Religious Freedom and the Mad-Doctors

The dangers of being too enthusiastic in worshipping your God

Posted Nov 14, 2013

One of the major flashpoints in the 19th-century debates about mental health was the nature of religious belief and practice. Victorian England prided itself on its love of liberty—freedom to be an eccentric without being declared a lunatic; and freedom to worship a deity in whichever way seemed desirable.

However. . . a number of individuals found themselves being accused of ‘religious monomania’; and people whose spiritual life had come to encompass such things as an enthusiastic revivalist mode of worshipping, or, from the 1850s, spiritualism, found themselves being accused of insanity.

Louisa Nottidge, a wealthy, middle-aged, unmarried woman, fell under the spell of charismatic preacher Reverend Henry James Prince, founder of the millenarian sect, The Abode of Love. In 1844, Louisa and three of her sisters ran away to the Abode’s compound in rural Somerset, in the west of England, where around 50 rich, middle-class converts had handed over their wealth to Prince’s control. Prince preached that ‘the Day of Grace has passed, and the Day of Judgement has arrived,’ stating that only the members of the Abode of Love were to be among ‘the Saved.’ 

Louisa’s mother (a staunch, traditional Church of England believer) had her daughter abducted, certified a lunatic and incarcerated in the rather luxurious small private asylum Moorcroft House, about 25 miles from London. Louisa was seen by a number of doctors, who found that while she was calm and rational while discussing all other matters, she was nevertheless suffering from ‘religious delusion’, and so could not be trusted to go free and to manage her own worldly affairs (not least, her considerable wealth, which looked to be destined for Reverend Prince’s pocket).

It’s worth quoting at length this passage by one of her most eminent interrogators, Dr John Conolly, who considered himself an expert on ‘religious monomania’—his damning words were targeted at women:

‘At once gloomy and presumptuous, they [religiously deluded females] are easily induced to believe that God speaks to them more directly than to others; they soon learn to despise their parents; they denounce their relatives and friends; write foolish or abusive letters to persons in their neighbourhood; interfere in every family; and put their whole trust only in the vilest flatterers of their folly, to whom their property is willingly confided. To withhold superintendence and watching from such women would leave them an unprotected prey to hypocrisy and dishonesty.’

He continued: ‘There are gentler spirits, whose gloomy religious views, if fostered by the continued society of those among whom they originated, lead, by certain consequences, to self-destruction. If no one heeded their incipient malady before they actually became dangerous, it would often be too late to avert the danger.’ 

Fortunately for Louisa, a civil court judge was having none of this. He stated that a person’s sanity should never—ever—be evaluated according to their interpretation of Scripture, nor the passion with which they chose to express their love of the Lord. Louisa was declared sane, and won damages against her mother and other family members for trespass and false imprisonment.

Watching Prince’s believers at worship was often—to the uninitiated—pretty similar to witnessing the behaviour of a certain type of lunatic. Common to both were ecstatic shouting, bellowing, ranting, the placing of strange emphases on certain syllables, rocking the body to and fro, speaking in tongues, the rending of clothing, glazed eyes, an out-of-body rapture state. 

The Abode of Love was not the only religious community to have charges of lunacy thrown at it. The huge rise in millenarian sects from 1800 onwards brought many individuals under scrutiny—particularly if they had large funds to hand over to preachers and if they had an ‘important’ dynasty or kinsfolk who could be embarrassed by unusual beliefs and behaviour.

John Perceval (1803-1876) did, by his own admission, become insane in 1830 after joining the Irvingites—a breakaway Protestant group. John was a scion of the aristocratic Perceval clan, and his father was prime minister Spencer Perceval (assassinated in 1812). John’s speaking in tongues changed into a full-blown delusional state in 1830, from which, happily, he recovered after a few months. John went on to found the astonishingly ahead of its time patient advocacy body the Alleged Lunatics’ Friend Society.

John, commenting on Louisa Nottidge’s case, pointed out in a newspaper letters’ column that Christ and his Apostles would no doubt have been locked up by the mad-doctors, based on the sort of hysterical over-reaction shown by Dr Conolly in his writings about ‘religious delusion’. John wrote that Louisa had been certified ‘not for any offensive conduct, but because she holds opinions which differ, not even in principle, but only in development, from those of . . . certain of her relatives and friends’.

Very sadly, lessons were not learned from such cases, and as late as 1875, the toxic combination of money plus unorthodox religion led to the asylum incarceration of another woman whose only oddity was her religious beliefs. Julia Wood was part of the Shaker sect the Girlingites, and had pledged £2,000 to the building of their new community lodge. Her furious nephew managed to have her certified insane, and after a distressing stand-off at the Girlingite compound, police officers grabbed Julia and carried her to a waiting carriage, ‘her grey hair streaming in the wind’, as the Times newspaper described it. Despite a campaign to have her freed, Julia remained an asylum patient until her death, in 1903.

More successful against the mad-doctors was 54-year-old Reverend William Leach—a Church of England vicar whose close study of Scripture led him to certain conclusions. Deciding that Christ had abolished all class distinctions, he refused to recognise any difference between himself and his household servants—insisting that they come ‘upstairs’ to share the family quarters and to take meals with him. His elderly mother and siblings were aghast. But the final straw was when Reverend Leach proposed marriage to his 23-year-old parlourmaid, Ann Messenger.

His family acted at once, and Reverend Leach was placed in the prestigious West London private asylum Sussex House. Here, he told his captor, the eminent Dr. Forbes Benignus Winslow (himself a devout Evangelical), that he was praying for the return of the Church’s ‘miraculous gifts’ —to bring the dead back to life, to heal the sick and to restore sight to the blind. When the doctor requested the reverend to trim his long beard, Leach informed him that the Bible stated that men who shaved were making themselves look like women. The Saviour demanded that he have a long beard, he said.

At Reverend Leach’s lunacy hearing, an eminent physician, Dr Alexander Sutherland, took the line that religious unorthodoxy was indicative of insanity—that ‘sane’ people understood that Scripture could not simply be interpreted according to personal whim. What’s more, said Sutherland, Leach must be delusional, because he did not appear to have any awareness that his beliefs were in contravention of traditional Anglicanism. Sutherland and Winslow also believed that Leach was being taken advantage of by his servants, who were using his foolishness and generosity for their own ends

By a majority of 19 to 4, the jury at Leach’s lunacy hearing backed the vicar, and freed him. He did indeed marry Ann Messenger and their happy marriage, with six children, lasted until Reverend Leach’s death in great old-age. 

In a follow-up blog, I’ll look at how two female spiritualists attracted the attentions of the doctors – and how they fought back, hard.


Joshua John Schwieso, Deluded Inmates, Frantic Ravers and Communists: A Sociological Study of the Agapemone, a Sect of Victorian Apocalyptic Millenarians, University of Reading, 1994

John Conolly, A Remonstrance with The Lord Chief Baron Touching the Case Nottidge versus Ripley, 1849

John Perceval, letter to The Morning Post, 12 July 1849

The Julia Wood case, The Times, 2 March 1875

The Commission of Lunacy on Rev Mr Leach, Journal of Mental Science, volume 4, 1857/8


Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty, and the Mad-Doctors in England

by Sarah Wise


buy now 

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