Self-Help and Popular Religion in Modern American Culture: An Interpretive Guide

By Roy M. Anker | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Romanticism, the Gilded Age, and the History of Christian Science

As we have seen in the last chaper of the companion volume to this work, the impetus that Phineas Quimby gave to "harmonial religion," as Sydney Ahlstrom has labeled it, went in two distinct directions. The less famous, but perhaps in the long run most influential, of the two strains was the New Thought movement, a diffuse, varied, and individualistic tradition that was sustained by best-selling authors like Warren Felt Evans, Ralph Waldo Trine, and Norman Vincent Peale, charismatic speakers like Emmet Fox and, again, Norman Vincent Peale, and tireless publishing and educational enterprises like the Unity School of Christian Living and Peale's Guideposts publications. In fact, it is not difficult to argue that in the twentieth century this tradition has pervaded the culture and is the American religion. However, despite its many decades of enormous vitality and broad appeal, New Thought is not per se a readily discernible, widely recognized, or especially controversial theological perspective or religious movement. These distinctions do not apply, however, to that other offshoot of Quimby's vision, what is known as Christian Science, a highly successful church organization founded by one of the most remarkable religious leaders in American history, Mary Baker Eddy ( 1821-1910). Eddy's theology and leadership were such that her notoriety and the church that followed in their wake emerged dramatically in a few short years, making the leader of the church of Christ, Scientist, a household word and estimable enough to win, on one hand, praise from philosopher-psychologist William James and, on the other, book-length derision from novelist and satirist Mark Twain, whose own family sought the aid of Christian Science practitioners. Mary Baker Eddy's story is, to be sure, as one dispassionate commentator has put it, "one of the most remarkable success stories in American life" ( Braden, Believe193)

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