Mary Baker Eddy: Trailblazer for Women and Religion

03/08/2017 10:15 pm ET

This post honors Women’s History Month 2017 and the theme of women who have successfully challenged the role of women in business and leadership roles.

How does a 19th century woman raised on a farm in Bow, New Hampshire with no college education become one of the most influential women in America at the turn of the century?

There was little to suggest that Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer and founder of Christian Science, would eventually become known as one of the great religious reformers of her time.

The landscape of her day hardly supported major accomplishments by women. Most reached their prime at 40, but that’s when Mary Baker Eddy first hit her stride.

At the time of her passing in 1910 she was an accomplished author, the leader of a new worldwide Christian religion, the president and founder of a teaching college, the editor and publisher of monthly and weekly magazines for her church, and the founder (at age 87) of an international newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor.

When the First Women's Rights Convention took place in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, Mary Baker Eddy (at that time Mary Baker Glover) was in her late 20s living hundreds of miles away in her family’s home in New Hampshire. Newly widowed, she was a single mother who had lost rights to her own property and was struggling with chronic ill health. Her circumstances eventually led to the separation from her only son.

The organizers of the convention, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, declared that the mission of the convention was to “discuss the social, civil, and religious conditions and rights of women.” Two hundred people were in attendance and, on the second day, forty men participated, including African-American abolitionist, Frederick Douglas.

The outcome of this historic gathering resulted in the construction of a document that Stanton had drafted during the days of the convention. This, “Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances,” was closely modeled after the American Declaration of Independence. In its preamble featured this similar proclamation, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…”

Mary Baker Eddy wasn’t overtly political and her views tended in the direction of letting her deep love of Christianity inform the work she chose to do. She saw the need to reform the religious landscape and she didn’t let her gender stand in the way of her message. She wrote, "In natural law and in religion the right of woman to fill the highest measure of enlightened understanding and the highest places in government, is inalienable.... . This is woman's hour with all its sweet amenities and its moral and religious reforms." (No and Yes)

In her autobiography, Retrospection and Introspection, she described her recovery from a nearly fatal accident as “the falling apple” that led to her discovery of Christian Science:

“My immediate recovery from the effects of an injury caused by an accident, an injury that neither medicine nor surgery could reach, was the falling apple that led me to the discovery how to be well myself, and how to make others so...The Bible was my textbook.”

Nine years after her accident, she published her findings in a book she named Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.

Mrs. Eddy’s reforms departed from women’s suffrage and instead rallied around the freedoms of both men and women, for their divine right to health and well-being. Her teachings attracted the interest of her contemporary, Susan B. Anthony, who observed, "What of Mrs. Eddy? No man has obtained so large a following in so short a time.” Anthony took a class on Christian Science healing from one of Mrs. Eddy’s students in 1887. She later gifted Mrs. Eddy with a copy of The History of Women’s Suffrage. Anthony also gave her own copy of Science and Health to her longtime partner, suggesting its potential worth to her.

Mark Twain stood out as one of Mrs. Eddy’s more outspoken critics with what he perceived as her worldly success and human flaws that he was quick to point out. Still, he admitted she was “...in several ways the most interesting woman that ever lived, and the most extraordinary.” And despite the many contrary statements he made about her, the following reveals his sentiments about her actual teachings, suggesting an admiration for her revelation:

“For the thing back of it [Christian Science] is wholly gracious and beautiful: the power, through loving mercifulness and compassion, to heal fleshly ills and pains and griefs—all—with a word, with a touch of the hand! This power was given by the Saviour to the Disciples, and to all the converted. All—every one. It was exercised for generations afterwards...These things are true, or they are not. If they were true seventeen and eighteen and nineteen centuries ago it would be difficult to satisfactorily explain why or how or by what argument that power should be non-existent in Christians now.” (Christian Science, 1907 version, Book 2, Chapter 15, p. 284 of the Oxford Mark Twain)

And this was precisely Mary Baker Eddy’s point.

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