Millerite Insanity

Ronald L. Numbers and Janet Numbers, "Millerism and Madness: A Study of 'Religious Insanity' in Nineteenth-Century American", The Disappointed, pp. 97-101, (Knoxville, 1993)

In the early 1840s, as Millerite enthusiasm approached its zenith, asylum superintendents in the Northeast began reacting with alarm to the influx of patients seemingly deranged by "the Miller excitement." Samuel B. Woodward, superintendent of the Worcester State Lunatic Hospital and soon to become the first president of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane (the present-day American Psychiatric Association), noted in his annual report for 1843 that nearly 7 percent of all admissions during the previous year-and over half of all cases resulting from religious causes (15 of 28)-could be charged to Millerism. He believed that in the other asylums of New England Millerites constituted an even larger percentage of the patient population. Although he regarded it as unusual for a "popular religious error" to have produced so much excitement in the community and rendered so many insane," he professed to understand why so many minds were unsettled by Millerism: "the subject is momentous, the time fixed for the final consummation of all things so near at hand, and the truth of all sustained by unerring mathematics." At Worcester the Millerite cases fell into two categories: the true believers so "full of ecstacy" [sic] that some refused even to eat and drink, and the unconverted who feared that Miller's prophecy might be correct, "who have distracted their minds by puzzling over it, thinking about it, and dreading its approach, who have sunk into deep and hapless melancholy."23

Amariah Brigham, the distinguished head of the Utica State Lunatic Asylum in upstate New York and author of a book on religion and insanity, also addressed the Millerite problem in 1843 in his annual report-and devoted an entire article to the subject in the first volume of the American Journal of Insanity, which he founded and edited. In Brigham's opinion, the insidious effects of Millerism stemmed less from its peculiar teachings than from its tendency to deprive "excitable and nervous persons" of needed sleep while they attended protracted meetings. To illustrate his point, he related the history of one of his own patients:

S.H. attended from idle curiosity a religious meeting, and heard for the first time the doctrine of the immediate destruction of the world. His attention was awakened and he attended similar meetings several evenings in succession; commenced studying the bible on the subject; passed several nights in the investigation; had but little or no sleep for above a week; then had contests with devils; determined not to eat until the end of the world, and became decidedly deranged.

Brigham acknowledged that "for the most part" Millerites were "sincere and pious people." However, he believed that their teachings threatened the mental health not only of the present population but of generations yet to come, who, because of their ancestors' errors, would enter the world predisposed to insanity. Such prospects prompted him to rank Millerism above even yellow fever and cholera as a threat to the public's health.24

Despite a wealth of sources linking Millerism to insanity, it is impossible to estimate with any confidence the number of Americans who suffered mental breakdowns as a result of the Millerite excitement. Many persons who experienced only temporary derangement undoubtedly remained outside of institutions and thus off the asylums' registration books. As one historian of religious insanity in the early nineteenth century has recently observed, "the evidence from church records, published accounts, and private archives indicates that 'religious failures,' the obsessed men and women broken down by the burdens of scrupulous conscience, generally lived out their lives in quiet desperation within the sphere of the private family."25 Besides, as even the popular press occasionally recognized, it was notoriously difficult to isolate the contribution of Millerism to any one person's mental illness.26

Even if we limit ourselves to institutionalized "Millerites," their numbers can be estimated only in the crudest fashion. Several superintendents refused to assign supposed causes of insanity; others subsumed "Millerism" under the categories "religious excitement" or "popular error," especially in the early 1840s, before "Millerism" reached epidemic proportions, and after 1850, by which time Millerite enthusiasm had subsided. Nevertheless, from the annual reports of some two dozen asylums, the clinical records of three institutions, and miscellaneous secondary sources, we have sketched a tentative demographic profile.27

During the middle third of the nineteenth century, American asylums admitted no fewer than 170 patients for causes related to Millerism. Of this number, about 70 percent entered institutions in New England; over 20 percent went to asylums in New York, especially the state hospital in Utica, which apparently treated the largest number of Millerites in the country; the remaining 10 percent were scattered throughout a region stretching south to Virginia and west to Indiana. Asylums in major cities, even in New England and New York, seem to have admitted proportionally fewer Millerites than those located in smaller towns and rural areas. For example, the Boston Lunatic Hospital, which served a predominantly foreign-born and presumably Catholic clientele, reported only three or four cases related to Millerism; the Bloomingdale Asylum in New York treated only one. Pliny Earle, physician to the latter institution, commented in 1848 that the "exciting doctrines of Miller, the self-styled prophet of the immediate destruction of the world, gained but little hold of the public mind in this vicinity."28

In 1847 the New Hampshire Asylum admitted a woman who had been disturbed for the past three years, supposedly because of the "excitement produced by Millerism." According to her history:

"She confidently looked forward to a set time when the crisis was to take place according to prophecy and that time having passed and her expectations not being realized disappointment and melancholy ensued. This state continued with some variation until six weeks ago, when there was a change for the worse. Now refuses to eat, and is very much emaciated and debilitated in consequence...[Her skin] has now a very cadaverous aspect. Appears to be conscious of her situation but too much debilitated to say much or help herself."

Chronologically, the admission of Millerite-related cases followed no predictable pattern, except for the obvious clustering of admissions in the 1840s. If the records of "Millerites" admitted to the New Hampshire Asylum for the Insane, founded in 1842, and the Utica State Lunatic Asylum, opened in 1843, are in any way typical 29, the disappointments of 1844 seem to have had little effect on hospital census.

Patients identified as Millerites continued to straggle into asylums well into the 1850s-and even into the early 1860s. The state asylum in New Hampshire, for example, admitted four Millerite cases between January 1854 and May 1855 and one as late as 1862. Among the first patients to enter the new Taunton State Lunatic Hospital in Massachusetts, which opened in 1854, were three Millerites, including one described as "on old and nearly hopeless" case, who presented "the sad spectacle of a promising man blasted in the mind and prospects by a foolish and wicked delusion."30

By the late 1840s Millerism had come to occupy a prominent place in the literature of American psychiatry as the very stereotype of epidemic "religious insanity." Far after the disintegration of the Millerite movement asylum superintendents and students of insanity continued to draw lessons from the Millerite experience, and as late as 1858 Dorothea L. Dix cited the unfortunate victims of the "Millerite delusions" in her appeals to provide better care for the insane.31


23 AR, State Lunatic Hospital at Worcester, 1843, pp. 52-53. See also Woodward's comments in the AR for 1844, p. 52.

24 AR, New York State Lunatic Asylum at Utica, 1843, pp. 22-23; [Amariah Brigham], "Millerism," American Journal of Insanity, 1844-45, I: 249-253. For another early case history related to Millerism, see the AR, Western Lunatic Asylum, Staunton, Virginia, 1843, pp. 32-33. Some critics expressed concern about the economic cost of caring for the deranged disciples of Miller; "Scoffers Shall Arise," Signs of the Times, 1843, 4:179.

25 Rubin, "Mental Illness in Early Nineteenth Century New England," p. 77.

26 See, e.g., "Millerism and Insanity," New York Daily Tribune, March 24, 1843.

27 [Examined 24 annual (or biennial) reports from Asylums throughout the United States. Also searched various unpublished documents. The full list can be found in footnotes for The Disappointed, pp. 114-115]

28 AR, Boston Lunatic Hospital, 1843, 1844, 1845; AR, New York Hospital and Bloomingdale Asylum, 1845; Pliny Earle, History, Description and Statistics of the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane (New York, 1848), p. 97).

29 AR, New Hampshire Asylum for the Insane, 1849; Records of the New Hampshire Asylum for the Insane; AR, New York State Lunatic Asylum at Utica, 1843-50.

30 AR, New Hampshire Asylum for the Insane, 1855, 1862; AR, State Lunatic Hospital at Taunton, 1845, 1855; The Taunton Millerites may have been transferred from the over crowded facility at Worcester.

31 "Memorial of D.L. Dix, Praying a Grant of Land for the Relief and Support of the Indigent Curable and Incurable Insane in the United States," Journal of Mental Science, 1858, 4:131. See also, e.g., AR, Eastern Lunatic Asylum, Williamsburg, Virginia, 1848, p. 14; "The Nervous Epidemic Connected with the Religious Revival in Ireland," American Journal of Insanity, 1860, 16:357; Biennial Report, Illinois State Hospital for the Insane, Jacksonville, 1862, p. 27.

Category: 1844 Movement
Please SHARE this using the social media icons below