A Research Adventure in Boston

The Mary Baker Eddy Library for the Betterment of Humanity

Upon returning from the most rewarding and enjoyable research adventure of my life, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude towards the many people involved in this pilgrimage to a place I never imagined visiting, pursuing research on a person I had never heard of until a few years ago. The most rewarding aspect of the journey is that I’m returning with copies of several dozen letters to and from Eddy, along with a dozen new ones from the Grimke collections at the Moorland-Spingarn Center, that revolutionize my understanding of Sarah Stanley Grimke’s milieu. These are supplemented by articles and organizational records from the 1870s through 1890s, and notes from several books that shed light on Boston during the period. Having only requested a one week Fellowship, I was granted three, and the resources available justify a return in the fall to spend another week in the collections after absorbing the information gathered during the past two weeks.

It all started in 2011 when John Patrick Deveney, in response to the information that I was looking into the authorship of The Light of Egypt, advised that portions were written by Sarah Stanley Grimke, and thus that the pseudonym “Zanoni” included both her and Thomas H. Burgoyne. In light of Pat’s suggestion that this longterm partnership was both literary and personal, Marc Demarest purchased a rare copy of Sarah’s only book Esoteric Lessons for my examination. And when I opined that this material was far too abstruse and convoluted to be of interest to contemporary readers, Marc patiently countered with the opinion that Sarah’s unique voice and perspective merited a second look—and republication with me as editor.

My friend Marvin T. Jones of Washington, D.C. encouraged the Grimke family as a subject deserving further research based on its eminence in the nation’s capital. He assisted my first visit to the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University where I discovered, with the assistance of Curator Ida B. Jones and Director JoEllen el-Bashir, the great wealth of correspondence and documents of Sarah’s husband Archibald H. Grimke and her daughter Angelina Weld Grimke.

After a couple of years with Sarah on the back burner while I worked on other collaborative projects, my editorial colleague Patrick Bowen suggested that the Mary Baker Eddy Library Fellowship program offered an ideal opportunity to investigate Sarah’s beginnings as a writer, in the Boston milieu of Transcendentalists and Mind Cure proponents including her philosophy professor Cyrus A. Bartol. With only two weeks left before the application deadline, Fellowship Coordinator Sherry Darling generously helped me organize the proposal, and Mitch Horowitz and Jeff Lavoie wrote the needed (and appreciated!) recommendation letters with only a few days notice.

After two weeks in Boston, I cannot say enough about the professionalism and helpfulness of the Mary Baker Eddy Library staff, and their patience with my many questions and requests. Mike Davis and Kurt Morris were called upon many times daily to explain various points of Christian Science history and the archival holdings, while Judy Huennecke shared her own excellent research on James Henry Wiggin and encouraged my pursuit of the broader question of Eddy’s dealings with Unitarian clergy. Jonathan Eder hosted a Fellowship program in which I was able to share my findings in a friendly, informal atmosphere with the Library and Publications staff over lunch last Thursday. It was pure pleasure to get acquainted with authors Paul Ivey, Jeff Lavoie, and Lisa Stepanski during the most enjoyable and illuminating lunch breaks I can recall, ever. Paul’s work on Christian Science and the Temple of the People, Jeff’s on Theosophy and Spiritualism, and Lisa’s on Bronson and Abba Alcott all inspire me with admiration and curiosity to fill in the many blanks in my knowledge of these topics.

Last but far from least, I’m grateful to my brother Richard for companionship and relaxation in the evenings in Boston over dinner, and to my sister Wendy for recommending the novel that I completed on the train home from Boston. The differences and similarities between Sarah Moore Grimke (1792-1873), once infamous and now famous and celebrated, and Sarah Stanley Grimke (1850-1898), once infamous and now forgotten, were the theme of my Fellows presentation at the Library last Thursday. Sarah the elder was an unmarried Southerner who sacrificed herself to the welfare of her sister’s family; Sarah the younger was a married Northerner who sacrificed her daughter’s and husband’s well-being to her own independence as a writer. But in this passage from Sue Monk Kidd’s masterpiece The Invention of Wings, the author captures what united both as 19th century women defying racial and gender norms to find their unique missions in life. After Sarah (the elder) and her sister Angelina have received the fateful invitation to be trained as aboliitionist lecturers and agitators, Sarah experiences anxiety over her limitations as a public speaker, compared to her eloquent and passionate younger sister:

What I feared was the immensity of it all—a female abolition agent traveling the country with a national mandate. I wanted to say Who am I to do this, a woman? But that voice was not mine. It belonged to Israel, to Catherine, and to Mother. It belonged to the church in Charleston and the Quakers in Philadelphia. It would not, if I could help it, belong to me. (p. 322)

Sarah Stanley Grimke’s father Moses blamed her loss of orthodox Christian faith on her philosophy professor Cyrus Bartol. He blamed her defiance of racial norms on her in-laws Theodore and Angelina Weld. Sarah’s husband Archibald Grimke blamed her leaving him on Elizabeth Stuart’s advice as a Christian Science dissident with strange notions about the cause of Sarah’s heart ailment. If they had known the details of her years in California co-authoring The Light of Egypt, both Moses and Archibald would likely have blamed Thomas H. Burgoyne for diverting her literary career into Hermetic astrological channels. But in truth, Sarah’s defiance of convention and flouting of tradition were her own character and destiny, from start to finish. And in this she is a spiritual heir of the other, famous, honored Sarah Grimke.

(photo cropped from the website of the Mary Baker Eddy Library)