God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church
New York: Henry Holt, 1999
Christian Science (not to be confused with science fiction writer and religious guru L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology, whose celebrity adherents include Hollywood stars John Travolta, Tom Cruise, and Kirstie Alley), a metaphysical religion that rejects most medical treatment, is probably a black box to most people. Caroline Fraser’s book sheds light on the subject.
The freelance author, a former New Yorker editorial staff member with a Ph.D. in literature from Harvard, was raised a Christian Scientist but left the church. Her account is polemical, highlighting various shortcomings of the faith and its legendary founder Mary Baker Eddy (1820-1910). In a 1995 article in The Atlantic Fraser admitted, “I was filled with the furtive glee that comes with the prospect of airing dirty linen.”
The book is divided into three parts. The first is a history of Christian Science, the second an overview of the “child cases” (civil and criminal lawsuits filed against parents whose children died from lack of medical care), and the third an astonishing account of institutional folly in the 1980s and ‘90s as church bureaucrats nearly wrecked the organization in an attempt to build an electronic media empire.
Fraser provides a good, though highly critical, revisionist history of Christian Science (whose formal name is the Church of Christ, Scientist, and whose adherents are called “Scientists”) from its inception in the second half of the 19th century until today. Her critical slant is tolerable because Scientists have vigorously suppressed criticism since the early days, in the process creating a one-sided and highly sanitized history, to the extent that it is publicly known at all.
The author paints an unflattering portrait of New Hampshire-born Mary Baker Eddy as a hysteric, crank, and veritable cult leader called “Mother” by her devoted followers. Eddy was born a Congregationalist, the denomination founded by New England’s Puritans. (See Robert Townsend Warneck, “Mary Baker Eddy’s Puritan Heritage,” The Christian Science Journal, April 1998.)
Tinged with the philosophical idealism of Transcendentalism, the religion had its roots in the healing practice of Maine clockmaker and former mesmerist Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, who treated Eddy, evidently for “hysterical” complaints, in 1862. She became one of Quimby’s disciples, and learned spiritual healing from him. Later she erased Quimby from the institutional memory of the church, claiming that her healing revelation had occurred to her after a fall on the ice.
She founded the Church of Christ, Scientist in 1879. In 1892 Eddy reorganized the church in Boston’s Back Bay, naming the headquarters building erected there in 1894 The First Church of Christ, Scientist, or The Mother Church. Christian Science headquarters is still located in that imposing edifice. Local churches are branches of the main church and must conform to specifications set forth in the organization manual of the Mother Church, written by Eddy.
Eddy also wrote the movement’s bible (known as a “textbook”), Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (1875). It was rewritten many times before 1910, when the 226th edition was frozen into final form a year after Mrs. Eddy’s death. The book has been translated into 16 languages and more than 9 million copies have been sold.
Christian Science churches, reading rooms, and “practitioners” (the movement’s healers) are scattered across the country and throughout the world.
Christian Science grew rapidly for many decades after its founding in 1879. It reached its peak in the 1930s and ’40s, then began a slow decline in the 1950s. In recent decades the decline has accelerated greatly. A census at the height of the religion’s popularity in 1936 counted nearly 270,000 Christian Scientists in the United States. By 1990 it was estimated there were 106,000. In 1998 sociologist Rodney Stark wrote that it was uncertain whether Christian Science would survive another generation.
This decline must be viewed in the context of the decline of religion generally, and the aging and disappearance of the white population. In 2009 the church announced that for the first time more new members had been admitted from Africa than from the United States. The church sold buildings to free up funds for remaining congregations that could otherwise not continue.
Each Christian Science Sunday service, everywhere in the world, is identical, down to the program and specific readings. There are no pastors or sermons. Instead, “first” and “second” lay readers elected by local congregations alternate reading passages aloud from the Bible and Mary Baker Eddy’s textbook Science and Health. The two books are Christian Science’s “dual and impersonal pastor.” Every Wednesday a second service is held in which congregation members present testimonies of healings they have experienced (“healings” include positive changes in business or material circumstances as well as improvements in health). Authorized teachers hold classes instructing pupils in the principles of the religion.
Eddy taught that through prayer Scientists can access spiritual law and dispel sickness and the discords of human existence. Thus, Christian Scientists turn to prayer rather than conventional medicine to heal illness. When Christian Scientists need help they can consult registered practitioners who work full-time as Christian Science healers.
Though permeated by Christian influence, Christian Science is not Christian. Rather, it is a (philosophically) idealist belief system, a so-called metaphysical religion. Scientists deny the reality of matter: “There is no Life, substance, or intelligence in matter; all is Mind.” Jesus is not the divine Savior, but a man who excelled all others (so far) in spiritual insight. Nor is there any adherence to the triune God. It has therefore truthfully been said that Christian Science is neither Christian nor science.
Today’s New Thought metaphysical denominations such as Unity, Centers for Spiritual Living (formerly known as Religious Science), and Divine Science, which bear certain resemblances to Christian Science (though the services of the two are quite different; I have listened to both on the Internet), also originated in the teaching and practice of Phineas Quimby. Some denominational New Thought is schismatic from Christian Science, having been formulated by early church members who clashed with the dictatorial Eddy and were either expelled or departed voluntarily. New Thought denominations are less authoritarian, do not reject modern medicine, and have pastors who deliver sermons. However, they, too, practice a metaphysical, not Christian, religion.
The radical philosophical idealism of these groups leads to the conviction that all human beings are expressions of “God,” by which is actually meant universal spirit or mind.
As spiritual beings, every individual is wholly good and perfect. (Hence the book’s title, God’s Perfect Child.) The material world is an illusion caused by misperception of true spiritual reality. This incorrect belief can be altered by a reorientation of thought—or “prayer,” in Christian Science terminology. Sickness is an erroneous belief; when the belief is mentally dispelled, sickness vanishes.
Christian Scientists allow a few minor exceptions to their “radical reliance” on prayer for healing. They avail themselves of dentists and dental surgery, doctors before and during childbirth, eyeglasses, and physicians to set broken bones.
Periodically over the decades, and especially in the 1980s and 1990s, there has been a cultural backlash against Christian Science parents whose children die because of lack of medical care. Civil and criminal lawsuits have resulted. Sometimes the church wins and sometimes it loses. Often the cases are settled.
In Fraser’s view parents should be compelled to provide medical care for ailing children. The religious freedom issue does not bother her any more than violating rights of freedom of speech or association troubles ruling elites or intellectuals.
Of course, if you remove such matters from the control of parents, you concede power over children and families to the state. For totalitarians this is not a problem, but from a moral perspective it presents difficulties. That being said, the accounts of children’s deaths related by Fraser make for very grim reading.
The New York Times’ Jewish reviewer, a professor of religion, loved her book because it bashed religious white people. But he was much less happy with the author’s assault on contemporary alternative medicine. This was due to bigotry, for Fraser is entirely correct that they are fundamentally related:
The healers and self-helpers have been enormously successful, churning out bestseller after bestseller and movement after movement in each successive generation: Napoleon Hill and his Think and Grow Rich, which promises wealth to those who could tap into “Infinite Intelligence”; Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking; Werner Erhard’s [a Jew, born John Paul Rosenberg] est; Dr. Joyce Brothers [Jewish] and her How to Get Whatever You Want Out of Life; [India-born] Deepak Chopra’s Ayurveda and his dizzying proliferation of books on how to become “ageless” and “timeless”; Bernie Siegel [Jewish] and his Love, Medicine, and Miracles; Marianne Williamson [Jewish] and her popularization of The Course in Miracles, a textbook fundamentally inspired by Christian Science; Louise Hay (a former Scientist) and her You Can Heal Your Life; Andrew Weil [Jewish] with his wise family-physician face, his guru’s white beard and his Spontaneous Healing.
Fraser does not delve into the radical idealist thought underlying Christian Science, and dismisses all forms of alternative medicine out of hand.
Christian Science is representative of the risks being taken by millions of people in their search for alternative or spiritual healing. For those experimenting with everything from magnets to meditation, Christian Scientists are the test case. They have bet their lives on the potency of their beliefs, and not all of them have lived to tell the tale.
Her savage critique of Christian Science must be evaluated with this in mind, because her viewpoint is one of extreme philosophical materialism. In addition, she assumes that mesmerism was not genuine, and it is virtually certain she has never examined seriously the history of spiritual or mental healing.
Nevertheless, the stubborn persistence of an absolutist belief in spiritual healing for well over 125 years among a sizable number of educated, intelligent, successful white people is testimony to the power of belief, even belief directly contrary to personal and familial well-being and the continuation of life.
Human Folly Knows No Bounds
The third section of the book is an astonishing account of institutional mismanagement in the 1980s and ‘90s by a small clique at the Mother Church led by Jack Hoagland, a Yale-educated CIA veteran without experience in television production, who set out to build a media empire of cable television, radio, and shortwave news services. The group recklessly squandered millions upon millions of dollars, even gutting the church’s famous newspaper, the Christian Science Monitor. (Since the book’s publication the Monitor has ceased daily publication and appears only online and in a much-reduced weekly print edition.)
The irresponsible bureaucrats nearly wrecked the entire church, raiding its employees’ pension funds to pay for their grandiose schemes. “These guys are Christian Scientists. They believe in miracles and healing,” a source with knowledge of church finances said. “They would have run down the pension fund and sold off the real estate. It scares the shit out of you.” The reference is to the conviction that you can manifest prosperity and success by mentally and spiritually envisioning and anticipating it.
This part of the chronicle is a vivid, eye-opening reminder that even the largest, most venerable and well-heeled institutions can quickly be driven into the ground through bad management. Don’t think for one moment that a cabal of greedy, self-centered fanatics can’t do exactly the same thing to the United States of America or the West. Fraser demonstrates that human folly knows no bounds.
Christian Scientists are (or were) an interesting demographic—overwhelmingly white, well-educated, and socioeconomically well-to-do.
In 1990, according to sociologist of religion Rodney Stark (this data, of course, is already a quarter-century old), 42% of adult US Christian Scientists had a college education, and an additional 24% some college; only 8% had not received a high school diploma. Because Christian Science demands much study, it “tends to attract those who enjoy or can tolerate a high degree of abstraction.”
16% of Christian Science households earned more than $50,000 in 1990, well above the national average. 30% of Christian Scientists were over 65. Christian Science was overwhelmingly female (70%) and white.
Stark reported that a significant percentage of Scientists remained single or became Scientists in later life when their children were adults and therefore unlikely to be converted, and that Eddy herself placed little emphasis on marriage and family. Christian Science did not have a missionary class that sought new members, so it relied on internal growth, but the conversion rate within families was not high. One study showed that only 26 of 80 people (33 percent) raised within Christian Science became Scientists themselves.
“Christian Science is a way of life as much as a religion,” Fraser writes, “and sociologists have noted that often Scientists socialize largely with other Scientists.” Scientists don’t smoke, drink, or take drugs. Yet (according to Fraser) they have higher mortality rates than comparably situated people because they reject modern medicine.
In arch-white fashion, Christian Science, ignoring Eddy’s legacy, is supportive of war: “Her church, while following her law to the letter in most other instances, has taken little heed of her pacifist sentiments since her death.” During WWII the church did not permit members to choose conscientious objector status. Christian Science was suppressed by NS Germany as “hostile to people and state,” as was the New Thought movement.
The mien of Scientists is “invariably friendly and cheerful”:
“Otherworldliness” is the mark of those who reject this world in favor of an ideal. Christian Scientists are otherworldly, in the sense of being intensely emotionally invested in an unseen world of perfection, and emotionally disassociated from the realities of this world. Scientists are smilers, happy-talkers, positive thinkers, and they simply refuse to allow the realities of the world, its tragedies and disasters, to penetrate.
The Christian Science Monitor does not publish obituaries because Scientists deny the reality of death. They consider it a passage to another stage.
Well-known individuals who were either Christian Scientists or raised in the faith include astronaut Alan Shepard, novelist V. S. Pritchett, Lord Waldorf and Lady Nancy Astor, German Count Helmuth von Moltke (a member of the conspiracy against Hitler, his mother was of South African British descent), Philip Kerr (Lord Lothian), Ginger Rogers, Mary Pickford, Hart Crane, Doris Day, Carol Channing, Robert Duvall, Horton Foote, Elizabeth Taylor, Robin Williams, Val Kilmer, Mickey Rooney, George Hamilton, Sen. Charles Percy (R.-Ill.), Spalding Gray, and Alan Young (Wilbur on TV’s Mr. Ed).
At several points in the book the author draws parallels between Christian Scientists and Mormons. Two CIA directors were Christian Scientists—Admiral Stansfield Turner and William Webster. (Webster was also a federal judge and director of the FBI.) “Christian Scientists, like Mormons,” Fraser writes, “have proved to be appealing recruits for both [the FBI and CIA]; their beliefs prohibit the use of alcohol and recreational drugs, making them good security risks, and their cultures encourage respect for authority.”
This reminded me that billionaire Howard Hughes late in life habitually hired only Mormons for his personal retinue—very striking in the context of a Judaized and multiracial America.
President Richard Nixon, who was born a Quaker, had a number of Christian Scientists in his Administration. White House aides H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman were Scientists (Ehrlichman’s father had converted from Judaism), as was Watergate “Plumber” Egil “Bud” Krogh, a protégé of Ehrlichman’s who’d worked in the latter’s Seattle law office before joining the White House staff. H. R. Haldeman ultimately died an agonizing death from untreated cancer under the care of a Christian Science practitioner.
Other Scientists in the Nixon Administration included Ehrlichman’s aide Henry Paulson (later head of Goldman Sachs and George W. Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury during the financial crisis of 2008), speechwriter John Andrews, and Christian Science Monitor editor Erwin D. Canham, who Nixon appointed to the board of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
While the waning of Christian Science in recent decades is often attributed to particularistic causes such as the enormous strides in medical science that occurred after the religion’s early days, the child cases and the publicity and stigma surrounding them, or bureaucratic mismanagement, it is more probable that the decline, aging and disappearance of the white race and its varieties of religious experience is the fundamental cause. If Christian Science persists as a non-white religion, which seems unlikely, it will probably bear little resemblance to the Christian Science of the past.