Hysteria neurosis among the Puritans of New England



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Historians have long held before Americans a vision of the Puritans, founders of New England, as energetic, disciplined, idealistic, superhuman people who created a new nation in the hope that a Utopian Christian ideal, particularly theirs, might be realized. Armed with their bibles and mulling over the theology of John Calvin, they came ashore to found, as John Winthrop called it, 'a Citty on a Hill,' the new Jerusalem they passionately believed was possible. Unfortunately, because of the Calvinist premises they held so dear, notably the total depravity of man, the selective 'election' to heaven which their god arbitrarily made with no regard for faith or good works, and the tight control over human behavior, movement, and thought by the theocratic state, many Puritans began to suffer an 'identity crisis'; an alienation from self began. What today are called neurotic symptoms began to occur: dysfunctions of the body, disruptions in the mind. Many of these, especially severe depression, were superimposed on the theological structure of the Genevan oligarch, himself a sufferer from many hysterical symptoms. The primitive living conditions, monotony of daily life, repetitious and terrifying sermons, diet, family structure, social life style, obliteration of individualism, and sexual repression of the American Puritans helped intensify this self-alienation, creating a setting for a particular pattern of behavior, hysteria neurosis. often called 'conversion hysteria.' Calvin's theories incorporated the Augustinian premises about witchcraft and possession, long a tradition both in the church and in medicine. Augustine's misogynistic and anti-sexual teachings, infused with the concept that illness was a result of sin or dealings with the devil, fitted neatly into Calvin's view that all men were totally degenerate. When added to a superstitious belief in witches and black magic - plus the bizarre behavior of the hysterics - the accumulated misinformation of centuries combined to create an explosive, then murderous, situation. This study proposes to establish that hysteria neurosis was widespread among the Puritans of New England, outside the infamous and oft-analyzed Salem, Massachusetts, and to offer previously-unexamined information to substantiate this thesis.