Mirroring a growing interest in the role of women in American history, Christian Scientists are establishing a major new library devoted to the founder of their religion, Mary Baker Eddy.
The $50 million project, to open in 2002 at the church's headquarters in Boston, will be one of the largest libraries in the United States dedicated solely to a woman.
Modeled after America's presidential libraries, it will, for the first time, allow the public to view thousands of unpublished documents belonging to Mrs. Eddy, who discovered Christian Science in 1866 and subsequently established The First Church of Christ, Scientist. Among women, perhaps only Eleanor Roosevelt has a larger collection in her name.
"You're talking nearly 500,000 documents, and that's a very significant collection," says Don Wilson, a former national archivist for Presidents Reagan and Bush and a consultant on the project. "There are other collections out there, but not of the scope and the depth of the one under Mary Baker Eddy."
By opening the archives, historians say, the public will gain access to the life and ideas of the only American woman to found a worldwide religion. At the same time, it will offer a window into the broader march of history in the late 1800s, a time of great religious and intellectual ferment in the United States.
"Mary Baker Eddy is really among the most important women leaders in American religious history and needs to be placed in that context," says Ann Braude, director of the Women's Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School, and a consultant to the library.
For many years, the church has limited public access to Eddy's writings. But times have changed, church officials say. Publishing the writings not only protects the church's copyright, but also helps to meet increased public interest in spirituality and in Eddy, author of the Christian Science textbook, "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures." Included in the library will be her letters, diaries, notes on Scripture, and manuscripts.
"People who are in search of spiritual answers are wanting to know, 'Who wrote this book?' 'Why did she write this book?' 'What authority did she have for writing this book?' " says Virginia S. Harris, chairman of the Christian Science Board of Directors, who announced plans for the library at the church's annual meeting yesterday in Boston.
The library caps a decade of growing recognition of Eddy and her work. In 1995, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame, and in 1992 Science and Health was named to a list of "75 Books by Women Whose Words Have Changed the World," compiled by the Women's National Book Association. Church-sponsored exhibits about Eddy, who is also the founder of this newspaper, have appeared at the National Press Club and the Federal Reserve headquarters in Washington.
Nevertheless, Harris says modern textbooks often overlook Eddy - something the church and scholars hope the Mary Baker Eddy Library for the Betterment of Humanity will change. Ms. Braude, for one, says it's important for people, especially girls, to know about historical figures like Eddy. Women could not vote and had limited property rights when Eddy founded Christian Science. A voracious reader and writer, she corresponded with prominent figures such as Susan B. Anthony, Bronson Alcott, and Ida McKinley, the president's wife. A book of her correspondence will be published in late 2001.
"She wrote on slavery, she wrote on the Civil War, she wrote on the women's movement, she wrote on world affairs,..." says Mrs. Harris. "She wrote on many things that would not be viewed as traditional religious writings."
Scholars say the library will help provide objective information about Christian Science and its emphasis on spiritual healing. The spirit of openness, says Braude, helps disabuse the public of notions that the religion is a cult, cloaked in secrecy.
Gillian Gill, a biographer of Eddy, says the church's previous close guard of the archives did give some outsiders a negative impression. "The assumption has been that if the church is so diligently keeping papers away from the public's eyes, it must be because there are incredibly incriminating and desperate things on those papers. But I think this is the most important misconception," she says. She calls the library "the most important step forward that I have seen in the almost 10 years I have been looking at the Christian Science world."
Like a presidential library, the Mary Baker Eddy facility will include exhibits and host public and academic forums from its location in the Christian Science Publishing Society. The church is funding the library, which has a projected five-year budget of $50 million. Of that, $25 million is planned for programs, library operations, and a Web site, and the other $25 million for the facility - a portion of which has been set aside as part of a restoration project at the church's headquarters. A year after the opening, a satellite location will be set up in Seneca Falls, N.Y., where an exhibit on Eddy has been on display since 1998.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society