By Susanna, an Ex-Christian Scientist Group contributor. Susanna is a pseudonym, to ensure anonymity.
I studied American history in college and especially women’s history, and that was the first glimmer of a way of understanding the context of Christian Science in terms of what Mary Baker Eddy and her followers experienced in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
There was profound ignorance about our bodies and the reasons that people of all ages suddenly fell sick and died, so the public’s fear and superstition regarding doctors at the time is understandable. There was shame and fear associated with practically all aspects of womanhood—pregnancy, menstruation, sexuality. I can imagine that anything that seemed to make sense of the physical world in a way that gave people a sense of control and order would have been very welcome. Doctors were essentially untrained caretakers, and the field was full of both well-meaning ignorance and greedy quackery. Mary Baker Eddy and the people of her time never could have envisioned the kind of advanced health infrastructure and workforce that we have today, or the ways that most people are able to take charge of their own health care in this era.
Over the course of the twentieth century, advances in medical care and the availability of drugs like penicillin and vaccinations were matched by a steady decline in Christian Science adherents. Those who remain are overwhelmingly white, privileged, mostly older Americans with a sprinkling in Europe and elsewhere. They are, disproportionately, people who are living in relative comfort, highly educated, and with the lowest risk factors for disease in the history of the world. It is easy, therefore, for them to credit Christian Science for their good fortune, until it is shattered by accident, disease, or mental illness.
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.
Originally published at kindism.org, republished with permission and slight modification.
Each Mind a Kingdom, firmly places Ms. Eddy in the historical context of the New Thought movement, as an undeniable student of Quimby, and inspiration for several prominent New Thought leaders (aka renegade students), one of whom, Emma Curtis Hopkins, went on to inspire a much larger group of prominent individuals in the New Thought movement.
Satter touches on Ms. Eddy’s control of the Christian Science “brand” through copyright and church structure, verses the New Thought movement’s lack of organized framework, and popular teachers having their own followings/ideas. When you think of Christian Science, you think of Ms. Eddy, when you think of New Thought there are nearly a dozen big names who have influenced the movement over the years, each adding their own interpretations and ideas to the mix.
Each Mind a Kingdom, is a dense read, heavy on the historical and sociological aspects of the New Thought movement. It also addresses the evolution of the New Thought ideas from Quimby, through his primary students: Dresser, Eddy and Evans, and their students, and so on, as they are modified, re-worked, and shared.
Satter discusses the social and economic conditions in which these ideas began, and why they were popular with white, upper and middle class women. New Thought provided women a platform with which to make, among other things, social reforms, and economic opportunities through income from faith healing, lectures, pamphlets, and teaching.
I highly recommend Each Mind a Kingdom for anyone who is interested in the origins of Ms. Eddy’s and New Thought ideas, as well as the broader context in which Ms. Eddy began her religion.
The following timeline is designed to put Christian Science after Mary Baker Eddy’s passing in context with medical advances and historical events of the day. Bolded events are of importance to the Christian Science movement, and the context in which they occur should be taken into account.
This is by no means an exhaustive timeline, merely a starting place for further exploration.
Timeline of Christian Science, Medical Advances, and Historical Events (1920 – present):
1936: American Medical Association’s Council on Foods becomes Council on Foods & Nutrition; council offers AMA Seal of Acceptance to food manufacturers who pass advertising and content tests and who conform with Food and Drug Act; council encourages enriching milk with vitamin D to prevent rickets, and salt with iodine to prevent goiter. In 1938, it publishes The Normal Diet, containing the first authoritative dietary recommendations for Americans.
1938: In April of this year, a six-member committee of editors and former editors of Christian Science periodicals was assembled “to discover just what Mrs. Eddy believed concerning herself with respect to Scriptural prophecy.” The committee was given access to Mrs. Eddy’s private correspondence, and published writings. (http://www.endtime.org/2ndcoming/2ndcoming.html)
1943: The Christian Science Board of Directors published a statement that Mrs. Eddy regarded herself as having fulfilled Bible prophecy in the July issue of the Christian Science Journal.
1948: The Destiny of The Mother Church, by Bliss Knapp is written. Controversy begins as Board of Directors sends letter pointing out its false views. Instead of revising it, Knapp left a trust with approximately $100 million (in 1990s dollars) to revert to The Mother Church if it ever published his work as ‘authorized literature’.
1963: Nancy Brewster, age seven dies of an undiagnosed condition, “probable malignant lymphoma” according to her death certificate. Her Christian Scientist parents did not seek medical attention for her.
1967: Lisa Sheridan, age five of Cape Cod, Massachusetts dies of pneumonia. She had been sick for a number of weeks, and her Christian Scientist mother did not seek medical treatment for her. This case is the subject of a book by journalist Leo Damore, The Crime of Dorothy Sheridan.
1974: The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (Public Law 93-247) (also known as CAPTA) was passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by President Nixon. Among its provisions was one that required states to insert an exemption into their child protection laws that protect Christian Scientist parents from prosecution if their children die or suffer harm due to the practice of Christian Science, or risk losing federal funding for child protection. As a result, most states adopt such exemptions into their laws.
1977: Matthew Swan dies at the age of 16 months due to spinal meningitis after his parents unsuccessfully tried to treat him through prayer in Christian Science. His parents, Rita and Doug Swan, later left the Church and founded C.H.I.L.D., Inc.
1983: The U.S. federal requirement for religious exemptions in CAPTA (see above) to prosecution under child protection laws was repealed. Despite this, more than 30 states still retain these exemptions in some form.
1983: C.H.I.L.D. is formed to end child abuse or neglect related to religion, cultural practices, or quackery through public education, research, legal action, and a limited amount of lobbying. http://childrenshealthcare.org
1984: Shauntay Walker, age four, dies of untreated meningitis after her mother, a convert to Christian Science, does not seek medical attention for her.
1984: Monitor Radio is launched.
1986: Robyn Twitchell, age two dies due to an obstructed bowel after his Christian Scientist parents did not seek medical treatment for him.
1986: Amy Hermanson, age seven died from untreated diabetes, which her Christian Scientist parents did not have medically treated.
1986: WQTV, a Boston-area television station is purchased by The Christian Science Publishing Society.
1987: WCSN a shortwave radio station constructed by The Christian Science Publishing Society begins broadcasting from Maine.
1988: World Monitor television program launched–broadcast on the Discovery Channel.
1989: WSHB a shortwave radio station in South Carolina, built by The Christian Science Publishing Society, begins operations.
1989: Ian Lundmann, age 11 dies from untreated diabetes after his Christian Scientist parents did not seek medical attention for him.
1990: Ginger and David Twitchell are convicted of manslaughter in the 1986 death of their son Robyn. The conviction is later overturned by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court overturned the conviction, and this led to the repeal of the exemption in Massachusetts law to prosecution of parents who deny their children medical care on religious grounds.
2002: The Mary Baker Eddy Library opens. Its underlying purpose is so the Christian Science Church can retain copyright over all unpublished writings of Mary Baker Eddy. This includes letters and articles not in the actual possession of the Church or Library.
2004: WSHB, is sold to LeSEA Broadcasting.
2009: The Christian Science Monitor publishes its last daily print edition on March 27th. As a cost-saving measure, it moves to an on-line platform, with a weekly news-magazine and daily subscription-based e-mail updates.
2010: The Affordable Care Act, popularly known as ‘ObamaCare’ is signed into law, requiring all residents of the United States to carry ‘appropriate’ health insurance. It does not contain a suitable exemption for Christian Scientists regarding the mandate to carry health insurance. The exemption that does exist applies narrowly to a few groups such as the Amish and Mennonites.
2010: The Christian Science Church unveils plans to redevelop the Christian Science Plaza in Boston.
The following timeline is designed to put Mary Baker Eddy’s life and discovery of Christian Science in historical context by showing Eddy’s achievements along with medical advances and historical events of the day. Bolded events are of importance to the Christian Science movement, and the context in which they occur should be taken into account.
This is by no means an exhaustive timeline, merely a starting place for further exploration.
1899: AMA appoints a committee to report on the nature of tuberculosis, means of control, public education and advisability of establishing national and state sanitariums. AMA urges that local boards of health adopt laws requiring compulsory smallpox vaccination.
1899: Massachusetts Metaphysical College is re-opened as an auxiliary to the Church.
1906: The ‘Extension’ of The Mother Church edifice is completed.
1907: Mark Twain publishes Christian Science.
1907:March – ‘Next Friends’ lawsuit – William Chandler, a former New Hampshire state senator, filed a suit on behalf of a group of plaintiffs referred to as Mrs. Eddy’s “next friends.” They included Mrs. Eddy’s son, George Glover, her granddaughter, Mary Baker Glover, her nephew, George W. Baker, and others. The stated object of the so-called ‘Next Friends’ suit was to declare the 85-year-old Eddy incompetent to manage her own interests and income.
One of the most important things to keep in mind when talking about Mary Baker Eddy is the context in which she founded Christian Science. With this in mind, we at The Ex-Christian Scientist are devoting the Sundays in October to sharing information and additional resources.
The following resources are for people who wish to explore Mary Baker Eddy’s life and Christian Science in a broader context. This is by no means an exhaustive list, merely a starting place for further exploration.
Each Mind a Kingdom: American Women, Sexual Purity, and the New Thought Movement, by Beryl Satter
The New Thought Movement was an enormously popular late nineteenth-century spiritual movement led largely by and for women. Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science is but one example of the fascinating range of these groups, which advocated a belief in mind over matter and espoused women’s spiritual ability to purify the world. (via Amazon)
Institutions cataloging Mary Baker Eddy’s Life & the History of Christian Science
The Mary Baker Eddy Library opened in 2002 as a place for people to explore the life, ideas, and achievements of Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910), a remarkable nineteenth-century New England woman who overcame adversity to write a groundbreaking book on religion, health, and spirituality. She was a woman decades ahead of her time, pioneering such fields as business, education, and publishing.
Daystar Foundation & Library– Daystar Foundation and Library was established in 1990 with the purpose to collect, care for, and make available books, papers, and memorabilia relating to the early days of Christian Science, its Discoverer and Founder, Mary Baker Eddy, and those individuals who helped her in the fledgling stages of the Christian Science movement.
Longyear Museum– Longyear Museum is an independent historical museum dedicated to advancing the understanding of the life and work of Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer, Founder, and Leader of Christian Science.