Fillmore, Charles and Myrtle

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FILLMORE, CHARLES AND MYRTLE . Myrtle (Mary Caroline) Page Fillmore (18451931) and Charles Sherlock Fillmore (18541948), a married couple, were the founders of Unity, the largest and most distinctly Christian movement in the New Thought tradition. They are the most notable students of New Thought's founder, Emma Curtis Hopkins (18491925). From its inception, Charles Fillmore was the leader of the movement and the primary force in the development of Unity's theological system and institutional structures. Although less visible than her husband, Myrtle Fillmore was equally important to the emergence and early expansion of the movement, with the healing of her tuberculosis in 1888 precipitating the movement's founding.

Myrtle was born in Pagetown, Ohio, the eighth of nine children. Her parents were prominent members of the local Methodist Episcopal Church. Unity biographical literature describes her as "not robust" and at times "seriously ill," but also "active and enthusiastic." Before entering college, she worked briefly as a newspaper writer. In 1868, after a year of study at Oberlin College, she was licensed as a teacher and began a career as a teacher in Clinton, Missouri. In an effort to maintain her fragile health, a result of suffering from both tuberculosis and malaria, in 1874 she relocated to Denison, Texas, where she established a private school.

Charles was born on a Chippewa reservation near Saint Cloud, Minnesota, the oldest of two sons. He had little contact with his father, who separated from the family when he was seven. Charles remained close to his mother until her death in 1931. Although his mother was a devout Episcopalian, she and her sons seldom attended church services. At the age of ten, Charles suffered a severe hip injury, which disabled him for two years and resulted in permanent damage to his right leg. As a result of his physical challenges and the necessity of finding employment to support the household, Charles's formal education ended when he was fourteen, although he did receive tutoring throughout his teens from Caroline Taylor, a graduate of Oberlin College. His studies with Taylor included readings in philosophy and theology. In 1874 Charles left Saint Cloud for the frontier town of Caddo in what is now Oklahoma. Shortly after his arrival he moved to Denison and took a job with the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad.

Myrtle and Charles met in Denison in 1876 and were married in Clinton, Missouri, in 1881. From 1881 to 1884, the Fillmores resided in Pueblo, Colorado, where Charles Fillmore was a real-estate partner with Charles Small, the husband of Alethea Brooks Small (18481906), who later played an important role in the founding of Divine Science. Following opportunities in the West's volatile real-estate market, the Fillmores moved to Omaha, Nebraska, and after a brief residency there they moved to Kansas City, Missouri. It was there that they founded Unity in 1889.

Before beginning their religious work, the couple had pursued livelihoods common to persons living in the nineteenth-century Midwest. Myrtle had been a teacher, and prior to his real estate career, Charles had held jobs as a printer's assistant, railroad freight inspector, mule-team driver, insurance salesperson, and assayer. They were active in the temperance movement, attended Methodist and Episcopal churches, and were exposed to Spiritualism and perhaps Theosophy. They had three sonsLowell (18821975), Rickert (18841965), and Royal (18891923), each of whom was active in the Unity movement, with Lowell succeeding his father as president of Unity School of Christianity.

In 1886, at the same time the Kansas City real-estate market was beginning to decline, Myrtle experienced a flare-up of her tuberculosis. Seeking relief, she and Charles attended a lecture by E. B. Weeks, a mental healer from Chicago. Charles was not impressed with the lecture, but Myrtle was, specifically by Weeks's statement, "I am a child of God and therefore I do not inherit sickness." Using the statement as a healing affirmation and applying other mental healing techniques, Myrtle recovered, pronouncing herself healed in 1888. During this time, she also began to pray with others, who reported healings as a result. Myrtle's healing and her assistance in the healings of others awakened Charles's interest, and he began to practice mental healing rituals himself. His health improved and denominational histories report that his hip became stronger and his right leg began to lengthen.

As a result of their healings, the Fillmores became interested in the emerging mental healing movement, which was then identified as "Christian Science" (used in a generic sense) but would, by the turn of the century, be called New Thought, to distinguish it from the religion of Mary Baker Eddy (18211910). Their interest brought them into contact with Emma Curtis Hopkins, with whom they studied in Chicago and through correspondence from Kansas City. The Fillmores were ordained by Hopkins as ministers in 1891. Hopkins was the single most important influence on the Fillmores' religious development prior to their founding of Unity. Her impact is evident in the Fillmores' teachings (especially Charles's idealistic theology) and the organizational strategies they used in the early years of the Unity movement.

In 1889 (the year Unity recognizes as its founding), the Fillmores embarked on their first organizational endeavor, the publication of Modern Thought, a periodical "devoted to the spiritualization of humanity from an independent standpoint." The following year, Myrtle's healing talents led to the formation of a prayer ministry, the Society of Silent Help (later renamed Silent Unity). The success of Modern Thought (later absorbed into Unity magazine) and the Society of Silent Help served as the impetus for the emergence of Unity as a denomination.

Unity histories report that the couple did not desire to establish a religion, but in 1903 they formed a religious organization, the Unity Society of Practical Christianity, and they were members of the first group of ordained Unity ministers in 1906 (W. G. Haseltine, the president of the board of the Unity Society, performed the ordination). In 1914, they incorporated Unity School of Christianity, which continues to the present as the movement's most representative institution.

Myrtle's role in the leadership of Unity began to decline as the movement became more institutionalized. She left the office of editor of Unity's children's magazine, Wee Wisdom, in 1907, and in 1916 she relinquished her post as director of Silent Unity. In her later years her primary activities consisted of correspondence with Unity followers and assistance to Charles. Myrtle died in 1931, the year of the couple's fiftieth wedding anniversary.

In 1933 Charles married Cora Dedrick, who had been his secretary. He gradually relinquished control of the movement to his sons, especially Lowell, who succeeded him as president of Unity School. Charles and Cora traveled extensively, and he spent considerable time in California. He continued to lecture and write until the last few years of his life. His thirteen books are still printed and distributed by Unity School.

See Also

Hopkins, Emma Curtis; New Thought Movement; Unity.


Bach, Marcus. The Unity Way. Unity Village, Mo., 1982.

D'Andrade, Hugh. Charles Fillmore: Herald of the New Age. New York, 1974.

deChant, Dell. "Myrtle Fillmore and Her Daughters: An Observation and Analysis of the Role of Women in Unity." In Women's Leadership in Marginal Religions: Explorations Outside the Mainstream, edited by Catherine Wessinger, pp. 102124. Urbana, Ill., 1993.

Freeman, James Dillet. The Story of Unity. Unity Village, Mo., 1954.

Teener, James W. "Unity School of Christianity." Ph.D. diss. University of Chicago, 1942.

Vahle, Neal. Torch-Bearer to Light the Way: The Life of Myrtle Fillmore. Mill Valley, Calif., 1996.

Witherspoon, Thomas E. Myrtle Fillmore: Mother of Unity. Unity Village, Mo., 1977.

Dell Dechant (2005)

Gail M. Harley (2005)