Thomas Johnsen, “Christianity as Science: Mary Baker Eddy’s Unorthodox Vision,” American Society of Church History, Denver, 1983.

From a paper delivered at a conference of religious historians held at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver:

“I’d like to begin with an odd scrap of evidence: an item Mary Baker Eddy clipped from a newspaper and saved in her scrapbook some years before she came to prominence as the founder and leader of a religious movement. The item was an article on a then just-published essay by the English scientist Thomas Huxley entitled ‘On the Physical Basis of Life.’ The essay, which appeared in 1869, is ostensibly a discussion of discoveries in cell biology. More fundamentally it is a classic expression of Victorian religious angst.

“As the newspaper summary noted, Huxley saw the physical sciences driving inexorably toward the conclusion that all ”emotional and voluntary activities, are just as much mere properties of matter, as gravity, cohesion, color, [and so on.’ The end prospect, the newspaper went on, was a science that ‘does away with the soul, or spiritual element in man; and makes thought, feeling, moral perception, and the various attributes of the intelligent, immortal part, the results of nothing but a certain arrangement of dead atoms….’ The sense of being caught in a vast mechanism of physical law weighed ‘like a nightmare,’ Huxley felt, on the best minds of the day.

“Mary Baker Eddy scarcely approached such issues from Huxley’s scientific frame of reference. Her main intellectual far in these years came from newspapers and the Bible, and she wasn’t in the habit of reading academic essays. Nevertheless, the fact that she clipped and kept such an article at all is testimony to the seriousness with which ideas, especially religious ideas, were taken in nineteenth-century New England. Her unpropitious personal circumstances at the time make her interest in this particular item all the more striking. She had no permanent home, little income, little or no contact with family. She was past middle age and had separated from her husband. She had begun to teach what she called the ‘Science’ of the Scriptures but had little following. The article from the scrapbook provides a surprising window on her concerns during the period of her teaching’s emergence….”

©2008 Thomas C. Johnsen

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