The Texas State Lunatic Asylum in Austin ca. 1875, courtesy the Austin Public Library. Dr. George W. Truett ca. 1940, image via Baylor University, The Texas Collection, Waco, TX.
George W. Truett was an unrivaled master of the preacher’s art for telling an engaging story, for drawing parallels between the Bible’s cast of characters and his contemporary audience, and for recalling passages of Scripture at the drop of a mic. But even he wasn’t above falling prey to passing along misinformation, and in at least two recorded instances in the early 1940s, Truett used a “fact” he believed to be true to help illustrate the points of his sermons. Normally, this wouldn’t be worth pointing out, but the nature of the “fact” is so striking, so strange that it seemed like a fun source for this week’s blog post.
“We are told the alarming thing …”
In the middle of his May 4, 1941 sermon on “The Cause and Cure for Discouragement,” Truett underscores his point about the body’s need for rest and diversion with a story of Jesus encouraging his disciples to take some time to eat and get some rest (likely from Mark 6:31) with an eye-opening statistic. (Click below to listen to the archival audio.)
Truett tells his flock that going about life in a “treadmill way” without distractions or goals (“horizons” and “outside views” in his parlance) leads to insanity. His exact words: “We are told the alarming thing that the wives of tenant farmers […] more of them in proportion are in the insane asylums than any other group in the country.”
That’s a mighty bold assertion, especially in a time when in-patient mental health treatment – a.k.a. a trip to the “insane asylum” – would have carried major social stigmas and a good possibility of taking part in new treatments like electroconvulsive (electroshock) therapy, two prospects that would have been enough to deter most “tenant farmers’ wives” to work very hard to avoid such a trip.
This 1941 assertion wasn’t the only time Truett would use this story. In a sermon on July 5, 1942 on the subject “‘Hope Thou In God’,” Truett relays the same statistic, with a slightly different wording.
Here, a year after its first appearance, Truett hedges his bets a bit with his introduction: “You saw that announcement some time ago, widely heralded, that the largest number of people in our insane asylums in the country [are] [t]he wives of tenant farmers.” He then repeats his assertion that the reason for this is the “treadmill of daily experience, no new visions, no new horizons, no fresh challenges.”
In both sermons, Truett draws a direct – albeit tenuous – connection between the lack of “fresh horizons” and “monotony” and the onset of madness in the wives of tenant farmers. He does so by relying on having been “told” an alarming thing and on an “announcement some time ago.” Is it possible to track down the source of this information, and, if so, to verify or refute it?
The Tenant Farmer of Truett’s Day
Before we examine the “widely heralded” announcement in depth, it’s important to take a moment to familiarize ourselves with the kind of person about whom Truett is speaking. When we think of poor farmers in this era, one series of images comes immediately to mind: those of the “Migrant Mother” taken by Dorothea Lang in 1936.
It is important to note that the family pictured here is not a tenant farming family; they are explicitly identified as “migrant” farmers, or farm laborers who move from place to place, working the harvest of each season depending on the type of crop and location where it was planted. They are transient by nature. A tenant farmer, by contrast, usually worked on land leased from a landowner, using tools and labor he supplied himself (as opposed to a sharecropper, whose only contribution was his labor; the tools and land both belonged to the landowner).
Tenant farmers, therefore, could be said to occupy a rung of the agricultural ladder a couple of steps higher than migrant farmers and sharecroppers, but their lot in life was not much better. They were still beholden to a landowner, gave up large portions of their profit (or harvest) in exchange for the right to work someone else’s land, and the likely drudgery and routine of their daily life was occasionally punctuated by the dramatic fear that came from a failed crop. In short, their lives were difficult, day-to-day affairs: the perfect setting for many to develop crippling mental illnesses.
Truett’s audience would have been very familiar with the kind of person to whom he referred when he described a “tenant farmer’s wife.” In an era when a large percentage of people still worked the land for a living, and having come out of the Great Depression (and with a World War looming on the horizon), Truett’s parishioners would have had no problem conjuring up the mental image of an overworked mother, living on an isolated farm somewhere in the hinterlands, nothing to look forward to except the addition of more children to the family and a routine existence built on repeating the same tasks day after day in a race to avoid destitution. It is not a pretty picture on its own, but where did the added specter of mental illness enter in?
The Possible Nexus of the Story (and its Refutation)
Thanks to a couple of clues in Truett’s sermons – like the use of the phrases “some time ago” and “widely heralded” – it is possible to conclude that Truett is drawing upon something that was popular in the general consciousness, at least enough so that his audience would be more likely to nod in recollection at his story than to stare uncomprehendingly at the reference. But we must keep in mind that Truett had been preaching for the better part of five decades at the time of these recordings, so his frame of reference for stories like this is likely much longer than those of the average person in the sanctuary that day. Truett had also spent a great deal of time over his career going to remote areas like farms and cattle ranches and preaching to the people there, so the idea of isolated women suffering mental breakdowns would have likely been more familiar to him than to other pastors.
Thanks to the power of Google Books, we were able to track down what may be the source of this story. In 1874, an edition of The Farmer’s Magazine was printed that included a letter written by a Rev. John Storer. Published under the headline “The English Labourer in Canada,” the letter writer sets out to support and refute the claims of a Mr. Arch, who wrote an article on the life of a typical laborer (farmer) in British Canada. Along the way, Storer writes the following:
I have been credibly informed that a large proportion of the female inmates of the lunatic asylums are farmers’ wives, whose reason has been impaired by incessant toil and anxiety of mind, and this is notoriously the case in the States, as the statistics of the New York State Lunatic Asylum and many others will show.”
Setting aside the fact that Storer cites no authority for this assertion (merely saying that he has been “credibly informed”), the wording of this sentence almost perfectly mirrors the kind of language Truett would use in his sermon almost 70 years later.
This article – or something like it – must have been widely disseminated enough to necessitate a refutation, and it got one in a big way courtesy Dr. George G. Groff. In 1908, Groff read a paper at a meeting of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture titled, “Who Go Mad? Insanity Not a Rural Disease.” In it, he gives us a clue to the pervasive nature of the “tenant farmers’ wives in the asylum” trope.
Frequently, views widely held, and zealously propagated by earnest writers and speakers, have yet no basis whatever in fact. Such is the belief that insanity is especially a disease which attacks people who live on farms and in small country villages. […]
The statement is varied in many other forms: ‘Two-thirds of the inmates of our lunatic asylums are farmers’ wives'; ‘Statistics positively show that the largest group in our insane asylums are farmers’ wives.’ A popular lecturer at our Chautauquan assemblies repeated the same thing over and over again during the past summer. The above statements have been made during the year by two of the best known American women of letters, probably without their ever thinking for a moment that they are without any foundation.
Groff also says that the women’s tendency to “this dreary state of things” is not from “want of money, but want of opportunity and the must-be-so-because-it-always-has-been-so attitude which limits her horizon.” (Emphasis added.) He goes on to refute the assertion of major numbers of farmers’ wives in Pennsylvania’s asylums by citing actual patient totals for the state asylums from “recent reports,” including the occupation and family status of male and female patients alike. Of 1,653 married women patients, 38 were either wives or widows of farmers, for a total of 4% of the population – far below the 2/3 cited by popular speakers of the day.
Finally, Groff makes his own assertion as to the improved health (mental and physical) enjoyed by people who live in the country as opposed to the early 20th century’s crowded cities.
There is no isolation. There is freedom, splendid freedom from servile care where the wind blows free over range and forest, and if the multitude of humble bread getters in the cities could only be brought to realize the advantages of country life, the tenements would show a surprising depopulation. In the country, the rich find greatest recreation and the extremely poor a better living than they could glean from the world elsewhere.
All of this is not to take away from Dr. Truett’s main point, however. People need a life of fulfilled expectations, of new challenges and things to aspire toward, if they are to truly flourish. They are to take time to rest their minds and bodies, to seek God’s direction for their life and to apply themselves toward the betterment of their fellow man. And Truett can also be granted a certain measure of grace in his citing something that was taken for common knowledge in the early 1940s. After all, it was highly unlikely that he would have read the General Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture for 1908, and he didn’t have the advantage of typing the phrase “tenant farmers wives insane asylum” into a search tool that scours trillions of pages’ worth of data in nanoseconds.
Still, while it may be an effective public speaking tool to take two minutes to paint a vivid mental image – like a desperate farmer’s wife sinking slowly and inexorably into madness, alone and overwhelmed on the fringes of a wild and hostile continent – the facts in this case simply don’t bear out Truett’s thesis. Fortunately, his primary source material for the rest of his sermons – the Holy Bible – is something he had quoted reliably for his entire adult life, and he uses it to great effect for the remaining 30 minutes of each of these preaching masterworks, preserved forever in vinyl and digital format for the world to hear.
You can hear the two sermons mentioned in this post, as well as dozens more, in the George W. Truett Sermons Collection via the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections.
The Farmer’s Magazine, 1874 in a letter by a Rev. John Storer and published under a headline “The English Labourer in Canada.” (Read the original article via Google Books.)
General Bulletin, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, 1908. Article titled, “Who Go Mad? Insanity Not a Rural Disease” by Dr. George G. Groff, sanitarian. (Read the original article via Google Books.)