In the modern age of cutting-edge technology and life-saving medical advances, it becomes more and more apparent how little is known about the human body and the diseases that plague it most. While scientists and doctors look forward to the future and the discoveries and secrets it holds, sometimes the greatest insight for treating illnesses lies in the past. Depression is a perfect example--as neuroscientists explore the chemical makeup of the brain to find imbalances that may induce depression, it is wise to look back at how people have endured depression in history for a fresh but time-tested perspective. Eighteenth-century theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards provides a fascinating case study for anyone wanting to understand a theological perspective of depression. Depression, or melancholy, as he would have called it, greatly influenced the Puritan society he pastored and thus the writings and sermons he is so well known for today. While he and his wife themselves struggled with it, depression ran in his family, afflicted a close friend of his, plagued many in his community, and took the life of many in his congregation and family. Edwards’s theological understanding of melancholy provides Christians today with much insight on how to face such trials today, however, in an age of psychiatric medicine it is hard to know how to incorporate the scientific with the theological, the physical with the spiritual, and psychology with Christianity. Jonathan Edwards sheds an important light on the modern psychological view of depression through his writings on melancholy, which he learned through personal experience, melancholic loved ones, and pastoring a Puritan church in a society very prone to melancholy.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 350 million people suffer from depression globally, granting it the nickname “the common cold of mental health disorders” in regards to its commonality (World Health Organization). The severity of depression, however, should not be taken lightly--fifteen percent of those diagnosed with depression commit suicide making it the tenth leading causes of death in the United States over the age of ten, according to the Center for Disease Control (“Prevention and Postvention Guides”; CDC). Depression is a deadly disease that warrants treatment and great care, however, it is not something new to this age. In 1586 a doctor named Timothy Bright wrote Treatise of Melancholie, in which he described melancholy as coming from one of the four humors settling in the spleen and sending vapors up to the brain causing what is now called depression, of Major Depressive Disorder (Parker). According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, the leading authority in psychological and psychiatric circles concerning diagnostic texts, explains that depressive mood disorders are marked by a “sad, empty, or irritable mood, accompanied by somatic and cognitive changes that significantly affect the individual's capacity to function” (155). The struggles of depression is certainly not a new phenomenon but has plagued humanity for centuries. The importance of understanding depression can mean life or death for many affected individuals. Many techniques for handling depression have developed over the years, especially since the birth of psychology as a study and psychiatry as a medical practice. Many of the psychiatric approaches to depressive disorders can save and improve lives, however depression is far from understood, especially the theological implications.
Modern medicine approaches depression with the combination of two treatments: medicinal and therapeutic. The medicinal route seeks to restore balance to the chemicals in the brain “by increasing the availability of norepinephrine or serotonin, neurotransmitters that elevate arousal and mood and appear scarce during depression” (Myers 676). The therapeutic approach has many different perspectives and approaches, including arguably the two most identifiable psychoanalytical and humanistic perspectives. The psychoanalytical perspective was developed and popularized by Sigmund Freud, a late eighteenth-century doctor who began what is now known as psychology. He theorized that much of a person’s actions are determined by an unconscious struggle between three different energies, the id, ego, and superego, and their contradictory desires. The id controls the sexual and aggressive desires and seeks pleasure as quickly as possible, the superego governs internalized ideals such as morals, rules, goals, and beliefs, and lastly the ego seeks to make peace between the id and superego. This struggle happens in the unconscious mind, while parts of the superego and ego emerge in conscious thoughts occasionally. In Freud’s psychoanalytic perspective, a therapist’s goal in treating a patient is to help them uncover this unconscious struggle and restore balance to the three energies. If anyone is too strong then their lives will be dominated by unhealthy struggles; for example, if the superego is too strong (e.i. internalized ideals emphasized), then the patient will experience overwhelming guilt anytime he or she gives in to their desire for pleasure, but if the id is in control then the individual will live a dangerous life of indulging every sexual and aggressive whim--often through gambling, irresponsible sexual behavior, addiction, et cetera. However, the psychoanalytic perspective has received criticism for relying too heavily on the speculation of the therapist and for lacking the ability to be tested and therefore becoming more philosophical than scientific.
In contrast to Freud’s psychoanalytical theory where one is enslaved by the sinful urges of the id and the only hope for peace in the midst of the struggle is a proper balance of the energies, the humanistic perspective developed with a radically different view of mankind. The humanists believed that man has the potential to be good, but achieving that is a matter of circumstances and environment. Psychologist Abraham Maslow believed that humans have a hierarchy of needs beginning with physical needs such as food and hunger, then building up to a need for love, then self-esteem, and ultimately leading to self-actualization, which Myers defines as “the motivation to fulfill one’s potential” (Myers 524). Carl Rogers theorized that everyone has the tendency towards self-actualization, and only when environment and circumstances hinders someone will they never achieve their full potential. Myers summarized their views:
For them a central feature of personality is one’s self-concept—all the thoughts and feelings we have in response to the question, ‘Who am I?’ If our self-concept is positive, we tend to act and perceive the world positively. If it is negative—if in our own eyes we fall far short of our ideal self—said Rogers, we feel dissatisfied and unhappy. A worthwhile goal for therapists, parents, teachers, and friends is therefore, he said, to help others know, accept, and be true to themselves. (524)
However, how should a Christian, who believes humanity is sinful and in need of a Savior, respond to these assertions that humanity is capable of achieving goodness as long as he or she lives in a suitable environment? Should a Christian take part in psychiatric treatment such as therapy in a practice that is dominated by such incorrect views of human nature and its need for Christ? Jonathan Edwards would have wise and helpful input on this topic. His bouts of depression, his experience pastoring a rather melancholic community, and his friendship with Reverend David Brainerd helped him develop a view of depression that would solve many of psychology’s problems today.
In the life of Jonathan Edwards, he experienced different bouts of melancholy and periods of depression, and it is not hard to speculate that Edwards’s depression was due to biological and genetic abnormalities because his family history of mental illness. Jonathan’s paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Tuttle, was known to have some sort of mysterious mental illness. Her sister, Jonathan’s great-aunt, suffered from some mental illness that cause her to kill her own son with an ax to the head. Similarly, Elizabeth’s brother Benjamin killed their sister, Sarah due to a mental illness. Their brother, David, suffered from melancholy in the midst of all of this (Sweeney). The Edwards-Tuttle family evidently suffered from a physiological mental illness, which provided Edwards with empathy and insight as he pastored the many in his congregation who suffered from melancholy. Through his own periods of melancholy he grew closer to God, as Weddle explains, “renewing his determination to be active in the service of the kingdom of God,” and then years later in his Personal Narrative, he “moved beyond the dialect of melancholy and resolution to a form of spirituality shaped by a vision of divine beauty and issuing in consent to the harmony of universal being” (Weddle 298). God used Edwards’s melancholy, a physical ailment of the brain, as a tool in forming him into a better child of God, pastor, and husband.
Edwards’s exposure to melancholy was not limited to himself and his ancestors, however, his wife Sarah Pierpont Edwards also suffered from periods of melancholy. Jonathan Edwards biographer George Marsden notes that Edwards recorded that Sarah “had many ups and downs,” Marsden adds that Jonathan recorded Sarah having “‘a vapory habit of body’ (a tendency toward depression--which he had also) and was ‘often subject to melancholy’ and sometimes ‘almost overborne with it, it having been so even from early youth’” (108). Jonathan Edwards greatly admired Sarah for her grace and strength in trials, remaining patient in the Lord and always accepting His grace. For, a troublesome problem arose in Puritan society causing a psychosocial predisposition for depression--many people, in examining their lives for sin to remain penitent before God, focused so much on the gravity of their own sin that they never turned toward God and accepted His forgiveness. Marsden explains, “If we learn anything from Jonathan’s diary, Calvinist saints never sailed long on smooth waters with steady spiritual winds. Rather, faith was a constant struggle as God tested them and allowed Satan to toss them on stormy seas. Often it seemed to them that God had deserted them. Often they saw themselves as the greatest of sinners” (Marsden 108). Much of the melancholy that ran so ramped in Puritan society was encouraged by the desire to repent of sins. This desire, while a good desire, became unhealthy as the Puritans had trouble then turning toward forgiveness and away from their own sin. Edwards often pondered the importance of rumination (Parker 212). One example of a highly introspective Puritan is a good friend of Edwards’s, David Brainerd, a pastor whose melancholy developed to very unhealthy levels due to his insofficient coping mechanisms and inaccurate view of God.
In 1749 Edwards published a book called The Life of David Brainerd, a collection of edited journals he compiled belonging to David Brainerd. In this fascinating journal, Brainerd revealed his severe depression and idealization of suicide. Weddle explained that “Brainerd waged a life-long struggle with melancholy, manifested in morbid self-condemnation, obsessive self-interest, and the glorification of death,” and he exhibited “an utter lack of confidence in his own integrity or worth,” things that would make any psychologist today very concerned (Weddle 298, 301). Brainerd spent much of his time in quiet contemplation of his sins which only exacerbated his melancholic symptoms (Weddle 306). He longed for God but because he understood that his earthly sin separated him from God, he longed for death to free him from the bondage of his sin and suffering. He wrote in his journal, “I seemed to live for nothing and to do no good: And oh, the burden of such a life! Oh, death, death, my kind friend, hasten and deliver me from dull mortality, and make me spiritual and vigorous to eternity!” (Weddle 306). There is a stark contrast, however, in how Brainerd and Edwards dealt with their bouts of melancholy. While Brainerd turned his melancholy into contemplation of his sinfulness, seeing it almost as an affliction from God--both a gift and a dreadful curse--to continually reveal his sin, Edwards sought freedom from his melancholy and a joy and excitement for God’s glory and beauty in its stead. The problem with Brainerd’s view of melancholy and what many other Puritans experienced is an emphasis on themselves and their own sin rather than on God and His forgiveness.
In order to properly treat depression and melancholy, one must understand the cause of this disease. Is it, as many scientists since the sixteenth century have argued, a physical illness, or solely a spiritual condition as some Christians have said? As science continues to advance and medicinal treatment cures develop, it becomes even more evident that the cause of depression cannot be corrected with a pill. Standard treatment for depression begins with therapy, then if that proves unsuccessful psychiatrists and therapists will pursue the pharmaceutical route. Edwards would not disagree with this assessment. He believed depression stemmed from an interplay of physical factors, a disease of the brain, with a definite effect of spiritual warfare. Edwards wrote:
The brain being thus weakened and diseased, ‘tis less under the command of the higher faculties of the soul, and yields the more easily to extrinsic impressions, and is overpowered by the disordered motions of the animals spirits; and so the Devil has created advantage to affect the mind, by working on the imagination. And thus Satan, when he casts in those horrid suggestions into the minds of many melancholy persons, in which they have no hand themselves, he does it by exciting imaginary ideas, either of some dreadful words or sentences, or other horrid outward ideas.” (Parker 202)
He argued that a physical disease effected the brain, then the Devil attacks the weakened brain and speaks to the mind to suggest horrible ideas--whether that be lies about their worth, the character of God, or that they should commit self-destructive or even suicidal acts as the only escape or rescue from their sin.
To treat depression and therapy, Edwards demonstrated much of his views in an indirect way through the editing of David Brainerd’s diaries. As a pastor, Edwards chose to leave out portions of the diaries in areas where he worried Brainerd’s views and writings would lead others astray. While maintaining great respect for his friend, Edwards wrote of him, “He was a mourner for sin all his days...though he was assured that God had forgiven it, yet he never forgave himself,” and Weddle adds, “That is a description not of a tender conscious, but of a battered spirit” (303). While important to mourn sins, Edwards believed the process of repentance does not end there--one must instead turn toward God’s forgiveness and seek His beauty and glory. In “The End for Which God Created the World,” Edwards explains that everything is centered around God’s glory--everything happens or exists in order to bring glory to God, including the lives and salvation of mankind. In order to aid someone suffering from depression and melancholy, Edwards would point them to God and His glory. The reason for repentance is to flee from that which counterfeited His glory and accept His gracious character and the saving act of the cross. The purpose psychology seeks, including non-Christians still blinded by their sin, is to restore broken people back to a healthy and good state. That healthy and good state is a proper understanding of the glory of God, a true understanding of who He is and who each person is in comparison. From this understanding flows the humility and piety the Puritans sought after, and the healthy mental state psychologists search for.
Christians should not fear the seemingly worldly science of psychology, rather they should embrace the way it demonstrates man’s need for His Savior. Jonathan Edwards believed that depression and melancholy was a physical illness that deserved treatment and attention. While many Christians today cower from psychology as it claims a biological and chemical cause for emotions and decisions, Jonathan Edwards would have agreed with modern psychology in that biological influences greatly effect who a person is, seeing that God created both the soul and the physical body, and He continues to rule over both. When Christians experience melancholy, as they are bound to do in this life, they should seek psychiatric help for both counseling and potentially medication, but most importantly correct their view of God. When a Christian seeks His glory, they must explore His character--something the darkness of depression threatens to skew. As characteristic of the Puritans, Jonathan Edwards passionately explored God’s character and longed to see more of His glory, which inspired his longing for riding his life from sin; however, unlike Brainerd, Edwards then turned his mourning into praise for God’s unending mercies. In the midst of his struggles with melancholy, Edwards always adored his wife, Sarah’s great grace in the face of trials as she rested in God’s unending mercies. When facing and treating melancholy, Christians should face it like Sarah and Jonathan Edwards, always seeking God’s face and His glory in the midst of the physical trials of this broken world. “She was also free from the obligation to judge herself. In the freedom of universal love Sarah Edwards lived in the grace that is beyond melancholy, in loyalty to the God who is beyond the Judge.” (Weddle 318)