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Mary Baker Eddy
Unschooled and uncompromising, she founded her own faith
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
Mary Baker Eddy was, against all odds, one of the most influential women of her age. Born into unpromising circumstances, she never mastered the limited education that was available to her. She lacked literary talent and any real vocation for family life. She struggled against a social order and a century which permitted women only the narrowest range of life choices. And yet, having decided at an early age that she would become a successful author, rich and respected, she succeeded even though her first real chance did not come until she was forty-five. Then she seized upon the little pebble of opportunity that life dropped in her path, developed it with single-minded insistence, and made the best possible use of its every aspect. She succeeded not only in becoming rich and respected for what she had written, but she became as well the founder, architect, and builder of a burgeoning church and the discoverer of an enormously successful way of integrating mental healing with religion.
Biographies of Mrs. Eddy have tended to fall into one of two groups: those which purport to tell the “real truth,” exposing the middle-class mythologizing with which Mrs. Eddy tried to justify her own life and to legitimatize Christian Science, and those “lives” written by Mrs. Eddy’s disciples and apologists, some more sophisticated than others, but all permeated by a defensive need to ignore or to explain away those eccentric and unusual details of her life and personality and behavior that, suitably elaborated, gave such comfort to her enemies.
What is most often ignored is that Christian Science was a most remarkable event in American social history and that Mary Baker Eddy, its discoverer and founder, was a most remarkable, talented, and individualistic woman. Her ingenuity and strength, her peculiarities, the very weaknesses that can be documented so easily, all were intertwined parts of a whole woman. In building her church she managed to use her own contradictions—which exemplified the contradictions of her times.
She was born Mary Morse Baker on July 16,1821, the youngest of six children. Her modest New Hampshire farm family shared with its neighbors traditions and values that went back to the days of the Indian Wars and the Revolution, particularly the conservative religion and the conservative politics native to the area.
Her parents were of strikingly divergent temperaments. Her father, Mark Baker, the youngest of thirteen children and his mother’s favorite, was an intelligent, capable, ambitious, and self-important man, with a range of expectations that contrasted with his ordinary beginnings, but he was also generally perceived to be rigid, narrow, harsh, and litigious. Her mother, Abigail Ambrose Baker, was described as a placid, accepting person, acquiescent to her husband’s tempers, who exhibited only the tender emotions. She devoted herself to her children and tended to be preoccupied with matters of illness. She was full of concern for others and absorbed in thoughts of what she might do for them. And she expressed in her letters to her children a tendency to idolize them while deprecating herself.
This contrast in the temperaments of Mark and Abigail Baker seems to have put pressure on their children to parcel out their feelings and attitudes in similar extreme ways. The children all apparently suffered from the need either to pattern themselves on one parent and repudiate the other or to live out their lives with the disparate elements of both parents warring within.
Mary, as the youngest, was spoiled, petted, and much valued. True to form, her mother idolized her daughter even before her birth, telling a neighbor, it was said, that she had the conviction that her still unborn child was “holy and consecrated and set apart for wonderful achievements. ” Mary was permitted and even encouraged to develop qualities of willfulness, imaginativeness, and seductiveness. She believed that she had the right to have her own way, that others would take care of her, and that she was beautiful, talented, and free from the need to struggle. On the other hand, she learned very quickly never to express direct anger and seemed unable to be consistently forceful and productive. That some such latent urges were present and struggling for expression can be surmised from the startling physical symptoms that appeared early in childhood and remained with her until her last days, pursuing their own changing but ever-colorful course, year by year. These symptoms were of two main forms, abiding illnesses and paroxysmal attacks. She was thought to be of delicate constitution. It is not clear how much of this invalidism grew out of organic illness—the infectious diseases of childhood, for example—and how much expressed a very early tendency to lean heavily on languishing as a form of self-expression.