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Religious melancholia and the York Retreat 1730-1830

Religious melancholia and the York Retreat 1730-1830
Jonathan Paul Mitchell


School of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UNITED KINGDOM.


This thesis will examine the hitherto understudied area of Georgian Quaker spirituality, and bring it to bear on the historically significant York Retreat asylum. The York Retreat opened in 1796 to serve the Quaker community. It was managed by the Tukes, an influential family of Quaker religious leaders. Georgian Quakers had a rich and idiosyncratic introspective tradition and spiritual life. Their spirituality entailed a depressive piety which escalated to despair, restrictive eating or suicidality in several narratives from Georgian Quaker religious leaders. It was common for Georgian Quakers to interpret these episodes of affliction from the perspective on religious melancholia common to several other radical dissenting movements, in which such episodes were seen as a divinely ordained trial that would ultimately add to the gravity and authority of the afflicted, and prepare them for a religiously orientated life. Yet this concern with religious melancholia has escaped the notice of previous writers on the York Retreat.

The thesis will first examine Quaker worship, the cornerstone of Georgian Quaker practical theology. It will then show how religious doubt, despair and affliction were intrinsic and causally efficacious parts of Georgian Quaker narratives of spiritual progress, before examining accounts of religious distress in Quaker biography and at the York Retreat. This thesis therefore provides an alternative narrative on the early years of the York Retreat. The York Retreat will not be approached as a site of innovation in secular humanistic psychiatry, but as a relic of dissenting modes of experiential religion and religious melancholia. In so doing, the thesis will show that assumptions around a link between Quaker spirituality and the ‘moral treatment’ regime are unfounded; the liberal humanism of contemporary Quakerism has been imputed onto the history of the York Retreat by supporters and critics alike. Instead, it will be shown that Quakers gradually incorporated narratives of nervous affliction into their accounts of religious affliction, reflecting the long- running embodied aspect of religious distress, at a time when it was not unheard of for the devout to be supported in religious reconciliation and bodily healing from within a madhouse.