In religious scholarship, it takes veracity, humility, and persistence to arrive at a clear view of a faith community, and respected insider voices have often played a vital role in achieving that clarity. This is certainly true for Christian Science. With a central emphasis on salvation and Christian healing, this Christian denomination, founded by a woman in the late 19th century, stirred theological waters and gender norms, often drawing attacks and misrepresentations from the clergy and press of the day.
Many of these misunderstandings have carried forward for generations and continue to be repeated today, including in the entries about Christian Science and its Founder, Mary Baker Eddy, on Wikipedia. To those who know about and practice the faith, the entries appear like jumbled puzzles with missing sections, pieces forced into the wrong places, and other pieces that simply don’t belong. In light of relatively recent scholarly works evidencing intellectual integrity when discussing Christian Science and its history, there's room in the public sphere for more balanced considerations.
As volunteers on Wikipedia sift through these issues, the church is offering below, with permission, an encyclopedic entry on Christian Science that comes closer to the heart of the religion. It’s from a three-volume reference work published in 2020 by the academic publisher ABC-CLIO.
By Thomas Johnsen
Reprinted with permission from: American Religious History: Belief and Society through Time
(Vol. 2, pp. 107-09), ed. Gary Scott Smith
A spiritual movement that emerged in the decades following the Civil War, Christian Science is one of several American-born church traditions with the declared purpose of reinstating the original or "primitive” Christianity of the New Testament era. The title "Christian Science" refers to a church, a denominational organization, a theology, and a religious healing practice. The “Science" of Christianity interprets Christ's life and ministry as not only a historical event but also a "scientific" phenomenon pointing to the underlying nature of reality and spiritual law. The fervent response to this teaching in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American society evidenced a hunger for spiritual union with God that crossed boundaries of class, education, race, geography, and gender.
The movement's roots were in New England Protestantism. Like the Quaker movement two centuries earlier, Christian Science began as an unorthodox outgrowth of Puritan piety emphasizing the immediacy and transforming power of divine Spirit in human life. Scholars differ on the relation of the teaching to the broader Christian tradition, but Christian Science was understood by its founder and early followers as a radical commitment to "Christ-likeness" (Eddy  1912, 357). Christian Scientists, like members of other denominations, have wrestled with the challenge of sustaining this transformative spiritual commitment through changing times.
The church's founder, Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910), dated what she described as the "discovery" of Christian Science to an experience of spiritual illumination and physical healing in 1866. A New Hampshire farmer's daughter, Eddy joined the Congregational Church as a teenager in the period of religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening. She described the "piety" of her early ministers as "the all-important consideration of their being" (Eddy  1915a, 32-33), and spiritual concerns became similarly primary for her.
Long years of illness and poverty forced on Eddy the religious dilemma she had wrestled with in the Calvinist doctrines preached by her ministers: How can God's love be reconciled with human suffering and tragedy? In her pivotal midlife experience of healing, Eddy glimpsed, she believed, "the great fact that I have since tried to make plain to others, namely, Life in and of Spirit; this Life being the sole reality of existence" (Eddy  1912, 24). Christian healing in this view upended material assumptions; it was not the result of supernatural intervention but was based on an altogether different understanding of creation as spiritual and ordered by unchanging divine love. Eddy elaborated this understanding in her book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, first published in 1875 and later designated, along with the Bible, as the denomination’s "textbook."
From the movement's beginnings, the practice of spiritual healing through prayer was the most controversial element of Christian Science. Eddy's search for health, including methods that today are often considered psychological suggestion, convinced her that the sources of health and disease are essentially mental. As her own teaching developed, she insisted that genuine Christian healing is not merely a product of suggestion, as critics argued, but could be approached only in the context of worship and authentic experience of the divine.
Healing and worship went hand in hand in the founding of the Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston in 1879. The stated purpose of the "little band" who formed the first congregation was to "commemorate" Jesus’s "word and works,” including the "lost element of healing" in Christian ministry (Eddy 1895, 17). The sole outward sacrament observed in the Boston church was a period of "silent prayer" and "self-examination by each member as to his real state of love towards man and fellowship and communion with Christ'' (Eddy  1889, 259). The quiet simplicity of these services did not prevent Christian Science congregations from growing dramatically over the next three decades.
These were also decades of challenge for the new church. Dissension among the members prompted Eddy to revise the church's original congregational form of governance. The Church Manual, a set of by-laws first published in 1895, established a unique denominational structure balancing democratically governed "branch churches" and the central authority of the Boston "Mother Church.” Even as the movement grew, Eddy cautioned members repeatedly against the loss of love and spiritual devotion. Her first address in the Mother Church, when the original stone edifice was completed in 1895, emphasized spiritual regeneration and repentance from sin.
In the public realm, the church faced the misunderstanding common to many new religious movements. Some mistook Eddy's teaching for positive thinking or a sunny variant of the transcendental optimism running through American culture from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Norman Vincent Peale. Others interpreted it as a Gilded Age precursor to the health, wealth, and success ethos of the later Prosperity Gospel. Such misunderstandings were not surprising, Eddy noted; "with truths so counter to the common convictions of mankind to present to the world,” Christian Science placed a special obligation on adherents to live the values they professed (Eddy  1915b, 14). Church by-laws required members to respond to criticisms "in a Christian manner" and avoid rancorous debate (Eddy 1895, 97, 50).
Opposition also came from medical organizations. The medical profession was modernizing in this period and becoming more rigorous in its standards of research and education. Although Christian Scientists admired the humanitarianism of physicians, their spiritual perspective and the cases of healing they were reporting called many of the premises of medical practice into question. Testifying before the Massachusetts legislature in 1894, Harvard philosopher William James, himself medically trained, urged that the practices of spiritual healers be studied, not suppressed. "Why seek to stop the really extremely important experiences,” he wrote, "which these peculiar creatures are rolling up?" (James 1920, 67).
Those experiences represent the largely unwritten history at the core of Christian Scientists' religious life. In the first thirty years of the twentieth century, the monthly Christian Science Journal and weekly Christian Science Sentinel published over 27,000 testimonies from individuals relating their firsthand experiences of healing. The conditions reported as healed ranged from minor to medically incurable and terminal, but these are plainly religious, not medical documents. While the medical significance of these experiences remains contested, the healings reported are essential to understanding Christian Scientists' distinctive practice and outlook and continue to be published today. By 1925 nearly 7,000 church members were serving in the denomination's ministry of healing as Christian Science practitioners, called on by patients daily for spiritual counsel and prayer. The first of several Christian Science care facilities, where church members could receive nonmedical nursing assistance from Christian Science nurses, opened in Massachusetts in 1919.
At the interface between the denomination and the wider society, the controversy over Christian Scientists' practice of healing was tempered by cooperation and compromise. The legal right to practice spiritual healing was challenged but generally upheld in American courts at the appellate level. In one significant precedent, People v. Cole (1920), the New York State Court of Appeals reversed the conviction of a Christian Science practitioner prosecuted under the state's medical practice laws. The decision affirmed that Christian Science "treatment" through prayer was not a medical, but a religious, practice protected by the Constitution.
Christian Scientists acknowledged that religious freedoms were not absolute but brought balancing responsibilities. Eddy counseled obedience to the law and respect for the rights of others, including on public health matters such as vaccination. In this spirit the denomination when possible sought legislative accommodations to constricting medical requirements. The care of children was an especially sensitive issue, but the church acknowledged the shared concern of the medical community and the state in the well-being of children, and doctors throughout much of the twentieth century often gave Christian Scientist parents significant latitude in decisions on care.
As a woman in a leadership role, Mary Baker Eddy was both lauded and vilified in the latter decades of her life. "What I am remains to be proved by the good I do,” she wrote in response to a bitter portrayal by Mark Twain (Eddy 1913, 303). In 1908 she founded a newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, a journalistic initiative intended "to injure no man, but to bless all mankind" (Canham 1958, xvi). Her spiritual authority within the denomination was St. Paul-like, and when she died in 1910, many questioned whether Christian Science would survive. Would the church maintain its original spiritual vitality and ideals of integrity, or would it drift into more worldly and perfunctory religious observance, as the early Christian movement itself had?
Through the first half of the twentieth century, the answer was mixed. The rapid growth of the movement initially continued, albeit at a gradually slowing pace. By 1945, there were over 2,100 Christian Science congregations in the United States. The Christian Science Monitor established itself as a significant international newspaper, and a new publishing building was constructed in Boston in 1934. Christian Scientists were accepted as Protestant chaplains in the nation's military during World War I, and church members served in combat and noncombat roles in both world wars. Relief efforts organized by the denomination sent thousands of parcels of clothing and food to war-torn areas for distribution through the Red Cross.
Yet there were also troubling signs. In 1919, church and publishing officials in Boston clashed in a protracted legal battle that threatened to dismantle Eddy's organization. The resolution of the dispute in court saved the church from schism but left unhealed wounds. More troubling still was the advent of institutionalized segregation in the denomination in the following decades. The church's teaching affirmed the worth and equality of every individual, and African Americans had been drawn to Christian Science from its early years. The Great Migration of African Americans from the South in the 1920s brought a substantial influx of new converts in Northern and Western cities, but these increasing numbers elicited increasing resistance from portions of the church membership. The Christian Science Journal began to list African Americans as "colored" in its directory of Christian Science practitioners and branch churches as "colored" in cities such as Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York.
The life stories reflected in these listings represent another unwritten chapter in the history of Christian Science. Annie Julia Roberts, for example, was born into slavery in Mississippi in 1862 and joined the local Christian Science congregation in Prescott, Arizona, in the early 1900s. She served as a Christian Science practitioner for more than twenty years. In a 1945 obituary, the Prescott newspaper reported that both whites and blacks sought her help for healing. The obituary also noted the unusual affection between Roberts and other members of the mostly white congregation, reflecting that the spirit she expressed far surpassed the limits society imposed.
In the 1930s and 1940s it was not unusual for a longtime Christian Science teacher to speak earnestly of the need for revival of the spiritual ardor that had earlier impelled the movement. "Settling down with Christian Science for personal benefits,” one of them observed, "does not carry a movement. The inner zeal and devotion which began this great spiritual impetus for the salvation of humanity must be constantly rekindled" (Hogue 1944, 2). The same awakening to a larger spiritual vision of humanity that transformed Annie Roberts's life would be increasingly demanded of Christian Scientists in the challenging decades ahead.
Thomas Johnsen earned a PhD in American history from Johns Hopkins University. He served in his denomination’s ministry as a Christian Science practitioner and teacher. Johnsen wrote on Christian Science history and practice in such publications as The New England Quarterly, Medical Heritage, Christian Century, Patheos, Encyclopedia Philosophique Universelle: Oeuvres Philosophiques, and Religious Leadership: A Reference Handbook.
Canham, Erwin. 1958. Commitment to Freedom: The Story of The Christian Science Monitor. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Eddy, Mary Baker. 1913. The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany. Boston: A. V. Stewart.
Eddy, Mary Baker. 1895. Manual of The Mother Church. Boston: The First Church of Christ. Scientist.
Eddy, Mary Baker. (1901) 1915a. Message to The Mother Church for 1901. Boston: A. V. Stewart.
Eddy, Mary Baker. (1902) 1915b. Message to The Mother Church for 1902. Boston: A. V. Stewart.
Eddy, Mary Baker. (1896) 1912. Miscellaneous Writings, 1883-1896. Boston: A. V. Stewart.
Eddy, Mary Baker. (1879) 1889. "Rules and Regulations of the Church of Christ." The Christian Science Journal 7: 259-261.
Gottschalk. Stephen. 1973. The Emergence of Christian Science in American Religious Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hogue, Blanche Hersey. 1944. "Church First.”' The Christian Science Journal 62:1-4.
James, William. 1920. The Letters of William James. Edited by Henry James. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press.