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When we do not know a person—and also when we do—we have to judge the size and nature of his achievements as compared with the achievements of others in his special line of business—there is no other way. Measured by this standard, it is thirteen hundred years since the world has produced anyone who could reach up to Mrs. Eddy’s waistbelt.”

In several ways she is the most interesting woman that ever lived, and the most extraordinary.”

Gillian Gill begins her admiring biography of Mary Baker Eddy with these seemingly ambiguous quotations from Mark Twain’s 1907 book Christian Science, one of the most harshly critical works ever published about Eddy and the religion of faith healing she founded.1 Twain skewers her singular character and compares her church to the monolithic corporation of his day, Standard Oil. Both Gill and Twain are right about this: Eddy’s radical commitment to a system of belief as extreme as any ever conceived in America makes her one of the most electrifying, confounding figures in nineteenth-century women’s history and in American religion.

The public view of Eddy has always been polarized. During her lifetime (1821-1910), she was the subject of frenzied press coverage, of lawsuits and attacks on her character. After her death, she has been the subject of numerous biographies and hagiographies. Eddy herself, of course, did much to incite extreme reactions. She was litigious, suing or publicly attacking her self-proclaimed enemies (most of them former followers), providing inflated accounts of her healing prowess to adoring students, and producing, late in life, perhaps the strangest document of all, an emotionally constricted and often misleading autobiography, Retrospection and Introspection. She also created the Church’s powerful Committee on Publication to protect her reputation after her death.

Gillian Gill, not a Christian Scientist, claims to provide a balanced profile. She has received from the Church what she describes as “unparalleled access” to its archives. At 713 pages, her book is the longest and most exhaustively researched work on Eddy since the Christian Science scholar Robert Peel published his three-volume work on her life (1966-1977).

The wars over the facts of Eddy’s life and their meaning were intensified after her death by the restrictions on access to the Church’s archives. Robert Peel silenced much of the debate over the most peculiar aspects of Eddy’s behavior and teachings, confirming and documenting facts that the Church had long denied, such as Eddy’s occasional use of morphine during illness, in contradiction to her teachings. An insider who worked for the Church for much of his life, Peel seems to have had greater access to the archives than anyone else before or since, including Gill.2

Gillian Gill appreciates Peel’s achievement, but claims to have gone beyond him to provide what he, given his religious allegiance, could not: a model of admiring objectivity.Gill writes that Eddy “was born with an exceptional combination of abilities, desires, and energies,” which is doubtless true, and, by acting as Eddy’s “defense attorney,” she seeks to reclaim Eddy for feminist scholarship: “Mrs. Eddy rewrites the female plot and offers new ways to strive and achieve.” What the “female plot” in Eddy’s case might be is not explained, but clearly Gill sees her as a feminist heroine.

But although she had no poetic, narrative, or epistolary gift, the ambitions, frustrations, and neurotic behavior of Eddy’s early life bear more of a resemblance to those of the socially and intellectually confined lives of New England literary women—Emily Dickinson, Alice James, Charlotte Perkins Gilman—than they do to the lives of social activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony. Eddy, too, found the only available roles of wife and mother crippling, and, after years of malaise, like the literary women of her day, she withdrew into herself to write. She engaged her readers, however, not in a private act of introspection but in ambitious feats of religious myth-making; in this, she is virtually unique.

Born on a New Hampshire farm on July 16, 1821, the youngest of the six children of Mark and Abigail Baker, Mary Baker grew up in a family centered around what she would later call her father’s “relentless theology.” Mark Baker, a strict Congregationalist, was so devout that he was said to have once flown into a rage after mistaking the day and forgetting to keep the Sabbath; on his way home from the locked church, he smote dead a crow, saying, according to neighborhood legend, “Take that for hoppin’ about on the Sabbath.” Her memories of her mother were almost the opposite: Abigail Baker emerges as sweet, forbearing, deeply spiritual, and closely attached to her youngest daughter, writing to her after she left home, “Dear Child your memory is dearer to me than gold every thing reminds me of you…sometimes I fear I worship mary instead of the great jehovah.” Eddy went so far as to suggest in her memoir that her mother, before she gave birth to her, was visited by a premonition that the child she carried was destined for spiritual greatness, and that Eddy herself, at eight, was called out loud by the Lord, just as was the biblical child Samuel (Robert Peel does not relate these tales).

By all accounts, Mary’s childhood was plagued by illness—spells of weakness, seizures of nerves or temper. Her family seems to have been convinced that she was often at death’s door, although their fears focused principally on her “dyspepsia,” the nineteenth century’s term for heartburn. In 1837, her sister Martha described her condition:

In addition to her former diseases her stomach became most shockingly cankered, and an ulcer collected on her lungs, causing the most severe distress you can conceive of; the physician with the family thought her cure impossible.

The illness that often kept Mary out of school became a leitmotif in her letters and in her flowery verse, which was first published in local newspapers when she was in her teens. In “Resolutions for the Morning,” written when she was twelve, she reveals her early fascination with mental control of the body and bodily health:

I’ll form resolutions with strength from on high,
Such physical laws to obey,
As reason with appetite, pleasures deny,
That health, may my efforts repay.

Gill argues that young Mary suffered from anorexia, citing this passage from the first edition of Science and Health:

When quite a child we adopted the Graham system for dyspepsia, ate only bread and vegetables, and drank water, following this diet for years; we became more dyspeptic, however, and, of course, thought we must diet more rigidly; so we partook of but one meal in twenty-four hours, and this consisted of a thin slice of bread, about three inches square, without water; our physician not allowing us with this ample meal, to wet our parched lips for many hours thereafter; whenever we drank, it produced violent retchings. Thus we passed most of our early years, as many can attest, in hunger, pain, weakness, and starvation….

But it is as hard to credit Mary’s claim that she starved herself “for years” as it is to believe that the Lord was in the habit of calling her by name. The earliest known photograph, which adorns the cover of Gill’s book, reveals a handsome woman, thin but with long, lustrous dark hair. Her large eyes suggest a kind of hunger, but not necessarily the kind that has anything to do with food.

Mary’s brief first marriage in 1843 to George Glover, a building contractor, who took his bride to the South with him, lasted barely half a year; Glover died in 1844 after a brief illness. It produced her only biological child, a son, George Glover II. A disastrous second marriage in 1853 to her itinerant dentist, Daniel Patterson, occasioned more illness. Disillusioned with his constantly indisposed wife, Patterson spent much of his time traveling and, by all accounts, philandering. Mary Patterson spent the early years of her marriage in poverty and invalidism, lying on a board and dispensing homeopathic cures to her neighbors in the small town in New Hampshire where the couple lived. At the age of six, her young son had been sent to live with a farmer, an arrangement perhaps facilitated by Mary’s family, who judged her too incapacitated to care for him. “A plot was consummated for keeping us apart,” she hints darkly in her autobiography, asserting that she employed “every means within my power” to find her child, although no letters or other evidence have come to light to indicate that she did.

In 1862, during a brief hiatus in her marriage occasioned by the Civil War—the hapless Patterson, having blundered onto the battlefield of Bull Run, was captured and jailed by the Confederates—Mary took refuge at a hydropathic institute. Dissatisfied with the water cure, she wrote to another promising healer, Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, whose circular had fallen into her hands:

I have been sick 6 years with spinal inflammation, and its train of sufferings—gastric and bilious. …I was getting well this spring but my dear husband was taken prisoner of war by the Southrens [sic] and the shock overcame me and brought on a relapse. I want to see you above all others…. Can you, Will you visit me at once? I must die unless you can save me.

When Quimby, who practiced in Portland, Maine, would not come to her, Mary somehow found the strength to make the arduous journey herself, arriving at his office in October 1862. She became an instant convert to Quimby’s healing method, and Quimby would become her physician, mentor, and muse, introducing her to a new language that described the powers of the mind in healing the body.

Park” Quimby was as unlettered and impressionable as Eddy herself. Born to a blacksmith in 1802 in Lebanon, New Hampshire, Quimby was an inventor, tinkerer, and clockmaker who found himself enraptured, in 1838, by a lecture on “mesmerism,” or animal magnetism, similar to what is now called hypnotism. Popularized in Europe in the 1780s by the Austrian doctor Franz Anton Mesmer, mesmerism, along with spiritualism, was experiencing a resurgence in America. All manner of powers were attributed to it: clairvoyance, telepathy, miraculous feats of diagnosis and healing. Quimby entered the mesmeric trade, traveling and lecturing with a young man named Lucius Burkmar; Quimby explained mesmerism while Burkmar fell into trances, describing the interiors of audience members’ homes and seeing into their bodies, diagnosing diseases he discerned that afflicted individual organs. Eventually Quimby had Burkmar diagnose his own back pain, believing “that my kidneys were nearly gone”; Burkmar’s explanation—that Quimby’s kidneys were “half-consumed”—was followed by treatment in which Burkmar placed his hands on his partner and “united the pieces [of kidney] so they would grow” and pronounced Quimby cured.

The experience, Quimby later acknowledged, led him to conclude that, just as diagnosis or suggestion could cause the symptoms of illness, arguing a patient out of those beliefs could ease or cure the symptoms. He came to believe that the medical practitioners of his time were dangerously spreading “beliefs” of disease to his patients; he would cure them with a combination of healing talk, head-rubbing, and applications of “magnetized” water, as well as the laying-on of hands. As his circular claimed, “his explanation is the cure…. The Truth is the Cure.”

  1. 1

    See Mark Twain, Christian Science (Harper & Brothers, 1907), pp. 102-103. As Twain wrote it, this passage is not particularly ambiguous. Gill has transposed the two parts of the quotation as it appears here and omitted several sentences, flattening Twain’s sardonic tone. She also misquotes him; he wrote, “When we do not know a person—and also when we do—we have to judge his size by the size and nature of his achievements….” As Gill herself notes, with reference to an Eddy biography that she sees fit to criticize, “such small errors are…always interesting, especially when they occur on line 1 of Chapter 1 of a work that begins by loudly proclaiming its dedication to objective reporting and fact checking.”

  2. 2

    Since Peel published no bibliographical note describing his access to the archives or any limitations that might have been imposed on him by the Church or even by his own religious scruples, it is impossible to know exactly how free that access was. Gill’s own access, she acknowledges, was “frustratingly limited”; she also admits to allowing the Church to fact-check her manuscript.

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