Warfare of Science with Theology   Chapter XVI: From Diabolism to Hysteria

Theological ``Restatements'' - Final Triumph of Scientific View and Methods

But, happily, long before these latter occurrences, science had come into the field and was gradually diminishing this class of diseases. Among the earlier workers to this better purpose was the great Dutch physician Boerhaave. Finding in one of the wards in the hospital at Haarlem a number of women going into convulsions and imitating each other in various acts of frenzy, he immediately ordered a furnace of blazing coals into the midst of the ward, heated cauterizing irons, and declared that he would burn the arms of the first woman who fell into convulsions. No more cases occurred.

These and similar successful dealings of medical science with mental disease brought about the next stage in the theological development. The Church sought to retreat, after the usual manner, behind a compromise. Early in the eighteenth century appeared a new edition of the great work by the Jesuit Delrio which for a hundred years had been a text-book for the use of ecclesiastics in fighting witchcraft; but in this edition the part played by Satan in diseases was changed: it was suggested that, while diseases have natural causes, it is necessary that Satan enter the human body in order to make these causes effective. This work claims that Satan ``attacks lunatics at the full moon, when their brains are full of humours''; that in other cases of illness he ``stirs the black bile''; and that in cases of blindness and deafness he ``clogs the eyes and ears.'' By the close of the century this ``restatement'' was evidently found untenable, and one of a very different sort was attempted in England.

In the third edition of the Encyclopæ dia Britannica, published in 1797, under the article Dæ moniacs, the orthodox view was presented in the following words: ``The reality of demoniacal possession stands upon the same evidence with the gospel system in general.''

This statement, though necessary to satisfy the older theological sentiment, was clearly found too dangerous to be sent out into the modern sceptical world without some qualification. Another view was therefore suggested, namely, that the personages of the New Testament ``adopted the vulgar language in speaking of those unfortunate persons who were generally imagined to be possessed with demons.'' Two or three editions contained this curious compromise; but near the middle of the present century the whole discussion was quietly dropped.

Science, declining to trouble itself with any of these views, pressed on, and toward the end of the century we see Dr. Rhodes at Lyons curing a very serious case of possession by the use of a powerful emetic; yet myth-making came in here also, and it was stated that when the emetic produced its effect people had seen multitudes of green and yellow devils cast forth from the mouth of the possessed.

The last great demonstration of the old belief in England was made in 1788. Near the city of Bristol at that time lived a drunken epileptic, George Lukins. In asking alms, he insisted that he was ``possessed,'' and proved it by jumping, screaming, barking, and treating the company to a parody of the Te Deum.

He was solemnly brought into the Temple Church, and seven clergymen united in the effort to exorcise the evil spirit. Upon their adjuring Satan, he swore ``by his infernal den'' that he would not come out of the man - ``an oath,'' says the chronicler, ``nowhere to be found but in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, from which Lukins probably got it.''

But the seven clergymen were at last successful, and seven devils were cast out, after which Lukins retired, and appears to have been supported during the remainder of his life as a monument of mercy.

With this great effort the old theory in England seemed practically exhausted.

Science had evidently carried the stronghold. In 1876, at a little town near Amiens, in France, a young woman suffering with all the usual evidences of diabolic possession was brought to the priest. The priest was besought to cast out the devil, but he simply took her to the hospital, where, under scientific treatment, she rapidly became better.

The final triumph of science in this part of the great field has been mainly achieved during the latter half of the present century.

Following in the noble succession of Paracelsus and John Hunter and Pinel and Tuke and Esquirol, have come a band of thinkers and workers who by scientific observation and research have developed new growths of truth, ever more and more precious.

Among the many facts thus brought to bear upon this last stronghold of the Prince of Darkness, may be named especially those indicating ``expectant attention'' - an expectation of phenomena dwelt upon until the longing for them becomes morbid and invincible, and the creation of them perhaps unconscious. Still other classes of phenomena leading to epidemics are found to arise from a morbid tendency to imitation. Still other groups have been brought under hypnotism. Multitudes more have been found under the innumerable forms and results of hysteria. A study of the effects of the imagination upon bodily functions has also yielded remarkable results.

And, finally, to supplement this work, have come in an array of scholars in history and literature who have investigated myth-making and wonder-mongering.

Thus has been cleared away that cloud of supernaturalism which so long hung over mental diseases, and thus have they been brought within the firm grasp of science.

Conscientious men still linger on who find comfort in holding fast to some shred of the old belief in diabolic possession. The sturdy declaration in the last century by John Wesley, that ``giving up witchcraft is giving up the Bible,'' is echoed feebly in the latter half of this century by the eminent Catholic ecclesiastic in France who declares that ``to deny possession by devils is to charge Jesus and his apostles with imposture,'' and asks, ``How can the testimony of apostles, fathers of the Church, and saints who saw the possessed and so declared, be denied?'' And a still fainter echo lingers in Protestant England.

But, despite this conscientious opposition, science has in these latter days steadily wrought hand in hand with Christian charity in this field, to evolve a better future for humanity. The thoughtful physician and the devoted clergyman are now constantly seen working together; and it is not too much to expect that Satan, having been cast out of the insane asylums, will ere long disappear from monasteries and camp meetings, even in the most unenlightened regions of Christendom.