The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science

The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science

book cover

First edition cover
Author Willa Cather and Georgine Milmine

Doubleday, Page & Company (1909)
Baker Book House (1971)
University of Nebraska Press (1993)
Read online:

Pages 501 pages (1993 University of Nebraska paperback)
ISBN 0-8032-6349-X

The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science was published in November 1909 in New York by Doubleday, Page & Company. The book is a highly critical account of the life of Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910), the founder of Christian Science, and the early history of the Christian Science church in 19th-century New England.

The material first appeared in McClure's magazine (1893–1929) in 14 installments between January 1907 and June 1908, preceded by an editorial in December 1906 announcing the series.[1] The articles were the first major examination of Eddy's life and work, published when she was 85 years old, and became a key primary source for most independent accounts of the church's early history.[2]

The magazine's publisher and editor-in-chief, S. S. McClure (1857–1949), assigned five writers to work on the articles: Willa Cather (1873–1947), who won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for one of her novels; researcher Georgine Milmine (1874–1950); managing editor Will Irwin (1873–1948); Burton J. Hendrick (1870–1949); Mark Sullivan (1874–1952), who became a well-known political columnist; and briefly Ida Tarbell (1857–1944).[3] The original byline on the book and articles was Milmine's, but it later emerged that Cather, who had joined McClure's as an editor in 1906, was the principal author.[4]

The Christian Science church purchased the manuscript shortly after the book's publication, and it was soon out of print.[5] It was republished by Baker Book House in 1971 after its copyright had expired, and again in 1993 by the University of Nebraska Press, this time naming both Cather and Milmine as authors.[4]


The material was published by McClure's when Witter Bynner (1881–1968) was an assistant editor and briefly managing editor. It first appeared under Georgine Milmine's byline in 14 installments between January 1907 and June 1908 as "Mary Baker G. Eddy: The Story of Her Life and the History of Christian Science."[6] The text of the articles was revised and updated for the book, where it was presented in 26 chapters.

The articles were preceded by an unsigned, seven-page editorial in December 1906, explaining why the series was being published and discussing the difficulties of the investigation. The author of the editorial wrote: "The Christian Science mind is unfriendly to independent investigation. It presupposes that anything even slightly unfavorable to Mrs. Eddy or to Christian Science is deliberate falsehood."[7] The publication got off to an unfortunate start by reproducing a photograph on page two of the editorial that purported to be of Eddy, but was in fact of someone else.[8]

The criticism of Eddy is considerable. She is portrayed as deceitful, someone who regularly revised her life story, and who was interested only in making money. The authors reproduce witness statements from Eddy's childhood of her having repeated fainting spells as a way of gaining attention or avoiding punishment, particularly from her father, and say that she developed a habit of appearing to be seriously ill only to recover quickly.[9]

Eddy was widowed when she was 22 years old and pregnant, after which she returned to live in her father's home. Her son was raised there for the first few years of his life, looked after for at least some of the time by domestic staff because of Eddy's health issues. The articles allege that she allowed him to be adopted by one of the staff when he was four, then failed to maintain a relationship with him until he was in his thirties, though they lived near each other. (Eddy has written that she was unable to prevent the adoption,[10] but McClure's implied otherwise.)

Her next two marriages, lifelong poor health, and the numerous legal actions she was involved in – including lawsuits against her students and a criminal case in which her third husband was accused of conspiracy to murder one of them (an allegation that was never proven) – are examined in detail. The authors also allege that Eddy's major work, Science and Health (1875), which became Christian Science's main religious text, borrowed heavily from the work of Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802–1866), a New England faith healer. Quimby had treated Eddy in the years before his death and had given her some of his unpublished notes.

Eddy replied only to the early installments in McClure's by challenging its description of her father, early family life, and some of the issues surrounding her marriages. McClure's had said that the Bible was the only book in the house when she was growing up; on the contrary, she wrote, her father was a great reader. Her statement described the educational and professional achievements of her family to counter McClure's claim that her childhood home had provided a "lonely and unstimulating existence." She offered as an example of her own kindness (in response to McClure's view of her as bad tempered) that a housekeeper of the family's had resigned because Eddy allowed a blind girl, who had knocked on the door and was unknown to the family, to stay with them.[8]


Editorial team

Georgine Milmine was born in Ontario, Canada. Before joining McClure's as a researcher, she worked for the Syracuse Herald in New York.[11] She had been collecting material about Eddy for years, but lacked the resources to research and write it up herself, so she sold it to McClure's.[12]

The publisher assigned five writers to the story, including Milmine, Willa Cather, Burton J. Hendrick, political columnist Mark Sullivan, Will Irwin and for a short time Ida Tarbell.[3] Cather had started working for McClure's as an editor in 1906 when she was 32 years old. She and Sullivan spent time traveling in New England seeking confirmation of the material about Eddy's early life.[13] The journalist Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant (1881–1965) wrote in 1953:

Willa Cather in 1936

Startling material relating to a leading religious leader and romantic personality of that time – Mary Baker G. Eddy – had been brought into McClure's by one Georgine Milmine. S. S. McClure was always interested in biography ... and he was always interested in novelty. Thus he saw in Mrs. Eddy a "natural" for McClure's, for her personal origins and idiosyncrasies, her marital history, the psychological and factual background of her ideas and her "message" in Science and Health had not then been publicized. The material was touchy, and would attract a world of readers both of the faithful and the doubters. It must, however, be carefully verified, and Willa Sibert Cather, with four other members of McClure's staff, was chosen for this job. ...

The job seemed to her a little infra dig, not on the level where she cared to move. But she inspired confidence, had the mind of a judge and the nose of a detective when she needed it. ... She was quickly fascinated by the psychological implications of her material, and made long stays in Boston to edit it. But the book that ensued was largely written in the McClure's office, and was a composite, not Willa Cather's personal work.[14]

Witter Bynner, a McClure's assistant editor at the time of publication, signed a copy of the book on February 12, 1934, writing: "The material was brought to McClure's by Miss Milmine, but was put into the painstaking hands of Willa Cather for proper presentation, so that a great part of it is her work."[15] In 1935 a copy of the book listed for sale by Philip Duschnes, a New York bookseller, contained a photostat of an editor's note identifying Cather as the author.[16] David Stouck, professor emeritus of English at Simon Fraser University, writes that the Christian Science church's Mary Baker Eddy Library holds the original manuscript of the book and that Cather's handwriting is evident on it, in notes and edits for the typesetter.[17] Several of Cather's later characters were reportedly modeled on her portrait of Eddy, including Mrs. Cutter in My Ántonia (1918).[18]

Cather's letters

Journalist Will Irwin was part of the McClure's team that worked on the articles.

Cather denied that she was the main author in letters to Genevive Richmond in 1933 and Harold Goddard Rugg in 1934; she told them she had only helped to organize and rewrite the material. According to Stouck, she minimized her role in part because she wanted to distance herself from journalism, and in part because the Christian Science church and Eddy were angered by the articles.[19] Brent Bohlke writes that Cather regarded the book as poorly written; he adds that it contains some excellent writing and character analysis, but that it is not well-structured. He attributes this to poor editing that failed to rid the book of the serialized nature of the original McClure's pieces.[15]

Cather identified herself as the author in a letter to her father in December 1906; she told him the articles beginning February 1907 (at that time written, but not yet published) were hers.[19] She also referred to her authorship in a letter to S.S. McClure in June 1912.[20]

She acknowledged her authorship fully on November 24, 1922, in a letter to Edwin H. Anderson (1861–1947), director of the New York Public Library and an old friend of hers. She told him that she had written the entire book except for the first chapter. S.S. McClure had purchased Milmine's research, Cather wrote, including newspaper articles from the 1880s, court records, and a first edition of Science and Health, all of which were hard to obtain. Apparently when McClure's was sold, the new publisher threw away the research, including the first edition.[21]

Cather told Anderson that Burton J. Hendrick had written the first installment, but that it had been largely based on rumor. S.S. McClure asked her to complete the series because she was regarded as impartial. For the rest of the installments, she wrote that no expense was spared in verifying Milmine's material, and that S. S. McClure had promoted her to managing editor on the basis of her work on the articles.[21] She ended the letter by asking Anderson to regard the information as confidential. She wrote that she had not told the truth about it to anyone previously, Bohlke writes, but that she felt someone ought to know the true story.[22] Cather's letter to Anderson can only be paraphrased, not quoted, because she left a clause in her will forbidding the publication of her letters and private papers. The correspondence will enter the public domain in 2017, 70 years after her death.[23]


Church response

Peter Lyon wrote in Success Story: The Life and Times of S.S. McClure (1963) that when the articles first appeared, three Christian Science officials arrived at the McClure's offices and asked McClure to allow them to edit the rest of the articles before publication. When he refused, they said he would soon notice a loss of advertising.[24]

The church purchased the original manuscript of the book and there were rumors that the plates had been destroyed. In June 1920 the church also purchased some of McClure's research notes from a New York manuscript dealer. There were stories that Christian Scientists were buying and destroying copies of the book, and removing them from libraries to keep them out of circulation.[25] Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant wrote in 1953 that copies had become scarce even in libraries.[26] The book's copyright expired 28 years after publication. Baker Book House, a Christian publishing house, republished it in 1971 "in the interest of fairness and objectivity," according to its back cover.[27]

Caroline Fraser writes that the church tried to stop the University of Nebraska Press from republishing the book in 1993. The university was interested in doing so, with a new introduction by David Stouck, because the articles and book were Cather's first extended work, and therefore important in her development as a writer. According to Fraser, the head of the church's Committee on Publication (its media office) called the Nebraska Press and told them the reprint might damage the church's and Eddy's reputation. The Press said the church representative "felt it was his responsibility to try to bully us into stopping publication or into saying that the book was worthless."[28]

Stouck made clear his view in the book's preface that Willa Cather was "indisputably the principal author of The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science."[19] But, according to Fraser, there were fears for the jobs of the church researchers who had helped make the Cather–Milmine manuscript available for examination.[28] Stouck therefore agreed to add a statement to the book:

Since the re-issue of The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science went to press new materials have come to light which suggest that Eddy's enemies may have played a significant role in organizing materials for the "Milmine" biography. New information about Georgine Milmine, moreover, suggests that she would have welcomed biased opinion for its sensational and commercial value. The exact nature of Willa Cather's part in the compiling and writing of the biography remains, accordingly, a matter for further scholarly investigation."[29]

The "enemies" Stouck refers to relate to the so-called "Next Friends" lawsuit, which was being prepared during the McClure's serialization.[30] The lawsuit was brought by Eddy's relatives, who said that she was unable to manage her own affairs; had it succeeded she would have lost control of the church and her fortune. According to Fraser, the suit was organized in 1907 by Joseph Pulitzer (1847–1911), owner of the New York World (1860–1931); his motive was to engineer a story about Eddy to rival that of McClure's.[31] Gillian Gill, in her Mary Baker Eddy (1998), wrote that the New Hampshire Historical Society holds documents that show the McClure's journalists were in touch with the litigants and that both sides were feeding each other information.[30]

According to Fraser, an official from the church's Committee on Publication made the following statement at its 1993 annual meeting:

A major corrective opportunity this year involved the rerelease of one of the earliest malicious biographies of Mrs. Eddy, The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science by Georgine Milmine. Dating from the yellow journalism period, this book was published in an attempt to discredit her. The current publisher, after much correspondence with our office, instead issued a statement accurately characterizing its bias. The book has received almost no attention in the public, proving if Truth isn't spoken, nothing is said.[32]

General reception and influence

The articles and book became key primary sources for most of the biographies of Eddy that have been published independently of the church.[2] Gill wrote that in any publication not written by a Christian Scientist, the material is regarded as the single trustworthy source on Eddy, especially on the first half of her life.[33] It influenced Edwin Franken Dakin's Mrs. Eddy: The Biography of a Virginal Mind (1929), Ernest Sutherland Bates and John V. Dittemore's Mary Baker Eddy: The Truth and the Tradition (1932), Martin Gardner's The Healing Revelations of Mary Baker Eddy (1993), and Caroline Fraser's God's Perfect Child (1999).[2]

The New York Times wrote in 1910 that the book "ranks among the really great biographies – or would were its subject of more intrinsic importance":

Since this Life first appeared in McClure's Magazine not one important statement as of fact in it has been disproved or even seriously questioned. It is a product of much and highly intelligent labor, and were Christian Scientists open to argument or amenable to reason the wretched cult would not have survived its publication for a single month. It is unanswerable and conclusive, and nobody who has not read it can be considered well-informed as to the history or nature of Eddyism.[34]

Gill disagreed that the book offers an accurate portrayal of Eddy. She argued, for example, that the story of Eddy having "fits" as a child to get her own way, or rather the way McClure's described them, was "invented more or less out of whole cloth" by McClure's journalist Burton Hendrick, and that the accounts of her as "hysterical" were misogynist.[30] (That Eddy would fall and lose consciousness as a child is supported by Robert Peel (1909–1992), who worked for the church and wrote a sympathetic three-volume biography of Eddy.)[35]

The journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns (1894–1988), who was a minister in the Church of Religious Science (a closely related belief system to Christian Science), wrote in 1974 that Cather was "a fine – maybe our finest – American woman novelist," but that she was a "lousy unscrupulous reporter." She argued that Cather had "stirred with grim fancy the most vicious and inaccurate of all the attacks on Mrs. Eddy."[36] David Stouck, in his introduction to the University of Nebraska Press edition, wrote that Cather's portrayal of Eddy "contains some of the finest portrait sketches and reflections on human nature that Willa Cather would ever write."[37]

Publication details


  1. "Editorial announcement", McClure's, December 1906.
  2. 1 2 3 Martin Gardner, The Healing Revelations of Mary Baker Eddy, Prometheus Books, 1993, p. 41.
    • Gillian Gill, Mary Baker Eddy, Da Capo Press, 1998, p. 567.
    • Caroline Fraser, God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church, Henry Holt and Company, 1999, pp. 137–141.
  3. 1 2 Gill 1998, p. 565.
    • Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Willa Cather: a Memoir, Ohio University Press, 1992, pp. 64–65 (first published by J. B. Lippincott, 1953).
    • For Sullivan's involvement, see Peter Lyon, Success Story: The Life and Times of S. S. McClure, Scribner, 1963, p. 299 (for background on Sullivan, see Joseph S. Kennedy, "Columnist's words influence politics", Philadelphia Inquirer, May 2, 2004).
  4. 1 2 David Stouck, "Introduction," in Willa Cather and Georgine Milmine, The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science, University of Nebraska Press, 1993, p. xvff.
  5. Gardner 1993, p. 41; Fraser 1999, p. 139.
  6. Milmine, January 1907 – June 1908, 14 articles.
  7. "Editorial announcement", McClure's, December 1906, p. 217.
  8. 1 2 Mary Baker Eddy, "Reply to McClure's Magazine", Christian Science Endtime Center, undated.
  9. Cather and Milmine 1909, pp. 21–22: "These attacks, which continued until very late in Mrs. Eddy's life, have been described to the writer by many eye-witnesses, some of whom have watched by her bedside and treated her in Christian Science for her affliction."
  10. Eddy, Retrospection and Introspection, p. 20: "After returning to the paternal roof I lost all my husband's property, except what money I had brought with me; and remained with my parents until after my mother's decease.

    "A few months before my father's second marriage, to Mrs. Elizabeth Patterson Duncan, sister of Lieutenant-Governor George W. Patterson of New York, my little son, about four years of age, was sent away from me, and put under the care of our family nurse, who had married, and resided in the northern part of New Hampshire. I had no training for self-support, and my home I regarded as very precious. The night before my child was taken from me, I knelt by his side throughout the dark hours, hoping for a vision of relief from this trial. ...

    "My second marriage was very unfortunate, and from it I was compelled to ask for a bill of divorce, which was granted me in the city of Salem, Massachusetts.

    "My dominant thought in marrying again was to get back my child, but after our marriage his stepfather was not willing he should have a home with me. A plot was consummated for keeping us apart. The family to whose care he was committed very soon removed to what was then regarded as the Far West.

    "After his removal a letter was read to my little son, informing him that his mother was dead and buried. Without my knowledge a guardian was appointed him, and I was then informed that my son was lost. Every means within my power was employed to find him, but without success. We never met again until he had reached the age of thirty-four, had a wife and two children, and by a strange providence had learned that his mother still lived, and came to see me in Massachusetts."

  11. Milmine married Benjamin E. Welles, an editor with the Syracuse Herald and Auburn Citizen, on August 22, 1905; he died in January 1912 ("Editor Wells' Death," Auburn Semi-Weekly Journal, January 5, 1912). On August 24, 1914 she married Arthur A. Adams of Auburn, New York. See "Georgine Milmine Collection", Mary Baker Eddy Library, p. 3 (webcite).
    • Also see "She Feared Death: Auburn writer of Mrs. Eddy's Life Gives Interview," Auburn Citizen, December 19, 1910.
  12. Gardner 1993, p. 41; Stouck 1993, pp. xv, xvff; Fraser 1999, p. 137.
  13. Brent L. Bohlke, "Willa Cather and The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy", American Literature, 54(2), May 1982 (pp. 288–294), p. 289.
  14. Sergeant 1992 [1953], pp. 64–65.
  15. 1 2 Bohlke 1982, p. 290.
  16. "Gossip of the Book World," Los Angeles Times, March 3, 1935.
  17. Stouck 1993, xvii.
  18. Gardner 1993, p. 41.
  19. 1 2 3 Stouck 1993, p. xvii.
  20. Bohlke 1982, p. 291.
  21. 1 2 Bohlke 1982, p. 292, citing Willa Cather to Edward H. Anderson, November 24, 1922, letter in the Anderson Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library.
    • Also see Janis P. Stout, A Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather, University of Nebraska Press, 2002, p. 98, letter number 649.
  22. Bohlke 1982, p. 293.
  23. Stout 2002, p. xi; for a brief paraphrase of what is reportedly a detailed letter, see p. 98, letter number 649.
  24. Fraser 1999, pp. 138–139.
  25. Fraser 1999, p. 139; "Georgine Milmine Collection", Mary Baker Eddy Library.
  26. Sergeant 1953, pp. 55–56, cited in Bohlke 1982, p. 289.
  27. Fraser 1999, p. 139.
  28. 1 2 Fraser 1999, p. 140.
  29. Fraser 1999, p. 140; Stouck 1993, p. iv.
  30. 1 2 3 Gillian Gill, "Mrs. Eddy's Voices", The New York Review of Books, June 29, 2000 (letter by Gill, reply by Caroline Fraser).
  31. Fraser 1999, p. 137.
  32. Fraser 1999, pp. 140–141.
  33. Gill 1998, p. 567.
  34. "Mrs. Eddy's Life and Teachings", The New York Times, February 26, 1910.
  35. Peel, Robert, Mary Baker Eddy: The Years of Discovery, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966 (later published by the Christian Science Publishing Society), p. 45: "This was when life took on the look of a nightmare, overburdened nerves gave way, and she would end in a state of unconsciousness that would sometimes last for hours and send the family into a panic. On such an occasion Lyman Durgin, the Baker's teen-age chore boy, who adored Mary, would be packed off on a horse for the village doctor ... "
  36. Adela Roger St. Johns, cited in L. Brent Bohlke and Sharon Hoover, Willa Cather Remembered, University of Nebraska Press, 2001, p. 58.
    • That Adela Roger St. Johns was a minister in the Church of Religious Science, see Dennis McLellan, "Adela Rogers St. Johns", Los Angeles Times, 1988.
  37. Stouck 1993, p. xviii.

Further reading

  • Westberg, M. Victor and Robert David Thomas. "Christian Science: An Exchange", New York Review of Books, November 14, 1996 (letters in response to the above, and a reply from Caroline Fraser).
This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 7/6/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.