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Mary Baker Eddy
Unschooled and uncompromising, she founded her own faith
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
Mrs. Eddy resented any competition. She wanted to have no successors, hoping to be immortal, or at least never forgotten. Moving gradually, so as not to attach any malicious animal magnetism toward herself, she persuaded the Church to excommunicate her rivals. In the last decade of her life, and as she approached her ninetieth year, she successfully destroyed everyone who she imagined could possibly capture leadership. Despite failing health, periods of great weakness and vacancy of mind, excruciating pain from kidney stones (requiring resort to morphine as the only palliative), she would pull herself together, time after time, to repel any challenge to her authority, availing herself of a queenly scorn and of that special quality of authority that we grant to imposingly self-assured monuments of great age.
Finally even she was not proof against the claims of the body; she died of pneumonia on December 3, 1910. There was no official precedent for death in Christian Science. A modest funeral was held. The directors of The Mother Church were asked why she had not demonstrated over death, as she had promised, and why she had not lived forever. It was because, they said, this is an imperfect world and the evil of material beliefs still stalks among us. That was what had caused her death, not aging or the natural course of life.
The Christian Science Monitor , which she had founded just two years earlier, published in full her important last will and testament. Mrs. Eddy had owned the church, both materially and in spirit, and it was of the most material and spiritual importance to know who would inherit it.
In an unanticipated complication, two groups of ambitious men, the Trustees of the Christian Science Publishing Society and the Board of Directors of The Mother Church, disputed the source of real power and authority, and a struggle began that was to occupy many years and pursue its slow course through the courts. Once it was finally established that the Board of Directors of The Mother Church was in ultimate control, the Church crystallized into the form that Mrs. Eddy intended it to take, and that has characterized it up to the present day. If recent years have brought defections and the lapse away from faith of many of its members—the Church’s membership figures have never been made public as Mrs. Eddy was opposed to “numbering”—then the same can be said of most other organized religions today, and credit should be given for Christian Science’s stable existence for more than a century.
Mrs. Eddy sought to answer the question How can it be, if God is Good, that illness and evil prosper in an uncertain world? Her answer was that they don’t, that illness and evil are illusions, brought about by mankind’s false beliefs. If men and women would turn to God, she said, and would put themselves into the proper relationship with the forces of God’s healing, as revealed in her book, then error and illness and evil and death would dissipate like the morning mist.
Many religious sects have been founded by troubled visionaries who had a powerful inspiration but left to others the task of organizing, writing the books, establishing the ceremonies and rules for membership, struggling with the rebels, and preserving the memory of the founder. Mary Baker Eddy did all of it by herself, working purposefully into her eighty-ninth year, and did it at a time when a woman was supposed to be decorative, domestic, and dependent. She believed in her science of health and conveyed her certainty to others. Her followers were convinced that in discovering the cure for her own illnesses, she had given them hope for a better life for themselves, one in which right belief would bring freedom from all things they feared about this imperfect world.
Whatever Mary Baker Patterson had adapted from other healers, Mary Baker Eddy was truly the discoverer and founder of Christian Science. Her example tells us a great deal about our own history as a nation and perhaps even more about the capacity of individual human beings to transform the circumstances of their adversity into the foundations of their triumph.