Excerpted and adapted from And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: Stories from the Byways of American Women and Religion by Adrian Shirk. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.
There’s a marble bust of a stately Victorian woman sitting on my grandparents’ hearth in Seattle, and for part of my life I thought she was Mary Baker Eddy. The bust’s craftsman detailed each ruffle in her collar, the fine downturned corners of her mouth, a neck tendon—handiwork so thorough and lifelike that, as a child, my mother’s cousin was regularly inspired to jam his finger up her nostril, whispering, “Pickin’ Gramma’s nose, pickin’ Gramma’s nose . . .” The reasons for my confusion were complicated and have to do with the way my family tells and does not tell stories about itself—but these were Eddy’s problems, too.
Reverend Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, is recorded as having been sick for most of her life: anxious, erratic, doubled-over, her frail body wracked by mysterious intermittent pains. Eddy’s temper tantrums and day terrors alienated her siblings and forced her parents into a lifelong tiptoe. She required constant rocking as a child, and when she was an adult her family commissioned an oversized cradle in which she spent many of her days.
Harold Bloom describes Eddy as “a kind of anthology of nineteenth-century nervous ailments,” though I suppose many Victorian women could have been characterized that way. Female nervousness was being written prolifically into diagnostic manuals at the time, one strain of which was even called “Americanitis.” Is it surprising? The cognitive dissonance of the 1870s was sharp: the blitz of postwar wealth, a booming middle class, half a million young men dead, and three million freed slaves expected to begin anew and forget—along with the emergent progressive majority—that anything had happened at all. We were tripping on the heels of the Industrial Revolution, which had sped everything up, and we were struck dumb by the realization that all Western powers were in cahoots and had been for a long time, and that millions were perishing in their colonial crossfire. Women were indoors getting splinters, dying in childbirth next to the window through which they’d watched the world pass them by. Time was no longer linear, but fragmented. So when Eddy established the Church of Christ, Scientist in 1879, she offered an irresistible alternative: Life, as you suspected, is happening elsewhere. Disease and death are metaphysical glitches. Maybe the members of this new religion could feel it in their marrow, maybe Eddy more than others. After all, as scientist and novelist C. P. Snow asserted in his 1959 Rede lecture “The Two Cultures,” it is scientists who “have the future in their bones.”
It was Eddy’s lifetime of illness, and her subsequent encounters with newfangled medical therapies, that poised her as an instrument of revelation. The Christian Science hermeneutical stance is that the whole Bible is a literal guide toward psychic and physical restoration, and that Eddy, as evidenced by the prophesied “little book” mentioned in Revelations, was uniquely appointed to reveal it through her explication of the Bible, Science and Health with Keys to the Scripture .
In it, she writes that “health is not a condition of matter, but of mind,” a conviction undergirding all of Christian Science—the controversial principle blamed for the deaths of those who refused hospitalization for their ailing parents or their kids. But Eddy’s call issues from the belief that Creation is inherently good, and that every physical or psychic aberration is an illusion that can be willed out of consciousness, vaporized by prayer. She saw all manner of disease as requiring only a “re-alignment between Mind and God.” Any perceivable darkness or disorder is the consequence of wandering, as in a dream from which you cannot wake. And rather than believing in the divinity of Jesus, she held that “Christ” is a spirit which flowed through him, and through all men and all women, granting everyone the potential to “demonstrate the Christ”: to be a healer.
The marble bust on my grandparents’ hearth was made, of course, not in the likeness of Eddy but of Mary Stevenson Semple, my fifth-great-grandmother, whose husband founded the shoreline city of Elsah, Illinois, which—for no particular reason having to do with his governance—became the site of Principia College, the world’s only Christian Science university. Maybe this was the source of my confusion. The Semples were Methodists when they arrived in Illinois and Episcopalians later on. And then their only daughter, Lucy, converted to Christian Science following the death of her business tycoon husband.
Her family worried she’d joined a cult, but Lucy didn’t give a shit. She was rich, a businesswoman in her own right, summering her last decades on a rolling estate overlooking the Missouri River. Meanwhile, her younger brother Eugene had left Illinois, gone farther west, starting but failing to complete all of his entrepreneurial endeavors on the Pacific Coast, as large and optimistic as they were: cedar mill baron, filler of tide lands, canal builder, state printer, police commissioner, appointed governor of the Washington Territory, and three-time Democratic loser for elected offices. When his wife ran off with a businessman and the new baby, Eugene filed as a widower and sent his three young daughters to be raised by Lucy in Illinois. She brought up her nieces, Maude, Zoe, and Ethel, in the Church of Christ, Scientist. Then Ethel begat Lulu, and Lulu begat my grandfather George, who begat my mother. I know all of this now.
But which of my ancestors believed what, and for how long, and how those beliefs faded—in one lifetime, in one generation?—is still unclear to me. Did Eugene’s daughters cleave to Science to salve the wounds of their father’s abandonment? Was Lucy’s conversion to this rather egalitarian religion a radical response to Victorian restrictiveness? And how has the irreligious thrust of my immediate family been informed by the inheritance of a religion whose optimism allows for a near-complete disavowal of pain, of disorder, of chaos? Because there is no spiritual continuity in my ancestry to speak of, and because no one really knew why Lucy converted to Christian Science, I imagine unbroken lines of connection wherever they’ve never explicitly been debunked, and so when I was younger, having Christian Science relatives might as well have made me Eddy’s descendent.
And what if Eddy was my relation—my grandma, even? Too weak to hold me, a relative might have set me beside her in a chair designated for children, Eddy’s cold, thin hands folded in her lap. She wouldn’t even pat my head or crinkle a smile, and she’d be rocking, still rocking, as she had been doing her whole life. I’d listen to her chirp about the various miracles and revelations that had led to the founding of her church: the monastic fasts of her childhood, her experiences in mesmerism, a slip on the ice in Lynn, Massachusetts, that, by one account, left her paralyzed, cured only by reading one of Jesus’ healings—after which she sprung from bed in full form. But origin stories are unstable. Even the New Testament accounts for this. There are, after all, four gospels. Some biographers claim that after the fall in Lynn, Eddy was treated with morphine, and that the injury was not a dire one. In her autobiographical writings, Eddy claims that the revelation happened when she was a child, bedridden by stomach ulcers, and later that it was some other sickly girl, then woman, then man, who’d revealed to her the true spiritual reality.
But that’s all make-believe. It was my wealthy ancestor Aunt Lucy who had the marble bust made of her mother, and it was passed down from household to household until it was set in my grandparents’ living room—a place which, before my lifetime, held all-night parties, endless packs of Pall Malls, jugs of Carlo Rossi on the coffee table, bespoke packing cubes for the VW van, great American novels and psychology tomes, my grandfather’s endless stories, and my grandmother’s tipsy, intellectual wit, which kept everyone from going to bed when they otherwise ought to have—and which is now a tomb of cobwebbed furniture and old bicycle parts. The bust, however, sits in the same place it always has and is, at best, a prompt for jokes and tall tales about the religious zealots from whom we descend.
I am visiting my grandparents in Seattle during winter break from graduate school. My grandfather and I are sitting at the kitchen table, plates scraped clean from dinner. I’ve recently grown interested in Mary Baker Eddy, and Lucy and her brother Eugene—I’m not sure which first—and plan to casually excavate the “Semple Papers,” a trove of correspondence kept deep in a library at the University of Washington. I’ve come, too, in hopes of asking my grandfather what he knows about the Science that trickled down to his mother’s generation before disappearing entirely. But when I ask, he only shrugs and changes the subject to something more pressing.
“GMC is offering me thirteen grand for my Suburban,” he says from behind a tall plastic cup of scotch. “They’ve been sending letters.” Out the window, I can see the giant twenty-year-old rig parked halfway on the pavement. “But I’m not giving it up. Why do you think they want those transmissions so badly? I’m keeping hold of it just in case I want to run off into the mountains . . .”
When he says this, I’m not sure if he’s talking about an apocalyptic flight or just a summer excursion, of which he still imagines there are many to come. He laughs at his own frugal genius, his lifelong pride in beating “the system,” and shifts his eighty-five-year-old body in the chair, uncrossing his bloated ankles, the shattered hips intact only by an intricate act of balancing bones.
“Yeah,” I say. “That’s crazy. But—did your grandmother ever talk to you about Christian Science? She was Eugene’s daughter, wasn’t she?”
“Mmh,” he says. “Now— Robert Semple, Eugene’s eldest brother, he was interesting. He helped start the California Bear Flag Revolt in 1846 . . .”
I listen to the full twenty-five-minute account of the Bear Flag Revolt and the capturing of Alta California before rephrasing my question about Christian Science. I keep hoping that he’ll tell me some story about this grandmother, her undiagnosed schizophrenia, and her devotion to Science, or maybe a story she told him about the years when she and her sisters lived with their Aunt Lucy in the mansion on the Missouri River. But his mind wanders to more exciting adventures: the feats of the “Great Mizners,” Eugene Semple going north to the Yukon Gold Rush, his own cross-country bike rides.
When my grandfather was twelve years old he bicycled around the entire perimeter of Seattle, and then later Washington State, and by fifteen he and his friends were hitchhiking out to the new Olympic National Forest and hiking over the pass for days, weeks, after which they’d hitchhike home.
“One time we were coming back from a hike and got a ride, five of us, really squished into the back like sardines.” He chuckles, miming the closeness of the quarters. “And the car lost a tire and rolled over four times. But we were all packed in so tightly that no one was hurt. So I yelled, ‘Everyone okay?’ and then we kind of scooted out of the wreck and thumbed for another ride.” While we’ve been talking, he’s dug up an old photo album out of the back room, and he opens to the first page: There’s a photo of him just after the accident. He’s cavalier, shoulders thrown back, grinning through a shock of black beard, a virtually invincible young man clutching a cardboard sign that says seattle .
The funny thing is that, despite his adventurousness, my grandfather’s body has always been fragile. He was born with a degenerative joint condition. After a childhood of failed reconstructive bone surgeries, his body started really falling apart in his twenties, and he’s lived in denial of this ever since. He speaks now of his exploits very casually, as though everyone in 1948 was cycling from coast to coast for no particular reason. When, at twenty-one, he mounted his three-speed Peugeot with a bedroll and his camel-colored loafers, he wasn’t worried that his hip bones might grind against each other from Seattle to South Salem, New York. He was fearless, and he was looking for something, but unlike his forebears it had nothing to do with God. Instead it was strength, immortality, a way to will his frailness out of existence—something like that.
What did he care about Eddy’s Science? His mother had left Science as a young woman for the more formal pastures of the Episcopal Church. Her husband left their family, so she raised her two boys alone and—the way people talk about it—presided over a life so gentle and without expectation, she never urged either of them to heed any doctrine. She put on her little blue shift and matching jacket and went to church; alone or not, it didn’t matter. So, by my grandfather’s generation and thence on, no one in our family was healing by prayer, nor insisting that their children retain any kind of spiritual education. Religion, it seemed, was a perplexing recessive gene whose raison d’être was not worth remembering. In fact, my grandfather found that one could live a productive and ethical life without it, abiding instead by some inner voice. It was inevitable, really—in his blood. You ended up in the west only if someone in your family was looking for escape, or had gone on some impossible adventure, hauling all of their worldly belongings over the continental divide, or were otherwise looking forward, beyond, away from whence they came: erasing their trail or letting it disappear into the wilderness.
If, any time between 1955 and now, someone asked my grandfather what he wanted for Christmas, his answer was always the same: “Improved human relations.” This was his Apostle’s Creed. And my grandfather’s secular humanism was handed down, tacitly, to my mother: I was raised to value tolerance and pluralism and to believe in the native and potential goodness in everyone. It was a privilege, really, to grow up in Portland, Oregon, and never think twice about the sanctity of gay marriage, women’s reproductive rights, or social safety nets, or to doubt the systemic oppression of American minorities. I was taught to recycle, to distrust the free market, and to eat local produce. If I was sick, I went to counselors, naturopaths, and acupuncturists. If I was healthy, I told other people about how they should go see a counselor, a naturopath, an acupuncturist. I was expected to be healthy. I wanted to be healthy. Health and kindness were the marks of moral superiority.
If my distant Aunt Lucy and Mary Baker Eddy ever met, it would have been on Lucy’s property in Elsah, Illinois, a conference of two wealthy nineteenth-century widows in frothy white tea gowns, praying that the other realizes her nerves are fine, that nervous disease isn’t real, and that there’s nothing really to be nervous about anyway.
Christian Science doesn’t espouse such healings to be miraculous but “scientific,” methodical, an ultimately “proven” rediscovery of Christ’s methods as apparent in the Gospels. Jesus laying his hands on the blind man didn’t restore his sight; it showed, through the correction of spiritual thought, what he could see all along. So Jesus is not the son of God (any more than either of us are God’s sons or daughters), but the model Christian Science practitioner, those individuals who, even today, provide healing services in American business park offices and the like.
But despite her interest in restoring Christ’s first-century healings, Eddy’s accomplishments were much more nineteenth century: trustbusting, free enterprise, dissolving an anthropomorphic God, installing women in positions of leadership. By the turn of the century, some 70 percent of Christian Scientists were female, and the world had risen up to meet them.
The frontier had now been scaled and just as quickly secured, the occasion of its endlessness lasting only as long as the momentary hope that it truly might be. More Americans were running away, looking for gold, land, fur, time, freedom. They believed in God, though belief was more tenuous than ever. Frontier women were hanging out in parlor halls or rearing children in small tar-roof cabins in the woods, all by themselves, while their husbands sought nebulous fortunes. It wasn’t great, but maybe it was better than the civilized yoke of Victorian life—a modern period nearly unparalleled in its restrictiveness, in the stripping away of places for women in public and private life. More women lived farther and farther away from their birthplaces, so, if they survived, they could be anyone. They could run off with businessmen. They could convert to a different religion. Or they could make one. During a time when women were excluded from seminaries, pulpits, medical and scientific professions, Mary Baker Eddy’s religion created a way that they could occupy nearly all of these roles at the same time.