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Jana Riess

In Sickness and in Health

The past and future of Christian Science

Christian Science has attracted a good deal of attention in the last decade, most of it negative. Alarming court cases have featured heart-wrenching stories of Christian Science children who died of preventable illnesses and treatable injuries while prayerful parents and practitioners looked on. Rumors of financial battles and personality conflicts at the Mother Church in the early 1990s did little to elevate Christian Science in the public eye.

Such controversy is not new to Christian Science, which has endured its naysayers ever since Mary Baker Eddy first declared herself healed after falling on the ice in Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1866. In the last five years, a number of books have attempted to plumb Christian Science's colorful past and ascertain, from there, its hazy future. Gillian Gill offers fresh perspectives on the faith's unconventional founder; Caroline Fraser exorcises personal demons in an acerbic exposé; and Barbara Wilson establishes a theological and literary standard with an autobiography of her loss of faith.

Gillian Gill's Mary Baker Eddy is the best biography to date. In her preface, Gill suggests that both the hagiographic and the unflattering portrayals of Eddy "are implicitly agreed on one essential point—that she deserved no personal credit for anything important she did." Sympathizers have depicted Eddy as the vehicle for the birth of Christian Science, while detractors consider her "merely very lucky and very unscrupulous." Gill, in contrast, employs her 700-plus pages to evaluate Eddy as a leader whose "main problem was that she had an extraordinary talent for life in the public sphere but was barred from entering it."

On the surface, Eddy's rise to prominence is the quintessential Horatio Alger story, but Gill serves it up with some distinctly feminist twists. Indeed, Gill openly esteems the strength that other biographers censure, seeing Eddy's lifelong struggle against feminine dependence (especially in the forms of frequent illness and destitution) as her most remarkable quality. Eddy palpably threatened 19th-century womanly ideals. She married three times, mostly unsuccessfully, and was forced by indigence and widowhood to give up custody of her son. She refused to retreat into the private sphere of hearth and home, instead becoming one of a handful of women in American history to found a lasting religious movement. She defied the Victorian female life sequence, Gill concludes, by being "conventional in her twenties, weak in her thirties, impoverished and sick in her forties, struggling in her fifties, exercising her talents at last in her sixties, famous in her seventies, [and] formidable in her eighties."

Gill acknowledges Eddy's tendency to rewrite her own past, suggesting that Eddy thereby refused to be regarded as "the passive victim of circumstances." So, for example, Eddy exaggerated the thoroughness and speed of her healing from her famous 1866 fall on the ice. Although she later claimed she "rose from [her] bed and … commenced [her] usual avocations" on the third day after the fall, contemporaneous evidence shows her second-guessing her own healing two weeks later, and "slowly failing" in her health before her eventual full recovery.

On some points Gill is frankly critical. She considers Eddy's poetry "dreadful" and concedes that Eddy managed, through her intense demands on her closest followers, to alienate many of them. (Her craving for genuine familial affection often caused her to make poor choices in her most intimate friends, especially in the last decade of her life.) Nevertheless, Gill's biography ventures farther than any other to demonstrate that by removing herself from Boston and the day-to-day workings of the church, Eddy took great pains to discourage a "cult of personality" in Christian Science—a determination that sharply distinguished her from most of the figures who founded religious movements in the spiritual hothouse of 19th-century America.

Gill's study of Eddy is not perfect. She could have placed Christian Science more accurately within the larger religious context, and in particular she might have traced the influence of New Thought, a diffuse 19th-century movement that emphasized spiritual healing. The work also comes uncomfortably close to the genre of psychobiography, with Gill speculating overly much about the motivations of her subject. At times, her undisguised admiration overcompensates for the polemical nature of most previous biographies, but she is extremely thorough with the historical record, allowing all available documents to come to light. Gill's biography will stand the test of time as the first major study to mine the considerable scholarly possibilities that exist between church-sanctioned hagiography and muckraking exposé.

The virtues of Gill's biography are perhaps best appreciated when it's read alongside Caroline Fraser's book, God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church, the most damning critique of Christian Science to appear in 90 years. The polymath Martin Gardner, who has himself authored a scathing biography of Eddy, applauded Fraser's book in The Los Angeles Times Book Review as "a skillful account of Mary Baker Eddy's deluded, discombobulated life" and "the most powerful and persuasive attack on Christian Science to have been written in this century." In a rather contradictory review, Publishers Weekly acknowledged that Fraser's study was "a rousing exposé" but also called it "an evenhanded historical analysis."

Exposé, by its very nature, is never evenhanded. Fraser's agenda is clear from the outset, in her early declaration that "Christian Science has killed and maimed and materially damaged people," including, she relates, a childhood acquaintance who died of a ruptured appendix. Fraser learned of his death while in college, and the discovery forced her to admit that she "had never seen the healings that Christian Science promised. I had heard people talk about their healings, but I had never seen anyone healed at all, not anyone in our entire church."

In the preface Fraser, an evocative and skillful writer, describes her Christian Science upbringing. She portrays her mother as "a classic fair-weather Christian Scientist" who took birth control pills and slipped Fraser orange-flavored children's aspirins when the girl felt ill. Fraser's father, however, was a stern and upright Scientist who refused to have a radio or a lifejacket on his sailboat, "because we knew we would never have an accident requiring the use of one."

Fraser's personal history is only made explicit in the book's opening pages, though her negative experiences color all of the subsequent historical sections of the book. Her analysis of Eddy relies on secondary sources; she has borrowed liberally from copious negative biographies (including the infamous "Milmine" biography that is partially attributed to Willa Cather). Indeed, Fraser acknowledges in the book's opening line that she never sought access to the church's archives in Boston to conduct original research. Her 19th-century sections show all of the marks of a prejudiced historian; for example, she appropriately criticizes Eddy's reminiscences of her early life, written more than half a century after the events in question, but then accepts wholesale the ex post facto testimonies of neighbors who claimed they had known Eddy as a child.

By drawing almost exclusively on anti-Science biographies (except the one written by Scientist Robert Peel, which she employs only to ridicule), Fraser unquestioningly accepts the familiar litany of charges laid against Eddy. In her early life, this story goes, Mary Baker Glover Patterson Eddy was the equivalent of a welfare queen, freeloading on unsuspecting friends and family members while she sipped lemonade, complained of malaise, and rocked on their front porches. She was a rotten mom, to boot—too wrapped up in her own hysterical hypochondria to care for her only son. She hated men, and was probably frigid, informing third husband Asa Eddy that theirs would be a chaste relationship. Late in life, her unchecked social ambition, lack of scruples, and "mesmeric" personal charm landed her in a position of power, which she used to enrich herself. She died a paranoid, embittered, lonely woman.

Fraser never analyzes these caricatures, or stops to consider how heavily they are gender-biased. In her portrait, no subtlety or complexity of character is permissible. It is almost as if, in losing her childhood model of Eddy as savior, she could only substitute another childhood Disney character in its stead: the villainess.

Still, Fraser's book improves markedly as she enters the era she knows personally. The brightest sections deal with Christian Science and the law. Although Fraser's doctorate is in literature, she reveals a keen legal mind here as she argues relentlessly for the prosecution. She raises valuable constitutional questions about the accepted practice of providing Medicare payment for Christian Science care facilities. (Scientists have argued that their form of healing is religious and should be exempt from government scrutiny on the basis of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment; Fraser points out that Medicare payments for such "religious" healing violate the Establishment Clause of that same amendment.) Fraser also explores Christian Science's vast (though shrinking) network of nursing homes and sanatoriums, relying heavily upon accounts in the popular press and on personal interviews, particularly with those who have left the faith. She is able to provide an insider's view, however myopic, of a fascinating subculture.

Alas, these sections also suffer from Fraser's tiresome vendetta against the church of her youth. In describing one 1980s trial, she depicts Christian Science officials as "startlingly smug" in their healing ability, "although they had no hard scientific or statistical evidence supporting them. They seemed confident in the power of their church and proud of their ignorance of the human body and disease."

If Fraser's book is surpassed as biography by Gill's, it is outclassed as memoir by Barbara Wilson's deeply poignant Blue Windows: A Christian Science Childhood. Wilson can sometimes be as critical as Fraser, but her censures replace vitriol with the wisdom of time's passage. There are some unforgettable scenes. In 1956, Wilson lined up with the rest of her first grade class to receive the marvelous new Salk vaccine against polio. She clutched a note from her mother, explaining that the family was refusing the vaccination. As a six-year-old child, she was forced to defend ideals she did not yet fully understand to an angry teacher and school nurse.

Wilson's childhood was a complex mixture of warm security and stifling insularity. Christian Science gave her the conviction that God was love and that she was God's perfect Idea, but it also refused to acknowledge the realities of some of her childhood sufferings—not only the occasional illness, or even her mother's mental breakdown and death from cancer when Wilson was in junior high, but also sexual abuse. Christian Science, she says, could not give her names for the body parts she knew her uncle had violated; Christian Science steadfastly maintained that evil was merely illusion. "Being touched down there, being forced to lie there while it happened, was so far out of my experience and the experience of a totally good universe, that I couldn't assimilate it," Wilson writes.

Like almost everyone who has been critical of Christian Science, Wilson discusses Eddy's odd teaching about malicious animal magnetism (m.a.m.). Now downplayed by the church, m.a.m. involved the idea that practitioners could be mentally poisoned from a distance. (In one of her most notorious statements, Eddy claimed that her last husband had been "mentally murdered" by her enemies.) But unlike Fraser and other muckrakers of the Christian Science past, Wilson does not mock this particular teaching. Hers is a touching, deeply theological meditation on the human need to confront evil. "In some ways," she muses, "Christian Science, which presents such a benign face today, perhaps was healthier when Mrs. Eddy was struggling openly with her reputed mental poisoners and those who sought to maliciously magnetize her."

Indoctrinated by the irrepressible cheerfulness of a religion that denied the existence of evil and regarded death as an illusion, Wilson made it to high school before she'd ever heard of Hiroshima or Auschwitz. It was then that she lost her faith in the God of perfect love—"and I knew that once I let go of this God, the God of my childhood, I would not be able to believe in another one. And that meant I would cease to believe."

Issues of Christian Science belief lie at the core of Mrs. Eddy's textbook, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. It is at once a heady theological treatise and a pragmatic, down-to-earth handbook on spiritual healing. For various reasons, thousands of people—many of whom are not Christian Scientists—still turn to the book seeking comfort and the power to heal themselves and others.

Mark Twain wrote that "Christian Science, like Mohammedanism, is restricted to the unintelligent, the people who do not think."1 (No fan of 19th-century sectarian revelations, Twain also dismissed the Book of Mormon as "chloroform in print.") A century later, the church was promoting the new edition of Science and Health with a vigorous campaign, marketing the book "for people who aren't afraid to think." For the first time, the book is being carried by major chain bookstores, not just Christian Science Reading Rooms. After the trade edition was released in 1994, the book enjoyed total annual sales of 125,000 to 130,000 copies, more than doubling its previous distribution. Sales soon jumped to the next level: more than 200,000 copies of Science and Health were purchased in the year 2000, and in April of 2001 the church celebrated the purchase of the ten millionth copy of Eddy's textbook.

The new edition of Science and Health has been the particular project of the church's lively, highly visible chair of the board of directors, Virginia Harris. In promoting the book, Harris has appeared in some unlikely venues, including an improbable—and marvelous—1999 interview on Larry King Live. (It is perhaps an indication of the countercultural nature of Christian Science that during the hour-long interview, cnn chose to air national ads for Webmd.com, gingko biloba, and America's Pharmaceutical Companies.) Most oddly, Harris is a regular participant in the Harvard Medical School's Mind-Body Symposium. This last rapprochement is delightfully ironic, given the history of tension between Christian Scientists and the medical profession. "The medical schools would learn the state of man from matter instead of from Mind," Eddy admonished in Science and Health.

The book itself is essentially unchanged from previous 20th-century editions, though the Committee on Publication has added a "Publisher's Note" that addresses the reader in the second person and positions the book as an aid to spiritual seekers of all descriptions. In an interview Harris pointed out that when Eddy wrote it in 1875, there was no church. The denomination developed from the book, not the other way around.

Science and Health may help the church to capitalize on a trend now achieving cultural currency: the intersection of spirituality and health, as popularized by contemporary writers such as Deepak Chopra, Bernie Siegal, and Marianne Williamson. Spiritual healing, the cornerstone of Science and Health, could bring the book to a whole new generation of readers. Yet Christian Science's approach to the human body is fundamentally at odds with the body-spirit fusion mantras of many recent health books. For Christian Scientists, the key to health does not lie in more fully integrating the body and the spirit. True health is possible only when individuals recognize that the body itself is mortal mind, or error. Eddy taught that when people realized that divine Mind was all, and that the material world, including the body, was a mirage, then spiritual victory was possible: "God is Mind, and God is infinite; hence all is Mind."

Science and Health is a compelling book: a fascinating snapshot of 19th-century optimism, uncompromising in its commitment to spiritual wholeness, and liberally sprinkled with protofeminist overtones. Yet it is too early to say what effect, if any, rekindled outside interest in Eddy's text might exert on the church as an institution. As Mark Twain put it, "Environment is the chief thing to be considered when one is proposing to predict the future of Christian Science."2

Although the church enjoyed much of the prosperity of mainline Protestant denominations in the middle of the 20th century, preaching an enlightened gospel of culture and comfort, it has, like them, recently fallen on hard times. An aging and declining membership has weathered financial storms, protracted (and heavily publicized) legal disputes, and inner divisions. Fraser claims that branch churches are closing at an estimated rate of 2 percent annually, and that membership has likely fallen below the 100,000 mark. But like the persistent rumors of Eddy's death in the late 19th century (she didn't actually pass away until 1910, although the press chronicled her demise many times before that), the current forecasts of doom may be premature as Christian Science reinvents itself in a new millennium.

Most of the new readers who are discovering Science and Health and even incorporating its teachings into their own spiritual and medical practices are not becoming Christian Scientists. The same seekers who gravitate toward Christian Science's radical spiritual perspectives appear to be embracing Eddy's teachings as one more serving on the tray of cafeteria spirituality.

The new face of Christian Science has been concretized in a building: the Mary Baker Eddy Library for the Betterment of Humanity. Scheduled to open in Boston on September 29, this four-story, $23 million library—with state-of-the-art multi-media exhibits—will provide the public with unprecedented access to all of Eddy's previously unpublished writings. The body of this work—which has not been made available to scholars, church members, or the public before now—consists of half a million pages of letters, scrapbooks, theological writings, and other documents.

The library will sponsor core programs in American religious history, women's history, and medicine.

For the church it is a bold gamble. Almost certainly in that mass of papers there is material that will reignite old controversies and start new ones. But the library's website takes the long view, celebrating "the power of ideas throughout history," a potent if often underestimated force that all observers—adherents and critics alike—must reckon with in the story of Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science

Jana Riess, religion book review editor for Publishers Weekly, holds a doctorate in American religious history from Columbia University, as well as degrees from Wellesley College and Princeton Theological Seminary. She is the author of The Spiritual Traveler: Boston and New England, and recently wrote the foreword to a volume of Mary Baker Eddy's autobiographies. Both books will be released in September.

1. Mark Twain, Christian Science (Reprint. Oxford Univ. Press, 1996), p. 96.

2. Mark Twain, Christian Science, p. 93.

Books Considered in this Essay:

Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (The First Church of Christ, Scientist).

Caroline Fraser, God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church (Metropolitan, 1999).

Gillian Gill, Mary Baker Eddy (Perseus, 1998).

Barbara Wilson, Blue Windows: A Christian Science Childhood (Picador USA, 1997).

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