Toward the back of every issue of the Christian Science Journal, Christian Scientists testify about healing. In the early decades of the church these testimonials were especially valuable in showcasing the promise of the new religion. In September 1901, for instance, C. S. Harris, a Jewish man from Chicago, told readers about attending “a lecture at the Third Church” of Christ, Scientist. Because of this thought-provoking lecture, Harris started attending regular meetings at Third Church, where he learned one of the mandates of Christian Science: “Work out your own salvation.” Soon he began to do just that. For thirty years he had been a heavy smoker and drinker, but after studying Christian Science, he reported that both “appetites left me without notice.” Moreover, he had long struggled with poor vision. “Oculists, specialists, and professors”—professionals, in other words—all insisted that he “must have an operation.” Instead of having an operation, Harris carefully studied Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, the “textbook” of Christian Science. Soon his vision returned. Another healing took place when he accidentally punctured his thumbnail with a “pair of sharp- pointed tweezers.” With blood “spurting all over” his hand, he retrieved the church’s “Scientific Statement of Being” from his coat pocket, read it carefully, and “neither saw nor felt any ill effects” from the injury. He concluded, “I did not lose my finger-nail as on similar occasions before knowing of Christian Science.”
Harris’s claims may have sounded fanciful to some, but such reports of healing were commonplace in the Christian Science Journal. Every issue contained similar stories of ordinary people “working their own salvation”—salvation that often began with a Christian Science lecture. Elma Williams, for example, attended a Christian Science lecture and came away “feeling much as I think Paul felt on the road to Damascus.” Now, she reported, “Every day gives me fresh proofs of God’s goodness.” Louise Reich reported a similar Saul-to-Paul conversion. After calling on “many physicians” and “a specialist in Florida,” all of whom “gave me no encouragement,” Reich attended a Christian Science lecture in Jacksonville. Feeling “at great peace” from the lecture, she then read Science and Health on her own. “Many diseases left me almost immediately, among them catarrh of the stomach, dyspepsia, headaches, and many little troubles.” David Moir had long suffered as “a man of the world, guided mainly by the lusts and passions of the natural man.” After contracting a lust-related problem that was best left unsaid, Moir consulted a physician, who “said I must take medicine for two years, and could give me no hope of a permanent cure.” Then he attended a Christian Science lecture, began studying Science and Health, and soon experienced “peace and satisfaction beyond anything I had ever hoped for in the old condition.”
These testimonials contain the nucleus of Christian Science’s appeal. Suffering from various ailments, individuals turned to the medical establishment for help, but they found no remedy. Then they attended a Christian Science lecture. Armed with knowledge accrued in the lecture hall, they began studying Christian Science for themselves, working diligently, carefully, and conscientiously through Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health. Soon, their ailments disappeared. The medical establishment had left them hopeless, with little more than the threat of surgery and a few worthless pills, but Christian Science made them agents in their own healing—indeed, in their own salvation.
One of only a handful of global religions born in the United States, Christian Science used these testimonials to attract tens of thousands of believers in a short time. It began in 1866 when Mary Baker Eddy, suffering and on the brink of death, received a revelation from God. The revelation showed her how to overcome sin and sickness just as Jesus had. To do so, all she had to do was understand and live according to an idea that was simple to say but revolutionary in its implications—the idea that matter was not real. Jesus had realized the unreality of matter and was able to heal people instantly, using the method of Divine Science. Eddy took this world-changing revelation on the road and attracted legions of followers. By 1910, the year of her death, Christian Science claimed around eighty-five thousand members and over eleven hundred churches, with congregations in almost every country. As biographer Gillian Gill writes, Mary Baker Eddy was then “regarded with reverence bordering on adoration by men and women all over the land and in several other countries and was widely hailed in the American press as the most powerful woman in the United States.” To be sure, Eddy had legions of detractors, including Mark Twain, who ridiculed her whenever he had the chance. Nevertheless, Christian Science proved to the world “that a woman could pioneer and direct a successful and thriving religious organization composed of both men and women.”
Central to the spread of Eddy’s revelation and the success of Christian Science was intellectual populism. The previous chapter demonstrated how Ingersoll combated the religious establishment of the Gilded Age not to undercut religion but to draw ordinary people into religious inquiry and thereby strengthen the pursuit of religious knowledge. By diversifying and democratizing conversations about the divine, he revitalized an intellectual terrain that seemed fallow. Ingersoll’s anti- institutionalism, hailing of ordinary people, use of Americanisms, radical conservatism, and picture of an intellectual utopia combined on the lecture stage to embolden individuals marginalized by professionalism as intellectual actors. These same appeals, albeit combined in different ways, propelled the early Christian Science church. For Eddy and her followers, however, the nefarious power structure standing in the way of human flourishing was not only religious but also medical. According to Christian Science, the medical and theological establishments of the late nineteenth century deceived people about health and salvation and bound them in sin and sickness. Eddy argued that the principles Jesus had demonstrated two thousand years prior enabled people to reclaim their own well-being, no longer subject to the deceptive dictates of medical authorities.
This populist message emerged in numerous forms and venues— workshops, periodicals, books, interviews, demonstrations, and more. But public lectures were indispensable to Christian Science’s spread. Like Ingersoll, Christian Scientists traveled the country riling audiences into populist resistance. Yet Eddy and her followers took their commitment to lecture culture a step further than Ingersoll by institutionalizing the performance of populist discourse. In 1898, to push back against her critics and detractors, Eddy established the Christian Science Board of Lectureship, which sent church-sanctioned lecturers across the country in a strategic campaign to spread a new gospel. With a multipronged discursive push, the early Christian Science church linked audiences across the United States in an antagonistic frontier of ordinary people working their own salvation.
This chapter explores the development and discourse of Christian Science, particularly the Christian Science Board of Lectureship. As I will show, the Board of Lectureship was instrumental in moving ordinary Americans from the periphery of intellectual life to active participants in the realization of Divine Science. Though the medical and theological establishments had displaced nonexperts from the pursuit of knowledge, at least according to Eddy and her followers, Christian Science lecturers called on nonexperts to become part of a logical proof demonstrating Christian Science’s ability to heal. In turn, those whom medical professionalism had pushed aside reclaimed their place in a new intellectual order.
To explicate the populist character of Christian Science, this chapter begins with a discussion of a bold sermon by Eddy, “The People’s God,” which set the new church on a populist trajectory that lasted well into the twentieth century. I then offer a history of Christian Science and the opposition through which it grew, followed by an exploration of the creation and discourse of the Christian Science Board of Lectureship, which made the experiences of ordinary people central to a utopia of the Mind. As we shall see, Christian Science lecturers left an evidentiary void in their arguments, but this void drew audience members into the logic of Divine Science. Accordingly, the discourse of the early Christian Science church offers a prime example of the way intellectual populism not only appeals to ordinary people but also renders them agents in an uprising that will purportedly remake reality.