“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.”
It was this treatment that cured Mary Patterson. Half-carried up the stairs to his office, Mary improved almost immediately; within a week, she wrote, she was able to climb the 182 stairs to the dome of Portland’s City Hall. In November, a month after putting herself in Quimby’s hands, she wrote to the Portland Evening Courier of her deliverance:
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. This truth which he opposes to the error of giving intelligence to matter…, if received understandingly, changes the currents of the system to their normal action; and the mechanism of the body goes on undisturbed. That this is a science capable of demonstration becomes clear to the minds of those patients who reason upon the process of their cure.
Her letters to the Courier demonstrate, in their enthusiasm and their diction, which is very different from that of her earlier writings, that Eddy’s later teachings were undoubtedly influenced by Quimby. Like Quimby’s theories, Christian Science would be “a science capable of demonstration”; it would teach “truth” as opposed to “the error of giving intelligence to matter”; Scientists would be urged to “reason upon the process of their cure.” Although she later dismissed Quimby as a practitioner of mesmerism, defined as evil in Christian Science theology, these letters contain the origin of Eddy’s central concepts.
After leaving Quimby’s side, Mary experienced frequent relapses and engaged in extended correspondence with him, beseeching him to think of her and provide mental treatment in absentia. She was devastated when Quimby died, on January 16, 1866. Indeed within days of Quimby’s death she published in the Lynn Reporter a poem entitled “Lines on the Death of Dr. P.P. Quimby, who healed with the truth that Christ taught, in contradistinction to all isms.”
Two weeks later, on February 1, 1866, Mary Patterson was walking to a temperance meeting in Lynn when she fell on an icy street. Said to be gravely injured, she was given morphine by a homeopathic physician and recovered within a few days. Later, in her autobiography, she presented her recovery as “The Great Discovery,” the first Christian Science “healing,” and the moment of her discovery of the principles of Christian Science:
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…. The divine Spirit had wrought the miracle—a miracle which later I found to be in perfect scientific accord with divine law.
She claimed to have been healed while reading one of the healings of Jesus in the New Testament, rising then from her bed and surprising her friends. But at the time of her accident she seemed far less certain of recovery, writing on February 14 to another former patient of Quimby’s:
Two weeks ago I fell on the sidewalk and struck my back on the ice and was taken up for dead, came to consciousness amid a storm of vapors from cologne, chloroform, ether, camphor, etc., but to find myself the helpless cripple I was before I saw Dr. Quimby…. I confess I am frightened…. Now can’t you help me.
Her request denied, Mary would eventually find it necessary to replace Dr. Quimby herself.
The next several years were particularly difficult. Abandoned by her family and husband, she took to wandering from boarding house to boarding house in the towns around Boston. At the mercy of landlords, she offered in lieu of payment her healing services, initially claiming to teach Quimby’s theories which, over the course of some years, she gradually made her own, eventually abandoning Quimby’s laying-on of hands and magnetized water. She gathered about her several devoted followers who, in 1875, helped publish and promote her manuscript, Science and Health, which would become the seminal text of the religion and which contained the essential elements that would eventually make Christian Science the fastest-growing and most prosperous new sect of the coming century.
Elaborating on the concepts she had learned from Quimby, Mary Glover (as she then called herself) posited a view of man and God in Science and Health that was virtually Gnostic in its mystical rejection of the material world. Since God created man in his image and likeness, she argued, man must be perfect; matter is but a dream, a false belief. Death and disease are likewise unreal: “Man is not dead when the body mortal is admitted lifeless; the Life of man was never in the body, and to admit this, is the first step towards immortality.” Mary dismissed both the entire physical world and individual personalities:
Mortal man is the same after as before the change called death; his body is the same belief of man, the same supposed personal sense, Substance in matter, and Life in the body, as before death; and so long as this error remains, mind being the same, the body remains mortal. We are never Spirit until we are God; there are no individual “spirits.” …We become Spirit only as we reach being in God.
The only true reality is to be found in a dizzying array of abstract synonyms for God: Life, Truth, Love, Spirit, Substance, Soul, Intelligence, Principle. Her readers were advised that they could learn to heal themselves and others through an understanding of the spiritual laws which derived from her interpretations of the healings of Jesus, who “taught Truth, and demonstrated it.” His “scientific understanding of being gave him control over matter,” she wrote, “enabling him to heal the sick and cast out the opposite belief that makes matter, or the body, the master of man.” She urged the same understanding on her followers.
Once these spiritual laws were adequately understood, physical disease or inharmonious conditions of any kind (unhappiness, poverty, pain) would disappear; eventually, she implied, the entire material dream would pass away, leaving man in some kind of ethereal realm with God, although she gave no details about this transformation. There were also allusions to the enemies of Christian Science, the evil mesmerists and layers-on-of-hands who were working against enlightenment. Although she did not name him, one of these dreaded fellows was a former student and healing partner, Richard Kennedy, whose popularity as a healer had briefly surpassed her own.
In any event, Mary’s teachings were so vague and unformed at this stage, so awkwardly and confusingly expressed, that few readers seem to have actually read the first edition, much less been persuaded by it.3 Nevertheless the public was intrigued by the astonishing dramas she enacted with her followers. She accused her critics and former friends of plagiarism and practicing mesmerism against her. Carrying on her debates and attacks on disgruntled former students in the local papers, Mary Glover became a notorious figure in Lynn during the 1870s.
In 1877, four years after her divorce from Patterson, she married Asa Gilbert Eddy, a Singer Sewing Machine salesman who had been converted to her cause and became the first Scientist to hang out a shingle as a Christian Science “practitioner,” or professional healer. In 1878, during what became known as the “Salem Witchcraft Trial,” a member of Eddy’s circle, at her urging, accused Daniel Spofford, a former student and suitor of Eddy’s who had been cast out of the movement, of various infractions, such as practicing mesmerism and causing “great suffering of body, severe spinal pains and neuralgia, and temporary suspension of the mind.” That same year, Gilbert Eddy and another Eddy loyalist were arrested in Boston on charges of attempting to murder the troublesome Spofford. Although the charges were eventually dropped, the incident was the subject of speculation in the press, and it brought the Scientists enormous publicity. A year later, Mrs. Eddy founded, with a couple of dozen members, what would come to be known as the Church of Christ, Scientist.
The much-revised third edition of Science and Health was published in 1881; it was the first to sell out. That same year, Eddy established the Massachusetts Metaphysical College, where students could learn how to heal from the charismatic teacher herself. One student described the experience: “She seemed to have obliterated everything I had deemed substantial and actual. The word ‘God’—’God’—’God’ was repeated over and over in my consciousness to the exclusion of all else.” Her two-week course initially cost three hundred dollars, a hundred dollars more than a year’s tuition at Harvard’s Medical College. Between 1883 and 1887, Eddy earned over $100,000 from her teaching.
In 1882, Gilbert Eddy died of heart disease after an illness of several weeks. His widow reacted to the sad event with great bitterness. She held a press conference to disseminate her charges against the unnamed murderer who had invisibly but insidiously administered to the unfortunate man “a certain amount of the mesmeric poison.” “I know it was poison that killed him,” she insisted, although an autopsy had been performed and her husband’s diseased organ shown to her. The charge only increased her notoriety.
Although she had been deeply dependent on Gilbert Eddy, his death did not slow her down. In 1883, she founded the Christian Science Journal, a monthly periodical that advised Scientists on the theology and practices of their growing movement and printed testimonials of healing. Her movement in Boston grew, its members largely drawn by the promise of healing. In 1889, declaring herself “tired, tired, of teaching and being the slave of so many minds,” Eddy closed her college; several years later, in 1892, she withdrew from the contentious affairs of the young Church to Pleasant View, her estate near Concord, New Hampshire. At Pleasant View Mrs. Eddy enacted various household dramas with her hand-picked coterie of students, who needed frequent correction as they attempted to fight off the Christian Science archenemy, mesmerism, also known as Malicious Animal Magnetism, or MAM. Her first important encounter with the concept was with Quimby’s benign version of mind reading, but mesmerism took a darker turn for her as she struggled to counter attacks by other former students and friends of her mentor, eventually metamorphosing into an entirely malicious, if invisible, force proceeding from the minds of all her enemies.
As Harold Bloom has written, “there was for her a peculiarly sexual menace in Malicious Animal Magnetism”; indeed, her most florid obsession with it seemed to follow the souring of her relationships with Kennedy and Spofford, the two early acolytes whose attraction to her may well have been partly erotic. She singled out Calvin Frye, her loyal secretary, as being especially susceptible. Frye, who was so devoted to Eddy that he never left her service for so much as a day during his twenty-eight years with her, wrote in his diary in 1895: “Mrs. E. was disturbed with my driving yesterday called me an idiot insane &c Last eve she asked me if I knew I was insane. She says WATCH….” It was a cruel taunt: Frye’s mother had been institutionalized for insanity.
At Pleasant View, Eddy’s workers kept round-the-clock “watches,” during which they prayed to protect the household from the manifestations of MAM: illness of any kind, snowstorms or other bad weather, printers’ errors in the typesetting of the many revised editions of Science and Health, dressmakers’ mistakes in the fitting of Eddy’s clothes. Eddy’s cook often prepared two separate suppers—the stand-by was referred to as the “in-case” meal—lest one was tainted by MAM.
In 1895, the original Mother Church was completed in Boston; in 1906, the enormous “Extension” was added, making it the largest church in that city. (It still is.) Fifty thousand people attended its dedication. Eddy, who was ill that day, was not one of them; indeed, she never set foot in the vast edifice. Her apologists attribute this to what they see as her tendency to downplay her personality. In fact, since 1903, Eddy had been suffering intermittent bouts of severe pain brought on by kidney stones. Forced to resort to morphine to control the pain, Eddy included several qualifying statements in subsequent editions of Science and Health and her Church Manual allowing for exceptions to the rule of “radical reliance” on Christian Science for healing, including this:
If from an injury or from any cause, a Christian Scientist were seized with pain so violent that he could not treat himself mentally… the sufferer could call a surgeon, who would give him a hypodermic injection, then, when the belief of pain was lulled, he could handle his own case mentally.
By 1906, there were 635 Christian Science branch churches in the United States. Science and Health had sold 418,000 copies. Eddy’s other periodicals and writings (including the Manual of the Mother Church, a rule book for church members; a collection entitled Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896, published in 1897; and a large number of pamphlets) were selling briskly, along with a number of other items: photographs of Mrs. Eddy, jewelry inspired by the Christian Science trademark—the Cross and the Crown—and the Mary Baker Eddy Souvenir Spoon, which featured her likeness, signature, and a motto, “Not Matter but Mind Satisfieth.”
In 1907, Eddy fought off a lawsuit engineered by Joseph Pulitzer that would have found her incompetent to handle her affairs, known forever after to Scientists as the “Next Friends” suit, as it was filed by Eddy’s son and other family members purportedly on her behalf. Outraged by the incessant press attention that accompanied the suit (which was exactly Pulitzer’s intention), Eddy repaired to Chestnut Hill near Boston the following year, where she founded the Christian Science Monitor. The Monitor’s object, she wrote in its inaugural issue, was “to injure no man, but to bless all mankind,” and “to spread undivided the Science that operates unspent.” Dedicated to opposing the yellow journalism that had so bedeviled her, the Monitor became a respected international newspaper, and would succeed in legitimizing Christian Science in the eyes of a skeptical world.
Her followers fully expected their Leader to demonstrate her teachings by defeating death, but Mary Baker Eddy contracted pneumonia and died on December 3, 1910, in her ninetieth year. The woman who was once an itinerant, forced to pay her boarding house bills with healing proverbs, left an estate valued at over $2 million.
In relating these events, Gill adopts a somewhat defensive tone, arguing with Eddy’s critics and deriding unfriendly testimony. She is good at investigating the motivations of Joseph Pulitzer and the others behind the “Next Friends” suit. But her book is punctuated throughout with tendentious arguments introduced by such phrases as “I think,” “I suspect,” and “in my opinion.” She argues, for example, that reports of Eddy’s early spells of hysteria, originally described in the first of a long series of critical articles on Eddy published in 1907 and 1908 in McClure’s Magazine (largely ghostwritten by Willa Cather while she was serving as an editor there but attributed to Georgine Milmine, who provided the magazine with the material), were trumped up by disgruntled former acquaintances.
Gill is certainly correct in noting that there is little unbiased evidence supporting McClure’s descriptions of the most colorful of Mary’s fits, which suggested that she was prone to convulsions, catatonia, and violent outbursts. But she also denies Peel’s findings that Mary did have “acute ‘spells’…in the later years of her girlhood,” because she is reluctant to accept Peel’s main source, an interview conducted many years after the fact with the son of a witness who had remembered being sent as a boy to fetch the doctor when the Baker family feared Mary was dying. To raise questions about such a source is reasonable, although Gill accepts similarly removed sources in Eddy’s defense. Yet while she insists that Mary Baker never experienced “dramatic hysteric crises” as a child, she acknowledges “a small but trustworthy body of evidence on patterns of behavior, such as frothing at the mouth and lengthy periods of unconsciousness,” during Mary’s troubled second marriage.
Gill’s denial of Eddy’s childhood hysteria probably derives from her feeling that Eddy has been slighted because she was a woman. Yet although she was despised as a female upstart by outraged male clergy, her gender was not the chief issue. Shot at the hands of an angry mob in 1844, Joseph Smith aroused far more hostility than Eddy ever did by his radical teachings, as well as his astonishing success at recruiting followers. So, too, it was Eddy’s rejection of some elements of Christian doctrine and of medicine itself, as well as the suddenness of her success, that engendered fear and contempt. She particularly incited the rage of Catholics and Christian fundamentalists because of her reinterpretation of the concept of atonement, a concept dependent on the Christian belief that Jesus suffered and died on the cross, only to be resurrected. Eddy decided that, since death does not exist, Jesus had never truly died, and that atonement (or “at-one-ment,” as she put it) could be achieved only through the beliefs and practices of Christian Science.
Eddy’s gender may have rankled Twain and other critics, but she was chiefly notorious for her extremism: her wild claims that her third husband was slain by “malicious mesmerism”; that she had raised Calvin Frye from the dead; that she herself—should she die—would undoubtedly have been “mentally murdered,” a claim she instructed one of her most trusted students to disseminate. Her extremism—which is her true legacy to her movement—blended into her theology: her demand that her followers practice “radical reliance” on Christian Science to the exclusion of all else. “Only through radical reliance on Truth can scientific healing power be realized,” she wrote, tying the physical healing she promised to an absolute, unadulterated commitment to “Truth.” She went much farther than virtually any other Christian leader in expecting her students not simply to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ but to duplicate his miraculous healings; Christian Scientists take literally the words from the Gospel that are emblazoned in the Church’s trademark—“the Cross and the Crown”—which is embossed on the cover of every copy of Science and Health: “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”
Although Eddy made liberal exceptions for herself from this strict rule of “radical reliance,” she never clarified her position on it, and her Church has rigidly enforced it, dropping practitioners who have accepted medical care, urging branch churches to ask all prospective members if they rely on medicine or drugs (and not admitting them to membership if they do), and requiring branch church members to relinquish their positions within a church if they are found to partake of “materia medica.” The Church has recently begun waffling (possibly in response to litigation), allowing that “the blessing of Christian Science healing need not be administered by policy.” Nonetheless, its stern tactics have resulted in the one widely known characteristic of Christian Scientists: their refusal to go to doctors or accept medical aid. They have also resulted in the suffering and abbreviated lives of Christian Scientists as well as the medical neglect of their children.
Of this legacy, Gillian Gill writes:
…The Christian Scientists I have met in the course of my research seem to have their children given routine injections, follow careful and sensible preventative health-care strategies, take their children to traditional doctors in critical situations, and resort only in extreme emergencies to surgical procedures and medications such as painkillers and antibiotics. This seems to me a stoic but not unenlightened policy which many traditional physicians would endorse.
In fact, the Church that Mary Baker Eddy founded and that Christian Scientists obey and support through their donations has vigorously fought against medical intervention, even winning, in the 1960s, unprecedented Medicare coverage for their religious services as offered in Christian Science nursing homes. In 1974, it lobbied the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to revise the Code of Federal Regulations so that states could not receive federal funding for any child protection programs unless they enacted religious exemption statutes that protected parents from being considered negligent if they withheld medical treatment from a child while “legitimately practicing …religious beliefs.” Within a decade, all states had enacted such exemptions, some of them specifically referring to Christian Scientists or using, in their statutes, the exact language supplied by the Christian Science Church, thereby violating the spirit of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. The federal revision was removed in 1983, but the Church has ferociously defended the statutes on the state level and only three states have removed all religious exemptions in cases of child abuse and neglect. Nonetheless, the deaths of a number of Christian Science children have led to well-publicized prosecutions of their parents over the past several decades. Far from being endorsed by “many traditional physicians,” the religious exemption laws engineered by Eddy’s Church were condemned in 1988 by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Gill’s Mary Baker Eddy is published as part of the Radcliffe Biography Series, which includes volumes by such writers as Robert Coles and Sissela Bok on the lives of Edith Wharton, Dorothy Day, Simone Weil, and Marie Curie, among others. In an opening note, Linda S. Wilson, former president of Radcliffe College, writes of the series, “The biographies of these women teach us not only about their lives and their worlds, but about ours as well. When women strive to forge their identities, as they do at many points throughout the lifespan, it is crucial to have models to look toward. These women provide such models.”4
The notion that women need to resurrect heroines from the past in order to massage their sense of self-worth is simplistic, especially when applied to a figure as complex and profoundly ambiguous as Mary Baker Eddy. Gill is right to see Eddy as one of the most powerful and important female figures of the nineteenth century and of American religious life, but her suggestion that Eddy offers women “new ways to strive and achieve” is a dubious one. The Mother Church was so pleased by it, however, that it is now offering Gill’s book for sale in its reading rooms, along with other admiring and hagiographical works on Eddy’s life.
It is impossible to know how many Christian Scientists are left in the world today (Eddy forbade “numbering the people”), but there are, according to some estimates, fewer than 100,000. The religion, whose followers are overwhelmingly female, has seen its ranks of practitioners, also largely female (and listed in the Church periodicals), dwindle sharply in recent decades. In the heyday of Christian Science, during the 1930s and 1940s, there were over 11,000 in the US alone. Now there are fewer than 2,000 worldwide, and Christian Science has one of the lowest retention rates of any denomination in America. According to recent studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Christian Scientists may also have a shorter life span. Those who have chosen to emulate Eddy have been only too willing to forsake what she termed “this so-called life” and make the journey with her “from sense to Soul.”
April 27, 2000
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.” ↩
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. ↩
The Science and Health that the Church sells today—and claims is a best seller—is the product of many revisions by its author (as well as an editor she hired) over nearly thirty-five years and through 432 editions. ↩
Radcliffe College is not the only institution to promote Eddy as a role model. In 1992, the Women’s National Book Association listed Science and Health as one of seventy-five books by women “whose words have changed the world,” apparently not considering the question of whether it had changed the world for the better. In 1995, Eddy was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. ↩