Eddy, Mary Baker (1821–1910)

Christian Science was a movement born during a time of religious experimentation and alternative understandings of how to live a proper spiritual and moral life. Nineteenth-century New England was overwhelmed with would-be prophets, social reformers, and liberal Christians. Mary Baker Eddy stood out not only for her sex but for her thoughts, her publications, and her scripture. Further, Eddy's movement prospered, primarily because of her commitment to the meticulous system of beliefs and practices she spent her life creating.

Mary Baker Eddy (née Mary Morse Baker) was born on July 16, 1821, in New Hampshire. Her parents, Mark and Abigail Baker, were devout Congregationalists. Eddy would eventually reject the tradition of her parents because of its more severe doctrines, like predestination, while retaining a solid belief in the Bible and in Jesus, as a healer, especially. A quiet and introspective child, Eddy was plagued by ill health in her youth. Disease and tragedy seemed to follow her wherever she went, taking her first husband, George Washington Glover, and her mother when she was only 22. She was left pregnant with little means to support herself until she was remarried, nearly 10 years later, to Daniel Patterson. During her marriage to Patterson, she was again struck by a series of illnesses, which left her chronically weak. Eddy consulted various healers, homeopathic doctors, and anyone with a nontraditional approach to healing—as conventional medical methods had all seemed to fail her. In 1862, she approached Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, a practitioner of magnetic healing, which was a technique that involved placement of magnets on pressure points on the body. Certain of Quimby's views may have influenced Eddy's later religious thought. While there is some controversy about this connection, he did believe that any person could channel the healing power of Christ simply by right thinking and mental clarity. Whatever Quimby's influence, Eddy left his side feeling refreshed. In 1866, Eddy suffered a near-fatal fall on ice, which left her unable to move. Convinced that death was imminent, Eddy began to read accounts of Jesus's miraculous healings from the New Testament. Three days later, Eddy stood up and proceeded to walk again. This was a turning point in Eddy's vocation: she now knew her purpose was to be a healer and evangelist.

Eddy began teaching in 1870. Soon thereafter, she began to accumulate a group of followers, comprised in part by the spiritual seekers characteristic of the age, as well as disaffected Christians who were looking for an alternative form of Christian practice. Then in 1875, Eddy produced what would become her greatest legacy both in Christian Science and in the narrative of American religious history. Science and Health (later called Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures) became a text on par with the Bible in the Christian Science canon. In the text, Eddy puts forward her belief that pain, disease, sin, and even death were illusory because they did not rise from God. By changing one's worldview to one where humanity was a mirror image of God (rather than a diseased and sinful race as portrayed by traditional Christianity), humans could overcome all threats to the body and the mind. The book offered Eddy's views on a wide array of subjects from traditionally religious topics such as creation, to the apocalypse and marriage, to more scientific questions about medicine, being, and physiology. In addition, the book explained both how to practice Christian Science and how to teach it—a feature that would ensure the perseverance of the movement after she died. Eddy spent the majority of her life editing and perfecting the text of Science and Health.

Besides Science and Health, Eddy's writing and publishing career was prolific. Her Manual of the Mother Church went through 88 editions during her lifetime, the last one published in the final year of her life, 1910. The Manual served as the central regulating doctrine of the Church of Christ, Scientist—the church's official name. It contained church by-laws on all subjects from membership, to ecclesiastical structure, to personal discipline and liturgical practices. The intention of the Manual was ostensibly to create a secure system of church polity so that the church would be able to thrive according to Eddy's rule far into the future. She also founded the Christian Science Journal and the Christian Science Sentinel, both of which were intended to disseminate her ideas and keep Christian Scientists connected to the goings-on of the church.

Eddy died on December 3, 1910. The announcement of her death was met with an outpouring of homage to the visionary woman who had overcome so many ills and illnesses in life through the power of her mind, simultaneously inspiring future generations to do the same. While her movement did outlive Eddy, the number of churches have declined in the last 30 years with somewhere between 900 and 1,100 churches still operating in the United States.

Lydia Eeva Natti Willsky

See also: Burned-over District ; Gilded Age ; Modernism ; Progressivism

References

Bates, Ernest Sutherland. Mary Baker Eddy: The Truth and the Tradition. London: G. Routledge & Sons, 1933.

Eddy, Mary Baker. Mary Baker Eddy: Speaking for Herself. Boston: The Mary Baker Eddy Collection, 2002.

Eddy, Mary Baker. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Boston: First Church of Christ, Scientist, 1934.

Gill, Gillian. Mary Baker Eddy. Reading, MA: Perseus Books, 1998.

Peel, Robert. Mary Baker Eddy. 3 vols. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966.

Zaimov, Stoyan. “Christian Scientists Looking to Grow Membership amid Shrinking Numbers.” The Christian Post, 14 June 2012. http://www.christianpost.com/news/christian-scientists-looking-to-grow-membership-amid-shrinking-numbers-76536/#ftRMqsdXMKb8HXi2.99 . Accessed January 3, 2013.