awakens” the unregenerate to a sense of sin and spiritual lostness’.[iii] This definition fits well with the results seen in the asylum patients. The leaders of these awakenings travelled around the country, preaching to the communities they visited, often over a number of days. Whilst the earlier revivals are noted to have been quiet affairs, marked by quiet weeping, by the nineteenth century the ‘spiritual anxiety’ on display was louder and more dramatic (although this was more acceptable in rural settings than the urban).[iv] That’s not to say that the revivals in Perth were very quiet.

Image 1 - Lithograph of an Outdoor Religious Meeting

A ‘typical’ revival meeting © CORBIS

The Perthshire Advertiser describes one of the revivalist meetings that took place at South Inch, Perth. A covered stage for the preachers was constructed and seats and standing areas for the attendees provided.[v] Another patient of The Murray is likely to have attended this revival meeting – Alexander Clow entered the asylum on 7 June. His son explained to the doctors that ‘he had become very much troubled in his mind in consequences of hearing the out-door preachers during the last two days.’ His religious acute mania manifested itself as incessant and incoherent rambling as well as excited, violent outbursts during which he physically attacked those present. At one side of South Inch a small, roofless hut had been constructed to allow the more ‘anxious inquirer’s’ some privacy as they listened to sermons. According to the report, these most anxious of attendees were, in the majority, women, of whom glimpses could be seen as they listened and prayed up on their knees. Two asylum patients attended a similar meeting held earlier in 1861: Betsy Jackson (age 35) stated ‘that a revival exhortation she once heard entered deeply into her soul and she felt changed ever since’; and in the admittance notes for Isabella Mitchell (age 21) the doctor writes ‘Revivalism – too – counts her as one of its many victims to the morbid excitement it engenders.’

Revivals weren’t all about these large meetings however. During the spring and summer of 1860, David Barly attended revival ceremonies at Meikleour Free Church instead of his regular prayer meetings. He was declared to be suffering from religious monomania after imploring his friends to spend more of their time dedicating themselves to Christ. And Archibald Dunn’s experience was more personal. His medical certificate states: ‘ever since a minister came and suddenly put his hand on his shoulder – when highly excited by a fiery discourse at one of those meetings, hissing some confounding words in his ear – our patient has never been himself again.’ This confounding led to delusions that he had been made Pope by God, and incoherent ramblings on religious matters.

Enthusiasm. ©WellcomeImages

Melancholia. ©WellcomeImages

Mania. ©WellcomeImages


The symptoms of melancholia and mania were very similar, with differentiation being made on small differences in behaviour. In the eighteenth century the difference between the two was the number of subjects upon which the sufferer would fixate – those with mania covering many different topics. Yet a century later, the diagnosis categories had been refined to include the subject upon which the patient was fixated – therefore these revival patients were diagnosed with religious melancholia and/or religious mania. It appears that the two diagnoses were used almost interchangeably; rules of nosology were ignored as much as followed.[vi] In the previous century, the understanding of religious madness was somewhat different. None report falling unconscious at the revivals or suffering bouts of weeping whilst listening to the preachers, nothing that is found in the historical records of these events. These ten patients experienced their symptoms after the revival, sometimes months later.

But those who found the revival experience too mentally overwhelming were not the first to experience such things. Just as the Third Great Awakening was not the first revival, those who entered the asylum as a result were not the first driven mad by the preachers. Eighteenth-century ‘methodism [was] one of the prime producers of candidates for the madhouse’ – producing men and women who were suffering from ‘Enthusiasm’.[vii] Roy Porter describes its symptoms as ‘ranting in tongues, seeing visions, falling into trances, ‘possession’ by spirits, and convulsions’, symptoms that match those in the reports of the nineteenth-century revivals.[viii] Enthusiasm was a condition lost as the understanding and nosology of mental disturbances, and the discipline of psychiatry developed through the nineteenth-century.

David Barly spent several months in the asylum before being discharged as cured. Archibald Dunn, Betsy Jackson and Isabella Mitchell all remained in asylums never recovering their minds fully. Alexander Clow died within a month of being admitted. There could, of course, have been other factors involved in their illnesses; it is not possible to fully understand Victorian patients from their casebooks, and this post did not intend to do so. I hoped to highlight an as yet unexplored link between a period of religious history and the development of the understandings and identification of mental disease.


[i] All patient notes mentioned are taken from: James Murray Royal Asylum, Physician’s Casebooks, Vol. 7, Tayside NHS Archive, University of Dundee, Ref. THB/29/8/6/1/7

[ii]David Babbington, Victorian Religious Revivals: Culture and Piety in Local and Global Contexts (Oxford, Oxford University Press; 2012), p.162

[iii] Donald Meek, in Nigel S. Cameron (ed.) Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology (Edinburgh, T&T Clark; 1993) pp.711-712

[iv] Kenneth S. Jeffrey, When the Lord Walked the Land: the 1858-62 revival in the north east of Scotland (Carlise; Paternoster Press, 2002)

[v] ‘Revival of Religion. Open Air Meetings in Perth’, Perth Advertiser, 6 June 1861, p.3

[vi] Andrew Scull, The Most Solitary of Afflictions: Madness and Society in Britain, 1700-1900 (New Haven, London; Yale University Press, 1993), p.345, fn.27

[vii] Scull, The Most Solitary of Afflictions, p.178

[viii] Roy Porter ‘The rage of party: A glorious revolution in English psychiatry? Medical History, Vol.27, 1983, pp.35-50

One response to “The Confounding of Archibald Dunn – Revivalism and the Asylum

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s