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The rich history of Christian Science

From the April 2015 issue of The Christian Science Journal


The Mary Baker Eddy Library is an incredible resource for anyone interested in Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science. From supporting top-notch scholarship and research about Mrs. Eddy’s life and writings to educational programs for the public designed to open up important aspects of Mrs. Eddy’s world or the Christian Science movement she founded, the Library’s resources promise rich insights to people all around the world. 

Recently I sat down with Executive Director, Michael Hamilton; Senior Research Archivist, Judith Huenneke; and Programs Producer, Jonathon Eder. We spoke about something they all continue to explore with deep interest at the Library: the ongoing history of Christian Science. You can find out more about the Library at marybakereddylibrary.org.

Some Journal readers may not be familiar with the important work you each do for The Mary Baker Eddy Library. What would you most want readers to know about the Library and your work?

Michael Hamilton: That the Library belongs to them wherever they live. They don’t have to come to Boston to use the Library; the Library can reach them through its website. This really is their library. Their love and their demonstration of Christian Science are what has built the Library.

Judith Huenneke: As an example, just recently a branch Church of Christ, Scientist, contacted the Library’s research room because a journalist in their community needed information on the history of Christian Science Reading Rooms for an article he was writing. We were able to supply just the information the journalist needed; in fact, it was right on the Library’s website. 

This is our passion in the research room: to spread the news that anyone can contact us whenever they have a need for correct and complete historical information. Journal readers are no doubt aware that a lot of the statements on the Internet about Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science are shockingly inaccurate, including a lot of so-called “historical” information. With the help of the Library, people can be accurately informed—not just about Mrs. Eddy and her lifetime, but also about what we might call her legacy: the history of the Christian Science movement after 1910. 

Jonathon Eder: The Library also creates exhibits and educational experiences about Mrs. Eddy and the history of Christian Science for the general public. Christian Scientists will often ask if the Library has anything they can use to help them share information with their community about Mrs. Eddy and Christian Science. They will often use our exhibits and programs as a jumping off point to create their own educational experiences. 

Talk more about your interest in Mrs. Eddy’s legacy and the history
of Christian Science. Why should the Library be paying attention to that history?

MH: While we at the Library want to always be attentive to the earliest history of Christian Science, and Mrs. Eddy’s life, we also want to be sure that we’re paying close attention to what’s happened since she passed on in 1910. Mrs. Eddy’s detractors said that Christian Science would vanish after her death, but it hasn’t vanished. Yet in some ways some of us may have underappreciated the richness, depth, and variety of experiences among Christian Scientists in terms of what has happened since that time. Christian Scientists have a very rich history. And the Library can help them learn more about that history. Researchers and scholars have written about many aspects of church activity over the decades, and their writings are part of the Library archives.       

JH: I would add that the Library would be doing a disservice if it was not discussing and looking into the history of the Christian Science movement after 1910. If we really believe that Mrs. Eddy was a great religious leader, and that she founded a Church that was not built on her as a personality—it is not a cult—then there has to be some kind of history of her Church, the Church of Christ, Scientist, that does not include Mrs. Eddy personally. 

In a public address in Chicago in 1888, Mrs. Eddy said, “Christian Science and Christian Scientists will, must, have a history …” (Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896, p. 106). She then went on to describe that history in a surprising statement. She described it by giving a parody of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” which her audience in 1888 would have known. As a parody, I think she meant this in a somewhat lighthearted way, but it is still a startling statement about Christian Science history. She said: “… if I could write the history in poor parody on Tennyson’s grand verse, it would read thus:—  

“Traitors to right of them,
M. D.’s to left of them,
Priestcraft in front of them,
Volleyed and thundered!

Into the jaws of hate,
Out through the door of Love,
On to the blest above,
Marched the one hundred.” 

That is a striking statement! Do you feel her “parody” describes the actual history of Christian Science?

JE: In thinking about Mrs. Eddy and her intersection with the religious and medical establishment of her time, we might want to couple these lines with other statements she made, particularly a passage from her 1906 dedicatory sermon for The Mother Church Extension, entitled “‘Choose Ye.’” In it she offers a different perspective on what it means to be involved with the world as a Christian Scientist. 

She states: “A genuine Christian Scientist loves Protestant and Catholic, D.D. and M.D.,—loves all who love God, good; and he loves his enemies. It will be found that, instead of opposing, such an individual subserves the interests of both medical faculty and Christianity, and they thrive together, learning that Mind-power is good will towards men” (The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany, p. 4).

When one looks at Mrs. Eddy’s history, what emerges is a wholehearted dedication to humanity.

Certainly, Christian Science history and the experience of many Christian Scientists reflect the difficulties of presenting a reforming message about spirituality and health in contexts where entrenched religious and medical perspectives may react with scorn or hostility—something that Mrs. Eddy definitely encountered. On the other hand, her experience and Christian Science history also provide a narrative about how Christian Science brings greater harmony and well-being to the human condition.

When one looks at Mrs. Eddy’s history, what emerges is a wholehearted dedication to humanity—from her establishment of a public healing practice to her founding of The Christian Science Monitor as a vehicle to bring solutions and light to challenges in every corner of the world. I think to some extent part of our heritage as Christian Scientists is the hard work of explaining what Christian Science is to the outside world, to work through misunderstandings and resistance, while bearing witness to how this kind of engagement furthers good for all. 

For example, a central part in developing programs at the Library involves working with outside organizations—including those engaged in interfaith activities and those in the spirituality and health arena of the medical profession. What’s more, our work also involves attending conferences—recently I represented the Library at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion. The four-day event took place in November in San Diego, California, and drew roughly 10,000 attendees. In manning a booth, I had the opportunity to speak to a number of teachers and professors of American religion and American religious history. I fielded questions on how to teach about Christian Science to their students. I think it was instructive both for me and for them to address the topics they brought up.

Can you talk about some specific aspects of Christian Science history that the Library is looking at more closely or that deserve to be investigated further?

JH: Mrs. Eddy’s correspondence may appear to have already been deeply mined by scholars and biographers, but there is more to do! We have thousands of letters written by her, but not that many of those letters have been properly linked to the letters written to her. Creating those links would give us a much more expansive view of Mrs. Eddy’s world—the wide variety of individuals she corresponded with, what they told her, and what she told them.

Even our reminiscence files deserve some deeper exploration. This is probably because many of them are not the engaging memoirs we find in We Knew Mary Baker Eddy. Some are just brief recollections of statements Mrs. Eddy made. For example, here’s a short recollection from Annie Knott, who remembered that “in one of Mrs. Eddy’s classes the question was raised as to why the healing had been lost sight of in the Christian church. A student ventured the remark that it was because they had clung to the letter and lost the spirit. Mrs. Eddy said, No, that the opposite was the case, that the spiritual was retained in a marvelous way by saintly people all through the centuries, but that the letter of Jesus’s teachings in regard to the healing of the sick had been lost and that Christian Science was restoring it to the world” (Annie Knott reminiscence file, folder 3).

MH: Beyond Mrs. Eddy’s time, there are some aspects of Christian Science history that are somewhat better known and appreciated. For instance, you could think about the story of Christian Science under the Third Reich, and there’s some understanding of that story, but maybe not of its complexity—or of the story of Christian Science in communist countries. 

These are dramatic and outstanding stories. However, I think there’s some very useful information that can be found in things that at first look more prosaic. Before the Library opened, several scholars dipped into its collections and talked about their significance. One scholar pulled out the old Sunday School cards from the card catalog of a branch church in Chicago. What could be more ordinary than that? But this scholar said, in substance, “This is amazing!” Because the cards (which didn’t include much data), included the religious background of the parents and a bit of information about the children. She added, “You would not believe the diverse religious backgrounds of those who had started coming to this church.”

JE: The Library frequently offers programs that explore some aspect of Christian Science history. For example, in 2008 the Library hosted a program titled, “Varieties of Scientific Experience: Mary Baker Eddy, William James, and Other Honest Investigators of the 19th Century.” (Readers can watch a video of this and other programs at marybakereddylibrary.org/videos.) The program explored the questions: What does science mean? What does science mean in the context of Christian Science? Because one of the questions people often have about Christian Science is, “How is it scientific?”    

The keynote panelist was Jon H. Roberts, who is the Tomorrow Foundation Professor of American Intellectual History at Boston University, and he has written quite a bit on the history of the relationship between science and religion. He came to give an overview of the landscape of science and religion in the 19th century. He explained his view that Mrs. Eddy’s understanding of Science fit with a model of science at that time as well as a model of our time. Science, as it was developing in the 19th century, was initially about determining the essence of things—to identify and explain pure universal truth or truths. Mrs. Eddy as well, though from the standpoint of the allness of Spirit, was exploring ontology, or pure reality. 

But then science started to become smaller, the testing of propositions, to see how things work. It moved away from trying to explain everything and evolved into a laboratory approach to determine what’s real and what isn’t real through empirical analysis of phenomena. And Professor Roberts felt that Mrs. Eddy’s approach to demonstrating Christian Science through healing also justified its being categorized as science in that way—in observing its salutary, transformative effect on physical and mental conditions. 

We are writing the story of Christian Science each day.

It was nice to have this very well-respected scholar in academia recognize Mrs. Eddy’s scientific approach to her discovery and system of healing. I think it’s helpful to the wider community for the Library to be able to provide programming that illuminates and clarifies how one might explain that Mrs. Eddy’s discovery and its application to human needs are scientific.

MH: What Journal readers might not realize is that even though they may not be scholars, they—we—all have a stake in this. There is a conversation, a narrative, about Christian Science among the wider public that has continued through many years, and it’s not always correct. For example, the healing work at the heart of this religion has sometimes been dismissed without much real investigation. The Library archives, as well as the countless testimonies of healing in the Journal and Christian Science Sentinel, provide a different story that is modest but moving. I think the Library is in a position to contribute to the public perception of Christian Science healing in ways that enrich that perception and correct it, to add a voice to the wider narrative about Christian Science that needs to be heard. 

In terms of that wider narrative about Christian Science, it seems a lot of people today would look at Christian Science as a religion that has become increasingly marginalized over time. How would you respond to that, knowing the history of the religion? 

MH: I think the most interesting history is always at the margins! Jesus of Nazareth was at the margins. The history of the early Roman Empire was not the history of the founders of Christianity, but the Roman Empire is no more. 

Not to make too much of that, but I think it remains true of the Christian Science movement what Mrs. Eddy said of herself: “What I am remains to be proved by the good I do” (Miscellany, p. 303). So, in a sense, we are writing the story of Christian Science each day. It seems to me that the movement has always been carried forward by those who are engaged in relieving suffering. 

Sometimes Christian Scientists may have assumptions about their history that are not helpful. For instance, quite a few Christian Scientists seem to have this idea that there was a golden age of Christian Science. I don’t know where you want to place it in Christian Science history, but somewhere along the way things were supposedly better and easier. But while it’s true that there are different moments in history, there are challenges being faced today that are not so dissimilar from earlier times. For instance, the public practice of Christian Science has always been challenging. It’s always involved sacrifice, but it has also always involved tremendous opportunity and fulfillment.

There is one way of looking at the Christian Science movement that could see it as being marginalized. But for me, the thing that is really remarkable is the persistence of Christian Science, the ongoing story. There will always be those who want to tell a story that is designed to bring a very quick end to whatever it is Christian Science is doing, and that’s not new. But it’s a story that’s never been true.

JH: In fact, Mrs. Eddy’s first public statements about her teachings, in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1872 (when her name was Glover and not yet Eddy), were in response to Wallace Wright, an ex-student who proclaimed, “Mrs. Glover and her so-called Science are virtually dead and buried.” That had appeared in a newspaper, and, in fact, the dialogue between Mrs. Glover and her ex-student resulted in her announcing that she was thinking about writing a book, which, of course, would later become the Christian Science textbook, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Wallace Wright marginalized Science, thought it was dead and buried, but it was just beginning. (The full exchange between Mary Baker Glover and Wallace W. Wright in the Lynn Transcript is reprinted on pages 238–259 of In My True Light and Life: Mary Baker Eddy Collections, a 2002 Library publication.)

It sounds like there’s at least one thing that has always been true of Christian Science throughout its history, which is that it heals. That has to be true of Christian Science today and going into the future, just as it was when Mrs. Eddy taught her first student. And that makes Christian Science forever relevant—always on the cutting edge. Would you agree?

JH: That’s true, and I know it’s true because Christian Science has brought healing to my life. I myself found Christian Science as a struggling graduate student, and it has been a tremendous help to me. And I know that people around the world are continuing to find it, just as I did. The story of men and women finding Christian Science is not a story that ended 50 years ago or 100 years ago. It’s a story that continues, through healing.

JE: This year The Mother Church has taken a renewed focus on its spiritual foundation of Christ-healing, and that foundation applies to the Library, as well. The Library is all about Christ-healing; but because the Library is an educational institution, it has a particular charge to tell the facts of Mrs. Eddy’s life story to a general public.

However, we at the Library are not as strong at explaining what accounted for the sense of purpose behind all her achievements—what was the Science that she discovered, and why did she dedicate all her life to it? It’s even more than a system of healing that can help people in their various stages of life. On a deep level, Christ-healing relates to the open and individual pursuit of truth, of spiritual reality, which heals. That pursuit is Mrs. Eddy’s own story, and she brought truth to light. In some measure, that can be our own individual story, too. 

Recently, I was heartened by comments given in an interview by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter, Tony Kushner, in which he sang Mrs. Eddy’s praises as well as praised Science and Health. This was in the context of his researching Mrs. Eddy and her work for a play he had been writing. Kushner, who also wrote the screenplay for 2012’s box office tour de force Lincoln, made it clear that, in reading Mrs. Eddy, he had not become a Christian Scientist; still, he described her as a “wonderful writer” and Science and Health as “endlessly quotable.”  

Mrs. Eddy worked unbelievably hard at making her chief work speak effectively to all of humanity. Just in the way that it is “endlessly quotable,” it is endlessly relevant, today and always. 

MH: The Library is associated with the practice of healing in a modern age, and with a woman who not only said and wrote that healing was possible, but who put her teachings into practice and taught others how to heal. The record seems to show that this is how Christian Science advances: by Christian Scientists putting into practice what they have been taught in Christian Science through healing others. The persistence of Christian Science—the reason it continues today—over and over again it comes back to healing.


Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.

Psalms 19:14

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