Mary Baker Eddy
Unschooled and uncompromising, she founded her own faith
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
Symptoms of illness were particularly acceptable to her family. They emphasized helplessness, a suitable state for a youngest child, and prolonged the years of her mother’s tender care. Her illnesses offered an excuse for whatever she wished to avoid, especially in the way of achievement or of competition with her slightly older sisters. They kept her at home, out of school, much of the time and served as a convenient explanation for her failure to master the rudiments of a formal education. She never really assimilated spelling or punctuation and had only impressionistic acquaintance with syntax. In style, her writing was much like her mother’s and probably learned from her. She was heedless of detail, relying on a kind of intuitive approximation, but she was able to communicate a sharp sense of what she felt.
If her more chronic kinds of indisposition served to keep her from the demands of formal education, her paroxysmal attacks, which resembled, variously, convulsions, cataleptic trance states, fits of writhing and screaming, or periods of great physical pain, may have arisen as an expression of conflicts about closeness and disagreement with her father. Mark Baker and his daughter had long stubborn arguments, frequently about religion, particularly about the tenet of predestination, and these difficult, involved, intimate, intense discussions seemed often to be brought to an end only when Mary went into one of her extravagant seizures or trance states, as though they permitted re-establishment of a comfortable distance between father and daughter. Then she would become, for long periods of time, the center of her family’s whole anxious attention. At the same time she was learning how to captivate the interest of the people she valued, her parents, the local doctor, the minister, one or another young man.
She had already determined to become an “authoress” but her ambition was not married to drive or to force of character. The expectation was that she would marry. What else was there for her to do? And so, in 1842, she engaged in a brief, attempt at conventional marriage, to George Glover, a friend of one of her brothers.
Only six months later, Glover died, probably of yellow fever. Mary, pregnant and floridly incapacitated, was conducted back to her family home to be comforted by her father, who rocked her in his arms and spread straw on the road outside so that the traffic would not disturb her rest. She was never able to care for the son to whom she eventually gave birth; whatever he got in his childhood came from the hired woman, who cared for him as a baby and took him with her when she married, with his mother’s whole acquiescence.
The young widow settled in for a life of genteel dependency. She attempted—with little success—to get her poetical and literary efforts published in local newspapers and magazines, organs of the stature of the Odd Fellows Journal .
Mary Glover saw herself in these years as a helpless and dependent invalid, putting more attention into the search for strong arms than into the pursuit of her ambition. She entertained a series of suitors and ended by selecting a manly but unstable itinerant dentist, Daniel Patterson, whom she married in 1853. The marriage brought neither happiness nor success. She became increasingly confined to her couch, occupied by her spells, her symptoms, and her aggrievements, while Patterson practiced in progressively poorer neighborhoods, bringing what relief he could to the local farmers and especially, it was said, to their wives. His own wife was left alone for days at a time, a lonely victim of her ailments and frustrations.
At last, in an attempt to pump some life into his almost defunct career, Patterson went off to Washington hoping to become a military surgeon in the Civil War. But he strayed by mischance into the line of battle at Bull Run, having gone to the scene as a tourist. He was captured by the Confederates and cast into prison. His wife, left to the managerial mercies of her sister Abigail, went from one cure establishment to another, coming at last into the hands of a new healer, Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, of Portland, Maine.
Quimby deserves serious attention in his own right. A Yankee tinkerer by temperament, he started out as a maker of wooden clocks, invented a band saw, picked up and practiced for a while the new technique of making daguerreotype portraits, and chanced, finally, in 1838, to hear a lecture by a French mesmerist, Charles Poyen. Eager to try anything, Quimby started experimenting with mesmeric trances. Soon he found a very suggestible young man, Lucius Burkmar, who, when mesmerized, showed great facility in suggesting cures for sick people.
The explanation for mesmeric healing which was current at the time was that Burkmar’s capacity to heal resided in some innate talent for clairvoyance. In a trance, it was thought, Burkmar could, unlike an ordinary doctor, see into the patient’s body, divining what was amiss, and prescribe accurately. Burkmar was supposed to enter into his trance by a process of electrical physiology, of which Quimby, as mesmerist, had the technical mastery.