Stetson, Augusta (1842–1928)

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Stetson, Augusta (1842–1928)

Christian Science leader. Born Augusta Emma Simmons on October 12, 1842, in Waldoboro, Maine; daughter of Peabody Simmons (a carpenter and architect) and Salome (Sprague) Simmons; died of edema on October 12, 1928, in Rochester, New York; educated at Damariscotta High School and Lincoln Academy, New Castle, Maine; married Captain Frederick J. Stetson, in 1864 (died 1901); no children.

Augusta Stetson was born in 1842 in Waldoboro, Maine, a descendant of Mayflower pilgrims who arrived in Plymouth in 1621. She grew up in nearby Damariscotta where her father was a carpenter and architect. Her family belonged to the local Methodist church, and Augusta was raised in a deeply religious household. Musically talented, she played the church organ at the age of 14.

In 1864, Augusta married Civil War veteran Captain Frederick J. Stetson who worked in his family's shipbuilding business, which took the couple to London, Bombay, and Burma (now Myanmar). The captain's imprisonment at Libby Prison during the Civil War had left him in poor health, however, which forced him to retire from the family business. The couple returned to the United States and resided with Augusta's parents in Boston, Massachusetts. Hoping to become a professional lecturer to support herself and her husband, Augusta enrolled in the Blish School of Oratory in 1882.

A pivotal experience in Stetson's life occurred when she attended an 1884 lecture by Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy . Encouraged by Eddy to attend her Massachusetts Metaphysical College for a three-week course of instruction in the Christian Science religion, Stetson did so and then went to Maine to practice her new beliefs. She reported numerous healings during her stay, which impressed Eddy and prompted her to recall Stetson to Boston as one of the five preachers in her church there. Described as a tall, elegant woman with a stately appearance, a charismatic personality, and a resonant voice, Stetson impressed her audiences and attracted a number of personal devotees.

At Eddy's request, Stetson traveled to New York City in 1886, reluctantly leaving her family, to organize the church there; two years later, with Stetson as their preacher, a group of 17 people incorporated a Christian Science church. In 1890, she was formally ordained as a pastor, a title that later was changed to First Reader of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, New York City. The next year, she founded the New York City Christian Science Institute to train practitioners who treated patients and formed the core of support within the congregation. As membership in the church grew, they sought larger quarters and moved several times until it became clear that they required their own building. During this time Stetson brought her invalid husband to be with her in New York, where he died in 1901 of cerebral apoplexy. A new church was built at 96th Street and Central Park West, an imposing granite structure costing more than $1 million. Larger than the Mother Church in Boston, it was dedicated in 1903. The following year, a lavish residence for Stetson was constructed on an adjoining lot. Courting wealthy and fashionable New Yorkers, Stetson was unashamed of her luxurious residence, believing that it evinced the power and truth in Christian Science.

Stetson's success caused discomfort among the church leadership, however, and rumors circulated that her ultimate desire was to depose Eddy as leader of the church. Concerned about her personal following, Eddy quickly limited the term of a reader to three years. Stetson duly resigned her official position but continued to influence the First Church in New York. In 1908, Eddy managed to dissuade Stetson from her idea of building a branch of the First Church, which departed from the accepted practice of linking churches directly to the Mother Church. The following year, however, Eddy in structed the Christ ian Science board of directors to begin an investigation of the New York church and in particular of Stetson's inner circle of admirers. Evidence was presented that indicated Stetson had carried Christian Science teachings to extreme lengths, and in the fall of 1909, her license as a teacher and practitioner was revoked. Additionally, she and several of her followers were excommunicated and the trustees of the New York church who supported her were voted out of office.

Despite her ejection from the Christian Science Church, Stetson remained in the home built with church funds and retained her position in the New York Christian Science Institute. With the support of her wealthy followers, she continued to teach her own version of Christian Science tenets; she also continued to express loyalty to Eddy, viewing her personal conflicts with church hierarchy as a test of allegiance, and believing that Eddy would rescue her from excommunication. Stetson gradually grew to interpret her experience as a victory and a higher calling to form a new, completely spiritual form of Christian Science, which she called the Church Triumphant. When Eddy died in 1910, many thought Stetson would come forward as her successor, but this did not occur. Supported by students and wealthy followers, Stetson promoted her own interpretation of Christian Science and lectured on the spiritual decline of the Mother Church. Large numbers came to hear her lectures, and she published a series of pamphlets outlining her views of the true church. Two collections were published at this time: Reminiscences, Sermons, and Correspondence (1913) and Vital Issues in Christian Science (1914), in which she chronicled the controversy of her experiences in the Church.

Under the assumption that religious music might combat the more brutish tendencies of human nature, Stetson formed the Choral Society of the New York City Christian Science Institute, which gave several successful concerts at the Metropolitan Opera House with Stetson herself seated prominently on stage. Also convinced that the national anthem was un-Christian, she penned a new patriotic anthem that was widely sung during World War I.

In the 1920s, sponsored once again by her wealthy followers, Stetson initiated a large newspaper advertising program to promote her religious views and published her major work, Sermons Which Spiritually Interpret the Scriptures and Other Writings on Christian Science (1924). The ideas presented by her students in their short-lived magazine, American Standard, coalesced with the purchase of a radio station for Stetson in 1925. She broadcast five times weekly, interspersing her own religious messages with Christian Science music and readings from the Bible and Eddy's works. Stetson used the forum to promulgate her own propaganda: the preservation of Nordic supremacy in America, traditional American virtues, and the belief that the founding documents of the United States were "divinely inspired" to protect the country from Catholicism. Claiming immortality, Stetson also predicted her own resurrection as well as that of Mary Baker Eddy.

For the remainder of her life, Stetson actively proselytized for her Church Triumphant. Residing with a nephew in Rochester, New York, she died from edema on October 12, 1928, at the age of 86. Her body was cremated and the remains interred at Damariscotta, Maine.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Martha Jones , M.L.S., Natick, Massachusetts