Mad Genius

Caroline Fraser is an ex-Christian Scientist, as am I, so herewith some notes on her brilliant book, a critical history that not only casts a clear, merciless light on the cloud-cuckoo-land of Christian Science, but also certifies her freedom—and mine. She explains at the outset:

I have been a Christian Scientist. I have believed its teachings, prayed its prayers, read its textbook [Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures], honored its beloved Founder and Leader, sung its hymns, and tried to follow its way. I failed—or, rather, Christian Science failed me. I no longer believe in Christian Science. I do, however, believe that it is a profoundly complex experience to be or to have been a Scientist, an experience worth understanding in its own right.

The beloved Founder and Leader of Christian Science was born Mary Morse Baker on July 16, 1821, in Bow, New Hampshire, the sixth child of a bullying Congregationalist farmer. She was sickly from the start and suffered from a parade of seemingly psychosomatic ills that included, Fraser tells us, “spinal irritation, neuralgia, dyspepsia, stomach cankers, and ulcers.” In his book The American Religion, Harold Bloom, who likes to give off sparks, describes Mary Baker as “an extraordinary wreck, a monumental hysteric of classical dimensions, indeed a kind of anthology of nineteenth-century nervous ailments.” Her two early marriages—the first, in 1843, to George Glover, who died a year later, possibly of yellow fever, and the second, in 1853, to Daniel Patterson, who eventually deserted her—were of little help. Neither was her third and last marriage to Asa Gilbert Eddy, who died of heart failure in 1882, five years after he and Eddy were married. It was brought on, she believed, not by a faulty heart but by “malicious animal magnetism,” or MAM, her coverall term for anyone or anything bent on harming her.

In 1862 Eddy wrote Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, a New England hypnotist, self-made therapist, and hands-on healer, and asked him for help with her aching back: “I can sit up but a few minutes at a time. Do you think I can reach you without sinking from the effects of the journey?” But she made it up the stairs to his office in Portland, Maine, and in a week said that she was completely healed. The Christian Science Church, long by nature defensive and nonyielding, has never admitted that Quimby was more than marginally important to Mary Baker Eddy. But, as Fraser shows, Eddy appeared to absorb the rudiments of what would become Christian Science from the intuitive, uneducated Quimby, even to the term “Christian Science,” which he had used in an unpublished article.

Quimby, perhaps fortunately for Eddy, died in 1866, and just nine years later she published the first edition of Science and Health, surely one of the strangest and most unreadable books ever assembled. Perhaps conscious that there was something unruly about Eddy’s prose, her followers were to put the book through no fewer than 432 clarifying editions,…

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