Mary Baker Eddy
Mary Baker Eddy; drawing by David Levine


Americans have always been besotted with the power of the individual. This preoccupation has taken many forms—political, social, and religious—but one form has survived virtually intact, changing only the superficial spots of its rhetoric: the notion that everyone has the power to heal himself of whatever physical, fiscal, or spiritual ills ail him. It appears in both religious and secular movements. Virtually all these movements proclaim their distinctiveness and rely on the anecdotal testimonials of their believers to support their claims. Recently published books with titles like Remarkable Recovery, Perfect Health, and Spontaneous Healing,1 about so-called natural healing, spontaneous remission, and the “mind-body connection,” are only the latest examples of a phenomenon that has been known as New Age, New Thought, Mental Science, mind-cure, and the power of positive thinking. And virtually every twentieth-century book or sect that promotes healing through the power of mind is in some ways a repackaging of the work of one woman, Mary Baker Eddy, the self-proclaimed “Discoverer and Founder” of Christian Science and the author of Science and Health.

The Christian Science Church, founded by Eddy in 1879, recently re-issued Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures in a paperback trade edition designed to be sold in bookstores (previously the book was sold through the Church’s own Reading Rooms) and hired a publicist to develop a mass-market campaign to take advantage of this latest craze for mind-over-matter miracles. In this campaign, the Church, which has been searching over the past decade for ways to bolster its dwindling membership, has portrayed the book as “non-denominational,” although Eddy herself proclaimed it, along with the Bible, the only “pastor” of her Church. Adopting the ad-speak with which publishers have heralded their own alternative medicine titles, the Church’s advertisements for this new edition, run in national newspapers, do not mention Christian Science. The ad that ran in Publishers Weekly read “Spirit, Mind, Health, there are no limits.” Some Christian Scientists have been shocked at the temerity the Church has shown in introducing a Publisher’s Note and an index to Eddy’s inviolable text; this is, after all, a religion whose faithful have preserved the horsehair rocking chair in which Eddy revised her book, as well as nearly every New England house in which she composed it. But The New York Times’s recent headline—“Alternative Medicine’s Rise Cheers Christian Scientists”—does not seem inaccurate given the Church’s claim that sales of Science and Health rose 25 percent in 1993.

It is not a long leap from Anne Hutchinson, who believed that the saved Christian was actually inhabited by the spirit of the Holy Ghost, to Mary Baker Eddy and her belief in the all-inclusive Divine Mind. Eddy’s doctrine that man is a perfect manifestation of a perfect God is a strange amalgam of Calvinist perfectionism (Jonathan Edwards’s “seeing the perfect idea of a thing”), Ben Franklin’s pragmatism, the Transcendentalists’ rejection of “the illusions of sense,” and Emersonian self-reliance. As F.O. Matthiessen wrote in American Renaissance: “From the weaker aspects of Emerson’s thought, the rocking chair of Mary Baker Eddy…is only just around the corner.”

To judge by the number of off-shoots of Christian Science and by the fact that it has had an impact on American culture out of all proportion to its size as a sect (membership never reached half a million and may now be under 100,000), Mary Baker Eddy touched a fundamental American chord by asserting that the individual, through an understanding of the nature of God, wields ultimate control over both mind and body. Like the Quakers and the Shakers before her and the twelve-step programs after her, Eddy set up regular testimonial meetings to cement the faith of her followers and to convert new members. And all the self-healers since Christian Science—Napoleon Hill, the author of Think and Grow Rich, which promised wealth to those who could tap into “Infinite Intelligence,” Norman Vincent Peale’s positive thinking, Werner Erhard’s est, Deepak Chopra’s ayurveda, and most recently Andrew Weil, the author of Spontaneous Healing—have touted their connection to the great god Science, which, as Eddy perceived, would be the ultimate twentieth-century imprimatur.2

If Mary Baker Eddy had not existed, Henry James practically invented her in The Bostonians. There are tantalizing glimpses of her in several characters in that novel: the harried reformist Miss Birdseye, the coldly zealous and asexual Olive Chancellor, and especially the spooky mesmeric healer Selah Tarrant and his daughter Verena, whose “perfected humbug” hypnotizes willing audiences. Eddy frequented the same 1880s down-at-the-heels drawing rooms, the same lecture halls that catered to the hordes who came to be titillated by new movements advocating everything from free love to women’s rights. She engaged in the same fevered, melodramatic intrigues that James mocked in the culture of the women’s suffrage movement, building up certain of her followers only to turn them away over a variety of real and imagined slights. In fact, although Eddy was at her most publicly active in Boston during the years James wrote The Bostonians, her name never appears in the novel.


Eddy was largely ignored by the intellectuals and writers of her day. William James mentioned her movement in The Varieties of Religious Experience, grouping Christian Science together with other mind-cure groups as part of the phenomenon of “the religion of healthy-mindedness.” James was intrigued by accounts of Christian Science healings but found Eddy’s dismissal of evil philosophically simplistic. Eddy proved to be a far more attractive subject to the yellow journalists of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World than she was to intellectuals. A self-made woman during the era of the self-made man, Eddy was a curiosity in her time, building her fortune out of a staple American commodity, religion. Her creation, the Church of Christ, Scientist, although foundering now, has outlasted in its original form the empires of Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and Rockefeller.

In an era before the great advances of modern medicine and sanitation, when the line between doctors and quacks was ill-defined, when the word “science” was applicable to all manner of unscientific, even magical, practices, Eddy offered a way to achieve health and happiness. Her “Science,” of course, was not a science at all but rather a form of religious mysticism dressed in the nineteenth-century diction of science. Eddy promised that sin, sickness, and death were illusory and could be overcome by understanding the Biblical truth that God created man perfect, in his image and likeness. This, she said, was how Jesus had healed. That healing power could be tapped by a close study of Eddy’s own writings.

Although Eddy herself had little education, she and her editors couched her teachings in the biggest words they could find, often drawn from philosophical or scientific discourse: “manifestation,” “metaphysician,” “self-evident proposition,” “sentient,” “chemicalization.” Thus the prayers of Christian Science “practitioners,” or professional healers, became “treatments,” and the recoveries of Christian Scientists became “demonstrations.” The “treatments” and prayers consist entirely of repetitious assertions and paraphrases of statements from Science and Health and readings from the Bible, but the simplistic scientific language impressed Eddy’s early followers, most of them as uneducated as Eddy herself. (The connection to “science” continues to impress the insurance companies that reimburse Christian Scientists for their prayer “treatments,” the only faith healers in America so honored.)

Christian Scientists routinely refuse medical care.3 The Christian Scientist who seeks healing studies Science and Health and the Bible intensively, concentrating on key phrases and paraphrases of Eddy’s works until he convinces himself that man is a perfect reflection of a perfect God. This is known among Christian Scientists as “knowing the Truth.” Christian Science is faith healing. But where traditional faith healers pray to God asking for a miracle, Christian Scientists pray to “know” that they already inhabit a world free of sin, sickness, and death. Eddy, however, rejected faith healing as a description of her method, contending that all other “faith-cures” relied on “blind belief,” while only Christian Scientists understood “the Science of Mind.” She encouraged in her followers a passive relinquishment of human willpower or “material personality.” The mental state of abstraction and absorption that Christian Scientists induce in themselves by focusing on her statements to the exclusion of all else results in a form of religious euphoria. In their periodicals and weekly testimony meetings, Christian Scientists often report feelings of elation and invulnerability and describe hearing angelic or God-like voices that instruct and heal them.

Science and Health was published in 1875. The first edition did not sell well, but Eddy had her handful of followers send copies to important personages and universities in the United States and abroad, including Queen Victoria, Thomas Carlyle, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. There were a few reviews, and Bronson Alcott called on the author, in all seriousness, to discuss “metaphysical problems.” Her fame began to grow over the next several years as members of her circle ended up in court on various civil and criminal charges, including conspiracy to murder and mesmerism. Although the cases were dismissed, the sensational news coverage attracted more attention than Eddy’s own book. The curious began to attend Eddy’s weekly Boston sermons, and in 1879 she and her followers voted to form the Church of Christ, Scientist. In 1881, Eddy’s Massachusetts Metaphysical College was also chartered to train healers, and her Church began a period of rapid, if troubled, growth.

In 1884, the Church had sixty-one members; in 1907, nearly 44,000. Along the way there was great dissension and many defections. Eddy dissolved her College and her Church in 1889 after a particularly bitter year of controversy and withdrew from her followers in what would be a pattern throughout her leadership of sudden appearances and withdrawals. In 1892, she established her “Mother Church” and began the process of revising and adding to the Church by-laws, published as the Manual of the Mother Church, which would concentrate the power of the Church in her hands.


Mary Baker Eddy remains one of the most enigmatic religious figures in American history. She created an indigenous American religion, but unlike Mother Ann Lee of the Shakers or Joseph Smith of the Mormons, she has been the subject of little scholarly study, in part because the Church has sanitized her image in its own publications and restricted access to its substantial archival material. But the vehement attacks Eddy attracted in the popular press—while not always accurate—go a long way toward explaining her appeal. In an era before medicine had attained the status of a science, Eddy offered a righteous religious path to perfect health and prosperity, the simplest version of the American dream.


Mary Baker Eddy began life in Bow, New Hampshire, as Mary Baker, the sixth and youngest child of Mark Baker, a farmer, and his wife. (“Eddy,” the name she is now known by, came from her third husband.) During her childhood Mary Baker suffered from a variety of ill-defined ailments, the nature of which has excited much speculation among her biographers. In The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy & the History of Christian Science, Willa Cather was the first to describe her frequent “attacks” as a form of tantrum, citing the family doctor’s diagnosis as “hysteria mingled with bad temper.”4

The illnesses which frequently kept Mary home from school and waited on by her parents and older siblings are now recognized as classic nineteenth-century psychosomatic symptoms: spinal irritation, neuralgia, dyspepsia, stomach cankers, and ulcers.5 Harold Bloom describes Eddy as “a monumental hysteric of classical dimensions, indeed a kind of anthology of nineteenth-century nervous ailments.” Even Robert Peel, the ardent Christian Scientist who between 1966 and 1977 published an exhaustive three-volume scholarly biography of Eddy, hints at the likelihood that at least some of Mary’s pain was psychogenic in origin:

It is necessary here to distinguish between the genuine suffering that darkened her life in those years and the romantic melancholy she shared as a literary fashion with the age.

When she was in her teens, Mary put herself on the bread-and-water diet developed by Sylvester Graham, the Presbyterian minister who invented graham flour, and wrote to a friend that she was suffering “an agreeable variety of pain.” She was all this time a prolific writer of poetry, and her poems began to appear in New Hampshire newspapers when she was twenty.

In 1843, at the age of twenty-two, she married George Washington Glover, a Southerner who took her to live in Charleston, South Carolina. Seven months later, her husband died of yellow fever, and she returned to her father’s house in Sanbornton Bridge, New Hampshire, penniless and pregnant.

The fate of Eddy’s only child, George Washington Glover II, born in 1844 and separated from his mother at an early age, created a blot on Eddy’s character that she and subsequent sympathetic biographers have struggled to erase. Peel goes so far as to suggest that the “boisterous, headstrong child who seemed to have inherited…none of his mother’s sensitiveness” cried too often and too loudly for his mother to bear. Bedridden for months after her son’s birth with the same symptoms she complained of throughout her life, Mary Glover relied on her mother and a household servant to care for the child, rising only to conduct a short-lived “infant school,” a kind of kindergarten attended by local children which, Peel says, “was not accounted a success.” When her mother died in 1849 and her father remarried the following year, Mary sent her six-year-old son to live with the household servant who had cared for him since birth, while Mary herself continued to suffer, as one of her sisters described it, from “dispepsia, liver-complaint and nervous disease.”

During this period, the invalid became known throughout the neighborhood for her predilection for the family’s porch swing, which was said to ease her discomfort. Eventually the family outfitted a sofa with rockers and employed small boys to rock her in it, a pastime that became known locally as “swinging Mrs. Glover.” In 1853, at the age of thirty-one, Mary married her dentist, Daniel Patterson, the groom carrying the bride down the stairs of her father’s house for the ceremony and then carrying her back up to bed again. Although the couple lived near her son for a time in North Groton, New Hampshire, George Glover’s adopted family moved to Minnesota when he was eleven and took him with them. George Glover did not see his mother again for twenty-three years.

In her highly selective 1891 autobiography, Retrospection and Introspection, published when Eddy was seventy, she deals with her son’s departure by hinting darkly that “a plot was consummated for keeping [my son and me] apart.” She implies that Patterson deceived her into believing that he would adopt her son after they married, but none of her biographers has found documentary evidence to support this. Peel describes her as enduring another physical collapse after the loss of her son, but she apparently had enough energy to compose a poem, “Written on the 9th day of May on parting with my babe,” in which she advised her child: “Go little voyager; o’er life’s rough seas—Born in a tempest! choose thy pilot God.”

Mary’s poor health continued after her second marriage, and she dabbled in phrenology, homeopathy, mesmerism, and spiritualism. She read constantly in the Bible, but, as Peel notes, she had no exposure to the great literature of her own or of any other day, except in collections of aphorisms and quotations in the newspapers. She collected these “Gems of Truth” and “Dewdrops of Wisdom” and pasted them in a scrapbook alongside poems, recipes, health tips, and home cures. She became an eccentric and controversial figure in North Groton. She spent her days bedridden, prescribing homeopathic cures to her neighbors, while lying on a peculiar wooden contraption with a headboard which she raised and lowered with a string, on one occasion sending frantic word of her imminent death to her husband only to affect a remarkable recovery on his return.

The Civil War began what would be the period of greatest upheaval and revelation in Eddy’s life. The excitement of the conflict inspired in her further effusions of verse and freed her temporarily of the constraint of her husband’s presence. In 1862, while traveling to Washington, DC, Daniel Patterson stopped to look at the battlefield of Bull Run and was captured by the Confederates and jailed. Taking a turn for the worse after this news arrived, Mary checked into the Vail Hydropathic Institute in Hill, New Hampshire, for a course of baths, one of two popular cures she had not yet sampled. Soon dissatisfied, she made arrangements to try the one remaining method. Developed by a doctor in Portland, Maine, it involved the laying-on of hands, and Mary’s exposure to it would alter the course of American religious history. The doctor’s name was Phineas Parkhurst Quimby.

Quimby, a clockmaker and inventor from Belfast, Maine, began as a classical mesmerist, hypnotizing his patients. According to the originator of mesmerism, Franz Anton Mesmer, the mesmerist could heal through an invisible force projected from his own soul, or anima, by passing his hands over and above a patient’s body, bringing on a trance state. (So-called “magnetizers” tried to accomplish much the same thing by passing magnets over the body.)

After attending a number of Charles Poyen’s popular demonstrations of mesmerism, Quimby himself soon took to the road as a traveling mesmerist in New England. He eventually established a flourishing practice in Maine and abandoned traditional mesmerism for a new cure of his own invention. His method involved mesmeric suggestion rather than trance. While manipulating his patients’ limbs and rubbing their heads and necks with water (water was a standard prop for magnetizers, who believed it transmitted the magnetic “fluid”), Quimby talked intently to them, explaining that their disease was a product of their feelings. He also treated patients by letter, instructing them to sip water while reading his words. In various essays he touched on the concept of psychosomatic illness, denouncing traditional medical doctors for planting exaggerated fears in the minds of the ill and criticizing the rigidity of institutionalized religions for upsetting their emotional equilibrium. As other magnetizers had attributed Jesus’ healings to the magnetic technique, so Quimby equated his healing concept of Christ (the ideal, not the man) with Science: “I say, repent all, and be baptized in the Science that will wash away your sins.”

When Mary first met Quimby, she threw herself into his treatment with all the enthusiasm of the instant convert. Having long been convinced of the power of the mind over the body, she was entranced by his presence and his philosophy. She was cured within a week. In November, 1862, she wrote to the Portland Evening Courier to announce the news of her spiritual breakthrough:

But now I can see dimly at first, and only as trees walking, the great principle which underlies Dr. Quimby’s faith and works; and just in proportion to my right perception of truth is my recovery…. That this is a science capable of demonstration becomes clear to the minds of those patients who reason upon the process of their cure. The truth which he establishes in the patient cures him (although he may be wholly unconscious thereof); and the body, which is full of light, is no longer in disease.6

Over the next several years, Mary wrote regularly for newspapers in Maine and Massachusetts and lectured on several occasions, explaining and defending Quimby’s teachings. Her husband, who had escaped from jail, began living a semi-separate life; many of the Eddy biographies allege that he was a known philanderer. Mary grew increasingly dependent on Quimby, writing him letters beseeching his absent treatment when she was away, observing his practice and copying his manuscripts when she was in Portland. Invariably she was cured in his presence, but in his absence her symptoms returned.

Later in her life, reversing her perception of their original roles, Eddy claimed that Quimby had once said to her, “I see that I am John, and that you are Jesus.” But all of Quimby’s concepts, including the idea that disease is a product of the mind and the notion that a healer need not be in the presence of his patient to effect a cure—along with a number of Quimby’s characteristic words and phrases, such as “error,” “false belief,” and “infinite Mind”—would eventually appear in one form or another in the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, leading to charges (never proved) that she had plagiarized Quimby’s work. In any event, one of her teacher’s ideas Eddy adapted to her own design. Mesmerism, or, as Eddy rechristened it, “Malicious Animal Magnetism” or “M.A.M” for short, became a wholly malevolent mental force in Christian Science, something like a hex. Eddy would eventually renounce Quimby and come to believe that one person could murder another through malicious animal magnetism. She convinced her followers, several of whom she retained for years in her house expressly for the purpose of protecting her from it, that M.A.M. could infect physical objects, such as the mailboxes where she mailed her letters, and natural phenomena, such as the weather. Every illness, every criticism, every thunderstorm was the work of M.A.M.


In the fall of 1865, Mary’s father died, and Dr. Quimby’s death followed a few months later, in January, 1866. Two weeks after Quimby died, while walking to a temperance meeting on February 1, 1866, Mary Patterson fell on the ice in Lynn, Massachusetts.

Now known to Christian Scientists as “The Fall in Lynn,” this episode was resurrected by Eddy years after it happened as the moment of her discovery of Christian Science. There are widely divergent accounts of the seriousness of her injuries. According to her account, she read one of the biblical accounts of the healings of Jesus—she never revealed which one—and arose from her bed, startling her friends.

My immediate recovery from the effects of an injury caused by an accident, an injury that neither medicine nor surgery could reach, was the falling apple that led me to the discovery how to be well myself, and how to make others so.

Even to the homoeopathic physician who attended me, and rejoiced in my recovery, I could not then explain the modus of my relief. I could only assure him that the divine Spirit had wrought the miracle—a miracle which later I found to be in perfect scientific accord with divine law.

I then withdrew from society about three years,—to ponder my mission, to search the Scriptures, to find the Science of Mind that should take the things of God and show them to the creature, and reveal the great curative Principle,—Deity.

Dr. Alvin Cushing, the homeopathic physician, had a different recollection.7 He recalled that Mary insisted that she be moved against his recommendation and that he administered morphine to lessen her pain. “I did not at any time declare, or believe, that there was no hope for Mrs. Patterson’s recovery,” he wrote.

Eddy revises her “personal history” again in saying that she “withdrew from society” after her accident. In fact, she entered it. Shortly after her fall, Daniel Patterson abandoned her completely, and she became homeless, moving from boarding house to boarding house in the towns of Swampscott and Lynn north of Boston, impressing her hosts with Dr. Quimby’s teachings and working on a manuscript based on his notes. She taught her first class in 1870 and also entered into a business agreement with Richard Kennedy, a young man who worked in a box factory whom she had met in a boarding house in Amesbury, Massachusetts. Kennedy opened an office with her in Lynn and agreed to pay her $1,000 and a share of his earnings for two years of instruction in the Quimby method of head-rubbing. She and Kennedy began to attract patients and pupils from the local shoe factories. In 1875, Mary Glover (as she called herself after her divorce from Daniel Patterson) had enough money to buy a house in Lynn and to pay a Boston printer to publish her opus, Science and Health.

There would eventually be seven major revisions of Science and Health and many minor ones, involving changes by both Eddy and the clergyman she eventually hired as her editor, the Reverend James Henry Wiggin. The final, 226th edition, published in 1902, bears little structural resemblance to the first, in which run-on sentences abound and the grammar and organization are so crude that a single paragraph can go on for over half a dozen pages.8 “The book made strong demands on the reader’s seriousness of purpose,” Peel writes. But where the first edition is a chaotic interior monologue of Biblical revelation and grandiose statement, the final edition—although repetitive and marked by logical fallacies and non sequiturs—presents a coherent statement of Eddy’s theology. Her beliefs are best summed up by her famous “Scientific Statement of Being”:

There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter. All is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation, for God is All-in-all. Spirit is immortal Truth; matter is mortal error. Spirit is the real and eternal; matter is the unreal and temporal. Spirit is God, and man is His image and likeness. Therefore man is not material; he is spiritual.

But Mary Glover was not content to limit herself to denying the reality of all the material world. She also wanted to condemn certain of her enemies in that world, and in her third edition of 1881, she included a chapter called “Demonology” which did just that. Two years after forming her partnership with Richard Kennedy, she broke with him over his decision to continue using the strict Quimby method, which she had decided to modify. Over the next several years, she became consumed by thoughts of Kennedy’s treachery toward her. He became joined in her mind with another former student and suitor, Daniel Spofford and, in “Demonology” (later removed from Science and Health), she denounced them as a species of devil.

In 1877, at fifty-five, Mary Glover married Asa Gilbert Eddy, a salesman for the Singer Sewing Machine Company ten years her junior, who became the first self-proclaimed Christian Science practitioner or professional healer. Their marriage seems to have revolved exclusively around the establishment of Mrs. Eddy’s new religion; two days after her marriage, she wrote to Daniel Spofford, who had hoped to marry her, “I…feel sure I can teach my husband up to a higher usefulness, to purity, and the higher development of all his latent noble qualities of head and heart.”

In the midst of these modest social and professional successes, Mrs. Eddy continued to experience deep feelings of fear and paranoia. Christian Science seems to have provided her with a system she could use to dramatize and moderate these feelings. Where before she suffered from inexplicable aches and pains, she now physically felt the weight of her responsibility to her students and the force of the attacks of her “enemies,” former students like Kennedy. She wrote to a relative, “I feel the weight of sick folks terribly since my book is at work,” and to a friend, “I feel like a tired and wounded soldier of the cross, taken to the rear.”

Christian Science allowed her to put names and faces on her tormentors. Thus Malicious Animal Magnetism became the Christian Science devil. After Gilbert Eddy died in 1882 and an autopsy found heart disease to be the cause, Mrs. Eddy herself examined her dead husband’s heart, called a press conference, and announced: “My husband’s death was caused by malicious mesmerism…. I know it was poison that killed him, not material poison, but mesmeric poison…. After a certain amount of mesmeric poison has been administered it cannot be averted. No power of mind can resist it.”9 She blamed “the rejected students—students who were turned away from our college because of their unworthiness and immorality” and spoke of knowing “that there is a price set upon my head.”

Robert David Thomas’s ‘With Bleeding Footsteps’: Mary Baker Eddy’s Path to Religious Leadership analyzes the psychodrama behind Eddy’s battles within herself and with her own followers. Trained at the Cleveland Psychoanalytic Institute, Thomas recounts the sheer craziness of Eddy’s rise to power: her paranoia; her grandiose conviction that she could control the weather; her manipulation of her adoring household staff, members of whom had given up their professional and family lives to serve her and who were the frequent targets of her wrath. Unlike Mark Twain in his book on Christian Science, however, Thomas is reluctant to call a spade a spade, or, in this case, a delusion a delusion. In his description of Eddy’s chaotic household, he acknowledges that “it may seem as if we have ventured into a harrowing world.” But then he attempts, implausibly, to make it appear normal: “In Mrs. Eddy’s world, one governed by a unique set of rules, the fears of mesmerism made sense; they were not paranoid delusions but legitimate perceptions of reality.” The tautology—delusions make perfect sense to the deluded—clarifies little about the source of Eddy’s fantasies. It may have been Thomas’s intention to transcend psychological labels (although he occasionally lapses into them when discussing the “issues of separation and loss” in Eddy’s early life, about which there is inadequate documentary support), but often his explanation reads like a tortuous apologia for psychosis.

Thomas was given unprecedented access, as a non-Christian Scientist, to the Church’s archives, which hold most of Eddy’s unpublished correspondence and other writings. Whether or not Thomas agreed to any conditions, it is unfortunate that he does not acknowledge that the Church generally allows such access only to those who can assure that their approach to Eddy and Christian Science is a sympathetic one.

That said, while Thomas’s analyses are not altogether convincing, his scholarship is exhaustive, and he has significantly fleshed out Eddy’s psychological profile. The chapter on Quimby is particularly useful. Thomas provides the most lucid and unbiased description of Quimby’s role in Eddy’s life to date. In his biography, Peel is at pains to prove Eddy an original thinker at the expense of Quimby. “Logical consistency is not to be looked for in any of these backwoods thinkers,” he says of Quimby, apparently not recognizing that logical consistency is not a characteristic of Eddy’s work either. But Thomas plainly establishes that it was Quimby’s eccentric, energetic synthesis of “an intellectual hodgepodge of mesmerism, physiology, rudimentary psychology, and religion” that provided Eddy with the core concepts and language she would use in creating her religion, as well as the emotional impetus.

Eddy’s behavior, especially late in her life, can certainly be seen as that of a punitive, didactic mother. Thomas’s speculation about the emotional sources of this behavior is intriguing, centering on a childhood anecdote Eddy told to her portrait painter. When she was a child, Eddy told him approvingly, her mother once punished her by thrusting her hand into a spinning wheel. Thomas writes of Eddy’s frequent denunciations of her own followers: “She, too, used her position as Mother as a justification; she could express the anger and rationalize it so that its hypocrisy never had to be publicly acknowledged, particularly when others sensed that her anger emanated from her personal self.” Indeed, Thomas’s book provides a valuable corrective to Peel’s relentlessly detailed but psychologically shallow biography.


In 1896, Samuel Clemens, desperate over the illness of his favorite daughter, Susy, instructed his wife, Olivia Langdon Clemens, to consult a Christian Science practitioner. Susy died later that year, at the age of twenty-four, of spinal meningitis. Although Clemens blamed medical doctors for her death (he had quickly given up on the practitioner), the hope and frustration Christian Science had aroused continued to prey on his mind. When he wrote his first essay on Mrs. Eddy and her religion two years after Susy’s death, in 1898, it was apparent that Mark Twain was personally affronted by Eddy. Her life and her writing excited his contempt for hypocrisy and pretension and may have also aroused his anxiety about the power of the women in his life. Eddy, with her imperious manner and whimsical pronouncements, may have reminded Twain uncomfortably of the dynamics of his own household. As Hamlin Hill brought out in his account of Twain’s last years, Mark Twain: God’s Fool, there is an anxious, over-insistent quality to Twain’s attacks on Christian Science:

His fear of the power [of Christian Science] was merely the surface expression of Mark Twain’s real concern…. At a level too deep for comedy, he indisputably saw the relationship of Mrs. Eddy’s new science of healing to the illnesses of his own family, a topic he could no longer mock.

Twain’s relationship to his wife grew increasingly troubled in the years before her death in 1904. An invalid throughout her life, plagued by “nervous prostration” and paralyzed for two years in her youth, only to be raised to her feet again by a mind-healer named Dr. Newton, Olivia Clemens frequently sequestered herself from her husband for weeks at a time, believing that his presence exacerbated her symptoms. After Olivia’s death, Twain’s daughter Clara repeated this pattern, suffering a nervous breakdown and refusing to see or communicate with her father for a year.

Hill connects Olivia Clemens’s chronic invalidism to Twain’s sarcastic endorsement of Christian Science as the perfect panacea for hypochondriacs:

How much of the pain and disease in the world is created by the imaginations of the sufferers, and then kept alive by those same imaginations? Four-fifths? Not anything short of that, I should think. Can Christian Science banish that four-fifths? I think so.

Twain echoed this same offhand admiration when his biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, admitted to him that Christian Science had cured a nervous condition. According to Paine, Twain said to him,

Of course you have been benefited. Christian Science is humanity’s boon. Mother Eddy deserves a place in the Trinity as much as any member of it. She has organized and made available a healing principle that for two thousand years has never been employed, except as the merest kind of guesswork. She is the benefactor of the age.

Twain’s sarcasm was lost on the Christian Scientists who have cited this passage as evidence that Twain recanted his harsh appraisal of Eddy, as well as on his daughter Clara. The only one of Twain’s children to outlive him, Clara defied her famous father by eventually converting to Christian Science. After his death, with Paine’s help, Clara Clemens censored the anti-Christian statements in her father’s autobiographical writings and published her own book, Awake to a Perfect Day: My Experience with Christian Science. It opens with the claim that her father’s words to Paine were an expression of his “wholehearted reverence” for Christian Scientists.

In his book, Christian Science, Twain did not reveal any of the personal history behind his distaste for the religion and its creator. Indeed, by the time the book was published, Twain had become a kind of crank on the topic, railing in print against Christian Science much as he did against Belgium’s King Leopold and other pet peeves. A compilation and expansion of articles Twain wrote for Cosmopolitan in 1899 and the North American Review in 1902 and 1903, Christian Science was not published until 1907. Harper & Brothers, Twain’s publisher, advertised and took orders for it in 1903 and then withdrew it. Twain’s explanation invoked the power of the Church:

The Harpers considered the publication inexpedient, as it might injure the house with the Christian Scientists…. The situation is not barren of humor: I had been doing my very best to show in print that the Xn Scientist cult was become a power in the land—well, here was proof: it had scared the biggest publisher in the Union!

Whether Harper & Brothers was actually intimidated (possibly by William McCracken, the Christian Science spokesman in New York who had uncovered some mistakes in Twain’s early articles) or merely unimpressed with Twain’s manuscript is unclear, but by anyone’s calculations, Christian Science is not Twain’s finest work. He tends to wander, picking quotations from Eddy’s various writings to mock. But while the structure lacks coherence, Twain conveys the force of Eddy’s ego better perhaps than anyone else before or since. His investigation of her character as displayed in her writing is ruthlessly accurate.

In an earlier essay, Twain had mocked Eddy for calling herself “Mother” and her Church “the Mother Church,” sensing the grandiosity of her identification with the Virgin Mother. Eddy then instructed her followers to drop the title (which she had earlier reserved for herself), suggesting in typically ambiguous fashion, that she might “prove” to be something analogous to “Mother”:

I have not the inspiration or aspiration to be a first or second Virgin-Mother—her duplicate, antecedent, or subsequent. What I am remains to be proved by the good I do. We need much humility, wisdom, and love to perform the functions of foreshadowing and foretasting heaven within us. This glory is molten in the furnace of affliction.

Twain knows false modesty and bad faith when he sees it, and in his book he writes, “Mrs. Eddy has herself created all these personal grandeurs and autocracies…. although she may regard ‘self-deification as blasphemous,’ she is as fond of it as I am of pie.”

As in his famous dissection of James Fenimore Cooper, Twain leaves no stylistic stone unturned, citing Eddy for “affectations of scholarly learning, lust after eloquent and flowery expression, [and] repetition of pet poetic picturesqueness,” and he apes her worst offenses. He saw her pretensions to education, poetry, and breeding in practically every passage she wrote:

She usually throws off an easy remark all sodden with Greek or Hebrew or Latin learning; she usually has a person watching for a star—she can seldom get away from that poetic idea…she often throws out a Forefelt, or a Foresplendor, or a Foreslander where it will have a fine nautical foreto’gallant sound and make the sentence sing; after which she is nearly sure to throw discretion away and take to her deadly passion, Intoxicated Metaphor. At such a time the Mrs. Eddy that does not hesitate is lost.

Twain could not get over the fact that writing of such low quality could and did sell, and there is real feeling and perhaps some awe in his mock-despair as he recounts the success of Eddy’s sales tactics in asking her followers to buy each newly revised edition of her works. “None but a seasoned Christian Scientist can examine a literary animal of Mrs. Eddy’s creation and tell which end of it the tail is on. She is easily the most baffling and bewildering writer in the literary trade.”

In 1907, the year Christian Science was finally published, McClure’s Magazine began running a fourteen-part series on the life of Mary Baker Eddy. Published as a book in 1909, The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy & The History of Christian Science was the first full-length history of the Church and its founder.10 Georgine Milmine was credited as the sole author of both the serial and the book, but contemporary scholars and biographers have determined that, while Milmine gathered much of the research, Willa Cather actually wrote it.

Cather, an editor at McClure’s from 1906 to 1910 and a notorious revisionist of her own history, suppressed the fact of her authorship, caring neither for the genre of her first sustained work nor for the notoriety that would have accompanied it. Replying to a request for information about the Milmine series in 1922, Cather wrote Edwin Anderson, a friend and the director of the New York Public Library, explaining that Milmine had amassed a large collection of documents and source materials on Eddy and Christian Science but did not have the ability to organize and write a work incorporating them. Milmine sold her materials to S.S. McClure, who eventually assigned Cather to work with them. Cather completed the research (traveling to Boston and throughout New England) and organized and wrote most of the serial (all except the first installment, which was written by Burton Hendrick, another McClure’s editor). Manuscripts of the resulting book are now owned and held in the Archives of the Christian Science Church.

The McClure’s articles and the book that followed were so offensive to Christian Scientists that, after Church spokesmen failed to suppress their publication by pressuring McClure himself, Church members reportedly took matters into their own hands, buying and discarding numerous copies of the book and stealing it from libraries. Edwin Franden Dakin, whose subsequent biography, Mrs. Eddy: The Biography of a Virginal Mind (1929), met much the same fate, reported that the copyright of the Milmine book was subsequently bought by a Christian Scientist who destroyed the original plates. And when the University of Nebraska Press reprinted the book, the Church insisted that it issue a press release with every copy, suggesting that it may have been influenced by Eddy’s “enemies.”

Enemies or no, The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy & The History of Christian Science is filled with valuable information and interviews conducted with neighbors, friends, and doctors who had known Eddy before she became famous. Its scholarship is peculiar by today’s standards: the book includes a number of verbatim, sworn affidavits attesting to Eddy’s characteristics and activities, and its footnotes are often insufficient. But it is far from mere sensationalism; time and subsequent scholarship have proven it to be generally accurate. Even Robert Peel often relies on The Life. It provides what no Church-authorized biography ever has, a colorful, psychologically sophisticated portrait of a complicated woman.

Cather was the first to explore the implications of Eddy’s lack of maternal interest in her own child and her ultimate rejection of those she groomed to succeed her, including the forty-one-year-old man she legally adopted as her son, Dr. Ebenezer J. Foster, who changed his name to Dr. Foster Eddy. Cather saw the pattern:

Each of her favourites gave her, as it were, a new lease of life; with each one her interest in everything quickened…. She must altogether absorb the new candidate; he must have nothing left in him which was not from her. If she came upon one insoluble atom hidden away anywhere in the marrow of his bones, she experienced a revulsion and flung him contemptuously aside.

Foster Eddy found favor with his adopted mother for a decade, roughly the same amount of time her biological son had. Cather also noted Eddy’s attempts at self-perfection, adorning herself with her followers’ gifts of ornate finery and improving her ancestry with a spurious genealogy and coat-of-arms.

Cather sees Christian Science as the institutionalization of a fractured personality:

Christian Science as it stands today is a kind of autobiography in cryptogram; its form was determined by a temperament, and it retains all the convolutions of the curiously duplex personality about which it grew.

This was astonishingly prescient; since Eddy’s death, as in her life, Christian Science as a movement has exhibited a pronounced persecution complex. Although Christian Scientists never suffered the mob violence that beset Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, the rhetoric of Church spokesmen dwells continually on “attacks” and “enemies.” The Church has also been rent by internal divisions since Eddy’s death.

As David Stouck notes in his introduction, The Life was also influential in the development of Cather’s craft: “Parts [of The Life] contain some of the finest portrait sketches and reflections on human nature that Willa Cather would ever write.” In her letter to Edwin Anderson about her work on The Life, Cather wrote that McClure chose her for the job because she was objective and had no argument with Christian Science. But her fascination with Eddy’s temper tantrums, personal vanity, and denial of the physical world soon began to crop up in her fiction. In the introduction to the 1971 Baker Book House edition of The Life, Stewart Hudson discusses “The Profile,” a short story published by Cather in McClure’s in June 1907, six months after Cather had gone to Boston to research Eddy’s life. Hudson describes the story, which concerns a beautiful woman disfigured by a facial scar, as a “parable” of the “basic dilemma of Christian Science,” the problem of evil. The painter who marries the beauty initially admires her apparent indifference to the scar but gradually comes to see her lifelong refusal to acknowledge this imperfection as a rejection of her own humanity.

Several critics have also pointed out the similarities between Eddy and Mrs. Cutter in My Antonia. In that novel, the narrator, Jim Burden, describes Mrs. Cutter as

a terrifying-looking person…. Her face had a kind of fascination for me; it was the very color and shape of anger. There was a gleam of something akin to insanity in her full, intense eyes. She was formal in manner, and made calls in rustling, steel-gray brocades and a tall bonnet with bristling aigrettes…. I have found Mrs. Cutters all over the world; sometimes founding new religions.


In 1892, a decade after the death of her third and last husband, Mary Baker Eddy retired to Pleasant View, an estate in Concord, New Hampshire, sixty miles from Boston, but her retirement was a relatively active, even frenetic one. She immediately reorganized the Church and deeded it the land for the building of the Mother Church in Boston, which was completed in 1894. She published “Christ and Christmas,” an illustrated poem, and withdrew it a month later, after a public outcry over the depictions of a woman who seemed to be an angelic version of herself. She decreed that henceforth there would be no preaching in her church, only readings of the Bible and Science and Health, and she became the Church’s “Pastor Emeritus.” She edited her religious periodicals and kept abreast of the many press reports and lawsuits that continued to bedevil her. In 1906, the huge Extension to the Mother Church was dedicated with five separate services to accommodate the thirty thousand Christian Scientists who attended; it was for a time the tallest edifice in Boston, a few feet higher than the Bunker Hill Monument.

But for all the evidence of her worldly success, Eddy was never satisfied. Two years before her death, she moved to Chestnut Hill, a suburb of Boston, and founded The Christian Science Monitor, the daily newspaper that would eventually help to establish a measure of respectability for her sect. Her last years were a veritable whirlwind of orders, counter-orders, accusations, and recriminations; two days before her death, she dictated this statement to one of her household workers: “It took a combination of sinners that was fast to harm me.” She outlasted her old nemesis, Mark Twain, by seven months, dying on December 3, 1910.

Aside from the miscellaneous materials Eddy compiled herself (collected and published as “Prose Works”) the Christian Science Church has never published a complete collection of Eddy’s unpublished writings and public statements. Indeed, it has actively sought to suppress them. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Church, in notices published in the Christian Science Journal, urged loyal Christian Scientists to donate any letters in Eddy’s hand to the Church archives. It is not surprising that the Church has chosen to suppress these materials; those few that remain in collections outside of the Church’s control exhibit both Eddy’s tenuous grasp of English grammar and her volatile temperament.

On June 25, 1901, Communion Sunday, Eddy made her usual brief appearance on her balcony at Pleasant View for the followers who had traveled to Concord from all over the country to be in her presence. She did not welcome them or thank them for coming. She looked down on them as from a great height and spoke these words:

My dear Students: Guard your tongues. When you see sin in others, know that you have it in yourselves, and become repentant. If you think you are not mortal, you are mistaken. I find my students either in an apathy or a frenzy. I am astonished at your ignorance of the methods of animal magnetism. Your enemies are working incessantly while you are not working as you should. They do not knock, they come with a rush. They do not take me unawares. I know before they come. Would that my head were a fountain of waters, and my eyes rivers of tears that I might weep, because of the apathy of the students and the little that they have accomplished. You have never seen me in my real home, but you may sometime. Come with me into it.11

Every Christian Scientist has.

And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought.

And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking.

After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly. [Mark 8:23-24]

This Issue

July 11, 1996