By a contributor to The Ex-Christian Scientist.
When Eddy died in 1910 her estate was assessed at approximately three million dollars.1 According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, that’s roughly equivalent to $73 million2 in 2016 terms—an inflation multiplier of 24x. But that figure may be too low because the BLS calculator is formulated on prices for consumer goods and services (food, clothing, fuel, rent, etc.). The prices of investment assets rise at different rates than for consumer goods, and wealthy people have a lot of investment assets. Take real estate, for example: Mary Baker Eddy’s Chestnut Hill home was purchased for her in 1907 for about $100,000; it was sold by The Mother Church in 2006 for $13.3 million, an inflation multiplier of 133x. We know that Eddy invested in real estate and mortgages,3 so her equivalent net worth in 2016 dollars is probably much higher than $73 million. There are only two pathways to that kind of wealth: you can either be a successful entrepreneur or an investor. Mary Baker Eddy was both.
Eddy’s principal entrepreneurial endeavor was teaching. One of her first students was Richard Kennedy, who in 1870 signed a contract to pay her $1,000 for instruction, after which he would pay her 50 percent of the revenues from his healing practice.4 Kennedy did very well as a healer, “attracting lines of patients, achieving a solid percentage of cures, and making a comfortable living.”5 By the time he and Eddy parted ways in 1872, she had accumulated about $6,000 from Kennedy’s payments to her.6
Eddy taught classes in mental healing to dozens of students in the 1870s, initially for a fee of $100, later raised to $300.7 Biographer Robert Peel states that $300 was about one-third the annual earnings of a shoe factory worker, who were typical of her students. A worker in 2016 earning the average hourly wage for factory labor of $11.658 makes $23,300 per year, so Eddy’s $300 tuition in the 1870s, is comparable to a factory worker of today paying $7,800.
Why were working class people willing to give up that kind of money to take Eddy’s course in mental healing? Consider a wage inflation factor of 26x from the difference in factory labor between 2016 and the 1870s ($23,300 vs. $900). If Richard Kennedy grossed $12,000 in three years of practice (Eddy’s 50 percent x 2), that works out to more than $300,000 in today’s terms ($12,000 x 26). Now that we understand that Dr. Kennedy was earning the equivalent of $100,000 per year, it makes sense that Eddy’s students were willing to pay a high tuition fee on the hope that they too could start a practice as a ‘doctor’. Indeed, one biographer reveals that Eddy initially marketed her textbook, Science and Health, as “presenting ‘opportunity to acquire a profession by which you can acquire a fortune.'”9
Biographer Gillian Gill estimates that approximately 1,000 students attended Eddy’s Massachusetts Metaphysical College during the eight years it was in operation in the 1880s.10 Tuition was $300, although many students were charged less. Let’s assume that actual charged tuition averaged $200, then Eddy’s total revenue during that period would have been about $200,000. Applying the 26x inflation factor again, that translates to potentially over $5 million in today’s dollars. Thus we can see that by 1898, Eddy was well on her way to becoming wealthy.
After earning a diploma from the College, many students went back to their towns and hung out a shingle as a ‘doctor’ (there was no regulation of health professions in those days, and the title, ‘doctor’ was freely used by all sorts of legitimate and illegitimate health practitioners). The contracts Eddy’s students had signed required that they remit a percentage of their revenues back to her. Basically, Eddy had created a business franchise. The College provided the training the franchisees needed to enter business under license, and their new businesses provided an income stream to the franchisor, Mary Baker Eddy. She enforced her contracts by suing students who did not remit their required percentages.11
Sales of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures provided another long-term income stream. The so-called Christian Science ‘textbook’ was indeed priced like a textbook, approaching $100 in 2016 terms. Eddy revised it constantly (over 400 revisions), and she insisted that students should always have the most recent edition. Consequently, sales never declined with passing years–even if students upgraded only at major revisions. According to her publisher’s accounts, she was paid $45,000 in royalties for the three years’ sales ending in 189512—well over $1 million in today’s dollars.
Always the entrepreneur, Eddy also profited from the sale in Christian Science Reading Rooms, of various jewelry items.13 The Mary Baker Eddy souvenir spoon for example, with her visage on the handle and her Pleasant View estate in the bowl,14 sold for $5. In an 1899 issue of the Christian Science Journal, Eddy directed that ‘each Scientist shall purchase at least one spoon, and those who can afford it, one dozen spoons.” Five dollars is merely an expensive cup of coffee today, but it was equivalent to about $125 in 1899. Even if only a few thousand spoons were sold—well, you can do the math!
The evidence is clear that Mary Baker Eddy was quite successful at generating income via her entrepreneurial ventures. Evidence also exists that she was also a successful investor. As early as 1872, she purchased two mortgages, and in 1874, she entered into a real estate partnership with a broker and an associate to purchase property.15 In the mid 1890s, she invested $12,000 in mortgages and landholdings in Kansas through an agent.16 The extent of her investments is not known however, due to the confidential nature of such matters, and Eddy’s use of agents to conceal her role as principal. We know for example, that she employed a straw buyer and other deceptive tactics to acquire control of the land upon which The Mother Church was built, a stratagem that enabled her to buy the property at half the original price.17
In my experience as an accountant and auditor, I have found the old adage “follow the money” to be useful in shedding light on an individual’s motivations. As Jesus so aptly put it, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”18 In light of what we know of Mary Baker Eddy’s financial history, it is clear that accumulating wealth was a priority for her. She succeeded because she marketed Christian Science brilliantly and invested shrewdly. It is ironic to note however, that although she made a lot of money by marketing healing, she didn’t necessarily practice healing, at least not too much. In fact, she adamantly refused to take patients—even the case of her own gravely ill grandchild.19 Gill, from a feminist perspective I suppose, admires Eddy’s “financial acumen.”20 But Mark Twain, when he called her “that shameless old swindler,”21 is closer to my sentiment.
1 Gill, Gillian. Mary Baker Eddy. Reading, MA: Perseus Books, 1998. 553. Print.
2 The BLS Inflation Calculator only goes back to 1913, which is close enough to the year of Eddy’s death (1910) for the purposes of this article.
3 Gill, 211.
4 Fraser, Caroline. God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church. New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 1999. 56. Print.
5 Gill, 192.
6 Gill, 211.
7 Gill, 194.
8 “Factory Worker Salary (United States).” Payscale Human Capital. 12 Jan. 2016. Web. 3 Sep. 2016.
9 Dakin, Edwin Franden. Mrs. Eddy: The Biography of a Virginal Mind. New York, NY: Blue Ribbon Books, 1929. 115. Print.
10 Gill, 282.
11 Gill, 251.
12 Milmine, Georgine. The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1909). Kindle loc. 6868. Print.
13 Milmine, Kindle loc. 7382.
14 Fraser, photo plate after p. 370.
15 Gill, 211-212.
16 Gill, 484.
17 Fraser, 105.
18 Matthew 6:21.
19 Gill, 484.
20 Gill, 211.
21 Fraser, 123.
You can learn more about many of the books cited above on our Recommend Books page.