Mary Baker Eddy
Mary Baker Eddy was the founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston (commonly known as the Christian Science Church) and the author of the spiritual classic Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.
A couple of years ago I was keeping another blog, and when I wrote what I thought was a perfectly innocent post on Mary Baker Eddy and her book I was subjected to a campaign of abuse, trolling and spamming from people who had taken offense at my perfectly innocuous musings. It got to the stage where I actually took the post down, censoring myself to spare further upset and bother. So I'm really taking a risk with this entry.
Christian Scientists have traditionally been vehement defenders of the foundress of their faith, and even in the early days of the 20th Century would steal or deface copies of books critical of Eddy from public libraries. Such dogmatism has no place in 21st century discourse, and I would hope that Christian Scientists have moved into a slighly more mellow stage of their apologetics.
That all said, I find Mary Baker Eddy a fascinating and inspiring figure, and I think her influence on Western culture - particularly literature, medicine and religion - has been enormous, and enormously understated. Poor and sickly for most of her life, Eddy was cured of several serious ailments after meeting the spiritual healer Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, and it is assumed that she gained the principle ideas of her philosophy from Quimby's own peculiar ideas and practice. It is worth noting that the Christian Science establishment utterly rejects this idea, claiming that Eddy's ideas were totally her own, and divinely inspired.
Previously my interest in Christian Science was literary: I did my honours thesis on Sumner Locke Elliott, who was a life-long Christian Scientist. Edmund White, one of my favourite novelists, was also brought up by a Christian Science mother, and I think that there is room for an academic paper on Queer Christian Scientist writers - it would be fascinating. I need to add that another of my most beloved icons, Doris Day, is also a Christian Scientist.
Mary Baker Eddy's shadow looms large over modern-day self-help literature, and many of the ideas one encounters in bestselling books of advice can trace their pedigree back to Eddy and her theology. She was a most extraordinary woman, possessed of an immense charisma and self-confidence. She also had a gift for organisation and for business, in her lifetime establishing a religion that was to become one of the wealthiest and most influential of its time, exporting peculiarly American ideas of God, health and being to the whole world.
That said, I will say again that her magnum opus Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures is a difficult work - and this is exactly the kind of criticism that enthusiasts take offense at. I find it impossible to believe that even her most rabid defenders can claim the book as an easy read. It is dense and prolix, and more often than not a page requires re-reading several times before any clear meaning can emerge. This is not to say that the book is useless or in any way bad - it is clearly one of the most important and influential texts of the nineteenth century, and remains a bestseller to this day. But it is equally clear that, even for her time, Eddy was not an eloquent writer. It is understandable that Christian Scientists should bristle at the criticism of a book they consider second only to the Bible in importance. And certainly, generations of writers have made a lot of cheap jokes at the expense of Mrs. Eddy and her extraordinary text.
What she was was a teacher, a preacher and a brilliant organiser. She was also a proto-feminist, and much recent scholarship has concentrated on this aspect of her life. Many see her as the first great female leader, the head of an enormous church and business empire, and one of the richest women of her time.
There was an element, too, of the dictatorial in her personality. She ruled her church with an iron fist, and brooked no opposition or usurpation. She banished the briulliant author and scholar Emma Curtis Hopkins from her church when she became too independent in her thinking. This was probably, in retrospect, an unwise move, because the truly exceptional Hopkins went on to become "The Mother of New Thought," and trained a generation of writers, thinkers and religious leaders in what was basically Christian Science freed from the bounds of Mary Baker Eddy's unfortunate dogmatism.
Eddy's life was a fascinating mix of tragedy and success. She had quite a run of bad luck with husbands, though the final one, Mr. Eddy, seems to have been a gentle enough soul. She had a problematic relationship with her only son, from whom she was estranged most of her life.
But despite her faults, Eddy seemed genuinely to believe in the tenets she espoused: that only the good is true, and that we can all be healed through faith in God.