Christian Science is a religious denomination founded in Massachusetts in 1879 by Mary Baker Eddy. Christian Science congregations can currently be found in close to 60 countries around the world. The denomination has been categorized as an “old new” Christian minority by one scholar and as “new/old gospel of primitive Christianity” by a second, and as a “singular expression of modern Christianity with a restorationist, revelatory healing rationale” by a third. While major religions of the world count their years in the thousands, faith traditions originating in the 19th and 20th centuries are considered “new.” At the same time, members of The Church of Christ, Scientist, as the church is formally known, see “the roots of their faith extend[ing] to the first century, not just to the nineteenth,” as historian Robert Peel has noted. Christian Scientists look to Jesus Christ as the "way of salvation" and to the “inspired Word of the Bible” as their “sufficient guide to eternal Life.”
Mary Baker Eddy joined the Congregational church as a teenager in 1838 and maintained that membership until 1875, when she was nine years into the birthing of what she viewed as a new Christian denomination. That same year saw the publication of her chief work, Science and Health (in later editions, the title became Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures), which together with the Christian Bible, is integral to Christian Science worship and practice.
Christian Scientists are known for their Reading Rooms in cities and towns where local Christian Science churches sponsor them and which include both a sales room and a quiet place for prayer and spiritual study. Followers of Christian Science are perhaps even better known for their controversial reliance on spiritual means for the healing of illnesses and other problems in their lives. Christian Science healing is often characterized as involving an optimistic belief that positive thinking, perhaps through mental manipulation, the “placebo effect,” or “spontaneous remission,” is relied upon to overcome disease and misfortune. Adherents of Christian Science reject that characterization, arguing that their approach to healing is biblically grounded, involving the endeavor to faithfully follow Jesus’ command, “he who believes in me, will also do the works that I do” (John 14:12). Spiritual healing, as understood in Christian Science, is based on an apprehension of God as infinite good and whose all-powerful love, when received in the heart, can naturally result in the restoration of bodily health and the resolving of various problems that arise in human lives.
Core Values, Beliefs, and Practices
Christian Scientists believe, first and foremost, in a sovereign God, who is infinite, divine Love and in man (in the generic sense, including all women, men, and children) as made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). They understand Jesus Christ to be the Son of God, who came to earth to heal and save mankind. His life, including healing maladies and disabilities and overcoming death through purely spiritual means, together with his teachings, as recorded in the New Testament, are regarded as a guide to a spiritual and practical way of life. Christian Scientists view the virgin birth, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus as factual events, essential to their salvation. In accepting the biblical account of the Holy Ghost as engendering the virgin Mary’s pregnancy, they see Jesus’ divine origin, and the life that followed from that origin, as unique in the whole of human history.
The Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is the foundation of Christian Science, and Jesus’ life and teachings are the core point of reference. Jesus taught his followers to love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39, Mark 12:30-31, Luke 10:27). Jesus, in his “Sermon on the Mount,” also instructed his followers to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). Christian Scientists view these commands as indispensable to living life as Christians.
Jesus instructed his followers to pray by entering into the closet and shutting the door (Matthew 6:6). Echoing this instruction, Eddy writes, “In order to pray aright, we must enter into the closet and shut the door. We must close the lips and silence the material senses. In the quiet sanctuary of earnest longings, we must deny sin and plead God’s allness.” Members of The Church of Christ, Scientist are called upon to include the following, from the Church Manual by Eddy, in their daily prayers: “‘Thy kingdom come;’ let the reign of divine Truth, Life, and Love be established in me, and rule out of me all sin; and may Thy Word enrich the affections of all mankind, and govern them!”
In addition to daily prayer, most Christian Scientists study a Bible lesson each day. This weekly selection of texts from the Bible and from Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures is prepared by a committee appointed by the Board of Trustees of the Christian Science Publishing Society for Christian Scientists throughout the world. This same Lesson-Sermon is the core of Sunday church services, which are conducted by a First Reader and Second Reader - lay members elected by fellow members. Sunday services also include the singing of hymns, a vocal solo, an additional scriptural reading selected by the First Reader, and silent and audible prayer. Christian Science congregations also provide Sunday School, where children and teenagers learn about how biblical truths can be lived in their everyday lives. Sunday School includes singing hymns and prayer.
In addition to Sunday church services and Sunday School, Christian Science congregations hold mid-week worship meetings, most often on Wednesday evenings. These meetings include readings from the Bible and Science and Health selected and read by the First Reader, the singing of hymns, and silent and audible prayer. A substantial portion of these mid-week meetings is the provision of time for members of the congregation to rise, if and when they choose, to speak extemporaneously on how their spiritual study and growth has brought healing and blessing into their lives.
History and Polity
Mary Morse Baker was born on the Baker family farm in Bow, New Hampshire. Reared in a Calvinistic environment, she was a deep student of the Bible throughout her long life (1821-1910). In fact, a severe critic of Eddy once noted: “Prayer, meditation, eager and puzzled interrogation of the Bible, had claimed from childhood much of her energy .... The great ideas of God, of immortality, of the soul, of a life penetrated by Christianity, were never far from her mind.”
From childhood and well into adulthood, Mary Baker was afflicted with poor health. She wrestled with the question of how to reconcile her own and humanity’s suffering with a God who is characterized in the Bible as love itself (I John 4:8,16). Six months after her marriage to George Washington Glover in December 1843, she was widowed at age 22 and left pregnant. She was too sickly to care on her own for her son, George Washington Glover II, born in September 1844. In her second marriage, Mary Baker Patterson explored, during the 1850s, the nascent medical practice of homeopathy, which involved the use of small doses of medicine. In her practice of this curative method, she used increasingly minute dosages. She eventually affected cures using pills containing no medicine, employing what would later be known as “the placebo effect.”
Between 1862 and 1865, Mary Baker Eddy further explored mental factors in the relief of human suffering through her association with the magnetic healer, Phineas P. Quimby, an early practitioner of what would later be known as “suggestive therapeutics.” Whether and to what extent Eddy was indebted to Quimby in arriving at the spiritual approach to healing that is a core element of Christian Science has been one the most contentious debates concerning Christian Science and its founder. Several factors feed into this controversy, including the fact that both Quimby and Eddy believed that the source of bodily ailments could be found in the human mind, though it should be noted that Eddy was exploring this theory long before she met Quimby, as detailed in the previous paragraph. Historians generally agree that her conviction concerning the mental nature of physical ailments was strengthened through her association with Quimby.
A significant development in Eddy’s thought on the subject of mental healing came after her association with Quimby had ended. She came to believe that the most reliable cure for bodily ailments resides not in the human mind, which was always Quimby’s belief and approach, but in response to God’s law of healing. By her own account:
...I tried him [Quimby], as a healer, and because he seemed to help me for the time, and had a higher ideal than I had heard of up to that time, I praised him to the skies, wrote him letters,—they talk of my letters to Quimby, as if they were something secret, they were not, I was enthusiastic, and couldn’t say too much in praise of him; I actually loved him, I mean his high and noble character, and was literally unstinted in my praise of him, but when I found that Quimbyism was too short, and would not answer the cry of the human heart for succor, for real aid, I went, being driven thence by my extremity, to the Bible, and there I discovered Christian Science.
This corresponds with an observation made by Quimby’s son, George: “Father claimed to believe, and taught and practiced his belief that disease was a mental condition and was an invention of man. … Don’t confuse his method of healing with Mrs. Eddy’s Christian Science, so far as her religious teachings go.” Similarly, historian Karl Holl noted: “That which connected her with Quimby was her conviction that all disease in the last analysis has its roots in the mind, and that healing therefore must be effected through mental influence. But it was her earnest Puritan faith in God which separated her from Quimby from the beginning.”
A couple of weeks after Quimby’s death in the winter of 1866, Eddy slipped on an icy street corner in Lynn, Massachusetts and fell hard. A local newspaper reported that “Dr. Cushing, who was called, found her injuries to be internal, and of a very serious nature, inducing spasms and intense suffering.” A couple of days later, with friends apparently fearing for her survival, she asked to be left alone with her Bible. In reading a gospel account of one of Jesus’ healings, she experienced a profound spiritual conviction of God’s loving presence that left her suddenly healed. She astonished visitors in another room when she walked in unaided.
This experience was pivotal in her life. While she had been searching for years for a spiritual cause for the relief of human sickness and suffering, it was this experience that set in motion the establishment of a new Christian church and a movement that would eventually draw followers from across the globe.
The first edition of the book that contains the definitive statement of Christian Science teachings, Science and Health, was published in 1875, and it was revised and refined through multiple editions over the next 32 years, with the landmark 50th edition appearing in 1891 and the final edition in 1910. Beginning in 1880, over several decades, Eddy published 15 other books and booklets; an additional collection of her later writings was published posthumously.
In 1879, together with 14 or 15 followers, Eddy founded the Church of Christ, Scientist to “reinstate primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing.” The church was significantly reorganized beginning in August 1892. In 1883, a bimonthly (it later became a monthly) religious magazine, the Journal of Christian Science (later The Christian Science Journal), was established. A weekly periodical, initially called the Christian Science Weekly and later renamed Christian Science Sentinel, was first published in 1898. The first foreign language periodical, Der Herold der Christian Science, appeared in print in 1903 and was followed by Heralds of Christian Science in various languages. Each issue of all these publications include verified published statements of Christian Science healing submitted by readers. The first issue of The Christian Science Monitor, a newspaper that would eventually garner seven Pulitzer Prizes, appeared on November 25, 1908. The object of the Monitor, according to Eddy, “is to injure no man, but to bless all mankind.” In more recent years, the Monitor has become a weekly newsmagazine and daily online news source.
The first edition of the Church Manual by Eddy was published in 1895, before undergoing substantial revisions culminating in the 89th edition (1910). The church’s organizational structure and system of governance are codified in this book’s By-Laws. The administration of The Mother Church, The First Church of Christ, Scientist, is overseen by a five-member, self-perpetuating Board of Directors, at the denomination’s headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts. This central organization includes The Christian Science Publishing Society, overseen by a three-member Board of Trustees, who are appointed by the Board of Directors and who superintend the publication of the Christian Science periodicals, including The Christian Science Monitor. Local branch churches of Christ, Scientist, are democratically self-governed by local members in accord with the Church Manual, as well as by the By-Laws that each branch church develops for its self-governance.
While Christian Scientists self-identify as being Christian, some Christians of other denominations reject this claim. One factor contributing to the disagreement is the unconventional approach that Christian Scientists take to the Christian sacraments of baptism and communion. While these and other sacraments generally assume the form of ceremony or ritual in Christian worship, Christian Scientists tend to see ceremonies and rituals as outward symbolization of what is fundamentally an inward or spiritual experience. In choosing the fundamental over the symbolic, Christian Scientists seek to live in alignment with the words of Jesus, as recorded by the author of the Gospel of John: “But the time approaches, indeed it is already here, when those who are real worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. Such are the worshippers whom the Father wants” (4:23).
For the Christian Scientist, baptism is not a one-time event involving immersion or sprinkling of water, but an ongoing purification of the heart and of consciousness – a cleansing from sin and spiritual complacency so as to enter into communion with God and to feel more deeply the purifying, and potentially transformative, influence of God’s holiness and grace.
Communion is generally regarded by Protestant Christians as honoring Jesus Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross by symbolically taking in the “body and blood” of Christ as represented through bread and wine. To Eddy the commemoration of Jesus’ profound sacrifice involves “spiritual communion with the one God,” rather than ritualistic use of bread and wine. “Our bread, ‘which cometh down from heaven,’ is Truth,” Eddy writes. “Our cup is the cross. Our wine the inspiration of Love, the draught our Master drank and commended to his followers.” For Christian Scientists, communion requires something beyond a ritualistic recognition of the Master’s sacrifice. In the words of an early charge to members in the Christian Science church, the communion sacrament calls for “solemn and silent self-examination by each member ... as to his real state of love towards man and fellowship and communion with Christ.” Rather than a ceremonial practice, it aspires to be an ever-deepening life experience.
Healing Sin, Disease, and Other Discords
It is sometimes mistakenly reported that the healing of physical infirmities is the chief aim of Christian Science. While this is a distinguishing and significant Christian Science practice, Eddy was careful to note that the “emphatic purpose of Christian Science is the healing of sin.” This emphasis counters another widely disseminated mischaracterization of Christian Science: that its teachings include a bland or naive denial of the existence of evil and sin. Christian Science clearly does teach that God, in His absolute sovereignty as the Creator of all reality, is not the source of evil and sin. In the words of Habakkuk, God is of “purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity”(1:13). At the same time, Christian Science recognizes that evil and sin are features of human experience that must be spiritually and morally confronted, not ignored.
Christian Scientists’ reliance on spiritual means for the healing of physical and personal difficulties, including significant injuries, diseases, and disabilities is at once both widely known and frequently misunderstood. A paper presented at an international conference on religion and healing at Sogang University in Seoul, Korea included the following:
- ...Christian Scientists would agree with William James [in The Varieties of Religious Experience] in rejecting the traditional religious explanations of miracles as special interventions by God to help or heal particular favored individuals. James uses the enlightening phrase “piecemeal supernaturalism” to describe this belief. Mary Baker Eddy similarly described the phenomenon of healing through genuine Christian prayer as “not . . . supernatural” but “divinely natural” -- that is, not a special intervention by a God who occasionally intervenes in human lives, but as the manifestation of divine reality, of an infinite, unchanging Love that can be understood as ever-present law. This, Eddy believed, was the basis on which Christianity could legitimately be spoken of as “Science.” Christian Scientists’ understanding of prayer, Eddy pointed out, also differed from the practice of faith healing, which rests on the strength of human belief.
Many tens of thousands of accounts of spiritual healing through the application of Christian Science have been recorded in the Christian Science periodicals. Some of those healings have been corroborated with evidence from medical diagnoses and follow-up examinations. The book Spiritual Healing in a Scientific Age by Robert Peel (Harper & Row, 1987), for example, contains several dozen notarized affidavits of healings resulting from prayer in Christian Science, with supporting medical evidence.
Also, “An Empirical Analysis of Medical Evidence in Christian Science Testimonies of Healing, 1969-1988,” resulted from scrutinizing published testimonies of Christian Science healing that involved medically significant conditions, credibly diagnosed. The more than 10,000 instances of physical healing examined in this study, include 2,337 significant healings of medically diagnosed conditions, involving hundreds of specialists, hospitals, x-rays, and follow-up examinations; those included 222 cases given terminal or life-threatening prognoses by physicians. The diagnosed conditions healed included cancer (27 healings), tumor (42), polio (16), tuberculosis (68), pneumonia (38), heart disorders (88), kidney disorders (23), broken bones (203), childbirth complications (71), meningitis (9), appendicitis (24, 8 acute) scarlet fever (16), rheumatic fever (16), cataract (11), diabetes (12), pernicious anemia (13), rheumatoid or degenerative arthritis (12), gangrene (2), glaucoma (3), hepatitis (7), leukemia (3), multiple sclerosis (6), blindness (7), vision deficiencies (48), goiter (13), curvature of the spine (8), epilepsy (13), crossed eyes (3), and cleft palate.
Spiritual healing in Christian Science, according to those who practice it, is not limited to overcoming sins and physical ailments. The Christian Science religious periodicals and weekly testimony meetings at local churches include a body of testimony indicating that the array of personal problems that people generally face have been overcome through prayer. Examples include protection from various dangers, including combatants in the throes of warfare; overcoming financial and professional difficulties; resolving psychological, emotional, and interpersonal challenges, including addictions and diagnosed mental or emotional disabilities; and solving daunting creative and intellectual problems.
Notes and References
- Gillian Gill, Mary Baker Eddy, Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 1998, p. 274.
- George Chryssides, Exploring New Religions (London: Cassell 1999), pp. 86-87. Paul Eli Ivey, “Christian Science” in the Encyclopedia of Religion in America, edited by Charles H. Lippy and Peter W. Williams (Washington: CQ Press, 2010). Amy B. Voorhees, A New Christian Identity: Christian Science Origins and Experience in American Culture. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2021, p. 13.
- Robert Peel, Health and Medicine in the Christian Science Tradition, New York: Crossroad, 1988, p.1.
- Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Boston: The Christian Science Board of Directors, pp. 316 & 497.
- Robert Peel, Mary Baker Eddy: The Years of Discovery, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966, p. 287.
- As Eddy states in the preface of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures: “Many imagine that the phenomena of physical healing in Christian Science present only a phase of the action of the human mind, which action in some unexplained way results in the cure of disease.... The physical healing of Christian Science results now, as in Jesus' time, from the operation of divine Principle ….” (p. xi) Divine Principle, in the language of Christian Science, is synonymous with God.
- Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p. 15.
- Mary Baker Eddy, Church Manual of The First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston, Massachusetts,(Boston: The Christian Science Board of Directors), p. 41.,
- A Chronology of Events Surrounding the Life of Mary Baker Eddy at the Mary Baker Eddy Library, last access 3/25/2021
- British historian, educator, and politician, H.A.L. Fisher, quoted in Jean A. McDonald, "Mary Baker Eddy and the Nineteenth Century 'Public' Woman: A Feminist Reappraisal," Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Spring 1986 (Volume 2, Number 1), p.110.
- Stephen Gottschalk, “Mary Baker Eddy,” Encyclopedia Britannica https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mary-Baker-Eddy
- Mary Baker was married three times. Her surnames were Glover, then Patterson, and then back to Glover for a time after she separated from Daniel Patterson in 1868. Her name did not change to Mary Baker Eddy until her third marriage to Asa Gilbert Eddy in 1877. Because that is the name she is known by the world over, I will refer to her as Eddy from this point forward.
- Gottschalk, “Mary Baker Eddy,” Encyclopedia Britannica.
- Gill, Mary Baker Eddy, pp. 119-20.
- Peel, Mary Baker Eddy: Years of Discovery, p. 183.
- Quoted in The Quimby Manuscripts: Showing the Discovery of Spiritual Healing and the Origin of Christian Science, ed. Horatio W. Dresser (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1921), p. 436. As Gillian Gill summarizes in her biography of Eddy, “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” p. 146.
- Karl Holl, Christian Science, pp. 2-3 - https://www.johnsonfund.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/holl.pdf
- Lynn Weekly Reporter, February 3, 1866; quoted in Gillian Gill, Mary Baker Eddy, Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 1998, p.161.
- Gill, Mary Baker Eddy, p. 162.
- Robert Peel, Mary Baker Eddy: The Years of Discovery, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966, p. 197.
- Gill, Mary Baker Eddy, p.166.
- Mary Baker Eddy, Retrospection and Introspection, p. 24.
- Mary Baker Eddy, Church Manual, p. 17.
- Stephen Gottschalk, The Emergence of Christian Science in American Religious Life, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973, p. 181.
- Mary Baker Eddy, The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany, p. 353:17-18.
- Partaking of the eucharist is also central to Catholic worship, but this is arguably something other than a symbolic practice in view of transubstantiation - the conviction that bread and wine, by virtue of a Catholic priest's blessing, literally become Christ's flesh and blood.
- Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p. 35.
- Church of Christ (Scientist), “Rules and Regulations or By Laws,” Church minute book, EOR13, The Mary Baker Eddy Library.
- Mary Baker Eddy, Rudimental Divine Science, p. 2:25–27.
- Thomas Johnsen, Kevin Ness and Jasmine Holzworth, “‘Love is the light of it’: Christian Scientists and the practice of Christian healing in a pluralistic world” presented at Sogang University, Seoul, South Korea, May 2018, International Conference on Religion and Healing: The Varieties of Contemporary Approach.