The Society Syndrome

Depressive Illness and Conversion Crises in a Christian Fundamentalist Sect

by Julius H. Rubin, Ph.D.

The Bruderhof, an intentional community founded in the 1920s in Germany by Eberhard Arnold, is now entering its fourth generation with eight settlements in America, England, and Germany. A cursory examination of Bruderhof public relations and publications from their press, The Plough, depicts deeply committed Anabaptists devoted to the realization of the Sermon on the Mount -- Christian communitarianism, pacifism and a peace witness; individuals and families united to form a vessel for the Holy Spirit, children cherished as God's gift to the parents and community. They present themselves as the joyful ones who forge a life in common according to God's mandate, retreating from a fallen world to recover a childlike spirit of simplicity and fellowship within the gemeinde-- the church community. (Zablocki, 1971 and Whitworth, 1975) Enjoined to bear witness to the world and to seek converts, the Bruderhoefe conceive of themselves as God's revolutionaries.
However, there is another side of joy, largely hidden from the outside world. The KIT newsletter, founded in 1989, (KIT, 1990) has started publishing life-histories of Bruderhof exiles. Apostates from the Bruderhof in forced or voluntary exclusion describe a community marked by excessive physical discipline of children, obsessions with the sexual purity of children and the practice of "clearings" -- interrogation by adults seeking confession of sexual sins of children. Wayward, stubborn and difficult children have been accused of demonic possession. Many women, former members, have made allegations of childhood sexual molestation by family or community members. Families have been disrupted as a parent or child is placed in ausschluss exclusion -- a temporary or permanent excommunication. And during times of community crisis, in the Wheathill Bruderhof in 1948, or the Primavera, Paraguay settlement in 1957- 1960, for example, nearly half of the brotherhood members were summarily excluded. The documented accounts of collective crises and mass exclusions, the routine use of excessive discipline and family disruption through ausschluss, and the records of mental breakdowns, psychiatric care and suicide cannot be dismissed as the overstated complaining of a disgruntled minority.
This paper will demonstrate the special affinity for depressive disorders found among adherents of a distinctive religious world view and ethos prevalent among the Bruderhof during the charismatic leadership of Heini Arnold (1957-1982). Guided by the religio- historical interpretation of religious movements of David Chidester's "Salvation and Suicide," we shall see how true believers who struggled for the salvation of their souls, put their psyches in jeopardy. The "costs" of forging a life committed to the realization of an absolute ethic of conviction frequently included spiritual trial, desolation, religious melancholy and religious suicide. (Rubin, 1993)
Bruderhof communitarianism centers upon each succeeding generation's interpretation of the writings and teachings of their charismatic founder, Eberhard Arnold. Revision, perceived declension and revival characterize Arnold's legacy. During the 1950s, Heini Arnold, one of Eberhard's sons, revitalized the Bruderhof in the direction of an inner-worldly mysticism and pietism taken from the neglected marrow of the founder's theology. This theological awakening, which I term "Heini-ism," allowed Heini Arnold to reanimate the pietistic and emotional contents of Bruderhof conversion and to usurp total authority over the many Bruderhof communities. Heini- ism encouraged profound devotionalism among adherents directing them in the path toward salvation. Heini Arnold's charismatic "genius" manifested itself in the gifts of discernment -- of seeing into the hearts and minds of believers, ascertaining the depths or superficiality of their faith, and guiding their spiritual pilgrimage. He mediated to community members the cultural meanings and "cues" of authentic spirituality -- what to believe, how to feel, how to think, how to perceive, what was the agenda or order of things and whom to emulate (Nelson, 1981)
Heini's special gifts, those of a mystagogue, rested upon the theological foundation of his father and founder, Eberhard Arnold, whose theology legitimated the charisma and authority of the son. Heini committed the Bruderhof press, The Plough, to the English translation and publication of Arnold's major writings, "Innerland" (1963), "When Time was Fulfilled" (1965), "Salt and Light" (1967), "Why We Live in Community" (1972) and "Seeking For the Kingdom" (1974). Although older members from the early Sannerz, Rhon, Cotswold and Primavera bruderhofs had known Eberhard, found edification in his sermons and read his works in German, the recent American and English converts lacked this connection with the founder and his teachings. Heini lamented the sad fate of "Innerland" that remained unfinished at Eberhard's death in 1935, untranslated, and out-of-print.
Heini remarked that the English bruderhof members of the 1940s and 1950s "somehow did not feel the depth of the Book speaking to them at this time." (H. Arnold, 1974) Preaching, catechism, and religious instruction would now proceed from the books of Arnold, the writings of Blumhardt and Bonhoeffer, and from the Hutterian and Anabaptist tradition that formed the Bruderhof canonical texts. Bible study and preaching from the scripture were de-emphasized.
Heini, never a towering intellectual or theologian, simplified and systematized his father's ideas into an inner-worldly pietism adopting the German evangelical pietist theology of assurance -- the necessity of an intense, emotionally wrenching inner-struggle (Busskampf) resulting in the ravishing, joyous psychological union with God, the inner-worldly mystical "bride of the lamb." (Stoeffler, 1973:12-16) Each new being was marked by an existential reorientation, separate from the Kingdom of Satan and the world, engaged in a battle to build the Kingdom of God. The new creation adopted the five distinguishing marks of the life of faith: 1. trials (anfechtungen), 2. cross-bearing, 3. obedience to God's law, 4. trust in God, and 5. joy. (Stoeffler, 1973:19) Finally, the life of faith demanded an absolute faith in God manifested by a child-like spirit. Daily life was to become a witness to joy in life and God -- almost a literal song sung by brethren united.
The life of faith was not easily won. Heini-ism appropriated the Lutheran concept of Christocentric faith -- the imitation of Christ's cross-bearing and redemptive suffering. Heini frequently directed his followers to Bonhoeffer's work, "The Cost of Discipleship," rejecting "cheap" and freely proffered institutional grace and salvation of the churches. Disciples who emulated Jesus, who devoted their lives completely to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, were destined to suffer. "Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship." (Bonhoeffer, 1963:100) Thus, the life of faith alternated between joyful surrender to Jesus -- the rapture of assurance as a child of God, fulfilled by His love, and the seasons of abject suffering -- cross-bearing, self- accusations of sinfulness, and religious melancholy.
The new person in faith possessed a renovated heart receptive to the living word of God, not the dead letter of Biblical legalism. Heini-ism elaborated a comprehensive religious world view, a cosmic battle between the forces of God and Satan. The new person, singly and in unity in the gemeinde, waged a ceaseless battle against Satanic attack. The Devil looked to make inroads against the Bruderhof by turning spiritually weak brethren, emotionally unstable members, those tempted by sins of the flesh, and those haunted by obsessive guilt, blasphemous thoughts, and religious melancholy believing themselves to be forsaken by God. Each believer faced the ever-present danger of demonic possession; the community confronted the perils of Mammonism from without and disunity and Satan- haunted sinners from within.
Heini taught the brotherhood in "Freedom From Sinful Thoughts, Christ Alone Breaks the Curse," that there is no doubt that the Devil tries by every means to suggest to us human beings proud, evil, impure, even blasphemous feelings, ideas or thoughts -- even the urge to commit suicide or murder. (H.Arnold, 1973:1)
Only a Christ-centered psychology and a religiously- grounded personality founded upon evangelical pietist principles could cure the curse of obsessional thoughts and actions. The power of Christ alone could break Satan's hold, release frail men and women from the hypnotic power of autosuggestion where the mere thought or temptation of evil produced the compulsion to commit the evil act. The sick in spirit must surrender to Christ, bear the Cross, purify their hearts and minds, and separate from the Kingdom of Sin to cleave unto the Kingdom of God -- to the Bruderhof church-community.
Heini writes, "Jesus is Victor over devils and demons. But the Brotherhood must be so deeply bound together in Jesus that no evil spirit can grieve Jesus at the Lord's Supper." (H. Arnold, 1973:15)
Johann Christoph Blumhardt exorcised a demon from a servant girl, Gottlieben in 1842, proclaiming "Jesus is Victor!" and founding a spiritual movement and retreat in Bad Boll, Germany. Eberhard was profoundly influenced by Blumhardt and Arnold himself cast out demons in Sannerz in 1925 when Lotte Henze came under Satanic attack. Heini fought the Prince of Darkness who had entered the Woodcrest Bruderhof in 1959, through the possession of a young novice, Miriam Way. This episode lasted for several months until Miriam's removal to a psychiatric hospital. The struggle for the soul of Miriam Way became the metaphor for the collective renewal of the Bruderhof movement. "Even though the battle for this one person did not seem to end in a full redemption for her personality, it began a breakthrough in our Bruderhof struggle for renewal in a return to Christ as Center."(Mow, 1989:127)
The religious world view of cosmic battle legitimated the consolidation of Heini's political authority. Heini allied himself with young American converts --true believers who came to Heini-ism from the Fourth Great Awakening in America, from the Billy Graham Crusades, and the post war revitalizations of the Church of the Brethren and Society of Friends. Based in the newly founded Woodcrest Bruderhof in Rifton, New York, with its self- sufficient and lucrative toy manufacturing, Heini achieved the economic, political and doctrinal basis for the usurpation of the Bruderhof movement. (Allain, 1992)
Using his gifts of the Spirit of discernment, Heini distinguished those believers who manifested an evil, impure, insincere, and egocentric Spirit from those souls who enjoyed the authentic Christ-centered Spirit. He expelled weaker members as a threat to the collective, as an opening to Satanic attack. Confronted with devils and demonic possession, he reaffirmed the absolute necessity for unity among the brotherhood as the only defense. Those brethren who raised questions, challenges, or grievances against Heini-ism, this single-belief system and its adherents, opened the door to the Devil. Brethren who promoted disunity had no place in the gemeinde; they faced expulsion.
Heini thus redirected the communal movement away from an international, pacifist, social activism exemplified by the Primavera communities and built an introversionist sect, separate from the world. (Zablocki, 1971) He directed brothers to turn inward, seek the opportunities for spiritual maturation, purge themselves and the gemeinde of all impurities. Heini-ism as a world view could justify the mass expulsion of members found wanting in the Spirit, purges of brotherhood lists of those identified as weak brothers and sisters, the closing of the Paraguayan and English communities -- the Great Crisis of 1959-1961.
Heini-ism promoted a totalistic religious community in separation from the world where brethren devoted their lives to the charisma of Heini and the canonization of selected writings of Eberhard Arnold. However, Heini's successful revitalization and usurpation of the Bruderhof movement promoted evangelical pietistic conversion crises -- busskampf, anfechtungen (religious melancholy) -- the alternation of child-like joy with the motif of redemptive suffering. At the moment of Heini's political victory and purges, from within, among the cherished Bruderhof youth, a spiritual sickness afflicted the gemeinde.
Heini came to recognize the prevalence of spiritual sickness, "cramped wills" and obsessive sinful thoughts and temptations among those youths and adults who struggled ceaselessly to embrace pietistic conversion -- surrender of the individual self to Jesus. He explains why he wrote" Freedom From Sinful Thoughts:" "I have put this book together because there are some in our households and even some who grew up in the communities who are really tormented against their will by evil thoughts, images or ideas." (H.Arnold, 1973:viii) Religious melancholy, suicide, evangelical anorexia nervosa, obsessions with unpardonable sin afflicted many Bruderhof youth. Coming of age brought with it protracted and unresolved spiritual crises of conversion. Heini as a Servant of the Word, provided spiritual direction for troubled souls, prescribing the practice of daily devotional piety -- prayer, meditation, and reading from the Arnold canon. He advised sick souls to learn the technique of inner-worldly mystical "inner detachment" -- silencing the ego and creature so the heart may open to receive the Spirit and love of God. "First of all we need to grow really quiet before God. We should relax completely. Then we can hear the deeper voice within our own heart. We hear Jesus, who seeks us and loves us." (H.Arnold, 1973:74) When pastoral care failed to cure these spiritual sicknesses, Bruderhof elders turned in desperation to a system of thought and therapeutics that they had long disparaged -- secular humanistic psychiatry.
The "Society Syndrome"
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, psychiatrists in the Kingston, New York area treated a number of adolescents and young adults from the Woodcrest Bruderhof. These psychotherapists developed a diagnostic "shorthand" term to refer to a clustering of symptoms that afflicted the Bruderhof patients under their care. The young people suffered from the "Society Syndrome," a culturally specific expression of depressive disorder, a "culture-bound syndrome" (Prince, 1985, Kleinman, 1985:10-29)
The Society Syndrome includes the familiar behavioral signposts common to affective disorder everywhere: chronic fatigue, listlessness, malaise, sleep and appetite disorders. Patients complained of mood and ideational problems: profound sadness bordering upon despair, an abiding feeling of hopelessness, helplessness. They felt unloved and undeserving of love or consideration by others. In this state of fugue, life was a torment, an ordeal where inclinations toward suicide appeared as a possible escape.
The Society Syndrome shared the above dimensions of depressive illness. But this clustering of symptoms constituted a distinctive depressive illness peculiar to the collective religious milieu of the Society of Brothers (Bruderhof). The patients, especially the young women, spoke of their spiritual inadequacies, their pervasive sinfulness. They felt unworthy to stand before God or their parents and friends in the Bruderhof religious community. The adolescent girls interpreted their first sexual awakenings as sin-pollution, manifestations of the demonic or Satanic Enemy in their lives. They had committed sins that cast them seemingly beyond the pale of human or divine forgiveness. They felt polluted to their very marrow, beset by ontological guilt, and convictions of worm-like worthless. Adolescent boys and girls fasted excessively as rituals of purification from sin, seeking the moment of joyful surrender to Jesus. These heroic regimens of fasting developed into a religiously motivated "evangelical anorexia nervosa."
The psychiatrists had encountered evangelical crises of conversion. Anabaptist sects like the Bruderhof admit new members into the church and into full adult privileges of worship and marriage only after each soul traverses the spiritual itinerary from sin to salvation. Before each candidate can enjoy baptism, each must submit to a protracted period of religious education, surveillance, and testing as a novice. Only after the candidate has convinced Bruderhof elders of their knowledge of doctrine, their possession of the requisite character traits of brothers and sisters in the faith in a child-like spirit of humility and selfless surrender to the group, can the process of conversion move forward. Also, each novice must convince their spiritual superiors of the depth and fervency of devotional piety, love to God as evidenced in private confessions of sin and contrite repentance for previous error.
During the novice phase of the conversion process, each candidate was placed under extreme judgment and employed a probing, relentless self-examination of their consciences, scrutinizing their hearts for the evidence of sin. Many discovered overwhelming pollution and disquieting evidence of evil. Sexual sins in the form of fantasies, impulses, flirtations, or masturbation came to light. Inventories of sins pertaining to pride, selfishness, and questioning the authority of parents, elders and tradition were uncovered. What distinguished the Bruderhof from other Anabaptist communities (Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish) was the peculiar mix of evangelical pietist theology that made conversion a protracted struggle, an inward battle against the natural, sinful self that required a radical restructuring of identity.
Secular developmental psychology and popular culture have long accepted the "natural" adolescent process of sexual awakening and masturbation, of testing new-found powers of autonomy, iconoclasm, rebelliousness as the turbulent crucible of identity formation. The Bruderhof, however, imposed a fundamentalist Protestant framework of interpretation when considering these "natural" developments of adolescence. Bruderhof evangelical pietism endeavoured to crush willful autonomy by instilling a childlike spirit. Sexuality before marriage was sin. Temptation to sin was the active work of Satan. Rigorous sexual repression would prevent the thinking of sexual thoughts, the experience of sexual impulse and desire, and the commission of sexual acts such as flirtation, sexual experimentation, or auto-eroticism.
Over-zealous spiritual guidance, harsh discipline and sexual interrogations by elders convinced many novices that they had sinned beyond the bounds of repentance or remission. These youths lapsed into spiritual desolation and religious melancholy. Novices were caught within a classic trap, in an agonizing vocation crisis. Unable to move forward toward conversion, church membership, and the rites of passage to adulthood, they faced the prospect of being asked to leave. Each novice quaked before the possibility of exclusion from friends and family into the sin-ridden outside world that they lacked the resources to understand or negotiate. At the same time they felt sinful, creaturely, unworthy of community membership and hopelessly lost.
Each person who comes of age in the community ostensibly makes a free and open choice by electing to enter the novitiate, attend the gemeindestunde prayer circle and ultimately make a public confession of faith and enjoy adult baptism and full membership in the church-community. However, this choice is constrained and unfree. The adolescent views the community as the vessel of the Holy Spirit and as the only authentic Christian existence. The aspirations and prayers of their family and co-religionists place unrelenting pressure upon each novice to choose for religious community. Each adolescent lacks the financial resources, knowledge, skills and social supports to succeed in the outside world. The idea of separation and exclusion invokes feelings of dread at the spectre of isolation. Exclusion equals punishment and rejection -- a socially administered traumatic injury. In this context, how can one say that a youth remains "free" to choose to enter the novitiate or to leave the community in favor of the secular outside world?
Heini-ism as a world view and ethos promoted a pietistic conversion crisis, a religiously grounded personality and life-order that proved pathogenic for youths trapped in the crux of "the Society Syndrome." The propensity for evangelical pietists to suffer religious melancholy has long been associated with spiritual narratives of conversion and American Protestant religious identity, from colonial times to the present evangelical awakening as interpreted by William James in "The Varieties of Religious Experience," and many others. (Rubin, 1993) The Society Syndrome represents a contemporary manifestation of this historical affinity of pietism with depressive disorders. This paper has explored the doctrinal basis of the Society Syndrome as a spiritual sickness and depressive illness, abstracted from apostate life-histories of Bruderhof youth during the era of Heini-ism.
Endnote 1
This preliminary paper was submitted for presentation at the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion to be held in Washington, D.C. in November, 1993. This paper is excerpted from a work in progress on the Bruderhof. Several people have read earlier versions of this essay and have provided insightful comments and criticisms that have improved my work. I wish to acknowledge Barnabas Johnson, Hannah Johnson, Joel Clement, and Hilarion Braun for their kind assistance. Ramon Sender stressed the importance of demonic possession and exorcism in the history of the community, and Jere Bruner directed me to Heini Arnold's published works, particularly the pastoral tract, "Freedom From Sinful Thoughts."
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