Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures, which Mark Twain famously described as “chloroform in print,” is one of the most tremendously influential texts in the histroy of self-help literature. These days, with Christian Science fading from public consciousness, it is easy to forget the tremendous influence this philosophy had on the popular cultural imagination, and just how many of the ideas contained in the book were absorbed into the understanding of alternative health, spirituality and self-help. Its author, and the eventual founder of the Christian Science Church, was Mary Baker Eddy, an impoverished New Englander with a patchy matrimonial history and a lifelong history of largely psychosomatic illness.
I think we have hugely underestimated the cultural power that Eddy’s movement maintained over Western culture up to the 1960s, including here in Australia. Writers, celebrities and Hollywood stars were all drawn to this religion that validated women and denied the dogmas of the traditional churches. This was the case, too, in Australia, where Christian Science churches and reading rooms popped up in every capital city. In Science and Health... Eddy sets forth her theological understanding that all that is good is of God, and all that is bad is illusion, for God is the only reality:
"all real being is in God, the Divine Mind, and that Life, Truth, and Love are all-powerful and ever-present."
This huge, prolix and immensely difficult book became almost an instant bestseller, establishing the market for spiritually-inspired books of self-help healing that continues till this day. The success of the book and of the religious movement it inspired meant that by the end of the nineteenth century Mary Baker Eddy was ver rich, powerful and influential.
The crest on the front of the book reads:
"Heal the Sick, Raise the Dead, Cast Out Demons, Cleanse the Lepers."
These, of course, being the miracles of Christ, which Mary Baker Eddy believed all of her followers should be able to emulate. To this end she forbade the use of conventional medicine, though she herself famously visited the dentist towards the end of her life.
Eddy’s empire was, however, not without its critics. In Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, Leigh Eric Schmidt makes the old point that Eddy's book was largely influenced by the work of Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, a travelling New England healer who was immensely popular in the middle of the nineteenth century and who was responsible for many of Eddy's own cures. Eddy later rejected this notion, claiming that all of the ideas in the book were her own, divinely inspired. She said that the book was "hoplessly original," perhaps hinting that even she was aware of some of it stylistic shortcomings. And in denying sin, suffering and evil, the book was, of course, entirely heretical and opposed to any mainstream theology. In rejecting the notion of original sin, Horton Davies, in his book Christian Deviations, wrote that:
"Christian Scientists are tone-deaf to the tragic notes of our human symphony. Life's foes demand to be faced with bracing realism, not evaded by Christian Science escapism."