Christian Science and Scholarly Values

“Religious dissenters” often “suffer at the hands of popular opinion,” observes historian Stephen Stein (Communities of Dissent: A History of Alternative Religions in America). As a new religious movement in the late nineteenth century, Christian Science was the subject of both public controversy and academic derision. It has taken many decades for more mature scholarly perspectives on the denomination to develop, both within the academic community and among Christian Scientists themselves, and the process is still under way.

The denomination’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy, had a lifelong respect for the legitimate work of “cultured scholars.” Her teaching emphasized the values of both head and heart, “understanding” and “affections.” From early on, the ranks of her followers included a diverse mix ranging from factory workers, farmers, and ex-slaves to university professors, trained clergy, and other educated professionals.

Several church officials in Eddy’s day, notably Alfred Farlow, wrote extensively on historical, religious, medical, and ethical issues relating to Christian Science. Judge Clifford Smith, the first head of The Mother Church archives (1932-1944), emphasized attention to the rules of evidence at a time when biographies of the Christian Science founder were sharply divided between (in one biographer’s words) “rose-colored” and “black.”

In 1963-4, the Christian Science Board of Directors convened a committee known as the Study Group on Scholarly Relations to examine broadly the question of how the denomination might be more thoughtfully engaged with the scholarly community. The committee, which included Christian Scientists from university and research posts as well as church officials, made a number of recommendations that began to bear fruit in later years.

The Study Group addressed a particular concern of the Marlene F. Johnson Fund’s founder, Dr. Lee Z. Johnson, in pointing out the need for a more consistent archival policy. The committee also called for a higher caliber of research and documentation in historical writing on Mary Baker Eddy. In 1966, one of the Study Group’s members, historian Robert Peel, produced the first volume of a ground-breaking biographical trilogy on the Christian Science leader that is still widely recognized as the most serious and informed treatment of her life.

The most important contribution of the Study Group may simply have been the premise of its deliberations, that “scholarship and Christian Science are not mutually antagonistic.”

“The need for correcting the biases that keep us from seeing each other clearly was never greater. When this can be done ‘in a Christian manner,’ as Mrs. Eddy required… the result will be light, not heat.”

Dialogue with the World, The Christian Science Publishing Society, 1972.

For many in the academic community, the committee acknowledged, “Christian Science and its claims may appear just another example” in the “long history” of religious “self-delusion and myth,” especially in regard to religious healing. Rather than merely dismiss this reflex skepticism, the committee pointed out that Christian Scientists themselves need to respond more seriously to the serious issues raised by critical scholars. While their spiritual perspective “challenges many of the fundamentals” underlying prevalent academic assumptions, it was important for the church to recognize the values shared by all seekers for truth, secular as well as religious. In relations with the scholarly world, “we gain most by strict factual accuracy … by restraint and avoidance of overstatement, and by a clear delineation of the significance of [Eddy’s] teachings for the modern world.”

In all its activities, the Fund is committed to the spirit of healing and reconciliation which is basic to Christian Science itself. This is no less true in regard to resolving differences with academic viewpoints than in regard to healing divisions within the denomination. Christian Science values reason and intelligence, but also recognizes (as the Study Group put it) “the limitations of human intellect.” Healing is understood in the context of worship of God and response to divine light and presence. “Great charity and humility is necessary in this work of healing,” Eddy wrote in an early church periodical. Charity, humility and responsiveness to divine light are not qualities normally associated with academic work, but they are central to any progress in understanding that the Fund hopes to foster through its encouragement of new scholarship on Christian Science.

The circumstances of the denomination have changed significantly in the decades since the deliberations of the Study Group on Scholarly Relations, but the need for clear thinking on the issues confronting Christian Scientists has only grown. Writing in The Christian Science Journal in June 2008, a prominent church official noted the “gradual decline” in the church’s numbers over the past half-century. Legal challenges and internal divisions have compounded this decline.

The Marlène F. Johnson Fund was established in the conviction that principled scholarly works can help a religious group come to grips with complexity and change. Thoughtful scholarship cuts through simplistic impressions of the past. It often brings fresh perspectives on the present and future. It provides crucial grounding in truth in the face of antagonism or misstatement. It can help a religious group to better understand its own origins, ideals, and development.

Mary Baker Eddy once wrote, “What I am remains to be proved by the good I do” (The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany). In supporting meaningful scholarly endeavors, the Fund seeks to contribute in a number of ways:

• In a culture often fraught with religious discord and division, scholarly work that contributes to genuine understanding represents a genuine public service. Religious misunderstanding has tangible effects on people’s lives. It affects families, careers, relations between neighbors. It can influence law and public policy. In matters of faith, the simple sorting of fact from fiction is a moral as well as scholarly imperative.

• In an academic environment often dismissive of religious teaching and values, serious scholarly studies can challenge the distorting stereotypes that often underlie broader public prejudice. The scholarly goal, Stephen Stein has written, “is not to declare one or another religious group to be ‘true’ and all others ‘false,’ but rather to understand the ways these religious communities have functioned in the lives of their members and the roles they have played in the story of our nation” (Communities of Dissent). For real understanding of religious life, spiritual insight may be as necessary as critical skills.

• In the Christian Scientist community itself, the most powerful scholarly writing on Christian Science over the years has inspired many to deeper reflection on the nature of their own religious commitment. Scholarly insights can illumine the meaning of both religious ideas and religious ideals. Fair-minded scholarly works can help religious groups see themselves more clearly. Even strong secular criticism, if honest, can serve a constructive role in probing the consistency of professed ideals. Fuller scholarly perspectives on what historians have called the “lived religion of ordinary people” can help the church community move beyond current travails and think more seriously on what it means to live as Christian Scientists in a world vastly changed from that in which the denomination began.

“Like a pebble into a pond, the Fund is designed to create gentle waves that start at a fixed point but touch upon a broad shore.”


— Dr. Lee Z. Johnson