Footsteps” Mary Baker
Eddy’s Path to Religious
by Robert David Thomas, Knopf, 351 pages, $27.50 . CODE: RAN-17
Most people know pretty much how they feel about Christian Science, and this major biography of its founder, Mary Baker Eddy, doesn’t seek so much to diminish or elevate as to simply follow her life from a psychological viewpoint. The historian Robert David Thomas has spent the last fifteen years tracing Eddy’s rise from sickly child to mother of a worldwide faith; for much of that time he has labored in the guarded stacks of the Mother Church, which makes his the most complete portrait of Eddy and her followers by an outsider.
In February 1866 the then Mary Patterson slipped on a patch of ice and injured her back. Her subsequent recovery, behind which she discerned a divine influence, strengthened her Christian faith and became the founding moment for her church. After a childhood full of struggles with illnesses both real and imagined and of rebellion against her parents’ Calvinism, the Massachusetts housewife had already explored, among other things, homeopathy, hydropathy, and the teachings of the healer Phineas Parkhurst Quimby before she fashioned a religious approach of her own.
Robert Thomas’s life of Eddy respectfully applies modern theories of child development to her gloomy early years on a New England farm. To Thomas, she is not “a monumental hysteric of classical dimensions,” as the critic Harold Bloom recently called her, nor is she the cynical autocrat Mark Twain saw. Mary Baker Eddy constructed a world view based on Christ and self-control that proved extremely attractive to millions. Thomas notes that her church was unique not only in that it was founded and led by a nineteenth-century woman but that its female members still outnumbered men “eight to one by the early 1970s.” This book will be a mild disappointment to debunkers; others will appreciate its careful, sympathetic study of a fascinating woman.