Thomas Johnsen, “Understanding Mary Baker Eddy,” New England American Studies Association, Boston, April 2002.

A paper presented at an American Studies conference held at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The theme of the conference was “The Tyranny of Facts: Cultural Institutions and the Authority of Evidence.”

“The keepers of the scholarly gates at Harvard responded with uncharacteristic skittishness when a promising graduate student in 1935 proposed a doctoral study examining the ‘intellectual and literary development’ of the founder of Christian Science.

“The student’s proposal occasioned ‘really anxious thought,’ confessed the renowned literary scholar George Lyman Kittredge, who had himself been teaching at the University since Mary Baker Eddy’s years as a relatively obscure pastor in Boston in the 1880s. ‘Theoretically, there can be no doubt that the subject is quite proper as pertaining to ‘American literature’,’ he wrote to his English Department colleague Kenneth Murdock. ‘Practically and politically, however…,’ Kittredge continued, ‘there is great danger that we should burn our fingers badly if we accepted’ the subject, which he believed could involve the University ‘in an unpleasant religious row.’ Murdock conveyed this rejection to the student with a touch of embarrassment, but observed that the decision ‘does not prevent you from going ahead with the work on Mrs. Eddy independently….’ The good professor added: ‘I am very sorry that the situation is what it is….’

“The student eventually did go ahead independently with his work on the controversial Mary Baker Eddy. Robert Peel never finished his doctorate at Harvard; the Second World War and a vigorous life outside the University intervened. But his long scholarly effort to sort through the enormous tangle of evidence relating to Eddy’s life and, more profoundly, to understand this complex religious leader in her own terms and in the context of her own time and culture, is surely part of the reason that an essay which seeks to examine the subject seriously today is no longer considered unacceptable at an academic gathering such as this….

“This essay examines the ways in which Eddy has been both understood and misunderstood since the days when learned professors in Cambridge eyed her narrowly as an uncredentialed religious upstart – a woman, no less! – who had set up shop across the Charles River.

“The misunderstandings which have been projected are in some ways as revealing as the facts which have been grasped. These misunderstandings have reflected not only limiting institutional agendas but also much larger and more powerful cultural assumptions about religion, gender, human possibilities, the nature of truth itself. With ‘truths so counter to the common convictions of mankind to present to the world,’ as she once described her teaching, it is not surprising that Eddy became a lightning rod for wider antagonisms in the culture, or that depictions of her even in respectable academic sources over the past century often disclose as much about the depicter’s attitudes and angle of vision as they do about the woman herself….”

©2008 Thomas C. Johnsen

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