Thursday, May 24, 2018

Why I believe Annie (Mrs. B.B.) Warfield had ME/CFS

Although we have limited information about the wife of Benjamin Warfield, the last of the great Princeton principles, we know that throughout most of their 39 happy years of marriage she had a serious disability and that she was blessed with a kind and supportive husband.

Annie Pearce Kinkead Warfield (1852-1915) and Benjamin were from Lexington, Kentucky and both were born into prominent families.   Her father had served as Kentucky’s Secretary of State and was a distinguished attorney who had successfully represented Abraham Lincoln in the 1855 estate settlement of Mrs. Lincoln’s father. 1   Annie is said to have been brilliant, witty and beautiful, and after they married in 1876 they honeymooned in Leipzig, Germany while Benjamin furthered his studies.

There are differing versions of the cause and nature of her disability but most appear to be based on the brief account given by Princeton colleague, Oswald T. Allis.   He records that during their time in Germany the newlyweds went on a walk in the Harz mountains and were  “overtaken by a terrific thunderstorm” and it  “was such a shattering experience for Mrs. Warfield that she never fully recovered from the shock to her nervous system and was more or less (emphasis mine) of an invalid during the rest of her life.”    Allis goes on to recall how he “used to see them walking together and the gentleness of his manner was striking proof of the loving care with which he surrounded her.” 2 
 Fred Zaspel did a wonderful job piecing together historical accounts regarding her condition in a 2013 article for Banner of Truth magazine where he informs us, 
   “Annie was diagnosed with neurasthenia — a rather common ailment at the time, afflicting mostly women, marked by fatigue, weakness, anxiety, and depression. The word “invalid” begins to find use in the Warfield correspondence beginning in the mid 1890s…” 3
 J. Gresham Machen mentions that Annie’s condition was “partly nervous”.4   It’s important to note that the American neurologist George Beard  defined the illness in 1869 and believed it was a physical malady caused by a disruption of the nervous system, and  that it was not the result of a mental condition.   
There are five essential themes to Beard's neurasthenia. First it was a disease in which profound fatigability of body and mind were the principal symptoms. Second, it was entirely organic: 'it is a physical, not a mental state' (Beard, 1881)”… It was never doubted by Beard or his followers that neurasthenia was an organic disease, and that the absence of macroscopic features simply reflected the limitations of contemporary investigative techniques (Rosenberg, 1962). 5
Neurasthenia is now a retired term but it is considered to be one and the same as ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome).  The Oxford Textbook of Medicine defines neurasthenia in modern terms: 
“Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is also known as postviral fatigue syndrome, neurasthenia, and myalgic encephalomyelitis. All describe an idiopathic syndrome characterized by disabling fatigue and other symptoms occurring chronically and exacerbated by minimal exertion.” 6


As one who has endured ME/CFS for more than 30 years, I could identify with the various renderings of Annie’s illness not only because she was actually given the diagnosis of neurasthenia,  but also because of the seemingly inconsistent biographical accounts regarding her activities over the years.     While some have said she was “paralyzed”, others have said she was able to walk, host guests, play piano, and even travel—although traveling wore her out.  She was said to be a recluse while others reported that she engaged in social functions and maintained an active role at her church.   At one point she needed nursing care in the home and was said to have spent the last two years of her life bedridden.    
Biographers have tried to reconcile these conflicting accounts but if they understood the complex nature of ME/CFS they would realize that this is a complicated, multi-system disease that waxes and wanes and is highly unique to each individual.   For some it begins suddenly creating profound long term disability.   For others it has a gradual onset that worsens over time.  Some improve over time but are prone to relapse off and on.   Some can still work, but are limited in other functions while others are completely immobile and need help eating and dressing.  ME/CFS is a very serious and unpredictable illness.  It’s no wonder the few snapshots we have of Annie’s life appear to be telling different stories. 
Although great strides have been made in ME/CFS research and the treatment of symptoms,  there is still no definitive cause, testing, or cure available.  

In Warfield’s day Beard believed Neurasthenia resulted largely from environmental factors whereas today that factor would be seen as just one of several possibilities.    The CDC gives a list of potential causes of ME/CFS which include infections, immune system changes, stress affecting body chemistry, changes in energy production, a possible genetic link, and/or a combination of two or more of these. 7 
We know that Annie’s illness seems to have begun after experiencing an extremely stressful electrical storm.  Recent studies have shown that patients with a history PTSD were over 8 times more likely to report a history of CFS. 8   And we also know that stress can have  a negative impact on the immune system of  even healthy people.    When we consider that Annie had the stress of being newly married, traveling abroad,  being caught in this storm, and perhaps other factors that might have been at play such as a virus or genetics, then it’s reasonable to see how these might have all come together to create “the perfect storm” for her to develop this devastating illness.   
This might also explain something interesting that Fred Zaspel noted.  He said that during their time in Leipzig Benjamin  “endured extended health problems that kept him from some studies while in Germany”. 9  Expanding on this in the Banner of Truth article he says, “In fact, it is a curious thing that in the Warfield correspondence from Germany at this time there is no mention at all of illness on the part of Annie — only of Warfield himself, a factor that frustratingly hindered his studies.”
Could it be possible that Benjamin and Annie might have both been exposed to a  virus or toxin by which he became quite ill but eventually recovered?   This possibility would not be a stretch considering there have been many well documented  epidemics of  ME/CFS throughout history, where not everyone who became sick went on to develop the chronic illness. 10.   When the primary trigger appears to be viral, as it was in my case, it is not uncommon for a spouse or close family member to also become ill, yet only one goes on to develop ME/CFS.  
Such was the case of Jennifer Brae, the Sundance award-winning director of the remarkable documentary Unrest.   I highly recommend watching this movie (available on Netflix) if you’re interested in learning more about this illness.   For more information about ME/CFS please visit Solve ME/CFS Initiative.

There’s no question that the Warfield’s relationship paints a beautiful portrait of a truly godly marriage in times of adversity.    However, having a better understanding of Annie’s particular illness also gives us a clearer picture of how her intellectual and spiritual influence must have contributed to her husband’s teaching and writing.    Annie’s brilliance was not lost on her illness.   All those years spent together within the confines of their home must have produced an “iron sharpening iron” effect for the both of them.  God always uses our afflictions and infirmities for our good and for His glory.


2.  Banner of Truth 89 (Fall 1971), p. 10
4.  Cited in Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), p.220.
9.  The Theology of B.B. Warfield, Fred G. Zaspel; Crossway 2010; pg 29

Additional sources:


  1. I loved this, Diane! I remember reading about Warfield's devotion to Annie in an article in Tabletalk years ago. This is a fascinating account of what was probably not well understood at the time.

  2. Glad to see you blogging again, Diane! Thank you for shedding some light on the Wakefield history. One never knows what crosses God will appoint for us to carry. Also, thanks for referencing the Fred Zaspel book. We met him at Ocean City Bible Conference a few years ago. He is a good teacher.

  3. How cool! And thank you Christina!