Rev. Matthew Sorin and Epilepsy

Reflections from Aug. 11, 2014, following the death of a current Hamline University student.

It is perhaps worth remembering that Hamline’s positive inclusion of persons living with epilepsy dates back to our founders, for Rev. Matthew Sorin, a member of Hamline’s original Board of Trustees, and father of our first graduates, experienced epilepsy.

It is likely a result of Matthew Sorin’s seizure disorder that he came to Minnesota. As a young adult, Sorin began his career as a Methodist preacher in the Philadelphia area. But during the Philadelphia Annual Conference of 1841, he suffered a significant seizure. In the 1840s, epilepsy was not well understood. He attempted to return to preaching, but unfortunately it appears his health prevented his active participation in church work, and the following year he allowed himself to be reassigned away from active church service. For a short time he worked in the book publishing business in Philadelphia, and in 1849, he officially retired from the Philadelphia Conference.

Sorin’s obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer notes,

“Attacks of epilepsy prevented his active participation recently in the affairs of the church or the duties of his ministry, and for some time past he officiated only when his health would permit.” (Aug. 26, 1879)

Resolved to begin anew, Matthew Sorin emigrated west with his family, first to Galena, Illinois. From Galena, he traveled to St. Anthony, Minnesota, hoping the Minnesota climate would restore his health. In Minnesota, Sorin regained both his health and his connection with Methodist evangelism when he helped organize the Methodist Episcopal church of St. Anthony, just a short time before Minnesota was officially accepted as a territory. By 1852, the Sorin family was to be found at St. Paul, and the following year they located to the newly established territorial village of Red Wing – the future home of Hamline University – where in addition to his work with the Church and University, Sorin farmed, served as Postmaster, and was active in local politics. Following the Civil War, Sorin reestablished a flourishing career with the Methodist Episcopal Church serving as a Presiding Elder in the St. Louis (MO) Conference. He died in 1879 at the age of 78, and was remembered for his positive impact on both American Methodism and the larger community.

Epilepsy is thought to be one of the oldest medical conditions, and nearly anyone can experience it. Since the nineteenth century, significant progress has been made in reducing the social stigma sometimes associated with epilepsy. It is a testament to Hamline’s original mission and vision that our founders embraced Matthew Sorin and his family, and welcomed his participation in creating our University at a time when misconceptions about epilepsy could negatively impact the lives of those affected by it.