God and Man(ic Depression) at Yale: The Spiritual Diary of Lynde Huntington

God and Man(ic Depression) at Yale: The Spiritual Diary of Lynde Huntington

Huntington, Lynde (1767 – 1804). Spiritual Diary, 1789 – 1804. Manuscript, over 300 pages. Size of pages varies (generally 8 x 6 1/2 in.), some loose but most bound into signatures with thread. Edges slightly worn, with chipping and tears to some pages; most are sound. Housed in a modern clamshell case.

“This day I am 34 years of age, nearly half the extent of human life,” wrote Rev. Lynde Huntington on his birthday, March 22, 1801, four years before his death. “I have, indeed, been an unprofitable servant. It is humbling to think how greatly I have misspent the precious years of my life. … Still from conviction, if not from choice, I must say, the service of God appears right and good. If I am not to be happy in serving God, I know not that I indulge the least hope or imagination of being happy in any other way.”

This is an uncharacteristically optimistic passage from the spiritual diary kept by a young Yale alumnus who struggled with the emotional tolls of unsparing orthodoxy – and perhaps with a deeper mental health disorder. Fans of the genre will be reminded of the journals of Michael Wigglesworth (1631 – 1705), who regarded the status of lowly worms with envy. Like Wigglesworth, Huntington was convinced both of his total depravity and the fact that nothing he could do would secure his salvation – according to Calvinist doctrine, election to the ranks of the saints is unconditional. He examined the state of his soul relentlessly, and generally found himself wanting. His diary is compelling both as a resource for American religious history and as a case study in manic depression.

A Neo-Puritan's Dilemma

Lynde Huntington was the eldest son of a farmer and shoemaker in Lebanon, Connecticut. His uncle was Samuel Huntington (1731 – 1796), one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He matriculated at Yale in 1784. As a “Junior Sophister” under Ezra Stiles’s tutelage he joined the College Church in September 1786. He graduated in 1788 and spent several years wrestling with the angels before returning to study theology. He was licensed by the Windham Association -- a ministerial synod -- in May 1793 and spent the next several years as an itinerant, visiting congregations throughout Connecticut. In the summer of 1795, he was offered a permanent position by one of the congregations with which he had tarried, the First Congregational Church and Society of Branford. He would labor there for the next eight and a half years, marrying the widow of his predecessor, before succumbing to consumption in 1804 at the age of 38.

At Branford, Huntington distinguished himself for his Calvinist orthodoxy, and particularly his insistence on restricting church membership to those who testified to a personal experience of divine grace. As his successor later recalled, the minister’s “plainness in preaching and personal fidelity … might have been unwelcome to unrenewed hearts":

He was strongly attached to the doctrines and practices of the Puritans, and at the very commencement of his ministry, the church united with him in setting wholly aside the practices of what has, not unaptly, been termed “The Halfway Covenant,” – language which perhaps the juvenile part of my hearers do not understand, while we who are older almost wonder that the practice ever gained currency in evangelical circles. … The highly Calvinistic tone of Mr. Huntington’s preaching disturbed some also; and the result was that a few withdrew and united with the Episcopalians, or removed from the place. (Gillett, p. 17) 

A later chronicler was less sympathetic, complaining that Huntington’s severity accounted for the fact that in almost nine years of ministry he added fewer than 50 new souls to the congregation and performed only 100 baptisms. “The closing years of Mr. Huntington’s pastorate were marked by a series of efforts to purge the church of immorality and of worldliness by the exercise of her disciplinary powers,” he notes. “We may characterize him as a reformer, whose fairest dream was to restore the Calvinistic strictness which had so nearly vanished from the churches of his day.” (Simonds, pp. 122-23)

This diary chronicles Huntington’s application of these rigorous standards to his own conscience. He kept it intermittently, using whatever paper was at hand. The diary is written in a clear, legible hand on pages of varying size, bound by hand into almost a dozen signatures. The text spans a 15-year period, from 29 May 1789 to 10 May 1804. The first entry here opens with the observation that “a month has passed since I have neglected my diary,” indicating that an earlier section once existed. The major part of the diary covers the period between his graduation from Yale and his acceptance of the post in Branford in 1795. It was a troubled time of rootlessness and seeking.

While the bulk of Huntington’s diary is centered on the state of his soul, he also remarked on the books he has read and the sermons he has heard. He returned repeatedly to the works of Jonathan Edwards and the life and letters of David Brainerd. He refered occasionally to his social life; his entries for 1793 especially reference a number of friends and acquaintances and record a visit to the former Governor, Matthew Griswold. A six-page document included here dated 10 July 1793 is titled “Repository for resolutions, rules of life and plans of usefulness.”

"Sin is yet roll’d as a sweet morsel under my tongue. My heart is violently in love with it."

Huntington seemed to have used the diary less as a chronicle of his daily life than as a sounding board for what to a modern reader appears to be an acute depressive disorder. “My mind is oppressed with anxiety & fear,” he wrote on 30 May 1789, shortly after his 22nd birthday. “I feel dejected & irresolute. In these feelings, the wish that my life was ended is too frequently, as it were, injected into my mind. Should God leave me tonight, he only knows what the awful consequences would be!” And later, on a day in June:

How happy could I say, that my heart was warm with love to my Creator – that my morning devotions have been fervent & delightful. … But – I dread to draw the contrast – I am still dead in trespasses & sins – dead to every feeling of devotion – dead to every proper emotion to my God. While all nature, animate and inanimate – verdant fields, blooming trees, warbling birds speak forth his prayer & chide my ungrateful silence. O! Gracious Creator! Create my heart anew & my tongue shall speak aloud thy praise. … I beseech thee – Subdue my heart to thyself.

Hormonal and hungry for regeneration, the young man expressed frustration at the thoughts that distracted him from salvation:

Thro’ the forbearance of God, I am yet alive, animally alive, but spiritually dead. I am carnally minded, which is death & entirely opposed to that spiritual mindedness which is life & peace. Lusts prevail & Satan has me at his beck. – I have no power to reject him and he will, unless divine power & grace interpose, lead me headlong to destruction! Temptations meet me – I yield – I go away, reflect, grieve, & vex myself & resolve against them. They come again, again I fall and thus I’m traveling the downward road!

And on a summer day in 1790 he wrote:

Sin is yet roll’d as a sweet morsel under my tongue. My heart is violently in love with it. Why do I live as I do? … Alas! I act not from reason & conscience, but from the dictates of present feelings. The spirit is a slave to the flesh.

Huntington's religious fears poisoned his vivacious social life, salting his joys with dread:

I am surrounded with friends and acquaintances who share my affection. The most of these appear hastening to eternity unprepared. I often weep to think how these, who are now the joy & comfort of my own & each other’s lives, shall in a future world become one another’s tormentors, shall become destitute of every lovely quality & commence fiends & furies.

Although the bulk of the diary is characterized by a similar spiritual melancholia, Huntington did also have some good days. On 1 May 1792 he wrote, “I cannot say I have no hope that I am regenerate. For some days past I have been indulging an opinion that I am.” But these bright moments never lasted long. Soon after he despaired that “I am as unstable as water,” and “I have no God to go to.” In a moment of lucidity on 6 October 1792 he wrote about his struggle to contain emotions that rushed from pole to pole: “I am a confused, unhappy creature – The exercises of my mind are indescribable.”

“I am literally a pilgrim & a stranger."

From 1793 to 1795 he traveled throughout the state of Connecticut visiting congregations. “I am literally a pilgrim & a stranger, frequently going from place to place among those whom I have never seen before,” he wrote upon arriving at South Britain on 26 February 1794. In a later entry, dated 16 May 1794, he explained his rationale: “When I go into a place my rule is, & ever ought to be to inquire who in it is worthy. The fellowship & prayers of the saints are delightful & precious.”  It was during this period of pilgrimage that Huntington began to use the trope of Zion – the existence of so many godly communities was surely a sign that America was indeed the new Israel. The community of fellowship he found while visiting other pulpits afforded him solace from the moilings of his soul.  Attending conferences also energized him, though of course they could not cure his depression. “I find these meetings are good for me,” he wrote on 16 December 1793. “They tend to quicken my cold and lifeless heart.” Then he added: “I have to lament my pride, unbelief & stupidity. I am inexpressibly vile.”

On Christmas Day, 1793 he determined to leave Middlebury, where he had been staying for several weeks, even though it meant “parting with a considerable number of Xian friends with whom my heart is knit in love.” But settling down “has cost me much study and prayer,” so he had to move on.  There might have been another, more personal reason for moving. “I love m most tenderly & long to see m happy. I leave m with reluctance,” he writes. Was “m” Middlebury, or a resident of the town whose name Huntington did not want to commit even to his diary? On 16 May 1794, he wrote that the prospect of returning to Middlebury “causes me considerable anxiety.” On 17 July he suggested that he was struggling to repress his inner life:

O the depths of iniquity wh[ich] be concealed in my heart & are frequently breaking out in open transgression. I learn more & more of desperate wickedness within.

Occasionally he directed his gaze outward, but this seldom brought him peace. On 19 July 1795, he complained of a parishioner:

I could not but be sensibly struck with one young woman who, during a very solemn passage in an address to young people, was smiling & chatting with her companion. My spirit was moved & grieved within me. … what depths of depravity & stupidity … !

"I could most cheerfully sacrifice it all."

Perhaps the most painful passages here are from his lengthy entry on 9 June 1796, one week before his marriage to Anna Williams (1761 – 1832), the widow of his predecessor in the pulpit at Branford. Far from expressing joy and contentment at his imminent nuptials, he wrote of his fear that his “worthless love" and his “vile heart" further distanced him from God:

I have lived a most vile and wretched life. My heart has been bound up in this worthless O [love]. I have been wandering from G. Innumerable evils have encompassed me about. Mine iniquities are more than the hairs on my head. … My judgment & conscience have condemned me, but, feelings of my H [heart] in a strong degree have told me that this O would make me happy. I have been so situated with regard to O [that] Satan has had an advantage against me, wh[ich] he has improved with success. … I have been contemplating & determining on a matrimonial connection. In this situation I have passed thro[ugh], such a trial as I never saw before. My H, my vile H has been in a new & surprising degree detected & unfolded. Never did I see such Depths of wickedness before. Conscience has been condemning me continually & made me wretched. But I have never so sensibly felt & abhorred a wickedness of my heart as today.

Unable to even to ape happiness, he wrote of preferring to sacrifice everything, even his fiancée, if only he could be “weaned from love”:

I entered my study with a cold, worldly dead H [heart]. I wanted to write a sermon. I tried to think on the text, “Delight in [the] L[ord] & he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.” … I immediately perceived that it would be impossible to write on the text without feeling the spirit of it. … I felt lifeless & barren. I could not proceed. I knew not what to do. I thought I would take up a volume of Mr Edward’s sermons …. I was enabled to see something of G & of course was made to cry out of my own vileness. … All this O [love] appeared like perfect vanity & emptiness in comparison with G. I thought I could most cheerfully sacrifice it all for “one blessed hour at his right hand.” … I thought I had infinitely rather see my house in flames & my land all sinking … I thought I had rather my dear intended partner, whose pains I feel most sensibly, should remain weak & sickly as she is at present if thereby I might live more devotedly to G and weaned from O than to have her well & to be less so.

Regrettably -- and perhaps predictably -- Huntington's love for his wife and the children they would sire were not enough to bring him peace. The author of a memoir of Huntington published soon after his death described his final days as being haunted by a similar depression, the minister speaking bitterly of his own “vile hypocritical heart.” 

Huntington’s contemporaries recognized his spiritual diary as an exemplary work of devotion and published excerpts in several issues of the Connecticut Evangelical Magazine. “I find a difficulty in determining where to begin and where to end,” noted the editor, “each part being nearly alike interesting.” Yet even his editors found they had to temper Huntington’s pessimism, striking passages and adding words to make his outlook less bleak. For example, in the final sentence of the passage quoted at the beginning of this description they added the clause, “or desire”: “If I am not to be happy in serving God, I know not that I indulge the least hope, imaginationor desire of being happy in any other way.” The editor's interpolation suggest a level of contentment that the author did not actually feel. If Huntington did not desire to be happy in any other way then he would have been at peace with his condition. But that was not the case. In every sense of the term, Huntington's devotion to God was hopeless.

A fascinating document, spiritually, psychologically, and historically, and most dissertation-worthy.

Select References

Huntington, Lynde, Memoir of the Rev. Lynde Huntington, ed. "D.", Connecticut Evangelical Magazine 6 (1806) 258-68, 295-99

-----. An essay, designed for common understandings, on the moral inability of fallen man. Connecticut Evangelical Magazine 7 (1806) 129-34

Dexter, Franklin Bowditch. Biographical sketches of the graduates of Yale College (New York: Holt, 1907), IV: 605-6

Gillett, Timothy P. The past and the present, in the secular and religious history of the Congregational Church and Society of Branford: a semi-centennial discourse, delivered July 7th, 1858 (New Haven: Morehouse & Taylor, Printers, 1858)

Simonds, J. Rupert. A history of the First Church and Society of Branford, Connecticut, 1644-1919 (New Haven, Conn.: The Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Co, 1919)

Stiles, Ezra. The literary diary of Ezra Stiles, ed. Franklin Bowditch Dexter. (New York: C. Scribner's sons, 1901), vol. 3


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    God and Man(ic Depression) at Yale: The Spiritual Diary of Lynde Huntington