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Mary Baker Eddy

When you look at a picture of Mary Baker Eddy, you don't immediately leap to the conclusion: Fruity New Age guru without a clue.

Which is exactly the problem. Like the religion she founded, Eddy was not what she seems.

Christian Science is neither particularly Christian, nor especially scientific. And Eddy was not the stern, level-headed pragmatist that her photo seems to invoke. The story of how Baker Eddy became the leader of the most lethal cult of child-killers in Western civilization is a strange odyssey indeed.

Mary Baker was born in New Hampshire in 1821, the youngest in a brood of six. The sky was not exactly the limit for women with brains at that time, especially if said women were also sickly. Not to mention homely.

Young Mary was frequently "sick" as a child, a condition which would endure through her life. If that sounds imprecise to you -- well, there's a karmic correctness to that, as you will soon see.

Mary grew up with tutors and various chronic complaints of the undefined variety. She married a Southerner who lived just long enough to impregnate her before croaking from yellow fever. She returned home and gave birth to a son, followed by more sickness. Her mother got sick and also croaked. Her son was carted off to be raised by her late husband's family.

As a life goes, it must be said that Mary Baker's had been pretty crappy indeed up to this point. Things didn't improve much when she remarried in 1853, to a man her official biography describes as an "itinerant dentist." Which is a pretty lousy way to be remembered by posterity, if you think about it. She divorced him after 20 years or so.

Given this miserable state of affairs, it's little wonder that the decreasingly young and increasingly unhealthy Mary would start looking for creative ways to say "bye-bye" reality. If she had been a child of the 1960s, it would've been free love and LSD all the way. Alas, she was a child of the 1860s, which means she took the much less stimulating path of spiritualism, animal magnetism and faith healing.

Mary was obsessed with her health, as people living lives of constant, unbroken pain and misery often are. Mistrustful of the establishment health care system, she turned to alternative methods, including (but not limited to) hydropathy, snake-oil-style diets, homeopathy, placebos (as actual treatment), laying on of hands, and healing through prayer. The latter approach proved to be of particular interest to her.

The fact that none of these techniques actually worked to improve her health did little to curb her enthusiasm.

As her quest to be "not sick" continued, Mary turned to a Maine healer named Phineas Quimby. Now, it's clear to anyone with half a brain that a guy named Phineas is going to be trouble. But Mary somehow missed this glaring clue.

Quimby's healing practice consisted of a combination of techniques that modern day medicine classifies under many different labels. As he himself put it, he transferred magnetic fluid from his body to that of his patient. Today, you might call such an approach therapeutic touch, suggestions, the placebo effect, or simply "fraud."

Later, rumors would abound (as rumors so often do) to the effect that Mary had stolen Quimby's ideas as the basis for her religion, Christian Science, but these rumors are only really of interest to people who believe in Christian Science, which amounts to very few people, and even fewer reasonable ones. So let's just acknowledge the rumors exist and move on.

After Quimby died in 1865, Mary relapsed into ill health. This time she had really done it, suffering spasms and supposedly incurring internal injuries after a fall. Then, the Holy Truth came to her. As she recounted it later in her writings:

"I called for my Bible, and opened it at Matthew ix. 2. As I read, the healing Truth dawned upon my sense; and the result was that I rose, dressed myself, and ever after was in better health than I had before enjoyed. That short experience included a glimpse of the great fact that I have since tried to make plain to others, namely, Life in and of Spirit; this Life being the sole reality of existence."

Thus, a religion was born. Mary spent the next decade or so concocting a rationalization to explain her recovery. She outlined her conclusions in the 1875 book Science and Health, which purported to be a scientific examination of the divine healing techniques used by Jesus Christ.

In fact, Science and Health was a barely readable conglomeration of half-assed Bible study and flagrantly idiotic medical advice. The overall thrust of Science and Health through its many revisions is the notion that sickness is sent by God to punish evil, that we only die if God wills it and that seeking traditional medical assistance is not only useless but sinfully wrong.

Now, if death by appendicitis or bowel obstruction is God's way of thinning the herd, there are a few difficult questions we must face. First off, why does God target children for his vengeance, when you'd think middle-aged people would be more deserving targets of his ire (having had decades more in which to sin).

Even more troubling, from a theological standpoint, is the extreme lameness of God in this scenario. Think about it. If God kills off the unworthy through minor illnesses, why the fuck would these illnesses be so easy to treat? Let's face it, if you can stave off the wrath of God with a round of penicillin, your God's August Majesty leaves something to be desired. God's justice is thwarted by outpatient surgery? Somebody should've told Lot's wife.

Simply put, there is no divine dignity for a God whose vengeance can be defeated by a laxative.

Not that any of this mattered to Mary B., now known as Mary Baker Eddy after wedding the man whose name she would append throughout posterity. She married Mr. Eddy in 1877, using her techniques to heal his illness so effectively that he died five years later. (She told people he had been murdered by her enemies.)

Since no respectable Christian church wanted any part of Mary's questionable credoes, she was forced to found her own church, the Church of Christ, Scientist. The church so enthusiastically embraced her beliefs that its members frequently let their children die agonizing deaths from easily treatable illnesses, because "it's God's will."

Fortunately for Eddy, the intellectual climate of her time was friendly to crackpot beliefs. She founded the Massachusetts Metaphysical College in Boston to peddle her line of goods through 1889, opening the first of the famous "Christian Science Reading Rooms" and founding the Christian Science Publishing Society a few years later.

By the time she died in 1910, Eddy had become an inexplicably respectable figure, and her religion became inexplicably popular. She died as an eminently respectable Boston lady, outliving even more patients than she had outlived husbands. Despite all this, she told acquaintances before her death that she was being "mentally murdered" by her rivals. How this squares with God's will has never been satisfactorily explained.

The only upside is that the number of Christian Scientists out there has declined from a peak of around a million to fewer than 100,000 today. All it'll take is a large outbreak of tonsillitis to cut that number down to the low five digits.


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