Mary Baker Eddy and her movement

Monday Book Review

August 22, 1994|By Barbara Samson

WITH BLEEDING FOOTSTEPS. By Robert David Thomas.

Alfred A. Knopf. 363 pages. $27.50.

WHEN MARY Baker Eddy died in 1910, the Rochester Times noted that her death marked "the passing of a woman who was probably the most notable of [her generation]." The Chicago Tribune reflected "there passes from this world's activities one of the most remarkable women of her time." Born in 1821, this world-renowned founder of the Christian Science religion rose from being a sickly New Hampshire farm girl to become a "household name across America and famous around the world."

Historian and psychoanalyst Robert David Thomas does a meticulous job in this biography that ranges from Eddy's early childhood and many serious illnesses, to her intense relationships with her followers and antagonists in later life. This complicated woman is analyzed as is her intricate philosophy of religion and the politics that caused many power struggles in the Christian Science family.

Eddy was the product of a Calvinist home, with her father as the center as was usual in the early 19th century. She was the youngest of a family of six. Though her father "kept the family in the tightest of hands [she had] ever known," she was to be the only one of the children to make a confession of faith or to join the church. Mary was often ill, although one critic described her as a "disturbed, rather unpleasant little girl . . . a spoiled, willful child who would do anything to get her way, even use illness to manipulate others . . . Mary's girlhood had been a fruitless, hysterical revolt against order and discipline."

In search of a cure for her various illnesses, Eddy began to practice Samuel Hahnemann's homeopathy with good results. Eventually she turned her back on conventional medicine.

Homeopathy is based on the theory that certain diseases can be cured by giving very small doses of drugs which in a healthy person would produce symptoms of disease, but it would ease such symptoms in a sick person.

Practitioners of homeopathy were encouraged to draw close connections between the world of matter and the realm of the spirit. However, in the late 1850's Eddy was "still far from her nature theology that suffering was not sent by God and was not part of the order of things but had its origin in the human mentality." Eddy went on to explore a myriad of other paths to spiritual and physical health. Because of her failing health and faltering marriage, she flirted with spiritualism but later became adamantly opposed to it. It was a fall on the ice in 1866 that would become the turning point in her life and for Christian Scientists it has become the "founding moment." Mary almost died from injuries suffered from the fall, but this time, rather than "being overwhelmed by the old fears [of death and retribution] she was transformed . . . she had a special vision in which she saw all being as spiritual, divine, immortal, wholly good. There was no room for fear or pain or death, no room for the limits that men define as matter . . . In some ways this religious experience was Mary's "ultimate act of creativity."

As she recovered, she began to explore and extol her new-found spiritual life, acquired listeners, followers and antagonists who would cause many upheavals. In the late 1870's, she formed the Church of Christ, Scientist, established the Massachusetts Metaphysical College, and brought out the first issue of the Journal of Christian Science, published "Science and Health" and formed the National Christian Scientist Association. Not only had she established a spiritual and psychological space for herself in Christian Science, but also she was beginning to create a special niche in the culture for herself and her followers. All was not to run smoothly, however, and conflicts beset the movement in 1888 -- "the deep emotional attachment between teachers and students -- in fact, the psychological dependency fostered in [these] relationships played havoc with Mrs. Eddy's spiritual intentions."

The teachings, however, prevailed and when she died in 1910, "one could point to the Mother Church in Boston . . . as a symbol of the success of her religious movement . . . she kept the door ajar to Christ's spiritual healings and thus helped to perpetuate spiritual healing in a secular, scientific age."

Author Thomas' 15 years of research have paid off -- he has produced an astonishing portrait that helps the reader to understand Mary Baker Eddy's motivations. He relies heavily on her own writings and those who knew her. He had unprecedented access to church archives to illustrate his findings. Despite cooperation from the religion in his research, the book is devoid of judgment.

It should be an interesting book for those interested in Eddy, her ideology and the culture of the times.

Barbara Samson Mills writes from Monkton.

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