A New Look at Mary Baker Eddy

MARY BAKER EDDY

By Gillian Gill

Perseus Books

702 pp., $35

The first two biographies of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of this newspaper, appeared within a month of each other in 1907. They ran as a competing series of magazine articles that were later put out as books. They presented not only different but irreconcilable accounts of the life of the Discoverer of Christian Science.

By 1907, Mrs. Eddy was a notable world figure. Her seminal work, "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," had sold more than 400,000 copies, and her new religious movement had taken firm hold in the United States and was spreading overseas. As remarkable as all this was, the most extraordinary fact, as Gillian Gill brings out in "Mary Baker Eddy," her contribution to the Radcliffe Biography Series, is that it was accomplished by a woman.

The issue of women's role is contentious in many religious denominations. In the late 1800s, Eddy's work took place in an even more hostile religious climate. The extreme passions that have attended recent arguments concerning the ordination of women might suggest why biographies of Eddy have mirrored either the animosity or the adulation that characterized the first two biographies by Georgine Milmine and Sibyl Wilbur and almost all those that have followed.

As Gill shows, most biographers of Eddy who have been vouchsafed by scholars and the press have drawn heavily on the primary materials embodied in the hostile biography written by Milmine for McClure's Magazine. One of Gill's significant contributions to research on the life of Eddy is her reexamination of these sources.

She amply illustrates that these are far less reliable than scholars have assumed. She presents evidence that McClure's investigators deliberately sought out those who had strong animosity toward Eddy, often paid for their affidavits, and ignored cases where their hearsay testimony was vigorously disputed by those actually on the scene at the time. The Milmine book also relied heavily on material supplied by Frederick Peabody, who, as Gill details, fed the press with sensational and often fictionalized information during a 25-year vendetta against Eddy.

She notes further that later biographies, such as Edwin Dakin's "Mrs. Eddy: the Biography of a Virgin Mind" and Ernest Bates and John Dittemore's "Mary Baker Eddy: the Truth and the Tradition," books that many scholars have praised, had made extensive use of Milmine's material.

Gill notes as well that Wilbur, a newspaper reporter, often had help obtaining information for her 1907 biography from those favorable to Eddy and Christian Science. At times, these people were also paid for their information. But to Gill's surprise, she found Wilbur's material more credible than she had expected. Wilbur often used named sources, and Gill found that much of her material could be corroborated.

But Wilbur's book and, more important, Robert Peel's three-volume biography of Eddy, which appeared between 1966 and 1977, have been discounted by many scholars because of the Christian Science Church's support of their work. Gill, who has no connection with the church, should prove a more credible source for those who decide to explore Eddy's life further.

This biography deals extensively with Eddy's life before her discovery of Christian Science. Over the past two decades, there has been wide-ranging research into the social, economic, educational, and legal status of women in the 19th century. Gill's expertise in this area helps readers understand the culture Mary Baker grew up in and especially the economic and legal challenges that she later faced as a widow and a single mother without means of her own. Here, Gill is more insightful than previous biographers of Eddy have been.

Scholars will also be interested in Gill's research in the long-standing issue about whether Eddy's book Science and Health was drawn from the writings of the magnetic healer Phineas Quimby.

Soon after Science and Health appeared in print, two arguments were thrown against her. The first argument claimed that her book was unreadable and unfit for print; the second was that such a book couldn't have been written by a woman and was plagiarized from the writings of Quimby. Eddy, and some of those familiar with both her work and Quimby's, strongly refuted these arguments. But the issue continues to be raised by some who have not studied Quimby's writings, which were finally published in full by Ervin Seale in 1988. Gill concludes: "The evidence that Mary Baker Eddy's healing theology was based to any large extent on the Quimby manuscripts is not only weak but largely rigged."

As can be seen, there is much meat for the scholar in Gill's work. What about the general reader?

In a biography that runs almost 600 pages, one expects to have a feeling for the individual who is being presented. As a reader, I would expect Eddy to come alive in these pages. I would expect her life and character to be sufficiently revealed to explain the impact she had on others. But in Gill's book, Eddy remains frustratingly elusive.

The difficulty lies primarily with the author's method. Gill defines it in her preface: "One of the most salient points about Mrs. Eddy's life is that she was constantly under attack, often in court of law, and as this biography developed I noticed myself increasingly taking the position of her defense attorney.... In this biography I try to lay out what could be called the prosecution's case as fairly as possible, but then I present a defense counsel's brief which I leave to the reader to judge."

The case presented by the defense is frequently overwhelmed by the graphic pictures and charged language used by the prosecution. Even though they are mostly discredited by Gill's research, the accusations and the taste of animosity accumulate as the reader is ushered through case after case. The attacks on Eddy's character and misrepresentations of her life determine the book's agenda.

The reader longs for a periodic summation, an unclouded, focused picture of Eddy at the major stages of her life and career.

I'm surprised that an essentially sympathetic biography of Eddy should be so unbalanced. Eddy's home at Pleasant View or Chestnut Hill was not perpetually in crisis; criticism was not the daily fare of her staff. Health was more common than illness, joy than anger, gratitude than criticism. There are only a few pages in this biography picturing life at Eddy's home in Concord, N.H., where a sense of normalcy breaks through the clouds. But they are quickly submerged in controversy.

What the reader lacks is an insight into what made Eddy so compelling to many people. We never really learn what she taught, or what it was that inspired people to take an interest in her cause. Why was she so loved? What made her so effective? Incongruously, Eddy's interest in Christian healing is rarely mentioned. It was Eddy's success as a religious figure that energized her critics.

It is the increasing "eventfulness" of Eddy's life over 80 years that has to be a challenge for a biographer. And because Eddy's work as a woman in the field of religion provoked such hostile and unusual attacks, it must be difficult to present a well-rounded picture without producing a book running into thousands of pages. As it is, this book often seems rushed and in need of a stronger editorial hand. Obvious errors, repetition, and an occasional lack of focus could have been eliminated with better editing.

But now that this book has been written, and its important scholarly work accomplished, I find myself wanting to read a new biography based on Gill's research. A fairer and more insightful picture of Mary Baker Eddy may now be possible.

* Richard C. Bergenheim, a former member of the Christian Science Board of Directors, is a teacher of Christian Science in New York City.

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