“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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.