Personified Unthinkables

Personified Unthinkables: The Pupil (excerpted from Letters to the Sage, Volume Two.)

Bronson Alcott’s acquaintance with Mary Baker Glover (who would become Mrs. Eddy in 1878) began when he read Science and Health in January 1876 and wrote to her in very admiring terms: “The sacred truths which you announce sustained by facts of the Immortal Life, give to your work the seal of inspiration – reaffirm, in modern phrase, the Christian revelations.” [i] On January 30, after meeting Mrs. Glover, he wanted to meet her circle.  He had already promoted her book among Transcendentalist colleagues and was planning to do so among future Unitarian clergy, writing “Last Sunday evening I met a pleasant circle at Mr Emersons and took occasion to speak of yourself, your Science and disciples…Next Wednesday evening, I am to meet the Divinity students at Cambridge for Conversation on Divine Ideas and methods. I think you may safely trust my commendations of your faith and methods anywhere.”[ii] After meeting her circle in Lynn, Alcott continued to be supportive. Three diary entries indicate the rise and fall of Alcott’s enthusiasm for Christian Science. On January 20, 1876 he wrote “I find her one of the fair saints.”[iii] More than two years later, following the death of Mrs. Alcott and the remarriage of Mrs. Glover to Asa Gilbert Eddy, he became involved in a court case involving Christian Science, sometimes called the “Salem witch trial” of Daniel Spofford. Alcott’s diary entry for May 14, 1878 notes that he accompanied Mr. and Mrs. Eddy to Salem for the trial in which Lucretia Brown claimed to have suffered mesmeric attacks from Spofford.[iv] Three weeks later, on June 5, his first reservations about her appear in his diary: “There is perhaps a touch of fanaticism, though of a genial quality, interposed into her faith, which a deeper insight into the mysteries of life may ultimately remove.”[v]

One sermon at Old West Church in which Cyrus Bartol endorsed Eddy’s beliefs was entitled “Mind Cure.”  An excerpt was published in the Christian Science Journal, which included these passages: “A wrong thought disturbs right thinking. Rectify the system with right thoughts. That is the medicine to be taken internally…let us change the thought to faith, confidence in God, and in each other! Take down the upholstery of the pit. In a picture gallery we uncover our heads and are lifted above base longing. Can we not have an art museum in our mind? And spiritual uncovering.”[vi] At the Massachusetts Metaphysical College, May 7, 1884, the Christian Scientist Association members passed a resolution tendering “heartfelt thanks” to “this eminent divine” for having “nobly defended” Christian Science, concluding “as a true watchman on the tower of the world’s progress who sends forth no uncertain sound do we thank him.” [vii]

References to Sarah in the literature of the time are rare, but in 1919 Horatio Dresser recorded her as “one of the earliest of the mental science writers” whose “Personified Unthinkables, 1884, interpreted the practical idealism with special reference to mental pictures and their influence…Quimby sometimes described the mental part of his treatment with reference to the pictures he discerned intuitively in the patient’s mind…”[viii] The influence from Quimby on Grimké’s writings may be minor, however, in light of the insistence of Cyrus Bartol on the same theme of mental pictures. Bartol became but the most visible friend of Christian Science in the Unitarian clergy. Stephen Gottschalk describes his interest in Eddy as based on “his feeling that the new movement represented a recrudescence of the Transcendentalist revolt against materialism.”[ix] He was not Mrs. Eddy’s first Unitarian clerical admirer, a role played by Andrew Ralston Peabody, a Harvard professor affiliated with the orthodox Unitarians. Bartol was by contrast affiliated with the radical wing of the movement, in which “his liberalism partook not of the rationalism of Peabody’s orthodoxy but of the warmth of transcendentalist faith.”[x] Robert Peel notes an intriguing quote from Bartol, who allegedly “listened to Mrs. Eddy’s explanations and declared, ‘I have preached the living God for forty years, but never felt his presence and power as you do.’”[xi] Historian of Transcendentalism Philip Gura describes Bartol as “as a voice of postwar Transcendentalism” who was such “in good measure because of his continuing advocacy of intuitionist beliefs… became a major voice among radical Unitarians.”[xii]

An undated note by Calvin Frye of a recollection by Mary Baker Eddy, headed “Dr. Bartol- 1868,” quotes him as telling her “Well dear sister I can see that you are inspired and your talk about God is beautiful but I cannot <quite>understand it I am afraid others will not I would not try to talk it for people will think you are insane.”[xiii] This indicates that their acquaintance predated her first meeting with Bronson Alcott by eight years. Despite Eddy’s early and lasting esteem for Bartol, the Christian Science Journal in December 1884 rejected his pleas for harmonious cooperation among various branches of the fractious Mind Cure movement. “Observer” commented that “There is no occupant of a Boston pulpit broader in his religious sympathies, or more sensitive in his spiritual fellowship, than the Rev. Dr. C.A. Bartol” who “has always been foremost in the recognition of ecclesiastical progress” and goes on to praise the way “every topic he touches receives from his thought a touch of its own poetic sweetness and light, yet not in such a way as to conceal or warp, in the least degree, the objects upon which he bids us look.” Nevertheless, in a recent sermon Bartol went too far, when he classed Christian Science “with Mesmerism, Mind cure, Spiritualism, as parts of one and the same great movement…When Dr. Bartol, in his kindly way, bids Christian Scientists live in friendly unity with these isms, he asks the impossible.”[xiv]

The mental pictures theme found in Grimké’s writing, as well as her literary style, may owe more to Bartol than to Christian Science. His 1855 collection of sermons, Pictures of Europe, Framed in Ideas, combined travel writing and Transcendentalism. Sally M. Promey describes the book as “inviting ‘pilgrims’ to the ‘shrine,’ the ‘splendid temple of art’” and recommending “what he called ‘picture-language’ as superior to text for its presumed universal legibility.”[xv] The Columbia Literary History of the United States describes Bartol’s style as “strongly didactic, much given to reflection on moral and spiritual truths, aphoristic, dependent on example and analogy rather than on sequential arguments, fond of paradox, highly reiterative yet sometimes compressed to the point of mysteriousness.” [xvi] The Esoteric Lessons of his disciple are equally well described by this summary. The Cambridge American Companion to Travel Writing describes his 1855 book as “affirming the value of a universal religious reverence inherent in human nature and expressed in religious art and architecture.”[xvii] The Sunday school lesson and sermon topics of Old West Church preserved at the Andover Theological Seminary library reveal Bartol emphasizing such visual themes as “The Beauty of Flowers” or “Light” as often as traditional Biblical topics or contemporary political issues.

One early critical Eddy biography describes her as presenting theology “warmer than the Unitarianism which it faintly resembled, less vague than the Transcendentalism with which it was affiliated.”[xviii] Unitarian clergyman Samuel B. Stewart performed the marriage ceremony of Asa Eddy and Mary Baker Glover, who had attended his services with her former colleague Richard Kennedy.[xix] Near the end of her long life, several pieces of evidence suggest that Eddy’s early esteem for Unitarianism was undiminished.  In November 1897, in response to an interview request from a Unitarian minister, she commented that “to my apprehension unity and love are the exemplification of Unitarianism, even as the Christ healing is the demonstration of Christian Science,” adding “My acquaintance with Unitarians has been of a happy sort for their lives have illustrated their religion.”[xx] Six months later, she followed up with another letter praising several Unitarian clergymen by name, writing that “Theodore Parker, Dr. Peabody, Dr. Bartol, Wm. R. Alger, etc. were my model men. They did much towards unchaining the limbs of Love and giving freedom to its footsteps.”[xxi] In recognition of years of friendly relations with the Unitarian Church in Concord, New Hampshire, Eddy left them $5000 in her will.[xxii]

Two points in Unitarian theology are identified by Catherine Tumber as foundational to Christian Science, New Thought, and ultimately the New Age. Drawing on a philosophical tradition of perfectionism, “Unitarianism compelled its followers to achieve ‘likeness to God’ through self-development and social reform” which was combined with a “precarious dualism between the higher and lower faculties, between the spiritual and the corporeal” which “could easily elide from respect for material claims, if legitimate in their proper inferior place, to active disparagement and even contempt.”[xxiii]


[i] Bronson Alcott to Eddy, January 17, 1876 (SF-Alcott, Bronson).

[ii] Bronson Alcott to Eddy, January 30, 1876 (SF Alcott, Bronson).

[iii] Journals of Bronson Alcott, Odell Shepard, ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1938), 465.

[iv] Ibid., 487.

[v] Ibid., 489-90.

[vi] C.A. Bartol, “Mind Cure,” Christian Science Journal, December 1884.

[vii] Early Organizational Records, Christian Scientist Association, Mary Baker Eddy Library, EOR 10.03.

[viii] Horatio Dresser, History of the New Thought Movement (New York: Crowell), 138.

[ix] Stephen Gottschalk, Emergence of Christian Science in American Religious Life (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1973), 208.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Robert Peel, Christian Science: Its Encounter with American Culture (Harrington Park, NJ: R.H. Sommer, 1980), 105.

[xii] Philip Gura, American Transcendentalism (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), 274.

[xiii] Calvin Frye, Undated note, Accession A11065.

[xiv] “A Late Letter,” Christian Science Journal, December 1884.

[xv] American Religious Liberalism, Leigh E. Schmidt and Sally M. Promey, eds. (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2012), 82.

[xvi] Columbia Literary History of the United States, Emory Elliott, gen. ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 374.

[xvii] Cambridge American Companion to Travel Writing, Alfred Bendixen and Judith Hamera, eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 119.

[xviii] Sutherland Bates and John V. Dittemore, Mary Baker Eddy (New York: Knopf, 1932), 153.

[xix] Sybil Wilbur, Life of Mary Baker Eddy (New York: Concord, 1907), 223.

[xx] Eddy to Frank L. Phalen, November 27, 1897, L13282.

[xxi] Eddy to Frank L. Phalen, May 13, 1898, L132880.

[xxii] Eddy to unknown recipient, September 13, 1907, “for MY WILL” L09844.

[xxiii] Katherine Tumber, American Feminism and the Birth of New Age Spirituality (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 117-118.