An Eminently Readable Biography

Gillian Gill, Mary Baker Eddy, Reading (Massachusetts): Perseus Books, 1998, pp. xxxv + 715

Reviewed by Massimo Introvigne

Dr. Gillian Gill’s first acclaimed biography was of Agatha Christie and, although she is also well-known as a feminist scholar, one may have doubted she was up to the task of dealing with such a complex religious character of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. In fact, here and there it becomes clear that Gill is no religious scholar: she wrongly claims, for instance, that unlike Eddy’s Science and Health (a book that went through many revisions) the Book of Mormon was never revised (219), and places the Peoples Temple tragedy in Georgetown rather than Jonestown. Gill’s is no theological biography of Mary Baker Eddy, and for the relationship between the woman and the theologian the three volumes of Robert Peel, published between 1966-1977, are still unsurpassed. Gill, in fact, owes an important debt to Peel, who, she claims, displeased Christian Science with a biography regarded as not faith-promoting enough. “Although always remaining a loyal Christian Scientist”, Gill writes (581), “Robert Peel became estranged from The Mother Church, and I am told that his last years were darkened by the attacks and snubs he suffered from fellow Christian Scientists”.
Not being a Christian Scientist herself is both a strength and a weakness for Gill. She does not necessarily understand the theological subtleties of Christian Science and its all-important differences with the New Thought. On the other hand, although sympathetic to Eddy, she is not apologetic and ostensibly has no agenda. Gill gives an interesting account of her relations with The Mother Church. Although the Boston archives were not entirely open to her (as they were to Peel), she managed to access quite a few documents, and she received the assistance of an able in-house scholar such as Judy Huenneke. (Having being assisted by Huenneke myself in a short research in the Boston archives, I fully share Gill’s praise.) Gill was also able to use extensively the large collection of the Longyear Museum.
Readers familiar with Peel’s biography will find here a number of new insights and documents, including a more open discussion of scandals, most of them of a sexual nature, that plagued the metaphysical community and, more often than not, were related to defections and schisms in Christian Science. The chapter on Josephine Woodbury, heretic extraordinaire who in 1890 claimed to have virginally conceived a child baptized with the not too modest name of Prince of Peace, is both rich in new information and fun to read. A number of opponents of Christian Science, in the process, come out as darker characters than was generally believed. Many new details concern Eddy’s last years, and attending lawsuits: details, Gill suggests, left unmentioned by Peel for fear of scandalizing the faithful.
In fact, there is nothing to scandalize. Gill’s Eddy is no plaster saint, and surely her persistent belief of being victim of mental attacks in the form of “malicious animal magnetism” is at least original, and much more prevalent than apologists would admit (although less prevalent than in the caricature offered by some critics). On the other hand, Eddy is depicted as a woman of formidable achievements, somewhat harsh but generally just and honest. She is also portrayed by feminist Gill as an American woman, and some of her shortcomings and mistakes are attributed to gender-related problems only too common in 19th-century America. One emerges from Gill’s massive work with the impression that Eddy’s greatness as a religious leader is better served by a candid retelling of her whole life than by misguided or reticent apology.
Above all, Gill’s book is eminently readable. She is a better writer than most other biographers of Eddy, and readers unfamiliar with Christian Science will still appreciate a story well told. In order to understand Eddy’s complicate theology Gill’s work should be supplemented by other sources. As far as Eddy the real-life woman is concerned, this is at any rate a very important book and will be a valuable addition to any research library on the history of American new religious movements.

Buy this book now

Buy this book

[Home Page] [Cos'è il CESNUR] [Biblioteca del CESNUR] [Testi e documenti] [Libri] [Convegni]

[Home Page] [About CESNUR] [CESNUR Library] [Texts & Documents] [Book Reviews] [Conferences]