Eddy, Mary Baker (1821–1910)

views updated

Eddy, Mary Baker (1821–1910)

American founder of the Christian Science church and movement and author of its spiritual textbook, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Name variations: Mary Glover; Mary Patterson. Born Mary Morse Baker on July 16, 1821, in Bow, New Hampshire; died on December 3, 1910, at her home outside Boston, in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts; youngest of six children of Abigail (Ambrose) Baker and Mark Baker (a farmer); given informal and sporadic schooling; married George Washington Glover, in 1843 (died 1844); married Daniel Patterson, in 1853 (died 1873); married Asa Gilbert Eddy, in 1877 (divorced 1882); children: George Washington Glover II (b. 1844); Ebenezer Foster Eddy (adopted, 1888).

Raised in rural New Hampshire; as a child, suffered from chronic health problems; as an adult, experimented with various medical treatments and healing systems; "discovered" religious truths with the power to heal sickness (1866); began to write and teach classes on Christian healing (1866–72); wrote and published Science and Health (1872–75); obtained legal charter for Massachusetts Metaphysical College (1881); published several books on Christian Science and founded bimonthly journal (1883–88); dissolved college and moved from Boston to New Hampshire (1889); organized Mother Church of Christian Science in Boston (1892); became pastor emeritus of church and published manual for its operation (1895); successfully battled a series of lawsuits and challenges to her position (1896–1909); returned to live in Boston and founded the Christian Science Monitor (1908).

Selected publications:

Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (1875) and a number of other writings collected together as Prose Works (1896), including her autobiography, Retrospection and Introspection (1891).

The Christian Science Church was born on the day that its founder, Mary Baker Eddy, slipped on an icy street in Lynn, Massachusetts. With injuries to her head, neck, and back that left her racked with pain, the 45-year-old Eddy initially feared that she would be permanently disabled, or even die. Only three days after her accident, however, on Sunday, February 4, 1866, she not only regained her health but made the spiritual discovery that determined the course of the remainder of her life and defined her historical legacy.

The founding of Christian Science was also the result of a lifetime of experiences, revealing as much about the society in which Mary Baker Eddy lived as about her life. In some respects, her life mirrors the passage of the 19th century. Born in 1821, she grew up in a small New Hampshire town governed by New England Puritans, with their view of an angry God. She died in 1910 in her home outside Boston, the city in which, by then, the Mother Church of Christian Science stood as a lavish testament to the forceful leadership of its founder, who had established a new and quite unique American religious tradition. Although she spent virtually her entire life in New England, the 90 years of Mary Baker Eddy's life took her far beyond the world into which she had been born.

The foundation for her interest in Christian healing was laid by the circumstances of childhood. Born to Abigail Ambrose Baker and Mark Baker, a New England farmer, the child they named Mary Morse Baker had recurring health problems that often kept her from attending school in her early years. Although socially isolated, she had an active mind; she read widely on her own, wrote poetry, and was guided and encouraged in her reading by an older brother.

Christian teachings were important in the Baker home, where Mary's parents held steadfast, and often conflicting, religious beliefs. Abigail Baker saw God as kind, loving, and active in human lives, while her husband viewed a much more judgmental Supreme Being. When Eddy was eight years old, she confided to her mother that she sometimes heard voices calling her name. Seeing the experience as parallel to that of the young Samuel in the Old Testament who became a Biblical prophet, Abigail counseled her daughter to reply as Samuel had done, with the words, "Speak Lord, for thy servant heareth." The voices continued over a period of about a year, in what Eddy was to view later as the earliest important event in her religious life. The outlook of Christian Science that she would develop was at some level also a repudiation of the fierce and unyielding religious vision that her father had attempted to force on her.

In 1843, Mary was 22 when she married George Washington Glover, a successful builder from the South, and moved with him to South Carolina. Within seven months, Glover suffered a series of business setbacks and died of yellow fever, leaving her a young widow without any means of financial support. Eddy returned to the home of her parents and gave birth to a son, George Washington Glover II, three months later.

For months following the birth, Eddy was physically ill, emotionally depressed, and financially impoverished. Over the next few years, she looked without success for a way to support her child on her own but was forced to rely on family and friends. In 1853, when her son was nine years old, she married Daniel Patterson, a dentist. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the child did not join his mother in her home with her new husband but continued to live with the family that had cared for him since his early childhood. Eventually he moved west with them, losing contact with his mother over the next decade, and was not reunited with her for more than 25 years.

From my very childhood I was impelled, by a hunger and thirst after divine things,—a desire for something higher and better than matter, and apart from it,—to seek diligently for the knowledge of God as the one great and ever-present relief from human woe.

—Mary Baker Eddy

In the dark period lasting from her marriage in 1853 to her founding of Christian Science in 1866, Eddy was frequently ill and in need of emotional and financial support, needs her husband could not fulfill. Desperate for some relief from her physical maladies, she embarked on a search for healing that included experimentation with homeopathic remedies and hydropathic therapy, following the same path as many other men and women—especially women—of her time who lacked confidence in the curative methods offered by traditional physicians.

Homeopathy, based on the principle that "like cures like," minimized the use of drugs and had achieved a wide following. Hydropathy, a technique known as the "water cure" that rejected the use of drugs altogether, was said to offer a more natural approach to healing. Followers drank water and submitted to cold-water body wraps and special baths intended to purge the system and relieve pain.

By the time Eddy reached the Vail Hydropathic Institute to undergo the water cure in 1862, she had been sick for six years with "spinal inflammation" and related distress. Viewing the treatment as her last great hope, she worried that she would have nowhere else to turn if it failed. The treatment did fail, but she learned from a fellow patient about a gifted healer, Phineas Quimby, of Portland, Maine, who was having great success curing conditions similar to hers. Quimby would not travel to New Hampshire to evaluate her condition as Eddy wished, but he agreed to see her if she came to Portland. Convinced that her choice lay between Portland and Quimby or home and death, Eddy traveled to Portland.

Quimby's approach to mental healing relieved Eddy's physical distress, excited her intellectual curiosity, and changed her understanding and experience of sickness forever. Over the next three years, while she was both Quimby's patient and student, he insisted that his method of healing was a science—the same science, in fact, that Jesus had used in his healing ministry—just as she would claim for her own institution a decade later. In his healing practice, Quimby made no use of medicine or physical manipulation of the body, but cured by listening to his patients. At the root of his approach was the belief that sickness was an error of the mind that could be corrected by replacing a false belief in sickness with a true belief in health and wholeness.

During the nearly 30 years that Phineas Quimby developed his ideas on the mind-body connection (years that also included work as a mesmerist), he wrote extensively about his science and its foundation in the Christian gospel. The existence of these writings have made it difficult for historians to accept Mary Baker Eddy's version of Christian Science as an entirely separate entity; the similarities between her words and those of her mentor are too significant to overlook. Supporters of Eddy have tried to argue that it is the Quimby manuscripts that should be looked at with suspicion, not Eddy's writings, but they have yet to make a convincing case. While the debate remains important, it also tends to overshadow a far more significant part of the story: while the founder of Christian Science might well have owed more to her association with Phineas Quimby than she was willing to acknowledge, the religious empire that she founded was her own creation. Quimby possessed neither the temperament nor the genius of a religious leader, and so it was left to his avid follower to turn the raw materials of Quimby's approach into the finely nuanced religious system that Christian Science became.

Although she sought to minimize the importance of her relationship with Quimby, Mary Baker Eddy was to acknowledge later that her years as his patient and pupil helped to prepare her for the revelation she experienced less than a month after his death. Bedridden after her fall on the icy streets of Lynn, Massachusetts, she was alone on a Sunday afternoon when she picked up her Bible and started to read about the healing ministry of Jesus. As she read, she began to understand the words of the scriptures in an entirely new way, and, as her understanding grew, she found her body being healed of its injuries. In her view, the Thursday-to-Sunday sequence of events was symbolic of the religious character of her recovery: just as Jesus had moved from the Last Supper to death on the cross and a Sunday resurrection, she had come close to death on Thursday only to be given new life on Sunday through her "discovery" of Christian Science. Science and Health, the foundational text of Christian Science, was not to be published until nine years later, but the events of

that weekend were to remain the "falling apple" that showed the founder of the faith the secret of Christian healing.

Eddy's discovery of Christian Science did not solve her most immediate problems. She was estranged from her second husband, from whom she was to divorce in 1873, and had to find some way to support herself. Although she began to teach and write about her "science of divine metaphysical healing," her ideas did not immediately earn her a steady income. After Science and Health was first published in 1875, her fortunes began to change. Continuing to promote her ideas through public lectures and classes, she attracted a growing following over the next decade, resulting in her decision to open the Massachusetts Metaphysical College for students of the movement. Chartered by the Massachusetts state legislature in 1881, the college opened its doors in May 1882. The college was very much a one-woman operation, with Eddy serving as the sole teacher of the sole class it offered, and as author of the sole textbook.

In 1877, she had married one of her followers and students, Asa Gilbert Eddy, but the marriage, apparently a happy one, lasted only five years. Asa died in 1882. Known to her following now as Mary Baker Eddy, she continued to run her school and expanded on her ideas developed for Science and Health by publishing a number of other writings and establishing the bimonthly Journal of Christian Science. As the movement drew notice outside of the Boston area, she won further recognition and followers, particularly in New York and Chicago.

As the movement grew, however, so did discord within its ranks. By the late 1880s, Eddy was forced to find some way to cope with former students who became angry defectors and organized against her cause. Divisions within the movement became so serious that she dissolved both the Christian Scientist Association, formed in 1876, and the Massachusetts Metaphysical College, and withdrew from public leadership. While in self-imposed exile, she began to undertake what was, in effect, her comeback as head of the movement.

After 1888, Eddy seldom made public appearances, but she spent the remaining 22 years of her life privately arranging the pieces of the denominational structure that was to survive her. The two most prominent institutions of Christian Science, the Mother Church in Boston and the Christian Science Monitor newspaper, were both founded during these two decades.

But the fame and accomplishments of these latter years also aroused a new round of controversy. Legal battles, critical newspaper reports, and a cutting parody of her ideas by the novelist Mark Twain succeeded in making Eddy's last 15 years far from peaceful. Fighting to preserve her position and protect her church from external threats, she was also putting in place the mechanisms that would assure its future viability. In 1894, a year before she retired as pastor of the church, Mary Baker Eddy "ordained" the Bible and Science and Health as her permanent pastoral replacements, a shrewd move that assured no other figure would ever have the opportunity to become the kind of charismatic leader she had been. In the years that followed, Eddy moved preemptively on a number of occasions to protect the church and safeguard her own singular status. In 1895, for example, she published the Manual for the Mother Church, a document that placed her permanent stamp on the church's operations.

As advancing age forced Eddy to plan for the time when she would no longer guide the church, she learned through painful experience how few people there were that she could trust and depend on. During the 1880s, she had tried without success to reestablish a relationship with her son, George Glover, but mother and son had little in common, and Eddy did not find in him the necessary qualities of a religious leader. In 1888, she made a surprising move by adopting one of her advisors, Ebenezer Foster, then 41 years old, in a legal action that was to secure Foster the right to succeed her. Eddy's enthusiasm for the arrangement quickly waned, however, as she realized that "Bennie" did not share her total devotion to the movement. As evidence mounted that Foster-Eddy could not be depended upon to handle church matters in ways his adoptive mother would wish, the relationship became increasingly strained, and he was eventually banished from her inner circle. At the time of her death, both Foster-Eddy and George Glover were to receive lump-sum inheritances from her, but without winning access to the bulk of what was by then a significant fortune.

The failure of her family to live up to her expectations, combined with the defection over the years of several close advisors, made Eddy wary in her old age. Tightening her control on the church, she demanded fierce loyalty from those immediately around her, but she also appears to have inspired great devotion, and there were many friends and admirers who voluntarily stayed close. On December 3, 1910, she died after a brief illness, at age 89, nearly 45 years after she had begun to formulate Christian Science. Throughout those years, she had insisted that disease and death could be conquered through spiritual growth and insight, and believers in the principles of Christian Science did not view the death of the founder as a contradiction of those principles. Their spiritual mother had "passed from their sight" in their view, but her words and wisdom lived on in the church she had built.

While the Christian Science Church is in many ways a product of the culture in which its founder lived, Mary Baker Eddy alone was responsible for making it an enduring institution. The critical forces that shaped it as a movement—Eddy's experience of illness, her journey through the world of alternative medicine, and her rejection of Puritan beliefs—were not unique, but Eddy's response to them was unique. Other Americans shared her interest in the mind-body connection, but no one took it to comparable heights. She was an organizational genius of extraordinary energy, and the church has survived on her strength.


Eddy, Mary Baker. Prose Works. Boston: First Church of Christ, Scientist, 1925.

——. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Boston: First Church of Christ, Scientist, 1971.

Peel, Robert. Mary Baker Eddy: The Years of Discovery. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966.

——. Mary Baker Eddy: The Years of Authority. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977.

——. Mary Baker Eddy: The Years of Trial. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

suggested reading:

Braden, Charles. Spirits in Rebellion. Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press, 1984.

Cather, Willa, and Georgine Milmine. The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of the Christian Science Church. University of Nebraska, 1993 (first published in 1909).

Cayleff, Susan E. Wash and Be Healed: The Water Cure Movement and Women's Health. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1987.

Gottschalk, Stephen. The Emergence of Christian Science in American Religious Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973.

Judah, J. Stillson. The History and Philosophy of Metaphysical Movements in America. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1967.


Mary Baker Eddy's personal papers are not available to the public. Her published writings, however, are widely available in local libraries and in the Christian Science Reading Rooms run by the Church of Christ, Scientist.

Kathleen M. Joyce , Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

About this article

Eddy, Mary Baker (1821–1910)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article