Mary Baker Eddy founded a religion with equality at its core

Why We Wrote This

The founder of the Christian Science Church, and of the Monitor, was a woman ahead of her time. As The Monitor marks 100 years of women's right to vote, we reflect on her leadership, which enabled others to break through societal and religious limitations.  

Courtesy of the Mary Baker Eddy Library
Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer and founder of Christian Science.

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Many people of her day considered Mary Baker Eddy’s approach to Christianity as breathtakingly expansive. Others rejected her ideas because she was a woman, and some because her theology was unconventional, even radical – for example, her theological position that the God of Christianity is feminine as well as masculine. 

She published “Science and Health, with Key to the Scriptures,” the central text of Christian Science, in 1875, and founded The Church of Christ, Scientist, in 1879 to “reinstate primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing.” She also started The Christian Science Publishing Society, which produces numerous religious publications as well as the Monitor. 

Mrs. Eddy’s public support of women’s empowerment, as well as her many achievements, contributed to the battle for women’s rights, though Mrs. Eddy did not associate herself with the suffrage movement. She is recognized as the founder of a global Christian denomination with equal roles for women and men. Feminist scholar Susan Lindley remarked on Mrs. Eddy’s “example for other women of one who had broken with cultural limitations on female achievement.” 

Think of it for a moment: The story you are reading right now exists because of a woman who wasn’t even allowed to vote. 

Voting was only one of the ways American women were denied a voice in the 19th century. So how did a farm girl from New Hampshire come to be considered one of the most influential, accomplished, and controversial women of her era? Or, as biographer Gillian Gill noted in a talk, “What other woman in American history has ... achieved enough authority ... that she could – essentially by the stroke of a pen – decree that a new daily newspaper ... should forthwith come into existence and should be called The Christian Science Monitor?” 

At a time when few women spoke in public, much less encroached upon all-male clerical territory, Mary Baker Eddy’s voice was prominent. Besides founding the Monitor, Mrs. Eddy is best known for establishing the Christian Science Church and the religion behind it. She published its textbook and her most significant work, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” in 1875, and it became a bestseller. She gave public talks that, eventually, attracted thousands. She wrote articles on issues of the day. Later in life, her every statement and activity were covered by the media. Scholar Rosemary R. Hicks Corbett, in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, wrote that Mrs. Eddy “participated in enlarging the place of women in ... the male-dominated ‘public’ sector.” 

Born in 1821 and raised in the Congregational Church, Mrs. Eddy had long been a deeply spiritual thinker and seeker, willing to challenge convention. A turning point came in 1866, when, walking to a meeting of temperance activists, Mrs. Eddy fell on an icy sidewalk in Lynn, Massachusetts, badly injuring herself. After three days of suffering, she asked to be left alone, and turned to her Bible. Pondering one of Jesus’ healings, she had a flash of insight into the relationship of spiritual understanding to health. She was suddenly well.

She sought to understand how she had been healed, and closeted herself away for years to pray, write, and test her ideas about a scientific system of healing prayer that all could use and understand. Many people saw her approach to Christianity as breathtakingly expansive, but others found the ideas objectionable: some, simply because she was a woman; others, because her theology was unconventional, even radical – for example, her theological position that the God of Christianity is feminine as well as masculine. 

She founded The Church of Christ, Scientist, in 1879 to, she wrote, “reinstate primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing.” Indeed, notes American religions scholar John K. Simmons, healing, “of both sin and sickness, became a focus of the religion, a practical manifestation of the change in thinking from the material to the spiritual.” The movement she started grew rapidly. She started The Christian Science Publishing Society, which produces numerous religious publications as well as the Monitor.

As her prominence grew, Mrs. Eddy came under scrutiny, moving from a once-impoverished outcast to become, as Human Life magazine put it in 1907, “the most famous, interesting and powerful woman in America, if not in the world, today.” 

Dr. Corbett writes that Mrs. Eddy’s public support of women’s empowerment, as well as her many achievements, contributed to the battle for women’s rights, though Mrs. Eddy did not associate herself with the suffrage movement. Mrs. Eddy is recognized as the founder of a global Christian denomination with equality at its core. Feminist scholar Susan Lindley remarked on
Mrs. Eddy’s “example for other women of one who had broken with cultural limitations on female achievement.” 

Mrs. Eddy has left her mark on women’s leadership:

  • In 1992, the Women’s National Book Association named Science and Health as one of 75 books written by women whose words have changed the world.
  • Mrs. Eddy is one of only eight women on The Atlantic’s 2006 list of “The 100 Most Influential Figures in American History.”
  • She was on Smithsonian Magazine’s 2014 list of the “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time.”

When Mrs. Eddy was elected to the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1995, she was recognized for being “the only American woman to found a lasting American-based denomination.” 

In a nod to the broader sweep of her impact, the Hall of Fame statement noted how she “emerged from obscurity to make an indelible mark on religion, medicine, and journalism.”

Karla Vallance is author of the forthcoming book “A Changed Life: The Mary Baker Eddy Story.”  

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