Thomas Johnsen, “Historical Consensus and Christian Science: The Career of a Manuscript Controversy,” The New England Quarterly, LIII, 1 (March 1980), 3-22.

From a scholarly study uncovering the genesis of a discredited plagiarism charge that was originally accepted with little questioning in academic and religious circles. The document on which the charge was based proved to be an obvious forgery when it was finally seriously examined:

“One of man’s first duties, Carl Becker observed, is not to be duped. For Becker as a historian, the axiom was professional as well as moral – issues of documentary credibility, close scrutiny of evidence, and textual verification. As one of the great twentieth-century relativists of his profession, however, Becker also recognized more clearly than most the power of consensus myths to shape and even dominate historical perceptions….

“Both these aspects of the historical enterprise – the search for an established substratum of hard fact and the recognition of the shaping influence of public myth – come into play in analyzing the perpetration and reception of one of the most audacious and, for a time, readily accepted literary forgeries of the past half century….

“The acceptance of the fraudulent document rested on the assumption that Christian Science could be understood essentially without reference to Christian sources. This assumption had behind it a long tradition, first, of orthodox and fundamentalist polemics, and second, of what a recent New York Times review termed ‘prosecutorial journalism,’ academic as well as popular, which portrayed Christian Science in non-Christian and essentially reductionist terms. Only recently have scholars begun to remove some of the traditional interpretative blinders and consider the movement in the context of the Christian culture in which it grew….

“More broadly, the episode dramatizes the special force with which distorting myths sometimes operate in the study of minorities or negative reference groups, whether racial or religious. In this light, the lack of real questioning in the initial reception of the [fraudulent] document may have larger implications than the fact of the forgery itself. The predominant assumptions underling conventional scholarly assessments of Christian Science have not only led to dubious conclusions, but have in many instances prevented the most useful questions from even being asked….”