Christian Science is a set of beliefs and practices belonging to the metaphysical family of new religious movements. It was developed in 19th-century New England by Mary Baker Eddy, who argued in her 1875 book Science and Health that sickness is an illusion that can be corrected by prayer alone. The book became Christian Science’s central text, along with the Bible, and by 2001 had sold over nine million copies.
Eddy and 26 followers were granted a charter in 1879 to found the Church of Christ, Scientist, and in 1894 the Mother Church, The First Church of Christ, Scientist, was built in Boston, Massachusetts. Christian Science became the fastest growing religion in the United States, with nearly 270,000 members there by 1936, a figure that had declined by 1990 to just over 100,000, and by 2009 reportedly to under 50,000. The church is known for its newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, which won seven Pulitzer Prizes between 1950 and 2002, and for its public Reading Rooms around the world.
Eddy described Christian Science as a return to “primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing”. There are key differences between Christian Science theology and that of traditional Christianity. In particular, adherents subscribe to a radical form of philosophical idealism, believing that reality is purely spiritual and the material world an illusion. This includes the view that disease is a mental error rather than physical disorder, and that the sick should be treated not by medicine but by a form of prayer that seeks to correct the beliefs responsible for the illusion of ill health.
The church does not require that Christian Scientists avoid all medical care—adherents use dentists, optometrists, obstetricians, physicians for broken bones, and vaccination when required by law—but maintains that Christian-Science prayer is most effective when not combined with medicine. Between the 1880s and 1990s, the avoidance of medical treatment led to the deaths of several adherents and their children. Parents and others were prosecuted for, and in a few cases convicted of, manslaughter or neglect.
See also: Protestantism,
The Great Awakening refers to a number of periods of religious revival in American Christian history. Historians and theologians identify three or four waves of increased religious enthusiasm occurring between the early 18th century and the late 20th century. Each of these “Great Awakenings” was characterized by widespread revivals led by evangelical Protestant ministers, a sharp increase of interest in religion, a profound sense of conviction and redemption on the part of those affected, an increase in evangelical church membership, and the formation of new religious movements and denominations.
Several periods of Protestant Christian revival nurtured a proliferation of new religious movements in the United States. In the latter half of the 19th century these included what came to be known as the metaphysical family: groups such as Christian Science, Divine Science, the Unity School of Christianity, and (later) the United Church of Religious Science. From the 1890s the liberal section of the movement became known as New Thought, in part to distinguish it from the more authoritarian Christian Science.
The term metaphysical referred to the movement’s philosophical idealism, a belief in the primacy of the mental world. Adherents believed that material phenomena were the result of mental states, a view expressed as “life is consciousness” and “God is mind.” The supreme cause was referred to as Divine Mind, Truth, God, Love, Life, Spirit, Principle or Father–Mother, reflecting elements of Plato, Hinduism, Berkeley, Hegel, Swedenborg, and transcendentalism.
The metaphysical groups became known as the mind-cure movement because of their strong focus on healing. Medical practice was in its infancy, and patients regularly fared better without it. This provided fertile soil for the mind-cure groups, who argued that sickness was an absence of “right thinking” or failure to connect to Divine Mind. The movement traced its roots in the United States to Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802–1866), a New England clockmaker turned mental healer, whose motto was “the truth is the cure.” Mary Baker Eddy had been a patient of his, leading to debate about how much of Christian Science was based on his ideas.
New Thought and Christian Science differed in that Eddy saw her views as a unique and final revelation. Eddy’s idea of malicious animal magnetism (that people can be harmed by the bad thoughts of others) marked another distinction, introducing an element of fear that was absent from the New Thought literature. Most significantly, she dismissed the material world as an illusion, rather than as merely subordinate to Mind, leading her to reject the use of medicine, or materia medica, and making Christian Science the most controversial of the metaphysical groups. Reality for Eddy was purely spiritual.
Christian Science theology
In October 1881 there was a revolt. Eight church members resigned, signing a document complaining of Eddy’s “frequent ebullitions of temper, love of money, and the appearance of hypocrisy.” Only a few students remained, including Calvin Frye, who became Eddy’s most loyal personal assistant. They appointed Eddy pastor of the church in November 1881, and drew up a resolution in February 1882 that she was “the chosen messenger of God to the nations.”
Despite the support, the resignations ended Eddy’s time in Lynn. The church was struggling and her reputation had been damaged by the disputes. By now 61 years old, she decided to move to Boston, and in early 1882 rented a house at 569 Columbus Avenue, a silver plaque announcing the arrival of the Massachusetts Metaphysical College. The college’s prospectus, published in 1884, offered three diplomas: Christian Scientist (C.S.) for Christian Scientists’ Association members; Christian Metaphysician (C.M.) for Eddy’s 12-lesson course and three years’ practice; and Doctor of Christian Science (D.C.S.) for C.M.s whose “life and character conform to Divine science.” Students could study metaphysics, science of the scriptures, mental healing and obstetrics, using two textbooks, Science and Health and the Bible. Between 1881 and October 1889, when Eddy closed the college, 4,000 students took the course at $300 per person or married couple, making her a rich woman. Mark Twain wrote that she had turned a sawdust mine (possibly Quimby’s) into a Klondike.
Death of Asa Gilbert Eddy
Eddy’s husband, Asa Gilbert Eddy, died of heart disease on June 4, 1882, shortly after the move to Boston. She invited the Boston Globe to her home on the day of his death to allege that he had been killed by malicious animal magnetism, courtesy of “certain parties here in Boston, who had sworn to injure them.” The Globe wrote:
She had formerly had the same symptoms of arsenical poison herself, and it was some time before she discovered it to be the mesmeric work of an enemy. Soon after her marriage her husband began to manifest the same symptoms and had since shown them from time to time; but was, with her help, always able to overcome them. A few weeks ago she observed that he did not look well, and when questioned he said that he was unable to get the idea of this arsenical poison out of his mind. He had been steadily growing worse ever since, but still had hoped to overcome the trouble until the last. After the death the body had turned black.
A doctor performed an autopsy and showed Eddy her husband’s diseased heart, but she responded by giving more interviews about mesmerism. Fraser wrote that the articles made Eddy a household name, a real-life version of the charismatic and beautiful Verena Tarrant in Henry James’s The Bostonians (1885–1886), with her interest in spiritualism, women’s rights and the mind cure. Shortly after the death, Eddy moved next door to 571 Columbus Avenue with several students. The following year, 1883, she founded the Journal of Christian Science (later called the Christian Science Journal), which spread news of her ideas across the United States.
Tremont Temple, first church building
In 1885 Eddy was accused of promoting Spiritualism and pantheism by the Reverend Adoniram J. Gordon, in a letter read out by Joseph Cook during one of his popular Monday lectures at Tremont Temple in Boston. She demanded a right of reply, and on March 16, 1885, she told the congregation that she was not a Spiritualist, and that she believed in God as the Supreme Being and in the atonement. She described Christian Science healing as “Christ come to destroy the power of the flesh.” Stephen Gottschalk wrote that the occasion marked the “emergence of Christian Science into American religious life.”
The first church building was erected in 1886 in Oconto, Wisconsin, by local women who believed Christian Science had helped them. For a down payment of $2,000 and a mortgage of $8,763, the church purchased land in Falmouth Street, Boston, for the erection of a building. Eddy asked Augusta Stetson, a prominent Scientist, to establish a church in New York. By the end of 1886 Christian Science teaching institutes had sprung up around the United States.
In December 1887 Eddy moved to a $40,000, 20-room house at 385 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston. She had been teaching four to six classes a year, and by 1889 had probably made at least $100,000 (equivalent to $2,846,000 in 2019). By 1890 the Church of Christ (Scientist) had 8,724 members in the United States, having started 11 years earlier with just 26.
Eddy’s debt to Quimby
Eddy’s debt to Phineas Parkhurst Quimby became the “single most controversial issue” of her life, according to Gillian Gill. Quimby was not the only source Eddy stood accused of having copied; Ernest Sutherland Bates and John V. Dittemore, Bryan Wilson, Charles S. Braden and Martin Gardner identified several texts she had used without attribution. For example, an open letter from Eddy to the church, dated September 1895 and published in Eddy’s Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896 (1897), is almost identical to Hugh Blair’s essay “The Man of Integrity,” published in Lindley Murray’s The English Reader (1799). Eddy acknowledged Quimby’s influence in her early years. When a prospective student asked in 1871 whether her methods had been used before, she replied:
Later she drew a distinction between their methods, arguing that Quimby’s involved one mind healing another, while hers depended on a connection with Divine Mind. In February 1883 Julius Dresser, a former patient of Quimby’s, accused Eddy in letters to the Boston Post of teaching Quimby’s work as her own. In response Eddy disparaged Quimby as a mesmerist and said she had experimented with mental healing in or around 1853, nine years before she met him. She wrote later: “We caught some of his thoughts, and he caught some of ours; and both of us were pleased to say this to each other.”
The issue went to court in September 1883, when Eddy complained that her student Edward Arens had copied parts of Science and Health in a pamphlet, and Arens counter-claimed that Eddy had copied it from Quimby in the first place. Quimby’s son was so unwilling to produce his father’s manuscripts that he sent them out of the country (perhaps fearing litigation with Eddy or that someone would tamper with them), and Eddy won the case. Things were stirred up further by Eddy’s pamphlet Historical Sketch of Metaphysical Healing (1885), in which she again called Quimby a mesmerist, and by the publication of Julius Dresser’s The True History of Mental Healing (1887).
The charge that Christian Science came from Quimby, not divine revelation, stemmed in part from Eddy’s use of Quimby’s manuscript (right) when teaching Sally Wentworth and others in 1868–1870. Eddy said she had helped to fix Quimby’s unpublished work, and now stood accused of having copied her own corrections. Against this, Lyman P. Powell, one of Eddy’s biographers, wrote in 1907 that Quimby’s son held an almost identical copy, in Quimby’s wife’s handwriting, of the Quimby manuscript that Eddy had used when teaching Sally Wentworth. It was dated February 1862, eight months before Eddy met Quimby.
In July 1904 th New York Times obtained a copy of the Quimby manuscript from Sally Wentworth’s son, and juxtaposed passages with Science and Health to highlight the similarities. It also published Eddy’s handwritten notes on Quimby’s manuscript to show what the newspaper alleged was the transition from his words to hers. Quimby’s manuscripts were published in 1921. Eddy’s biographers continued to disagree about his influence on Eddy. Bates and Dittemore, the latter a former director of the Christian Science church, argued in 1932 that “as far as the thought is concerned, Science and Health is practically all Quimby,” except for malicious animal mesmerism. Robert Peel, who also worked for the church, wrote in 1966 that Eddy may have influenced Quimby as much as he influenced her. Gardner argued in 1993 that Eddy had taken “huge chunks” from Quimby, and Gill in 1998 that there were only general similarities.
In 1887 Eddy started teaching a “metaphysical obstetrics” course, two one-week classes. She had started calling herself “Professor of Obstetrics” in 1882; McClure’s wrote: “Hundreds of Mrs. Eddy’s students were then practising who knew no more about obstetrics than the babes they helped into this world.” The first prosecutions took place that year, when practitioners were charged with practicing medicine without a licence. All were acquitted during the trial, or convictions were overturned on appeal.
The first manslaughter charge was in March 1888, when Abby H. Corner, a practitioner in Medford, Massachusetts, attended to her daughter during childbirth; the daughter bled to death and the baby did not survive. The defense argued that they might have died even with medical attention, and Corner was acquitted. To the dismay of the Christian Scientists’ Association (the secretary resigned), Eddy distanced herself from Corner, telling the Boston Globe that Corner had only attended the college for one term and had never entered the obstetrics class.
From then until the 1990s around 50 parents and practitioners were prosecuted, and often acquitted, after adults and children died without medical care; charges ranged from neglect to second-degree murder. The American Medical Association (AMA) declared war on Christian Scientists; in 1895 its journal called Christian Science and similar ideas “molochs to infants, and pestilential perils to communities in spreading contagious diseases.” Juries were nevertheless reluctant to convict when defendants believed they were helping the patient. There was also opposition to the AMA’s effort to strengthen medical licensing laws. Historian Shawn Peters writes that, in the courts and public debate, Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses linked their healing claims to early Christianity to gain support from other Christians.
Vaccination was another battleground. A Christian Scientist in Wisconsin won a case in 1897 that allowed his son to attend public school despite not being vaccinated against smallpox. Others were arrested in 1899 for avoiding vaccination during a smallpox epidemic in Georgia. In 1900 Eddy advised adherents to obey the law, “and then appeal to the gospel to save …[themselves] from any bad results.” In October 1902, after seven-year-old Esther Quimby, the daughter of Christian Scientists, died of diphtheria in White Plains, New York (she had received no medical care and had not been quarantined), the authorities pursued manslaughter charges. The controversy prompted Eddy to declare that “until public thought becomes better acquainted with Christian Science, the Christian Scientists shall decline to doctor infectious or contagious diseases”, and from that time the church required Christian Scientists to report contagious diseases to health boards.
Building the Mother Church
In 1888 Eddy became close to another of her students, Ebenezer Johnson Foster, a homeopath and graduate of the Hahnemann Medical College. He was 41 and she was 67, but apparently in need of affection and loyalty she adopted him legally in November that year, and he changed his name to Ebenezer Johnson Foster Eddy.
A year later, in October 1889, Eddy closed the Massachusetts Metaphysical College; according to Bates and Dittemore, the state attorney was investigating colleges that were fraudulently graduating medical students. She also foreclosed the mortgage on the land in Boston the church had purchased, then purchased it herself for $5,000 through a middle man, though it was worth considerably more. She told the church they could have the land for their building on condition they formally dissolve the church; this was apparently intended to quash internal rebellions that had been bothering her. The following year she dissolved the National Christian Science Association. Wilson writes that the dissolutions allowed her to create a central church controlled by a five-person board of directors that answered only to her, which gave the church a stability that helped it survive her death.
The cornerstone of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, containing the Bible, Eddy’s writings and a list of directors and financial contributors, was laid in May 1894 in the Back Bay area of Boston. Church members raised funds for the construction, and the building was finished in December 1894 at a cost of $250,000. It contained a “Mother’s Room” in the tower for Eddy’s personal use, furnished with rare books, silks, tapestries, rugs, a dressing gown and slippers, though she spent only one night there and it was later turned into a storage room. The archway into the room was made of Italian marble, and the word Mother was engraved on the floor.
Within two years the Boston membership had exceeded the original church’s capacity. By 1903 the block around the church had been purchased by Christian Scientists, and in 1906 the Mother Church Extension, accommodating 5,000 people, was completed at a cost of $2 million. This attracted the criticism that, whereas Christian Scientists spent money on a magnificent church, they maintained no hospitals, orphanages or missions in the slums.
Christian Science went on to become the fastest-growing American religion in the early 20th century. The federal religious census recorded 85,717 Christian Scientists in 1906; 30 years later it was 268,915. In 1890 there were seven Christian Science churches in the United States, a figure that had risen to 1,104 by 1910. Churches began to appear in other countries too: 58 in England, 38 in Canada and 28 elsewhere by 1910.
View of Mark Twain
Further information: Christian Science (book)
Mark Twain was a prominent contemporaneous critic of Eddy’s. His first article about Christian Science was published in Cosmopolitan in October 1899. Another three appeared in 1902–1903 in North American Review, then a book, Christian Science (1907). He also wrote “The Secret History of Eddypus, the World Empire” (1901–1902), in which Christian Science replaces Christianity and Eddy becomes the Pope.
Twain described Eddy as “[g]rasping, sordid, penurious, famishing for everything she sees—money, power, glory—vain, untruthful, jealous, despotic, arrogant, insolent, pitiless where thinkers and hypnotists are concerned, illiterate, shallow, incapable of reasoning outside of commercial lines, immeasurably selfish.”
Science and Health he called “strange and frantic and incomprehensible and uninterpretable,” and argued that Eddy had not written it herself. “There is nothing in Christian Science that is not explicable,” he wrote, “for God is one, Time is one, Individuality is one, and may be one of a series, one of many, as an individual man, individual horse; whereas God is one, not one of a series, but one alone and without an equal.” Eddy apart, Twain felt ambivalent toward mind-cure, arguing that “the thing back of it is wholly gracious and beautiful.” His daughter Clara Clemens became a Christian Scientist and wrote a book about it, Awake to a Perfect Day (1956).