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Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience From Wesley to James
Reviewed by SAXBY PRIDMORE, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2000;157:1537-1537. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.157.9.1537
View Author and Article Information

By Ann Taves. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1999, 448 pp., $65.00; $22.95 (paper).

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Fits, Trances, and Visions is a history of religion, predominantly in the United States, from around 1740 to around 1910. In the introduction, Ann Taves describes periods of being uncertain of her aim in writing the book and some changes in direction. This comes through; it is long and meandering and very detailed, and the style is ponderous, which makes it user unfriendly.

The title, Fits, Trances, and Visions, is engaging, especially to psychiatrists, but, from the psychiatric perspective, there is almost no phenomenology. Taves uses involuntary experiences, "enthusiasm, mesmeric states, and the subconscious," as the path by which to reveal the thinking and actions of religious, psychological, and medical professionals over the centuries.

This manuscript by a highly credentialed religious scholar would be riveting for a student of religion but is of less pressing interest for the psychiatrist, as would be expected. It contains a host of interesting material, however. For example, Taves reveals that the term "enthusiasm" (a favorite of mine) was coined as recently as the seventeenth century and is derived from the Greek en theos, meaning to be filled with or inspired by a deity. It came into use to describe attacks of "false religion," which included calling out, falling down, visions, and other behaviors during religious ceremonies. This pejorative term was employed by those of different religious persuasions out of concern for social order (and, perhaps, loss of members).

There is much of interest concerning Mesmer and those who used his animal magnetism for religious, medical, and secular purposes. This led to Spiritualism, which claimed a common ground between science and religion.

Taves states that "Anglo-American neurologists, intent on establishing themselves as a recognized subspecialty within the medical profession, attacked Spiritualism in a largely successful bid to secure a secular understanding of trance as a foundation for their own neurological science." Whether this accurately reflects the motivation of the neurologists of the day is unclear; however, Taves points out that "their learned talk about hysteria…was derided in the papers," which has the ring of truth.

There are two mentions of the DSM: one in the introduction and the other in the conclusion. The author concludes that enthusiasm, mesmeric states, and the subconscious are parallel constructs, and most psychiatric readers could feel comfortable with this conclusion. This is a book for religious college libraries. It has a place in psychiatric libraries where there is a particular interest in related areas.

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