Several Christian sects have been founded and based in the United States, including the Church of Latter Day Saints (the name it now prefers to the Mormon Church) and the Church of St. John Coltrane (a branch of St. John’s African Orthodox Church devoted to the music of the late, great jazz saxophonist and composer). But only one major religion in the U.S. was founded by a woman and identifies her as its major source of inspiration. The Church of Christ, Scientist, better known as Christian Science, has well under a million members, yet its highly respected media arms (the Christian Science Monitor newspaper and Monitor Radio) and its radical philosophy of healing have kept its name in the public eye.
The church was founded in the 19th century by Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910), who rejected the notion of predestination embraced by her staunchly Calvinist New England father, although she remained a member of the Congregational Church until she founded her own. Eddy suffered early on from convulsive fits, which, combined with a series of personal losses (her brother, husband, and mother died and her young son was put into foster care within the same decade), left her almost a total invalid. Suspecting a mental rather than physical element to sickness, she explored alternative healing practices like homeopathy and hypnotic suggestion. A hypnotist and healer from Maine named Phineas Quimby, who believed that the mind could both cause and cure disease, helped to relieve her pain for a time.
But after Quimby died, Eddy became deathly ill following a nasty fall. After reading and meditating on a Bible account of Christ’s miraculous healing, Eddy was healed, and “gained the scientific certainty that all causation was Mind, and every effect a mental phenomenon.” Over the next several years, Mrs. Eddy wrote her interpretation of the Bible entitled Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (1875), explaining that Jesus taught “our dominion over matter,” and that spirit was the sole reality of existence. She claimed it was directly inspired by God, but reportedly asked a clergyman to help with the grammar. In 1879, she organized the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston; the Mother Church was built there in 1894 and later expanded.
Because Christian Scientists believe that evil and illness exist only in the mind, they rely on specially trained members called practitioners, who help other members heal injuries or disease through prayer, thought, and reading. The prayers are tailored to each situation and are based on the King James Bible, Science and Health, and other writings by Mary Baker Eddy, and the practitioner does not need to deliver them face to face. The practitioner is not believed to have healing powers, but rather to help the patient turn to God as the source of healing. Medical intervention is not necessarily forbidden, but is not encouraged, since it is said to interfere with spiritual healing.
Because of their controversial beliefs about healing, in recent years a number of Christian Scientists have been brought up on criminal charges, and several convicted, when their children died after receiving treatment through prayer rather than through conventional medical care. One Boston couple, for example, was convicted in 1990 of manslaughter in the death of their two-year-old son who became ill in 1986 because of a bowel obstruction and died five days later. However, all guilty verdicts have eventually been overturned on appeal. In another case, the Delaware Supreme Court ruled that a Christian Scientist couple had the right to reject chemotherapy to treat cancer in their three-year-old son. Furthermore, spiritual healing is recognized by law. Christian Science practitioners’ charges are paid by many large private insurance companies, and some Christian Science sanatoriums are providers of care under Medicare. The fees charged by practitioners, nurses, and sanatoriums are deductible from federal income taxes as medical expenses.
Some Christian theologians contend that Christian Science does not represent orthodox Christianity because it does not teach the divinity of the man Jesus. However, Christian Scientists do understand Jesus Christ to be the Son of God, the Redeemer, and they accept the gospel accounts that he was born of a virgin, was crucified, rose from the grave, and then ascended. In Science and Health, Mrs. Eddy writes, “The Divinity of the Christ was made manifest in the humanity of Jesus,” implying some separation between the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ, whereas most Christians insist that both natures are united–that Jesus was “true God and true man.” Christian Scientists see the Christ as an eternal principle, which sounds a little like the concept of the Indian avatar. At other times Christian Science bears a resemblance to the Eastern philosophy of relative and absolute truth, as when it says that (on the level of absolute truth) there is no reality except Mind or Spirit and everything material–sickness, death, sin–is unreality, and yet that (on a relative level) because humanity has not fully grasped or accepted that God or Mind is All, people do appear to become sick and die, and they rely on marriage, food, money, and other material necessities. But since Christian Scientists believe that Jesus Christ is the Redeemer, that the cross is the central element in human history, and that humanity’s spiritual, God-given identity is indestructible and eternal, it would be difficult to exclude them from the Christian tradition.
Christian Scientists accept the word of Mrs. Eddy as final; no new teachings can enter the church. And so, there is no preaching or sermonizing in the traditional sense. Each church has a First and Second Reader elected by the congregation who read selections of Scripture accompanied by selections from Science and Health without commentary or explanation. Members can and do share testimonies of healings that have taken place in their lives, and sing hymns, some of them written by Mrs. Eddy.