From the jacket and frontispiece of Gillian Gill's massive, impeccably researched biography, a haunting photo of Mary Baker Eddy, taken when she was a young widow, stares at you. Her gaunt face, especially her enormous eyes, seem tinged with suffering, perhaps also with madness. Mary Baker Eddy, founder and matriarch of the Christian Science Church, one of America's most successful, most prosperous religious sects, spent her final years as a lonely, frail, paranoid, pain-wracked old lady in her mansion on Beacon Street, in Chestnut Hill, Boston, surrounded by worshiping students and her ever-faithful servant Calvin Frye.
It was 1910. She was 89 years old and convinced that the house was pervaded by something she called Malicious Animal Magnetism, a force which she believed had killed her third husband almost 20 years earlier. In her mind, Malicious Animal Magnetism was an evil form of psychokinesis capable of generating effects similar to those which are said to emanate from dolls that have been stuck with pins by witch doctors.
Her enemies, she believed, were everywhere, and for her periodic suffering, she frequently took morphine. Student "watchers" were assigned regular shifts to combat Malicious Animal Magnetism by beaming positive energies.
Mrs. Eddy, as she was known to her followers, believed these watchers even had the power to control the weather. Mrs. Eddy had lived to see her metaphysics, her healing methods and her idiosyncratic reinterpretations of the Bible become the foundation of a church that at its peak in the 1930s had nearly 300,000 members and was spreading to other countries.
Who was this extraordinary, if not controversial, woman?
In her mammoth biography of Mrs. Eddy, Gillian Gill is as entertaining as she is accurate in providing biographical details of Mrs. Eddy's life, and she steers a middle course between hagiographers who find no fault in her character or ideas and hostile critics for whom Christian Science is a dangerous cult, neither Christian nor science.
Mary Baker was born on a farm in Bow, N.H., to a poor family of devout Congregationalists. There were many quarrels with her father over his Fundamentalist views. Gill downplays evidence that as a child Mary was subject to hysterical temper tantrums. She attributes her extreme thinness as a youth to crank diets and anorexia. Mary believed she had psychic powers. She claimed in later years that God once called aloud her name three times. Each time it levitated her a foot above her bed.
All her life Mrs. Eddy was tortured by a variety of ills. In 1862, bedridden with back pain, she traveled to Portland, Maine, where she was miraculously cured by "Dr." Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, an amiable, simple-minded faith healer. The two became friends. Mrs. Eddy visited him often to discuss his methods and his belief that pain and disease were unreal.
Throughout her long life, Mrs. Eddy was constantly accused of having stolen her basic beliefs from Quimby, who believed he had clairvoyant powers to diagnose and a paranormal ability to heal. All illness, he taught, is mental. For a short time he practiced mesmerism, claiming that electrical energy flowed from his fingers. Later he became convinced that his cures resulted entirely from a patient's faith.
Two weeks after he died, Mrs. Eddy slipped on an icy sidewalk. A homeopathic physician said her spinal injury was incurable. When she opened her Bible at random, her eyes fell on Matthew 9:2, a verse telling how Jesus healed a man of pain. Her pain vanished. "On the third day," Mrs. Eddy reported in a letter, "I rose from my bed completely whole again."
Mrs. Eddy, then 45, considered this the day she discovered Christian Science. For 20 years, she later wrote, she had been struggling "to trace all physical effects to a mental cause," but not until this healing of her spine did she gain "scientific certainty that all causation was Mind, and every effect a mental phenomenon." By "every effect" she meant every event that happens in the universe. Mind or God is everything. All else, like the Maya or Hinduism, is illusion.
The first edition of her book "Science and Health" was privately financed by Mrs. Eddy in 1875. Never proofed, this tome, originally 456 pages, swarmed with hundreds of typos, as well as a raft of spelling mistakes, bad punctuation and even worse grammar. The book was a chaotic patchwork of repetitious, poorly paragraphed topics, at times incoherent, that alter as abruptly as images in a dream.
On one page, you can read Mrs. Eddy's claim of being able to heal at a distance. On another, you will find her permission to let surgeons set broken bones, but the time is coming, she adds, when this will not be necessary because "mind alone will adjust joints and broken bones." So confused is this first edition, Gill admits in her consideration of this book, that "no casual reader would have been able to get past page 1," but then Gill becomes oddly defensive (although Gill makes it clear she is not a Christian Scientist, we are not told what her religious opinions are). "In my view," she writes, "the 1875 edition failed because of the ignorance and stupidity of its public, not of its author." Although the book has faults, it "bears the imprint" of a "brilliant mind."
In spite of unceasing attacks by mainline Christians, the Christian Science cult expanded with amazing rapidity. It became a prosperous well-organized empire, with elegant churches throughout the United States and abroad. It published impressive books and periodicals. Over this growing organization Mrs. Eddy ruled shrewdly and with an iron fist. There were endless lawsuits, many started by Mrs. Eddy, others by her enemies. To her followers she became a saint. To Christians and skeptics she was an object of ridicule. The citizens of one town burned her in effigy. Gill spares few of the sordid details.
In subsequent years, "Science and Health" was revised by Mrs. Eddy and others. Long sections were removed, new ones added, chapters shifted about, and hundreds of sentences rewritten. Not until 1910, a year after Mrs. Eddy's death, was the 226th edition frozen in its present form. (Today the book has been translated into 16 languages, and more than 9 million copies have been sold.)
Toward the end of her life, however, a strange form of paranoia seems to have overtaken Mrs. Eddy, who was as unlucky in her friendships as in her husbands (she married three times). Over and over again she would develop a warm, loving relationship with one of her devotees, only to have it turn into bitter enmity. Chapter 8 of the first edition of "Science and Health" contains a vicious attack on a healer with whom she once had shared an office. She calls him a quack, skilled in Malicious Animal Magnetism. It "coils itself about the sleeper, fastens its fangs of innocence, and kills in the dark." This chapter was replaced in the second edition by one headed "Demonology," in which she continues to accuse him of trying to murder her.
Nearly 100 years after Mrs. Eddy's death and the flowering of her church, Christian Science has fallen on hard times. Its membership is declining, its officials constantly squabbling and its revenues drastically reduced. At least 100,000 members have been lost since 1988. Branch churches are closing at a rate of 2% annually. The number of practitioners is declining at a rate of 5% to 6% a year. Church membership today is estimated at less than 65,000.
Visit one of its services today, and you'll find the auditorium half empty, with elderly women outnumbering men by a large margin. It seems likely that Mrs. Eddy's most lasting legacies will be the Christian Science Monitor, and her feminist emphasis on God as Mother, as well as Father.
It is not hard to understand both the rise of Christian Science and its fall. It came into being at a time when medical science was in its crude infancy. Many of its drugs and practices, bloodletting for instance, did far more harm than good. The power of the placebo was only dimly appreciated, not to mention that many illnesses go away by themselves. Stirring testimonies to Christian Science healing, such as those in the back of "Science and Health," undoubtedly took place, though one must be skeptical of such claims as the dissolving of cataracts, or claims that on several occasions Mrs. Eddy raised persons from the dead.
Today, faith healing has been taken over by Pentecostal televangelists such as Oral Roberts and his son Pat Robertson and Benny Hinn, and newspapers are less reluctant to print horrendous accounts of the deaths of children who would have lived if their Christian Science parents had sought medical help.
The church is now making a valiant effort to regain its former glory. Virginia Harris, the church's new energetic leader, is struggling to restore interest in "Science and Health" by promoting a new trade edition with ads that read "For People Who Aren't Afraid to Think." Perhaps not coincidentally, a number of books on the church are being published, and of them, Caroline Fraser's "God's Perfect Child" is the most powerful and persuasive attack on Christian Science to have been written in this century.
Fraser is a young writer and poet with a Harvard doctorate in literature. She was raised by a stern, dedicated Christian Science father and a skeptical mother who did her best to avoid arousing her husband's anger by expressing doubts. If Fraser had a headache, her mother would secretly slip her an aspirin. Mr. Fraser had no doubts. The volume of the television set was turned down whenever a commercial for a medicine came on. He refused to wear a seat belt because it implied that a collision could occur. Their sailboat had no radio because he knew they would never have an accident that would require one.
At 4, Fraser would gaze at tables and chairs that looked real but actually were not. "They weren't even there," she writes. "They were matter, and matter was Error and error did not exist." In Sunday school she learned that although error doesn't exist, somehow it comes from Mortal Mind. "Mortal Mind was thinking we were hurt when we fell down. Mortal Mind was forgetting to go to the bathroom . . . and wetting our pants. . . . Mortal Mind was having a tantrum. Mortal Mind was crying. The hardest thing to understand about Mortal Mind was the fact that it didn't exist."
But the Mortal Mind did exist and made its mark most indelibly upon Fraser when a friend, Michael Schram, died. Schram went to the same Sunday School as she did; his parents divorced because Mr. Schram couldn't tolerate his wife's Christian Science beliefs. When Michael began having stomach pains and repeatedly vomited, his mother sought only the help of a Scientist practitioner. After several days of great pain, Michael died. Not until the third day did his mother call a funeral home. She and her practitioner had been praying over the decomposing corpse hoping to raise Michael from the dead. An autopsy revealed that Michael died from a ruptured appendix.
The case created a media uproar. The Church's local PR man blamed the boy's death on the fact that the practitioner wasn't listed by the church. "He did not tell the papers," Fraser adds, "that listed practitioners undergo only two weeks of religious training and have no way of recognizing the symptoms of a ruptured appendix or any other illness even if they believed such illness existed, which they don't." No charges were filed because, as the prosecutor said, there was no proof that the mother or her practitioner expected Michael to die.
Michael's avoidable death ended Fraser's faith in Christian Science. "I did not write this book," she says, "so that . . . children like Michael Schram will not have died in vain. Michael Schram did die in vain. So have dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands of other Christian Science children; no one will ever know how many. They died for nothing. They died for an idea."
Fraser likens Christian Science to a "half-forgotten old character at a crowded party, elbowed aside by dozens of other attractive, if wacky, nondenominational alternative-health-care faddists, herbalists, power-of-prayer healers, and peddlers of natural nostrums." But they all, she is quick to emphasize, "came out from under Mary Baker Eddy's overcoat." "The healers and self-helpers have been enormously successful," she writes, "churning out bestseller after bestseller and movement after movement in each successive generation: Napoleon Hill and his 'Think and Grow Rich,' which promises wealth to those who could tap into 'Infinite Intelligence'; Norman Vincent Peale's 'The Power of Positive Thinking'; Werner Erhard's est; Dr. Joyce Brothers and her 'How to Get Whatever You Want Out of Life'; Deepak Chopra's ayurveda and his dizzying proliferation of books on how to become 'ageless' and 'timeless'; Bernie Siegal and his 'Love, Medicine, and Miracles'; Marianne Williamson and her popularization of 'The Course in Miracles,' a textbook fundamentally inspired by Christian Science; Louise Hay (a former Scientist) and her 'You Can Heal Your Life'; Andrew Weil with his wise family-physician face, his guru's white beard and his 'Spontaneous Healing.' "
The first third of Fraser's book is a skillful account of Mary Baker Eddy's deluded, discombobulated life. The rest of the book is about the church she founded, its meteoric rise, its influence on American culture and its recent rapid decline. No one has written more entertainingly and accurately than Fraser about the history of Christian Science after Mrs. Eddy died in 1910? No one has more colorfully covered the church's endless bitter schisms and bad judgments that have dogged it and in recent years almost plunged it into bankruptcy.
In a section on Christian Science in Hollywood, Fraser reveals how fashionable Christian Science became among movie notables in the 1930s and 1940s. Believers included Cecil B. DeMille, Joan Crawford, Mary Pickford, Mickey Rooney, Ginger Rogers and, later on, Doris Day, Robert Duvall, George Hamilton and a raft of others. Hollywood had early plans to make a movie about Mary Baker Eddy, starring Pickford, but the church raised such a howl of protest that the film was never made. In recent years, Fraser tells us, Carol Channing has been the most open in her praise of Christian Science. "I'm a Christian Scientist and we have no such thing as age. . . . We don't believe in birthdays. Now, isn't that a nice religion to have?"
President Nixon's two notorious assistants, H. R. Haldeman and John Erlichman, were devout Scientists. Fraser explains how they managed to persuade Congress to pass a law exempting Eddy's "Science and Health" from becoming public domain when its copyright expired, a provision made for no other book. The church did not want to lose control over the book's flawed, almost illiterate first edition. The law was soon tossed out by a court of appeals. Haldeman's son Peter, in a memoir published in the New York Times Magazine, tells how his father and mother refused all medical help that might have relieved his father's suffering and perhaps prevented his death from untreated cancer.
The closing chapters of Fraser's eye-opening book detail the hard times that have fallen on the church.
The church today remains in a state of great confusion and financial decay. Fraser's profile of its leader Harris is not flattering. "Unlike the Church's own lost children," she writes, "who have not been resurrected, Christian Science may well be." But she thinks and hopes it unlikely.