Christian Science began in the United States during the latter half of the nineteenth century, appearing first as a religious teaching and later as an organized denomination. Known primarily for its practice of Christian healing, Christian Science teaches that the Bible's dominant theme is the superiority of spiritual over physical power, and that this power can be reliably—even “scientifically”—demonstrated in the lives of people today. It was founded by Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910), a New England woman with a staunch Calvinist background and a devotion to regular study of the Bible.
Several social and personal factors help to explain the emergence of Christian Science. First, much of Mrs. Eddy's early religious life was shaped by her rebellion against her Calvinist upbringing, specifically its doctine of predestination. Also, by midcentury, society was entering a new and scientific era, where reason, experimentation, and observable results were becoming the standard means of measuring progress and assessing truth claims. Yet for Eddy, the void left by her dissatisfaction with what she called “cruel creeds,” could not be fulfilled by rational advances alone. Throughout her life she retained a characteristic Puritan piety, noted by several of her biographers, which she referred to as “a hunger and thirst for divine things.”
This left her satisfied neither with the doctrinal interpretation of the Bible offered by the church nor with the more scientfically based historical‐critical method of Bible analysis then gaining prominence, although she insisted that she retained whatever was valid in both. But what finally impelled her to take a radically different view of the meaning of the biblical revelation was her own suffering, including the years of near invalidism that dominated the first four decades of her life.
While she initially sought relief through almost every healing or medical system that promised comfort, including the suggestive therapeutics of the Maine mental healer Phineas Quimby, her bedrock conviction was that only the Bible offered the answer to “the great problem of being.” According to her own account, she was healed of the effects of a serious accident in 1866 by reading of Jesus' healing works in the Gospels. Reflecting on her experience, she felt that she had discovered something of the underlying power, or spiritual law, that was at the very root of Christianity.
The nine years following her own healing were spent studying the Bible, writing, teaching, healing—all aimed at finding ways to articulate a metaphysics that she felt would make the Bible practical in a scientific age. Central to her view was the belief that undergirding the events of the Bible was a spiritual law, which, far from being a relic of ancient history, was dynamic and applicable in all time to bring about healing of disease and redemption from sin. She explicated her metaphysical interpretation of the Bible in her major work, Science and Health, first published in 1875 and eventually titled Science and Health, with Key to the Scriptures. She would revise and edit the book throughout the rest of her life, but it would remain the definitive statement of Christian Science.
The book became an immediate source of controversy. Critics charged that Science and Health, written by a woman with no formal training, included language not found in the Bible and deviated from orthodox Christianity in its teachings. They charged Eddy with elevating her writing to the status of the Bible.
For her part, Eddy acknowledged that her book departed from certain church doctrines, but she maintained that these doctrines originated less in the Bible than in church councils, which were often guilty of “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (see Isa. 29.13 AV). She asserted that the way to validate an individual's understanding of God and the Bible was by examining the fruits of that understanding. Do they demonstrate a practical grasp of the power of God's word by healing and regenerating the individual? To her, this was the acid test of biblical interpretation.
In her view, from Moses' commandments to have no idols and to worship God alone, to the prophets' call for repentance, to Christ Jesus' description of the presence of the kingdom of God “within you,” the Bible presented the word of God, revealing the supremacy of God, Spirit, and the wholly spiritual nature of God's creation. Eddy felt that faith in this supreme and infinitely good God also implied that the very existence of evil and suffering, so evident in the material world, could be challenged as having no God‐derived cause or legitimacy.
Eddy saw the nature of Godlike as being most perfectly manifested in the life of Christ Jesus. For her, Jesus' life was itself the unique revelation of what it means to live in authentic relation to God. She saw her own work, Science and Health, not as a second kind of Bible or as a replacement for it but as an offering of what she saw as the Bible's permanent and continuing meaning, making Christian discipleship a practicable possibility in the modern age. She felt that her “scientific” approach to Christianity merely made explicit what was implicit in the Bible all along, opening its message in a new and powerful way.
Today, regular study of the Bible and Science and Health remains central to the practice of Christian Science. Each day its adherents read a lesson made up of passages from these two books. This same lesson is read as the sermon in Sunday church services, and changes weekly.
Christian Scientists tend to reject the narrow literalism of fundamentalism, as well as the liberal tendency to reduce biblical accounts to stories with intended morals. Instead, they assert that the Bible presents what might be called a “spiritual literal” account of the supremacy of God in human history. For example, Christian Scientists regard the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ Jesus as the central events of human history, embodying the supremacy of the law of God over all mortal existence. The first of six tenets left to the church by Mrs. Eddy reads, “As adherents of Truth, we take the inspired word of the Bible as our sufficient guide to eternal Life.”
Scott F. Preller