By Jeremy, an Ex-Christian Scientist group editor/writer.
Like almost any other religion, Christian Science has its own mythology: those stories that form the core of the faith’s origins, and which often serve to bind its followers together and to the faith, and to validate the faith’s claims. A central story in the anthology of Christian Science myths is what’s often referred to as the ‘Fall On The Ice In Lynn (Massachusetts)’. If you visit the city of Lynn, which is just north of Boston, you can see a memorial plaque at the location at the corner of Market Street and Oxford Street in the downtown area, where our story starts. Anyone who has grown up in, or been in Christian Science for any amount of time knows the story well. This is considered to be the central event that led directly to Mary Baker Eddy’s ‘discovery’ of Christian Science.
A foundational legend of the origins of Christian Science
On February 1, 1866, Eddy was on her way to a Temperance movement meeting in downtown Lynn. She slipped and fell on the ice-covered sidewalk and was transported unconscious to a nearby house, where a doctor was summoned to treat her.
According to Eddy’s account, her condition was beyond the ability of medical practice to help. She claimed that the attending doctor gave her only a few days to live. Somehow, she managed the strength to ask for her Bible and began a deep study of it, focusing her attention particularly on Jesus’s healing of a paralyzed man (Matthew 9:2). Miraculously, after about three days, she had an ‘immediate recovery’:
It was in Massachusetts, in February, 1866. . .that I discovered the Science of divine metaphysical healing which I afterwards named Christian Science.1
From this point on, so the story goes, Eddy sought to understand and ultimately explain this miraculous healing. She claimed an “immediate recovery” from the effects of her injury.
My immediate recovery from the effects of an injury caused by an accident, an injury that neither medicine nor surgery could reach, was the falling apple that led me to the discovery how to be well myself, and how to make others so.2
Some overlooked facts
There is no doubt that Eddy fell on the ice on a cold February evening in Lynn in 1866 and was taken unconscious to a nearby home where she was seen by a local physician. Beyond this, the story starts to take on the traits of a myth. There is fact and truth at its core, but it is shrouded in a blanket of hyperbole and exaggeration. Here are some facts that are ignored or revised in the ‘official’ Christian Science canon:
- The injury Eddy suffered was not life-threatening or nearly as serious as claimed by Eddy: Eddy claimed that the attending doctor, Dr. Alvin Cushing, told her that there was no hope for her recovery and that she only had about three days more to live.3 According to Cushing’s own records, consisting of case notes he made at the time he treated Eddy, that is not true. In a sworn affidavit, Cushing, referring to his notes, directly refutes a central part of Eddy’s version of events: “I did not at any time declare, or believe, there was no hope for Mrs. Patterson’s recovery, or that she was in critical condition, and did not at any time say, or believe, that she had but three or any other limited number of days to live.” (sworn affidavit of Dr. Alvin Cushing, January 2, 1907 – Hampden County, Massachusetts).4 Eddy also was treated on at least two subsequent occasions by Cushing following her miraculous three-day recovery, as well as professional visits in August of that year.5
- The ‘healing’ may not have been as quick, complete, and/or miraculous as later claimed by Eddy and her followers: just two weeks after her fall in Lynn, Eddy also sought metaphysical treatment from Julius Dresser, a fellow student of Phineas Parkhurst Quimby. In her imploring letter to him, she expressed a feeling quite opposite of what she portrays in her own autobiographical recollection: “Two weeks ago I fell on the sidewalk . . .and was taken up for dead . . . ” She goes on to say, “The physician attending said I had taken the last step I ever should but in two days I got out of my bed alone, and will walk; but yet I confess I am frightened, and out of that nervous heat my friends are forming, spite of me, the terrible spinal affection from which I have suffered so long and hopelessly.”6 Eddy also was treated on at least three subsequent occasions by Cushing following her ‘immediate’ three-day recovery.
- Eddy initiated a lawsuit against the City of Lynn in connection to the accident: it is worth noting, as one considers the veracity of Eddy’s claims of the epiphanic nature of this ‘healing’, that she began the process (later rescinded) of suing the city, claiming that the city was responsible for her injuries due to unsafe conditions in the street. In a petition presented to the city in the summer of 1866, she stated that she was seeking damages for “serious personal injuries from which she had little prospect of recovering.“7 (emphasis is mine).
- Eddy didn’t cite her 1866 fall and ‘healing‘ until years later: Nowhere in her published writings does Eddy describe a ‘fall on the ice’ (it only occurs in her letter to Julius Dresser). Her slim autobiography, Retrospection and Introspection, published in 1891, refers vaguely to “an injury caused by an accident.” (p. 24) She goes on to say that after her recovery she “withdrew from society about three years, — to ponder my mission, to search the Scriptures, to find the Science of Mind that should take the things of God and show them to the creature, and reveal the great curative Principle,–Diety.” (pp. 24-25) If her 1866 accident and miraculous healing had been the revelatory event that led to her ‘discovery‘ of Christian Science, one would think she would have mentioned it in her early writings. But the first edition of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, which appeared in 1875, makes no reference to the event. Only years later, well after the establishment of her church, does she refer to a healing of an injury in 1866.
Some concluding thoughts
As one who grew up in and practiced Christian Science for 41 years, I took the story of the ‘Fall In Lynn’ as the origin point of my faith. This story was presented as the first and penultimate proof of the effectiveness of Christian Science as a healing agent. Mary Baker Eddy was near death, and she miraculously healed herself, and from that moment on she set about to putting her ‘discovery’ to words and sharing this system of healing with the world. That is the story that I and many others accepted as the whole and complete truth. It is the version that fuels the legend of Christian Science, and gives it its so-called ‘power’.
The facts presented here cast serious doubt on the veracity of Eddy’s and Christian Scientists’ claims regarding this important origin story. Sometimes, memories of events change over time, stories get embellished a bit, and smaller details get lost in the mists of one‘s memory. But in this case, it appears that Eddy fashioned this story in later years to create a revelatory myth for the origin of her religion. More than a few biographers, both friendly and critical, have mentioned Eddy’s propensity for shaping the truth to suit her needs.
Many religions have a singular origin moment or series of events that spark their birth. For instance, the Mormons have the story of the tablets containing the Book of Mormon being revealed to Joseph Smith in the woods of upstate New York; for Muslims, it is the 22-year period in which Muhammad received revelations he believed to be from God, which were recorded in the Qur’an. History is replete with many other such stories. Eddy and her followers turned a winter accident that resulted in a serious, but not really life-threatening injury into a virtual raising–of–the–dead myth that led to the discovery of the ‘miraculous’ healing system known as Christian Science.
1 Eddy, Mary B. G. Retrospection and Introspection. Boston, Massachusetts: The Christian Science Board of Directors, 1892. 24. Print.
3 Gill, Gillian. Mary Baker Eddy. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus Books, 1998. 162. Print.
4 Milmine, Georgine. The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy: and the History of Christian Science. New York, New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909. 84-86. Print.
6 Gill, p. 158.
Mary Baker Eddy (Wikipedia article).
Christian Science (Wikipedia article).