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Remembering Mary Baker Eddy for her 200th birthday

For the Monitor
Published: 7/30/2021 4:32:29 PM

This year marked the 200th anniversary of the birth on a small farm in Bow, just south of Concord, of Christian Science founder and New Hampshire native daughter, Mary Baker Eddy.

After a pleasant childhood there in a warm, respected, devotedly Christian family, Eddy was confronted for years with little but disappointment: the premature death of her beloved husband, constant ill health, homelessness, poverty, the taking away of her little boy when she lived in Tilton, an unfaithful second husband, and disapproval by members of her New Hampshire family.

The tragedies set Eddy off on a determined search for healing. Although a devout Congregationalist and member of the Tilton church, she turned temporarily in many directions – including homeopathy, the then popular “water cure” and a form of mesmerism. But the “falling apple” descended on her after an accident in Lynn, Mass.

It wasn’t an end, but a beginning.

Injury from the accident directed her in urgent hope to the Bible, where she found a solace that compelled her to investigate even more earnestly. For three years, she searched out what she considered to be its inherent spiritual, not necessarily always literal, message. As a result, Eddy wrote later, Christian Science gradually came to her through “reason, revelation, and demonstration.”

Amazingly, at the beginning of the 20th century 40 years after her research began – while Eddy was still living – Christian Science had become the fastest growing religion in America. Eddy’s book of Bible commentary, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, was becoming a bestseller.

The glistening white dome of her Mother Church Extension – home of the religion’s central organization in Boston’s Back Bay – vied with the golden dome of the Massachusetts Statehouse. Stately branch churches were popping up from the now recently renovated Concord church across from the State House to branches in New York to California — and as far away as London and Melbourne.

In her old age, Mary Baker Eddy’s leadership of the Christian Science religion remained brilliant and tireless, topped off late in her life by her founding of the prestigious, nondenominational Christian Science Monitor, perhaps named after the Concord Monitor.

Today, Boston’s Christian Science Center surrounding the two Mother Church edifices, the Original and its Extension, covers almost 14 acres, featuring a lengthy reflecting pool and vaulting fountain, with a vast garage underneath.

Criticism and critique

During and beyond her time, Mary Baker Eddy and her religion were met with considerable criticism. Hostile writers portrayed her as an uppity, money-hungry, domineering, deluded woman, who had a large, equally deluded – even if at times cultivated – following.

Beyond parody, such literary luminaries as Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Upton Sinclair, and H. L. Mencken mercilessly attacked her. Ironically, leading determinist author, Theodore Dreiser, took to Christian Science more-or-less like a duck to water. Her enemies are reminiscent of poet William Butler Yeats’s line, “the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

In addition to the literary attacks – when in her mid-80s – newspapers and lawyers even pushed Mary Baker Eddy’s own family, picturing her as senile, to file suit in Concord, where she lived on Pleasant Street, to capture her possessions and control. Her sanguine hope was that the attacks would cease when they ceased to bless.

And so it happened when three “delegations” came to Eddy’s rescue:

Allan Hamilton, psychiatrist grandson of Alexander Hamilton, arrived at her Concord home and attested to her mental acuteness and knowledge of world affairs. Hamilton told The New York Times that the attacks on Eddy were the result of “a spirit of religious persecution that has at last quite overreached itself.”

Next came a court-appointed group of “Masters” to evaluate Eddy’s competency. Her personal maid, an Englishwoman named Adelaide Still, stood behind her facing the panel. Many years later, Miss Still reported that when Eddy was asked how she made her investments, she opened a drawer and pulled out a book about the growth of cities. She liked to invest in municipal bonds, she answered, and would refer to the book to see which were doing well. Still said the faces on the panel immediately relaxed, and she knew Eddy had made her case.

A similar verdict to Hamilton’s was made by Arthur Brisbane – one of the best-known American newspaper editors of the early 20th century – who also visited Eddy in Concord, and remarked on her intelligence and, again, on her grasp of world events.

Upon Brisbane’s death, William Randolph Hearst commented, “I know that Arthur Brisbane was the greatest journalist of his day.” Interestingly, Hearst, a non-adherent, later wrote about the Christian Science experience of his infant son, in critical condition because of a closed pylorus, but considered too frail to survive an operation. After a Christian Science practitioner was called in as a last resort, the child was healed overnight.

In an attempt to avoid further publicity about the withdrawn suit, Eddy bought virtually all the copies of a detailed book on the subject and took them off the market.

Further validation of Eddy’s insight came years later from a surprising source. Christian Science practitioner, George Nay, reported that Albert Einstein sometimes visited the Christian Science Reading Room in Princeton, New Jersey, and remarked after attending a service at Fifth Church, New York, “Do you realize what a wonderful thing you have?” Einstein’s secretary could not attest to those appearances, nor would she be expected to be able to.

It wasn’t until almost 60 years later that the full story of the suit and of Eddy’s life came out in a trilogy on her by Harvard-educated scholar, Robert Peel. Another scholarly biography with information about the attacks and the suit appeared thirty years after Peel’s, written by Cambridge-educated Gillian Gill, who had taught at, among other universities, Harvard and Yale, where she served as director of the Women’s Studies Program. Going through Eddy’s biography here would take too long; the works of those scholars are readily available for those interested.

Writers have often disparaged religious leaders. Wesley and Luther, and even Pope Francis today, haven’t been exempt. But Eddy and Science got hit hard. To non-believers, they were easy targets.

Eddy’s age was one of increasing materialism. In his 19th century poem, “Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold had lyricized the world’s growing religious skepticism: “The sea of faith was once ... at the full, and round earth’s shore ... lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled ... But now I only hear ... its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, retreating.”

In such a period, Mary Baker Eddy’s religion was just too much. Especially so in that she declared the ultimate reality of all to be spiritual – while emphasizing the need to remain wise about practical steps until that reality became more apparent. At base she wrote that matter is not the reality it appears to be; for that position she was and still is criticized.

Her radical stand for the ability of Spirit to harmonize, normalize, and heal body, mind, and daily situations must have been a puzzlement to her critics.

Even more, Eddy’s stand on the possible origin and ultimate disappearance of creation as we know it – whether as matter or energy. It seemed echoed years later in the big bang theory, positing that the universe evolved in an infinitesimal moment from essentially nothing – and might return to nothing at some point.

Mary Baker Eddy – from a theological point of view – opined a parallel proposition.

The religion today

What is the state of Eddy’s work today?

In the 1960s and early 1970s, some at Boston’s Mother Church appeared to hope that by the end of the 20th century the religion would mushroom, as it had at the beginning of the century. (Eddy had implied as much – if certain conditions were met.) So the immense Christian Science Center there rose in anticipation of that, called by the corporate term, “World Headquarters of the Christian Science Church.” (In contrast, the Boston Globe dubbed it, “a monument to Napoleonic grandiosity!”)

But the very opposite happened.

Churches around the country and the world began closing by the hundreds. There has been a general decline in churches of other denominations, too. Last spring surveys showed Americans’ membership in communities of worship had declined sharply in recent years, with less than 50% of the country belonging to a church, synagogue, or mosque.

That may reflect the issue today of institutional religion versus individual spiritual pursuit, reminiscent of the 1370s Oxford professor John Wycliffe’s belief that an individual can relate to God without the church. Since the Christian Science base was much smaller to begin with, the decline of the movement seems much greater.

In addition to the decline, building of the (then) hundred-million-dollar Center nearly bankrupted the Mother Church in the 1970s. And by the 1990s the world learned of a half-a-billion dollar loss in funds in an ambitious, ill conceived, and poorly managed, multi-media venture, nearly bankrupting the church yet again. In the process, the church siphoned off funds from Eddy’s New Hampshire trust, called “Trustees under the Will of Mary Baker Eddy,” and an extended court suit ensued.

Not long after, the church initiated a multifaceted public relations effort at one end of the church’s publishing house costing over $50,000,000, not counting the use of the space – clearly conceived by a PR agency – now augmented by an expensive new exhibit. The facility was called “The Mary Baker Eddy Library,” whereas Eddy had modestly insisted that nothing be named after her.

In creating the so-called “library,” an architect did violence to three dignified spaces in the handsome 1930s building. To give credit where credit is due, the fourth portion containing the former Church Archives expertly maintains and shares the church’s extensive historic files, including thousands of Eddy letters.

Publicity is a form of advertising, something Eddy generally avoided, although she did set up a church department to correct “impositions upon the public” concerning her, her religion, and her church.

They didn’t need advertising; they needed protection.

Since those events, public reports came that the two Mother Church buildings next to each other in Boston had been in serious disrepair for some time with small portions beginning to sink on their wooden pilings, that two of the striking I. M. Pei designed buildings around the Church Center plaza were rented out, that the iconic Pei designed Sunday School building had closed and remains empty, and that a section of the church’s block-long publishing house was let out, as well. The plaza bricks were even being laid for the third time.

That’s not to say that the church today is impoverished. Not at all. It now holds undefined assets of a billion-and-a-half dollars and growing. They’re the results of, among other things, major real estate assets, sales, and development, serious cost cutting, relinquishment of financial responsibility for two large nursing homes, sale of an impressive retirement home on Pleasant Street, realization of about $14,000,000 from the sale of two of Eddy’s former homes, denial of cost-of-living retirement increases, income from legacies, and to a degree results of sales of the large number of closed branches – and most regrettable of all, reducing support for its great non-denominational “missionary” and gift to the world, The Christian Science Monitor newspaper.

Mary Baker Eddy once said to Lida Fitzpatrick, a worker in her household, “The building up of churches, the writing of articles, and the speaking in public is the old way of building up a cause.” Despite her praise while in Concord for the huge “Excelsior Extension” in Boston (next to the original, smaller Romanesque church) – in order not to deflate her followers – what did she say to the household about it? “Too much matter. Too much matter.”

And former Church Archivist, Dr. Lee Johnson observed that when Eddy became informed of the organization of a new branch church, she is said to have commented, “No, not another one!” The exact circumstances under which she may have made the comment may never be known. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, she apparently helped pay off the expenses of at least two branch churches, including the one in Concord.

Dr. Johnson also reported that Eddy set out one fine day from her final home in Chestnut Hill outside Boston to see the Extension. As she drew near, she’s said to have instructed her coachman to reverse course and return home. Arriving there, she announced to the household, “Mary wanted to go,” signifying a differentiation between human curiosity, or even vanity, and spiritual humility and self-renunciation.

Johnson felt that about the beginning of the 20th century, the ardor in the movement seemed to have gotten beyond Eddy’s control.

Anecdotes

In addition to the occasional outsized portrayals, both pro and con, of Mary Baker Eddy, there are wonderful narratives that “humanize” her, showing her kindness and, yes, charm, but cannot always be hard-documented.

For example, when she learned that her pupil, church director Ira Knapp, a native of New Hampshire, was severely criticizing Scientists who commemorated birthdays – which she considered a celebration of mortality – she sent his son Bliss a birthday present.

Eddy also found that some in her working household puritanically condemned two of her respected followers for conceiving a child – former Presbyterian minister, poet, and future Christian Science Mother Church director, William McKenzie, and his wife Daisette. So she sent them a baby carriage.

On one occasion, Eddy returned early from one of her daily carriage drives to find a plumber installing a new radiator. She interrupted him and announced that she’d had one just like it when living on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, and that it had pounded. She didn’t want another one. The plumber replied that it was the finest radiator available and wouldn’t pound. He was a Roman Catholic, and if it pounded, he said he’d become a Christian Scientist. Eddy walked on, saying, “I hope it pounds!”

And there’s another appealing story about Mary Baker Eddy, the person: When she invited neighbors to meet her on the lawn of her Concord home, a Quaker couple and their daughter came up to greet her. Eddy was beautifully clothed in a fine dress, probably with jet sewn on and probably supplied by the renegade founder of New York’s original First Church, Augusta Stetson. Eddy couldn’t help noticing that the Quakers were taken aback by its richness.

The next day she donned her usual, modest housedress, took to her carriage, and instructed her amanuensis, Calvin Frye, to drive her to the Quakers’ home. Alighting there, Eddy proceeded directly to the front door. When they answered her knock, she gently asked them – referring to her simple housedress and using Quaker language – “Doth this please thee more!”

A reformation

Although she founded a church, Mary Baker Eddy saw her religion not so much as just a denominational innovation but as a Christian reform and a reinstatement of Jesus’s meanings and example, reaffirming spiritual healing. At an early point she had even thought the Christian world would accept her reasoning.

It did not.

So the logic of events led her to found her own organization. However, even then she wrote, “If our church is organized, it is to meet the demand, ‘Suffer it to be so now.’ The real Christian compact is love for one another.”

Instigating that reform and establishing that church wasn’t easy. She once said she could have been an old lady in a cap. Nevertheless, she persisted and later wrote of the consequences to her of doing so:

“As the pioneer of Christian Science I stood alone in this conflict, endeavoring to smite error with the falchion of Truth. The rare bequests of Christian Science are costly ... Ceaseless toil, self-renunciation, and love ... The motive of my earliest labors has never changed. It was to relieve the sufferings of humanity ... No one else can drain the cup which I have drunk to the dregs as the Discoverer and teacher of Christian Science; neither can its inspiration be gained without tasting this cup.”

Whatever reform Christian Science may constitute – and to whatever degree it is acting as “leaven” in world religious thought today, if any – the world may yet have to see. Even if in decline, any reasonable, legitimate, and useful movement, pruned to its original fundamentals, may sprout again.

The Book of Job says: “For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground; Yet through the scent of water, it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant.” (Job 14)

Poet Yeats raises a compelling end-times question about the possible resurgence of Christian belief in general:

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

J. Denis Glover, summer janitor at the former Christian Science Pleasant View Home on Pleasant Street, is author of a novel, “The Smithy Miracles.” Glover holds a degree from Columbia University in British and American Literature. His and his wife’s extended family include Sephardic Jews, Roman Catholics (one a nun), German Lutherans, Episcopalians, Christian Scientists, and two Methodist ministers.


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