The influence of Mary Baker Eddy

This week I have been rereading Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures for the first time in forty years. The ngram above shows that Eddy’s presence on the literary scene in recent decades, as measured in references to her in published books, is almost precisely equal to that of Edgar Cayce or Helena Blavatsky. Her influence in the pre-history of the Church of Light is considerably greater than I had realized.

Knowing that in her early married life Sarah Stanley Grimke was acquainted with Mrs. Eddy, I find one kind of influence very plausible. What could motivate a young mother and wife to think that she could make an independent living as author of Mind Cure lessons? The vast material success of Christian Science and its leading teachers created an expanding market for dissidents like Elizabeth Stuart and Miranda Rice, who assisted Grimke in developing a network of students for her mail order lessons. Mrs. Eddy’s success thus created a positive role model of an author, a counterpoint to that of Louisa May Alcott, who disdained Eddyism but was likewise part of Grimke’s circle of acquaintances in Boston.

At another level, the influence of Mrs. Eddy is clearly negative, in that Stuart, Grimke, and many others were reacting to authoritarianism and Christian dogmatism expressed in such pronouncements by Eddy as this:

Is there more than one school of Christian Science? Christian Science is demonstrable. There can, therefore, be but one method in its teaching. Those who depart from this method forfeit their claims to belong to this school, and they become adherents of the Socratic, the Platonic, the Spencerian, or some other school. By this is meant that they adopt and adhere to some particular system of human opinions. Although these opinions may have occasional gleams of divinity, borrowed from that truly divine Science which eschews man-made systems, they nevertheless remain wholly human in their origin and tendency and are not scientifically Christian.

Science and Health, like all Eddy’s writings, is explicitly Christian throughout. Grimke’s Esoteric Lessons make no explicit reference to Christianity; implicitly they are Platonist and an example of what Eddy meant when referring to “the Socratic, the Platonic” as renegades from her movement.