A New Look at Mary Baker Eddy

By Bergenheim, Richard C. | The Christian Science Monitor, October 29, 1998 | Go to article overview

A New Look at Mary Baker Eddy


Bergenheim, Richard C., The Christian Science Monitor


MARY BAKER EDDY

By Gillian Gill

Perseus Books 702 pp., $35 The first two biographies of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of this newspaper, appeared within a month of each other in 1907. They ran as a competing series of magazine articles that were later put out as books. They presented not only different but irreconcilable accounts of the life of the Discoverer of Christian Science. By 1907, Mrs. Eddy was a notable world figure. Her seminal work, "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," had sold more than 400,000 copies, and her new religious movement had taken firm hold in the United States and was spreading overseas. As remarkable as all this was, the most extraordinary fact, as Gillian Gill brings out in "Mary Baker Eddy," her contribution to the Radcliffe Biography Series, is that it was accomplished by a woman. The issue of women's role is contentious in many religious denominations. In the late 1800s, Eddy's work took place in an even more hostile religious climate. The extreme passions that have attended recent arguments concerning the ordination of women might suggest why biographies of Eddy have mirrored either the animosity or the adulation that characterized the first two biographies by Georgine Milmine and Sibyl Wilbur and almost all those that have followed. As Gill shows, most biographers of Eddy who have been vouchsafed by scholars and the press have drawn heavily on the primary materials embodied in the hostile biography written by Milmine for McClure's Magazine. One of Gill's significant contributions to research on the life of Eddy is her reexamination of these sources. She amply illustrates that these are far less reliable than scholars have assumed. She presents evidence that McClure's investigators deliberately sought out those who had strong animosity toward Eddy, often paid for their affidavits, and ignored cases where their hearsay testimony was vigorously disputed by those actually on the scene at the time. The Milmine book also relied heavily on material supplied by Frederick Peabody, who, as Gill details, fed the press with sensational and often fictionalized information during a 25-year vendetta against Eddy. She notes further that later biographies, such as Edwin Dakin's "Mrs. Eddy: the Biography of a Virgin Mind" and Ernest Bates and John Dittemore's "Mary Baker Eddy: the Truth and the Tradition," books that many scholars have praised, had made extensive use of Milmine's material. Gill notes as well that Wilbur, a newspaper reporter, often had help obtaining information for her 1907 biography from those favorable to Eddy and Christian Science. At times, these people were also paid for their information. But to Gill's surprise, she found Wilbur's material more credible than she had expected. Wilbur often used named sources, and Gill found that much of her material could be corroborated. But Wilbur's book and, more important, Robert Peel's three-volume biography of Eddy, which appeared between 1966 and 1977, have been discounted by many scholars because of the Christian Science Church's support of their work. Gill, who has no connection with the church, should prove a more credible source for those who decide to explore Eddy's life further. This biography deals extensively with Eddy's life before her discovery of Christian Science. Over the past two decades, there has been wide-ranging research into the social, economic, educational, and legal status of women in the 19th century. Gill's expertise in this area helps readers understand the culture Mary Baker grew up in and especially the economic and legal challenges that she later faced as a widow and a single mother without means of her own. Here, Gill is more insightful than previous biographers of Eddy have been. Scholars will also be interested in Gill's research in the long- standing issue about whether Eddy's book Science and Health was drawn from the writings of the magnetic healer Phineas Quimby. …

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