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Church Alive

Mary Baker Eddy and the living church

From the June 2011 issue of The Christian Science Journal

When I was asked to speak on Mary Baker Eddy’s “concept of church” at the Church Alive Summit in Southern California, I immediately turned to my colleagues Judy Huenneke and Mike Davis who are both so conversant with the historical facts. Through our conversations and from researching Mrs. Eddy’s own words in her letters, sermons, articles, the minutes of the organizations she founded, and reminiscences of her students, among other records, we pieced together the following talk. I’m not a professional historian but over the years I have worked in the Library, I have come to appreciate the early struggle of her life and the courageous choices she made to practice, communicate, and teach Christian Science rather than to personally experience spiritual healing and carry on with her life. Instead, she was impelled to find out what had happened to her and share it. She understood the importance of this history and wrote: “People seem to understand C.S. in the exact ratio that they know me and vise versa. It sometimes astonishes me to see the invariableness of this rule” (F00537, Mary Baker Eddy to Julia Field-King, November 26, 1897, The Mary Baker Eddy Collection, The Mary Baker Eddy Library).  

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Religious life for Mary Baker Eddy in the 1820s in rural Bow, New Hampshire, appears on the surface vastly different from the amazing array of religious beliefs found in this country today. In the colonial era, most families worshipped God at least once a week and held twice-daily prayers and Bible reading in their homes. The desire to read the Word of God was the contributing factor to the high literacy rate in New England among men and women. Her father, Mark Baker, was a staunch believer in Calvinism and a faithful member of the Congregational Church. His family before him embraced Calvinism, which included the doctrine of election or predestination—meaning that through God’s grace you were already chosen for either salvation or damnation. Nothing you could do on earth could change that even if you lived the most selfless and moral life. But gradually people came to think that if you were a good person, you probably were one of the chosen.

Challenges to this teaching began to surface as soon as the new colony became settled. New England pioneers in the seventeenth century, like Mary Dyer were executed and Anne Hutchinson banished for trying to add progressive elements to these traditional beliefs, for example saying that men and women could themselves experience a religious conversion or feel the power of God within them. This was thought to challenge the authority of the Bible and the clergy. 

These were both women preaching their beliefs in public, heretical at the time, which probably led to their untimely deaths. In Mary Baker Eddy’s childhood and young adulthood, religious change was sweeping through the country in what has since been called the Second Great Awakening. Revival meetings encouraged people to consider personal salvation through conversion and many believed they heard God’s voice speaking directly to them. This movement stirred some women, of all races, to become itinerant preachers because they felt compelled by God’s voice to stand up and declare God’s Word. Even in the Baker family, Mark’s nephew converted to Universalism—a movement springing out of Calvinism in England, but rejecting predestination and pointing to the possibility of salvation for all through repentance because of Jesus’ crucifixion. Aaron Baker’s conversion no doubt led to many discussions and arguments in the Baker home.

Mary’s mother heard God speak to her before Mary’s birth; Mary herself says she heard God speak to her as a child—this is not typical in a strict Calvinist home. Of all the Baker children, Mary seemed to be the only one drawn to spiritual things. To her, prayer was as natural as breathing. She loved to read the Bible and obviously strived to live by its teachings, so it is of no surprise that almost immediately she ran headlong against the beliefs of her father and her local church.

In a recent conversation, [Mary Baker Eddy biographer] Gillian Gill pointed to the pincushion incident where Mary pricked her father with a pin because of the length of his prayers as the one defining moment in Eddy’s childhood that foretold her future greatness. Lyman Powell records Eddy as saying that she “took a long shawl pin from the pin-cushion on the table, crawled along the floor until she got behind the chair where he was kneeling and vehemently exhorting, applied the pin at a point where it brought immediate results, and in the confusion that followed made her escape” (Mary Baker Eddy: A Life Size Portrait, p. 304). Dr. Gill shared that it was not only analogous to the doctrinal tension in the home but also to her future stabs at traditional church theology later in life. 

These waves of change that touched Mary Baker Eddy and her family in New England can be seen as fueling her questioning thought. There are examples of much earlier religious thought-currents bubbling up at this period in and around New England. There were Shakers, Quakers, and the beliefs of Native Americans, then the rise of spiritualism, the Millerites, the Adventists, and many, many others being discussed in the first half of the 19th century in America. So it wasn’t so different from today, was it?—a time of change when the established church of so many years became one of many, rather than the only.

Much has been said of Eddy’s education. Because of ill health she could not be in school as often as she would have wished. Also girls were sometimes kept at home to help in the household at certain times of year. But we know she read widely and was given instruction by her brother in subjects she perhaps would not usually have had the opportunity to study. She appears to have found it easy to retain what she read, as she notes that her memory was good. Although unable to pursue more advanced education like some of her contemporaries, Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Lucy Stone, she attended an academy and later taught there. As she sought better health and a more active life, she remained devoted to her study of the Scriptures, but delved into medical topics of the day such as homeopathy, hydropathy, mesmeric healing, and many other alternatives. Seeking, experimenting, proving, replicating, discovering—even when she found herself in straitened circumstances, her education never stopped. 

With such a love of learning placed squarely within the historical context of the times she lived in, it is hardly surprising that the Bible was close at hand during the dark times she faced. She sought inspiration and comfort from it. She had been part of a church community whenever she could, and it was important for her to be a member of that community, unlike her brothers and sisters. Her life moved on with many highs and lows culminating in the discovery of Christian Science. Although at first she didn’t fully understand how she had recovered, she did know that it was thoroughly grounded in the Bible’s teachings. Her desire to see this system of healing available to all became paramount.

After she established herself as a healer and teacher, Eddy and her students met together to worship—modeled on the New Testament Christian communities that we read about in the Gospels and in St. Paul’s letters. It evoked a sense of family, a community that pulled together with a single goal and pooled resources. That goal was to do the works of Christ Jesus—the core mission being not only healing the sick but, as she states, “. . . the higher mission of the Christ-power to take away the sins of the world” (Science and Health, p. 150). This church began in a rented hall, then in people’s homes, and then again to rented halls as numbers grew. When the church became organized in 1879, it described its mission as “. . . a church designed to commemorate the word and works of our Master, which should reinstate primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing” (Church Manual, p. 17). 

The church collectively, through healing the sick, proved the power of Christ. St. Paul goes as far as to call the church in his first epistle to the Corinthians, “the body of Christ” (see 12:27, 28).

A Church of Healers: Julia Bartlett in Littleton, New Hampshire

For a vivid description of this early church, let’s turn to an example of one of Mary Baker Eddy’s students, Julia Bartlett. Taught by Eddy in 1880, Julia Bartlett was soon to become a dedicated worker in the metaphysical college. As Eddy expected of all her students, Miss Bartlett had her own healing practice of Christian Science to nurture, too. She records the following in her reminiscence:

“About March 1, 1884, a young woman whom physicians were not able to heal was sent to me for treatment in Christian Science by a physician in New Hampshire who was attending her case. In nine days she returned to him a perfectly well woman and remained in his house two weeks. When this physician and those who knew the woman saw what Christian Science had done for her, a great interest was aroused among them. They had no understanding of the Science, but many chronic invalids and others who needed help were desirous for the treatment and wished me to go to that place and take their cases. When they wrote to that effect, I sent them word that I could not go, that I had all that I could do at the College. 

“But they would not take ‘No’ for an answer and continued to urge me to go, until finally I asked Mrs. Eddy what had better be done. She replied, ‘Write them you will go for one week,’ which I did and also that I would give them a talk on the Science the first and second evenings after my arrival if they would engage a hall for that purpose and be willing to do something for themselves in subscribing for The Christian Science Journal for one year. . . .

“I found these people very ready to do what was asked of them, and the hall was well filled the two evenings I spoke to them. A large number of subscriptions were given for the new Christian Science periodical, each one subscribing. When through, people crowded about making appointments for the next day until every minute of the day was spoken for. When the time came, they were there promptly, beginning early in the morning and continuing through the day until late at night, with a room filled with people waiting perhaps two or three hours before they could be seen.

“I was staying at the home of one who had been my patient and was healed and whose case it was that led the physician above mentioned to think favorably of this method of treatment. She made herself very useful in receiving those who came, and her time was fully taken in this way. I was seeing and treating seventy patients a day, my work taking me far into the night, and although I could give each one but a few minutes of my time, most of them were healed quickly. I had much sympathy for the large number who came from the surrounding towns begging that I take their cases, whom I had not the time to even see. 

“I then sent a telegram to Boston for help, but could find no one to come. I took little time to eat or sleep. My one desire was to do the best and all I could for those dear people during my short stay with them, and God wonderfully blessed my efforts” (Reminiscences of Julia Bartlett, pp. 39–41, The Mary Baker Eddy Library).

What a powerful example of the early Christian church! But a few years after this Eddy was to write, “The Church is the body of Christ: as mortals outgrow the material organizations of their bodies, so the Church militant must rise above material environments to the Church triumphant” (L09635, Mary Baker Eddy to The Mother Church, December 2, 1889, The Mary Baker Eddy Collection).

She saw the organization of the 1879 church as “material,” as needing to be outgrown. It hadn’t lasted for the early Christians, and Eddy saw that this church structure couldn’t last after her death. 

We observe from our research that Mary Baker Eddy was preaching regularly in Boston from 1878 through most of the 1880s. Sometimes guest preachers were brought in to substitute—people she had approved. Eddy was by now something of a minor celebrity so it was natural that larger halls were rented when she spoke. So, she was healing, preaching on Sundays, lecturing at other times, teaching in her College, publishing and distributing her books, setting up the Journal of Christian Science, writing to her students across the country, making decisions for her own church—a veritable human dynamo.

You begin to see how everything progressive in the movement at that time revolved around Mary Baker Eddy and her mentoring of her loyal students. This type of organization would never stand the test of time. Eddy could see early on that a growing church would spread her too thin as Leader and after her death it would fade away without a strong successor. Remember she was already at the age when most women of the time were in the last years of their lives. She had no strategic plan, but her desire was her prayer and as she listened she decided to put all her efforts into clarifying her written message by revising Science and Health extensively and publishing a new edition, which was to be the 50th. When it was published she told students that the book was “the Teacher and healer” (L05681, Mary Baker Eddy to Mary V. Blain, May 18, 1891, The Mary Baker Eddy Collection).

As we know, as part of her decision to revise Science and Health, she closed the Metaphysical College; she also dissolved her church although she encouraged her students to continue holding services. It appeared a sudden move, but she had been gradually withdrawing from an active role in the church organization except for the revising of her book and then, as the ideas presented themselves to her thought, she reestablished a church organization on something more solid, a more spiritually based and more universal expression of organization that was to last for eternity. So the human personality and personal leadership of Mary Baker Eddy began to recede, but was revealing as this church’s core the same mission of healing. She wrote to First Church of Christ, Scientist, Denver, in 1892, “I, as a corporeal person, am not in your midst: I, as a dictator, arbiter, or ruler, am not present; but I, as a mother whose heart pulsates with every throb of theirs for the welfare of her children, am present, and rejoice with them that rejoice” (Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896, p. 152). There is much evidence in the archives of her love for those that continued the healing work across the country. 

One key idea that came to Eddy’s thought through prayer was to found one Mother Church in Boston. She writes of it: “The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, Mass., is designed to be built on the Rock, Christ; even the understanding and demonstration of divine Truth, Life, and Love, healing and saving the world from sin and death; thus to reflect in some degree the Church Universal and Triumphant” (Manual, p. 19). This church would have a global vision and reach and no longer be modeled after her childhood congregational church organization, The Mother Church’s business would come to be transacted by a Christian Science Board of Directors, first appointed by Mary Baker Eddy and then self-perpetuating. These Directors were given, over time, a system of government to follow, through the establishment of new By-Laws—something laid down forever and that would stand in perpetuity.

She began to organize this church differently from its branches. Retaining the mission of the 1879 church “to commemorate the word and works of our Master,” branches were to remain democratic to allow flexibility in their organizational structure so they could best meet local needs. It became apparent that a branch church should be formed with the full cooperation of its members, a demonstration if you will, to set it on solid ground within its community, in contrast to a church established as an organization instigated from a Boston headquarters or by a student of Mary Baker Eddy’s.

There is an excellent summary of this history in Mike Davis’s article (Michael Davis is a researcher working at The Mary Baker Eddy Library), titled “Church that embodies the healing Christ—today” found in the Christian Science Sentinel, May 11, 2009. 

Design revealed in the structure of the Church Manual

Over the years a number of new By-Laws were announced in the Church periodicals to guide the fledgling Mother Church, and occasionally these By-Laws included procedures for its branches. Their composition often grew from the dialog Eddy had with the Board of Directors she had put in place. She was to say of these By-Laws:

“The Rules and By-Laws in the Manual of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston, originated not in solemn conclave as in ancient Sanhedrim. They were not arbitrary opinions nor dictatorial demands, such as one person might impose on another. They were impelled by a power not one’s own, were written at different dates, and as the occasion required. They sprang from necessity, the logic of events,—from the immediate demand for them as a help that must be supplied to maintain the dignity and defense of our Cause; hence their simple, scientific basis, and detail so requisite to demonstrate genuine Christian Science, and which will do for the race what absolute doctrines destined for future generations might not accomplish” (Manual, p. 3). 

A definite feeling here of an organization set for all time, solid, and rocklike.

From the time she left Boston for Concord, New Hampshire, and during the period when the church edifice was built, Eddy withdrew even further from a personal role in church activities. By-Laws appeared one by one during this period, usually first in the periodicals, then published in the Manual, showing how this new church would be established. A new Pastor of The Mother Church—the Bible and Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures—had been be introduced to take the place of personal preaching. The Board of Lectureship would be established along with The Christian Science Publishing Society, the Board of Education, the Committee on Publication—“a church designed” to continue its work into the approaching new century and beyond. 

The one activity she held close to her was the revising of Science and Health right up until the end of her life. Although others might have been asked to edit it or help in some way, the authority of the content always lay with her. 

A new organization grows

From that bold decision to dissolve the early church came a new church organization with a “universal” outlook and a worldwide membership to reflect it, working together with its distinctly democratic branches built on the demonstrations of its local members. Take a look at pages 71 and 72 for the clear distinction of the two organizations—the By-Law “Mother Church Unique” and the phrase “Branch churches shall not adopt . . . the Manual of The Mother Church.”

How many times in my branch church experience have I heard that we need to mirror The Mother Church By-Laws? Yet this is not the role she sets for branches. Her genius allows the Christian Science movement to take the world stage and to fulfill its healing mission without placing it in a straitjacket. What an inspiration. 

Another strength of the Church Manual is echoed in this quote from The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany: “Of this I am sure, that each Rule and By-law in this Manual will increase the spirituality of him who obeys it, invigorate his capacity to heal the sick, to comfort such as mourn, and to awaken the sinner” (p. 230). 

You recognize again that familiar theme of the wider mission of the Church, but note that each rule and By-Law pertains to individuals in this context, and how much rests upon the individual’s demonstration of Christian Science. The Manual contains perhaps as many behavioral By-Laws as structural ones for members of The Mother Church. 

And isn’t this where her genius shines through? She wrote in a letter that decried personal leadership, “Let the Manual be the authority for the conduct of the church members” (L01662, Mary Baker Eddy to Alfred Farlow, July 7, 1904, The Mary Baker Eddy Collection). So through the actions of the four Mother Church members and one active practitioner listed in the Journal required by the Manual to become a branch church, she ensures that churches keep the essential structure and conduct she laid down for Christian Science and Christian Scientists (note how many requirements are dealt with in the By-Laws regarding member behavior and discipline in regard to the healing and nursing practice).

So, [there are] no requirements for edifices mentioned in the Manual except for The Mother Church. I’d like to read you a letter about setting up a branch church—someone had written to the Clerk of the Mother Church about who could organize a church. William B. Johnson, Director and Clerk, wrote in response:

July 25, 1903

Mrs. Olive Weymouth, and others
Skowhegan, Maine

Dear Friends:

Your letter of July 20, 1903 is received, and in reply thereto I will state that the By-Law in our Church manual is explicit as to who may organize a branch church.

“Worker in the field, now what does that mean”? I will answer by asking the question, Would you consider a person a real worker in Christian Science who did not devote his time to its practice?

“The least number it takes to form a church”? That is determined by your state law, and you can get the information by consulting a lawyer. The number is not the same in all states I believe.

A word as to organizing a church. You say none of those who signed the letter have taken class instruction. I do not find your names in the Christian Science Journal as practitioners.

Let me ask, Do you feel sure that you have those among your number who can fill the responsible positions as officers according to the requirements of Christian Science? Are they capable of defending themselves and their offices against the subtile assaults of malicious mental suggestion? Have they proved that they are? If they are not, then the church would be in danger from the outset. I have seen such pitiful results from the organization of churches by those who were not qualified to protect them that I feel it to be my sacred duty to give a word of caution when I am inquired concerning organizing a church, or when my advice is asked. Healing, healing, healing is what is needed, and if healing is not constantly being done the mere organization of a church will not count much for the success of our Cause.

 Sincerely yours
 William B. Johnson

And there are more where that came from and in a similar vein! Although he didn’t ask Mary Baker Eddy for the answers, they were based on communications he had had with her. 

Mary Baker Eddy’s choice was to have modest buildings for worship, but she didn’t impose that wish on the growing movement but allowed the branches to choose for themselves. But she could be very direct; she once wrote, “Are you striving in Christian Science to be the best Christian on earth or are you striving to have the most costly edifices on the earth. Are you striving to make the most possible of matter which you admit is unreal or are you striving to make most of Spirit which you admit is all . . . The more modest and less imposing material superstructures indicate your spiritual state of thought and vice versa. Now show yourselves to the world honest in what you say and do or withdraw your name from the list of Christian Scientists” (L07169, Mary Baker Eddy to Archibald McLellan, November 1908, The Mary Baker Eddy Collection). Although Eddy wrote this and we see it in the Collection in her handwriting, we know it was published under Archibald McLellan’s name in the Christian Science Sentinel in December 5, 1908. Or what about this letter to one of her students: “A society that can pay over a million of dollars for a fashionable church edifice ought to drop the name of C.S. or be ready to help our cause in other directions . . .” (V00452, Mary Baker Eddy to Anne Dodge, October 17, 1903, The Mary Baker Eddy Collection).

In many of her letters written for the dedication of branch churches, you see her pointing the members away from the building to the Rock, the true structure it was founded on. 

Working together toward Mary Baker Eddy’s vision

Unlike some other religious leaders, Mary Baker Eddy avoided the pull of popularity and the subtle corruption that often comes from the kind of authority she had as leader of the Christian Science church. She has established a church that has its foundation on the rock, Christ, not dependent on a personal leader; it has the ability to keep abreast of the times, and find a spiritual language that speaks to a diverse public today without losing its sacred theology—adaptation not dilution. What courage she showed us—an essential quality as we all learn to turn our faces to the needs of an ever-changing world.

She could have taken up her sister Abigail’s offer of a home and probably lived a fairly comfortable life as the invalid sister.

She could have just been grateful to God for her healing and settled back into a quiet life in Lynn.

She could have remained the only preacher and teacher and healer, and Christian Science would probably have died out with her passing.

She could have left Science and Health much as it was published in 1875. A book for its time, but not a book for all time.

She could have legitimately “retired” in 1907 after the Next Friends Suit and retreated to Pleasant View, living a life of comfort and being loved by her community. Instead she knew she had more work to do and uprooted herself at 86 to live in a house she never liked, to complete her life work.

So what did she expect of us? She was reported as saying “she longed for the day to come when no one could enter a Christian Science church, no matter how sick or how sorrowing that one might be, without being healed, and that this day can come only when every member of the church studies and demonstrates the truth contained in the Lesson-Sermon, and takes with him to the service the consciousness thus prepared” (Florence Clerihew Boyd, “Healing the Multitudes, Christian Science Sentinel, July 1, 1916, p. 866). This is what she expected of each and every one of us.

“Nothing but organization would save this cause” 

But what of those who misconstrued her belief in the continued organization of the church? When she heard that some members were interpreting her as meaning that the time would come that organization would eventually pass off or that they no longer believe in organization, she said, “I learned that nothing but organization would save this cause for mankind and protect it from the devouring disorganizers. The apostle likens the church to the body of Christ. . . . Then if you would break up His church, are you not breaking His body and spilling His blood?” (L07892, Mary Baker Eddy to Joseph Adams, April 27, 1887, The Mary Baker Eddy Collection), and “Never abandon the By-laws nor the denominational government of the Mother Church. If I am not personally with you, the Word of God, and my instructions in the By-laws have led you hitherto and will remain to guide you safely on. . .” (L00325, Mary Baker Eddy to the Christian Science Board of Directors, February 27, 1903, The Mary Baker Eddy Collection). But my favorite: “Organization is a simple matter, for all of its importance. It is simply a matter of doing things by working together” (Reminiscences of Judge Clifford P. Smith, p. 6). 

Let’s take up the challenge and work together to realize our Leader’s vision for her Mother Church, its members, and its branches.

Lesley Pitts is Executive Manager and President of The Mary Baker Eddy Library.

More in this issue / June 2011


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