Christian Science emerged into the intellectual environment of the late 19th century claiming to being scientific and the only truly reliable method of healing. For many people, Mary Baker Eddy offered something they were hungering for, and her movement attracted an eager following.
When considering Eddy’s times, we should remember that nearly all of the advances we take for granted in medicine today simply did not exist. Modern medicine was in its infancy—the biological principles of health and disease were still being uncovered, explored, and refined. The insight that disease is caused by microbes and germs was still very new. While Eddy was working diligently on her many editions of Science & Health in Massachusetts, Louis Pasteur was hard at work in Paris validating the germ theory, which remains the scientific basis for modern medical prevention and treatment of infectious diseases.
While progress was being made in medical science by Pasteur, Joseph Lister, Robert Koch, and many others, medical treatment was primitive. For the general population in the late 19th century, treatment of disease was based on folklore or fad rather than science.The Victoria and Albert Museum tells us that
many conditions remained chronic or incurable. These limitations, together with the relatively high cost of medical attendance, led to the rise (or extension) of alternative therapies including homeopathy, naturopathy (‘herbal remedies’), hydropathy (water cures), mesmerism (hypnotism) and galvanism (electric therapy) as well as blatant fraudulence through the promotion of useless pills, powders and coloured liquids.
Because medicine was unreliable, quackery was rampant. Patent medicines were entirely unregulated and often harmful. Paul Offit describes it:
In the 1800s, medical hucksters could claim anything. Boston Drug cured drunkenness. Pond’s Extract treated meningitis. Hydrozone prevented yellow fever. Peruna calmed inflammation of the ovaries. Liquozone cured asthma, bronchitis, cancer, dysentery, eczema, gallstones, hay fever, malaria, and tuberculosis. And Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People treated all that and more. Sales were limited only by what customers were willing to believe. By the turn of the century, patent medicines were a $75-million-a-year business. 1
Anesthesia was not widely used until the end of the century, so most surgeries were limited to surface areas of the body and a patient’s tolerance of pain. Early anesthesia consisted ether or chloroform, and carried some risk of asphyxiation. An additional risk in this type of surgical setting is infection. In the United States, anti-septic was not common until the turn of the century, so the risk of infection from any surgery was high.
Given the abysmal state of medical and pharmaceutical practice in Eddy’s day, people would often be better off avoiding medical treatment and allowing the body to fight disease with its natural defenses. Glancing through the chapter “Fruitage” in Science and Health, one observes that many of the anecdotes of healing mention that the individual threw out their medicines or avoided surgery and felt better.
With the medical options of Eddy’s era so unreliable—and indeed, dangerous—it is not surprising that the notion that disease could be cured through mental means was very attractive. Indeed, some medical experts of the day suspected that some diseases had mental causes:
the 1848 edition of Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, with its coloured frontispiece showing the symptoms of smallpox, scarlet fever and measles, listed among the general causes of illness ‘diseased parents‘, night air, sedentary habits, anger, wet feet and abrupt changes of temperature. The causes of fever included injury, bad air, violent emotion, irregular bowels and extremes of heat and cold. Cholera, shortly to be epidemic in many British cities, was said to be caused by rancid or putrid food, by ‘cold fruits’ such as cucumbers and melons, and by passionate fear or rage. (emphasis mine)
Mesmerists, psychics, and faith-healers of the day peddled various forms of mental treatment of disease. Eddy’s mentor Phineas Parkhurst Quimby was one such ‘doctor’. Based on his experience with mesmerism he came to believe that all disease is caused by belief, although, unlike Eddy, he accepted disease as real. From Wikipedia:
Quimby developed a belief system that included the tenet that illness originated in the mind as a consequence of erroneous beliefs and that a mind open to God‘s wisdom could overcome any illness. His basic premise was “The trouble is in the mind, for the body is only the house for the mind to dwell in…Therefore, if your mind had been deceived by some invisible enemy into a belief, you have out into it the form of a disease, with or without your knowledge. By my theory or truth, I come in contact with your enemy, and restore you to health and happiness. This I do partly mentally, and partly by talking till I correct the wrong impression and establish the Truth, and the Truth is the cure.”
The Quimby-Eddy controversy is well documented, and Quimby’s influence on Eddy is undeniable. Eddy was his devoted disciple until his death, and she accepted and extended his theories of mental causation and treatment of disease. Indeed, she took Quimby’s notions of mental influence over the body to an extreme, as illustrated by the following absurd and dangerous anecdote in her first few editions of Science & Health.
An infant a few hours old was said to be immersed in water, to test the possibility of making him amphibious; and this daily ablution continued until the infant could remain under water, and the ordinary functions of lungs be suspended twenty minutes at one time, playing the while and enjoying the bath. The infant is wholly controlled by its parents’ belief; addressing the mother mentally, we have stopped the moaning and restlessness of her babe, but could not affect the child, except through its mother.
(Note: A variation of this story remains in the final, 1910 edition of Science and Health on pages 556-7)
The observation that mental and emotional states can cause or influence disease did not originate with Eddy but was a widespread belief in her times. Today, medical scientists and psychologists are making progress studying the placebo effect and related phenomena, with an eye toward clinical application. But the notion that all disease is caused by and can be cured only through a patient’s thought (as Mary Baker Eddy insisted) is a 19th century myth.
Christian Science grew rapidly in the late 19th century and through the first half of the 20th because medical science was not mature and medical therapies were unreliable or simply not available. Conversely, the remarkable advances of late-20th century medicine, especially in preventing and treating infectious disease, is a major factor in the decline of Christian Science in recent decades.
1 Paul A. Offit, M.D., Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine (Harper, 2013) p. 66.