December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
Unschooled and uncompromising, she founded her own faith
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.
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.
Quimby was not, at first, particularly interested in mesmeric healing, and allowed Burkmar to be borrowed for a time by a minister, John Bovee Dods, who had an enthusiasm for electricity as the life principle. When Burkmar returned to Quimby after his season with Dods, he was an enthusiastic healer, full of the minister’s Latinate prescriptions, which he himself could not decipher any more than Quimby could, and which were too expensive for many of his patients.
Quimby observed that if he suggested a simpler, less expensive remedy to Burkmar, which Burkmar would then prescribe, the patients seemed to do just as well. Quimby began to doubt the conventional explanations of animal magnetism and of mesmeric healing. He conducted his own experiments and satisfied himself that the phenomenon of mesmerism had nothing to do with electricity or magnetism, and that the successful healing that Burkmar performed while in the trance state was based not on clairvoyant diagnosis and prescription but almost solely on the wish of the patient to believe in the special powers of the healer. Quimby concluded, then, that since illness itself was curable by belief, it must be based on belief, and that people ought to be able to get better if only they could be convinced not to be ill. He established a healing practice which was at least as successful as that of the usual orthodox physician, not so surprising perhaps at a time when a doctor was most likely to help his patient by practicing restraint and honoring the maxim primum non nocere , that the first principle is not to cause harm.
When Mrs. Patterson came, almost moribund, into Quimby’s hands, she experienced a dramatic cure. Within days she was writing letters in extravagant praise of Quimby to the local newspapers. These brief excerpts give some idea of her style and enthusiasm:
”… Three weeks since, and I quitted my sick room en route for Portland. The belief in my recovery had died out of the hearts of those who were most anxious for it. With this mental and physical depression I first visited P. P. Quimby, and in less than one week from that time I ascended by a stairway of one hundred and eighty-two steps to the dome of the City Hall, and am improving ad infinitum. To the most subtle reasoning, such a proof, coupled too as it is with numberless similar ones, demonstrate his power to heal. …
”… P. P. Quimby stands upon the plane of wisdom with his truth. Christ healed the sick, but not by jugglery or with drugs; as the former speaks as never man before spake, and heals as never man healed since Christ, is he not identified with truth, and is not this the Christ which is in him? We know that in wisdom is life, ‘and the life was the light of man.’ P. P. Quimby rolls away the stone from the Sepulchre of error and health is the resurrection. …”
Quimby had delivered her from her couch, and she seized upon his method of healing, hoping to bring herself closer to him, to become his disciple and publicist, volunteering on her own initiative to visit others of his patients when they had to leave Portland and return to their own homes. She would accompany them and attempt to heal them herself. She was soon writing Quimby, telling him of her difficulties and beseeching him to come in spirit to cure her . In effect, she was so suggestible and so susceptible to her own dynamic range of symptoms that more often than not, if she succeeded in freeing someone else of an illness, she would find the same symptoms taking lodgment in her own body. For this reason, throughout the rest of her long life, she was always reluctant to perform healing herself, oreferrine to be the theoretician and delegating the practice to others.
At about this time, Patterson escaped from prison, and husband and wife set up residence in Lynn, Massachusetts, but Mrs. Patterson was almost wholly occupied by Quimby’s doings. And then in the summer of 1865 Quimby became ill himself. In January, 1866, he died. Mrs. Patterson’s father had died just three months earlier, and she was doubly bereft. On February 1,1866, she fell upon the ice, her response to these losses, and this turned out to be the founding moment of Christian Science.
There are extant at least three versions of this event. In the first, that supplied by the local doctor, it was a modest accident with hysterical overtones. He observed that injection of the tiniest amount of morphine brought dramatic relief. The second version was contained in a letter Mrs. Patterson wrote two weeks later to another disciple of Quimby, Julius Dresser, written when, according to the doctor’s records, she was already better. She dramatizes the continuing severity of her illness, begs Dresser to take on the mantle of the deceased Quimby, and encloses a poem in memory of Quimby which she has written for the local newspapers. The following two stanzas illustrate most clearly her debt to him:
The third version is that composed by Mrs. Eddy many years later. By then, this event had become the moment of revelation of Christian Science, and in it her fall on the ice and her recovery were likened almost to death and resurrection, cast in the language of the gospels and complete with attending witnesses and doubters.
From our perspective, this fall on the ice can be seen as Mrs. Patterson’s acknowledgment that she had lost Quimby’s strong arm to support her and that she was floundering. Her marriage, weakened further by her wholehearted attachment to Quimby, now fell apart completely. Friendless and alone, she spent the next four years wandering from one strange household to another, often living on the charity of others and offering to pay her way by teaching the method of cure she had learned from Quimby. She seemed to be groping toward an arrangement in which she could teach healing to a partner who then would engage in the practice of it.
Her most treasured possession was a manuscript she had copied down from the rambling reflections which Quimby dictated to receptive patients. She labored over this document, writing long into the night, elaborating the idea which she had got in part from Quimby—but with her own special emphasis—that the true mission of Christ was to heal the sick and that the scriptures contained the key to this religious message. She hoped to write a concordance to the scriptures, verse by verse, illustrating this thesis.
After many unsuccessful attempts at finding someone to work with she found at last a young man, a twenty-one-year-old box-factory worker named Richard Kennedy, with whom she set up formal partnership and moved back to Lynn in May, 1870. She was to elaborate the theory and he was to do the healing and to refer to her those of his patients who might be interested in learning the method. She was forty-nine years old.
They were an immediate success. By the fall of 1870 she had assembled her first class. She required at first that a pupil pay one hundred dollars in advance for a course of twelve lectures and either 10 per cent of subsequent earnings from practice or, if the student failed to practice, a sum of one thousand dollars to make up for what would have been earned by doing so. She very shortly raised her fee to three hundred dollars, a large amount that in later years she felt obliged to justify by attributing it to divine guidance.
As a regular feature of those early teaching sessions, the group of students would gather in the apartment shared by Kennedy and Mrs. Patterson, or, as she called herself once again, Mrs. Glover. Kennedy would manipulate the head and solar plexus of each student, purportedly to put her or him into the best frame of mind to receive Mrs. Glover’s teachings. This rubbing, a vestigial practice of mesmerism, had also been used by Quimby, who found that simple explanation and exhortation were more effective when accompanied by the laying on of hands. Perhaps in Kennedy’s hands the practice was more arousing, but for whatever reason, those early students found it undesirable, inconsistent with the message their teacher was trying to inculcate, namely that there was no sensation in matter and that whatever feeling there was came from belief.
Mrs. Glover tried to convince Kennedy to give up the touching part of his practice. He was reluctant, feeling as Quimby had that it was a powerful vehicle into the patient’s sensibilities, a powerful support to his therapeutic efforts, and that without it his practice—his livelihood—would suffer. The difference between them was irreconcilable, and in April of 1872 Mrs. Glover and Richard Kennedy broke up their partnership and divided their assets. Her share was six thousand dollars, a substantial sum for those days. Another factor in their separation was that Kennedy was courting a woman of his own age; Mrs. Glover resented any personal interests that might distract her students from attention to her teachings.
The further history of Mrs. Glover and of Christian Science reflects two intertwining objectives. She needed to have someone to depend on, but would never again allow herself to acknowledge depending on anyone as she had on Glover, on her father, on Patterson or on Quimby. She required, rather, that the man need her ; she would be attracted, over and over again, to some manly person, but she would have to dominate him, keep him at a distance, ultimately push him away. She would then feel that he had repudiated her and would perceive him as her enemy, struggling to exert his influence from a distance. The more susceptible she felt to caring for someone, the more she needed to perceive him as malign. And these men for whom she felt continuing attraction invaded her dreams and peopled the nightmares which were to torment her for the rest of her life. By contrast, the men whose presence she could bear were those who were devoted and tractable—men like Gilbert Eddy, a man ten years her junior, whom she proposed to and married, or Calvin Frye, whom she took to be her secretary when Eddy died, or Ebenezer J. Foster, whom she adopted at another later moment of crisis. Each arrangement permitted her to deny to herself how much she needed the man. Consciously, her trust was all confided to God’s healing power alone.
The other strand of need to which she devoted her life was the development of Christian Science. With creative and intuitive ingenuity, she made the most of every opportunity that the social order of her time offered.
America in the mid-nineteenth century was experiencing a profound shift in religious and moral attitudes. The Civil War, industrialization, and the growth of the cities and towns were accompanied by a shift of the center of agriculture in the North from New England farms to the wider and more fertile fields of the Midwest. The concomitant widening in the structure of society, away from the earlier agrarian democracy and toward greater extremes of wealth and poverty, contributed to a loosening of religious ties. In particular, fundamental, deterministic Protestantism seemed less relevant to an urban social order that confronted men and women every day with the inequity of life. To a largely agricultural community, bound to the land and the seasons and the accidents of nature, a God who required acceptance of the way things were was suitable, but a God who offered hope for the amelioration of one’s lot seemed more appropriate for those members of the new society who were struggling toward affluence.
As more people moved to the cities, the actual experience of life in the American family was changing. Husbands and wives were sharing fewer of the family activities; men were becoming more the absent bread winners .and women more the keepers of the home and children. These changes affected the psychological climate of the household and the patterns of child rearing as well. In addition, family size was decreasing, education was becoming more specialized and prolonged, and young men and women were marrying at later and later ages. Thus another conflict appeared: pressure was building for prolonged chastity. Early sexual experience became not simply inexpedient but downright immoral. It might have been not so much the prohibition of sexual expression as the moral conflict about it that made so many young people susceptible to various psychological symptoms, symptoms which often took the form of bodily discomforts and dysfunctions.
Although the regular medical establishment was beginning to recognize the existence of these claims of the body, a whole burgeoning field of mental healing—outside the regular medical establishment—sprouted and flourished in the latter half of the nineteenth century. This phenomenon offered great opportunity to women, particularly mature, genteel women with some education and some sense of the world; widowed or unmarried women, for example, faced perhaps with the need to earn a living but untrained—as all women were then—in any profession. These women could now become healers, requiring only the most cursory instruction, and if they had the proper personal characteristics and self-confidence, could become quite successful indeed. From the very first classes in the fall of 1870, the preponderance of Mary Baker Patterson’s students were women, and the career opportunity she offered them contributed in a significant way to the growth of Christian Science.
Her writing proceeded along with her teaching. She published her theories, at first largely derived from Quimby, in Science and Health , the first edition appearing in 1875. (Later editions aooeared under the title Science and Health, With Key to the Scriptures .) In short order she founded a church of which she was the pastor; an institution of instruction, the Massachusetts Metaphysical College, of which she was, for practical purposes, the entire faculty; and a publicity organ, the Journal of Christian Science, of whose contents she was sole arbiter and major contributor.
The history of the Church itself is an excellent example of Mrs. Eddy’s ability to mold circumstances to fit her personal needs. In the first edition of Science and Health she specifically disavowed an interest in “creeds and church organizations.” Later in that same year of 1875, however, a small group of her followers pledged themselves to pay her a modest weekly salary and to hire a hall so that she could preach every Sunday. The meetings did not at first prosper, because Mrs. Eddy did not respond well to people who came to question her about her theories. By 1879 though, as the circle around her grew, she set about to organize a definitive church and obtained the first charter of the Church of Christ (Scientist), of which she was president. Two years later, in response to the revolt and resignation of half the membership, including several of her most devoted followers, she had herself ordained the first official pastor of the church, solidifying her position with the remaining members. It was Mrs. Eddy’s way to respond to every misadventure by moving to conquer new territory.
In 1886 the congregation, through its officers, purchased a lot on which to construct their own building. Unbeknown to them, Mrs. Eddy bought up the mortgage on that land and foreclosed, obtaining, through a series of intermediaries, possession in her own right, thus neatly side-stepping this potential threat to her control.
In 1889, when another large group of followers defected, Mrs. Eddy realized that her own position required further strengthening. She invited the remaining members to dissolve the existing church organization, saying that such a structure brought about an unseemly preoccupation with material concerns. When they complied, she reconstituted the organization of the church. It would be governed now not by its congregation but by a self-perpetuating board of directors, who served at Mrs. Eddy’s convenience, and could accept or reject any individual member. The members of the congregation now had no vested rights—either in their continuing membership or in the governance of their church.
By 1892 then, Mrs. Eddy’s control was assured and she was ready to solicit funds for a church building. She made a personal request of fifty members that each contribute a thousand dollars. With this money and other contributions, the cornerstone for the first Christian Science Church was laid on May 21,1894. By early January of 1895 the building was finished and dedicated, completely paid for in advance.
Mrs. Eddy’s need to have sole control of her church, dependent on no one and beholden to no one, raised other problems, too, which she dealt with in particularly ingenious ways. First, of course, was her debt to Quimby, which she began by acknowledging but gradually backed away from, ending finally by repudiating him completely and characterizing his efforts as well-meaning errors dominated by mesmerism, with all that was of value in them having come originally from herself.
Actually, Quimby had repudiated mesmerism—even though as a practical healer he had been loath to abandon the laying on of hands—and it was this vigorous denial that provided Mrs. Eddy with the example on which to model her own creed. But she went even further. Mesmerism in time came to represent the erroneous activity of mortal mind, which set itself in opposition to the good of Christian Science. As such it became an explanation for every conceivable failure of Christian Science healing. Under the official name of Malicious Animal Magnetism, it became a major topic both in Mrs. Eddy’s lectures and in the pages of the Christian Science Journal .
When her first church edifice was built, she vowed never to be supplanted and abolished the institution of the pastorate, at least as that pastorate was vested in human beings. Her book was to be the pastor, she ruled, and she specified in a minutely and inflexibly determined way the order and content of the church services. Changes in the bylaws of the church could be made only with her acquiescence, and no changes have been possible since the last revision of the Manual of The Mother Church , which she completed two years before her death. No sermon was to be permitted in her church, no commentary and no discussion.
Her greatest fear was that one or another of the attractive and dominant women who did so much to win her church new converts in other cities would take her place or become her successor.
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.