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Christian Science: An Exchange

To the Editors:

The article by Caroline Fraser which appeared in the July 11, 1996 issue of The New York Review of Books is an indication of the current interest in prayer and spiritual healing. We are grateful that the publishing industry in particular, and the media in general, are approaching this subject with balance and open-mindedness. We’re sorry, however, that Ms. Fraser has not chosen to follow suit.

The title, “Mrs. Eddy Builds Her Empire,” calls to mind a statement made by Mary Baker Eddy. In Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, the founder of Christian Science writes, “We cannot build safely on false foundations.” Ms. Fraser has built her article on a less-than-secure foundation. It is based almost exclusively on sources of dubious accuracy that are overtly hostile to Mrs. Eddy. Its one-sided depiction of Mrs. Eddy’s life ignores any material that evidences a more balanced portrait of the religious leader.

For example, no mention is made of the “next friends” suit. This is a surprising omission. Well-publicized at the time, the event judicially established Mrs. Eddy’s competence at age eighty-six to manage her own affairs despite efforts of others to gain control of her assets. Dr. Allan McLain Hamilton, a one-time critic of Christian Science, was appointed to examine Mrs. Eddy. His interview with The New York Times is a matter of public record (August 25, 1907). In it he states, “There really is no mystery about Mrs. Mary Baker G. Eddy. Her case is a perfectly simple one, and the sensational stories which have been disseminated about her have no foundation in fact…. For a woman of her age I do not hesitate to say that she is physically and mentally phenomenal.”

Unfactual though they may be, the “sensational stories which have been disseminated about her” have been largely perpetuated through McClure’s magazine and in the Milmine biography of Mrs. Eddy. They are re-echoed by this article’s copious references to the latter book. Biographies sympathetic to Mrs. Eddy, however scholarly, have been brushed aside as biased.

The reference to circumstances surrounding Mrs. Eddy’s separation from her son shows a lack of understanding of this particular case, and of the cases of single mothers in the mid-nineteenth century. Women during this period had no guardianship rights to their children. Therefore, Mark Baker (the child’s grandfather) was the boy’s guardian. The child’s mother was not. The Baker family seems to have had more problems with the boy’s behavior than his mother did, and they were responsible for putting him in a foster family. There is documentation that proves Mrs. Eddy’s brief and poignant account of her separation from her son to be accurate.

The article faults Mrs. Eddy for having had little education. Again, in the early nineteenth century very few women had access to formal education. Young Mary Baker, however, was well-educated for a woman of her times. She was widely read and had the advantage of a family life in which discussions of the Bible, politics, and religion were everyday fare. Through her elder brother, Albert, a Dartmouth scholar, she was tutored in the classics, philosophy, and the law.

By any measure, her education was superior to that of Phineas P. Quimby, the mind-curist whose writings Mrs. Eddy has been accused of copying. Documents in the collection of Quimby materials in the Boston University archives reveal the fact that Quimby was barely literate. He could not have written the tracts that are now published as his manuscripts. In the light of recent research, it is more likely that Quimby adopted Mrs. Eddy’s concepts and terminology rather than the other way around.

Contrary to what is indicated in the article, Quimby was not religiously inclined. A statement by his son bears this out: “The religion which [Mrs. Eddy] teaches certainly is hers, for which I cannot be too thankful; for I should be loath to go down to my grave feeling that my father was in any way connected with ‘Christian Science’…. In [Quimby’s method of] curing the sick, religion played no part. There were no prayers, there was no asking assistance from God or any other divinity. He cured by his wisdom.” [The Quimby Manuscripts, edited by Horatio W. Dresser, New York: Crowell, 1921, p. 436]

Karl Holl, the eminent German church historian, made this evaluation of Mrs. Eddy’s connection with Quimby: “That which connected her with Quimby was her conviction that all disease in the last analysis has its roots in the mind, and that healing therefore must be effected, through mental influence. But it was her earnest Puritan faith in God that separated her from Quimby from the beginning.” [Karl Holl, ‘Der Szientismus,’ reprinted in Gesam-melte Aufsätze Zur Kirchengeschichte, III (1921-1928)]

One final example of the danger of building a story on a false foundation is the account of Mrs. Eddy’s greeting of her students on Communion Sunday, June 21, 1901. The account in Ms. Fraser’s article bears no resemblance in word or in tone to the account printed in The Boston Globe of June 26, 1901. The inclusion of this unsubstantiated text at the conclusion of her article casts a long shadow of doubt over this review.

M. Victor Westberg

Manager

Committees on Publication

The First Church of Christ, Scientist

Boston, Massachusetts

To the Editors:

There is much to question and debate in Caroline Fraser’s essay on Mary Baker Eddy. I do not want to quibble about her interpretations of my book, ‘With Bleeding Footsteps,’ but I do want to address a more important issue. Because I was granted access to the archives of the Mother Church, Fraser leaps to the conclusion that my impartiality as a scholar was compromised because Scientists would not allow me to see the documents without assurances that I was going to write a book sympathetic to Mrs. Eddy and the Church. Fraser’s assumption is flatly wrong.

To set the record straight, I was never given unlimited access to the archives. Some documents, most notably the diaries of Calvin Frye, were withheld. Each year that I requested to see new material I was asked to sign a waiver permitting the Church to check my completed manuscript for footnoting accuracy. Nothing in the waver pertained to the issue of an author’s interpretation, and the people I worked with in the archives never pressured me to change my ideas. I noted in the acknowledgements section of my book that several leading Christian Science scholars had read my manuscript and voiced their strong reservations. From the outset they were never comfortable with my application of psychoanalysis, especially when it came to Mrs. Eddy. Even though they were not pleased with parts of my book, they respected my scholarly integrity.

During all of the research and writing, I never anticipated any trouble with the Board of Directors granting me copyright approval. Unfortunately, I got caught in the middle of the political wars that wracked the Church. The people that I had worked with fell into political disfavor and the Board associated me with them. Much to my anguish, I was not given permission to quote, which forced me to spend months revising the manuscript in order to comply with copyright laws. Needless to say, I felt that I had been treated unfairly by the Board. Thus, Fraser is badly off the mark when she assumes that I had a cozy relationship with Christian Science officials.

As I have stated in the preface of my book, I was ambivalent about Mrs. Eddy. Like most people, she was neither wholly good nor wholly bad. Therefore, I found much to criticize and much to admire. I respected Mrs. Eddy’s determination and, despite insuperable odds against her, her success in building something from nothing. My appraisals of her words and actions did not come from being co-opted by the Church or any Christian Scientist.

Robert David Thomas

Cleveland, Ohio

Caroline Fraser replies:

One wonders how familiar Mr. Westberg is with the publications of his own church. The foundation for my description of Eddy’s life is Robert Peel’s three-volume biography, published by the Christian Science Publishing Society in 1972. As I said in the article, I differ with Peel’s interpretation of the facts of Eddy’s life, but I have little choice but to rely on his scholarship, as his biography is the only complete account based on unlimited access to the Church’s archives. Indeed, Peel is the biographer who documented Eddy’s lack of education, her narrow reading, and her reliance on the editorial help of others. Peel also cites Church archival material as the source proving that Mary Baker’s father forbade her brother Albert from tutoring her from the books he was studying at Dartmouth, believing them to be irreligious. The claim that Albert tutored her “in the classics, philosophy, and the law” comes from Eddy’s highly questionable autobiography, Retrospection and Introspection, in which she also asserts that “after my discovery of Christian Science, most of the knowledge I had gleaned from schoolbooks vanished like a dream.” [Retrospection and Introspection, in Miscellaneous Writings, p. 10, paginated separately]

Mr. Westberg’s distress over my not mentioning the so-called “next friends” lawsuit by name (although I did allude to it) demonstrates that he has missed my point. I do not believe that Eddy became senile in her later years. I do believe that her writings and behavior indicate that she suffered from paranoia and delusions of grandeur throughout her adult life. Indeed, Mr. Westberg’s own position, Manager of the Committees on Publication, is a relic of those delusions; his office was established by Eddy to defend her and her religion against the attacks she so feared.

Mr. Westberg also claims that there is “documentation” that establishes the accuracy of Eddy’s accusation that a family plot, involving deception by her second husband, succeeded in taking her son away from her. Although he neglects to mention what his documentation might be, I assume he is referring to the confusing and self-contradictory materials uncovered by a woman named Jewel Spangler Smaus and subsequently touted by the Church in its own religious monthly, the Christian Science Journal, as “An Important Historical Discovery.”

In 1982, Smaus, the author of a biography of Eddy published by the Church, wrote a series of articles on Eddy’s son, George Glover II, for the quarterly newsletter of the Longyear Historical Society, a private group which operates many of the historical sites in New England dedicated to preserving Eddy’s memory. Smaus claimed to have discovered documents signed by Eddy, her father, Mark Baker, and the man who would become her second husband, Daniel Patterson, which set in motion the procedure by which Patterson would have become George Glover’s legal guardian, a procedure which, Smaus claimed, Patterson never completed. Other documents, she acknowledged, did claim that Patterson was guardian. One, signed by the boy’s eventual guardian, claims that Mary Glover had given him her son when the boy was five.

Taken together, the various sets of documents raise more questions than they answer. If Patterson was plotting to remove young George from his bride’s life, why did he sign the guardianship papers and why did the newlyweds move to North Groton, where the boy was living? If Patterson was never George’s legal guardian, why did Mary’s father pay a bond Patterson owed to the boy’s eventual guardian, when that guardian threatened to sue? And, of course, how did all these machinations go on without the knowledge of George’s mother? All the evidence suggests that Mary’s longsuffering family lavished time, effort, and money attending to her needs; their letters show that they often believed her to be at death’s door. The simplest explanation for the fate of her son remains that she was not well enough or not willing enough to care for him. There is no evidence that Mary’s family had any malicious intent toward her; there is no evidence of a plot. There is ample evidence that she quickly became disillusioned with her son when, years later, they were reunited. In 1887, she wrote to him, “You are not what I had hoped to find you…. When I retire from business and into private life then I can receive you if you are reformed, but not otherwise.” [Peel II, 217] The following year she wrote to him, “I want your children educated. No greater disgrace rests on my family name than the ignorance of the parents of these darling children.” [Peel II, 218] To take Eddy’s own word regarding her son is impossible. Her autobiography is replete with fabrications and exaggerations about her genealogy, her education, her so-called “medical experiments,” and more. Smaus’s “discovery” sheds more light on the Church’s defensiveness over this issue than it does on Eddy’s own motivation.

Likewise, Mr. Westberg would have us accept unquestioningly the Boston Globe‘s version of events chez Eddy on June 21, 1901, while neglecting to mention the Church’s long and colorful history of conflict with that newspaper. As recently as a few years ago, the Church has castigated the Globe for coverage of Church affairs which it considered biased. Apparently, when the Globe is on the side of Christian Science, it can be trusted. In any case, my research uncovered no report on this event in the Globe on the date Mr. Westberg mentions. I have no doubts about my sources for Eddy’s word on that Communion Sunday, all given in the footnote. Those words were transcribed and preserved—loyally, lovingly, and respectfully—by Christian Scientists themselves.

As for Robert David Thomas and his desire to “set the record straight,” he should look at the record. I never suggested that he had “unlimited access” to the Church archives. I said that, for a non-Christian Scientist, he had “unprecedented access,” the exact claim made on the book jacket of his own book. Nor did I leap to conclusions about his scholarly integrity in noting the Church’s record of censorship—a record strongly borne out by his own experience—but judging by what he has here disclosed, perhaps I should have. Does Thomas actually believe that the Church was interested in seeing his completed manuscript before publication solely in order to check “footnoting accuracy”? Does he make no connection between the waiver he signed and the fact that he was ultimately denied permission to quote from Church-owned documents? And why is it that nowhere in the book does he describe the constraints put on him by the Church? It is disturbing that a scholar of his experience should not recognize his obligation to inform the reader of the restrictions placed upon him by his most important source.

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