Mary Morse Baker was a difficult child.
Born in 1821 to a strict religious rural New Hampshire household, she was the youngest of six children.
At the age of eight she claimed to hear a religious voice calling her name and she would fall into a faint, lying comatose for hours.
Her father kept her out of school as he feared her brain was too big for her body.
Her mother indulged young Mary and her tutor described her as a “genius” remarking on her independence of thought.
At various times in her life, Mary was afflicted by colds, fevers, chronic dyspepsia, lung and liver ailments, backache, nervousness, gastric attacks and depression – which propelled her on a lifelong search for a remedy for disease.
The Baker family doctor dismissed Mary as suffering with nothing but a case of bad temper and hysteria.
From a difficult childhood, Mary Baker Eddy (she married her student Gilbert Eddy in 1877, her third marriage) popularised a theory of mind healing that remains persuasive today and founded the ‘Mother Church’, The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1894.
During the first three years of her church’s existence, membership remained at fifty but by the turn of the century, membership had surpassed forty-thousand. Members came predominantly from the middle classes and nearly two-thirds were women.
The church practised spiritual healing and several thousand Christian Science healers, of whom more than eighty percent were women, set up throughout the United States in the early 1900s.
As a young woman Mary wanted to be a writer and she did end up writing a best-seller which is still in circulation today. Her ‘Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures’ was published in 1875, articulating the new Christian Science mind cure doctrine she developed and made famous.
She trained in homeopathy and experimented with diet but her most significant healing influence came from the famous mental healer, Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-66) of Portland, Maine, who was famous as a magnetic healer. Quimby hypnotised patients and healed them by impelling his own mind into their brains. “Electricity had more or less to do with it,” he stated.
Quimby had studied and experimented with magnetic healing since 1838, before developing his own mind techniques, which were similar to hypnosis or the power of suggestion. His technique was to establish a rapport with his patients by experiencing their symptoms, massaging their head or limbs and speaking encouraging words.
After Mary Baker underwent such treatment with Quimby, she experienced an immediate, however, only temporary cure.
But in 1866 following a ‘miraculous’ recovery from severe injuries she received after a fall on an icy street which came about by focusing her mind on the divine, Mary became convinced that the mind in tune with the divine power of the universe could cure all disease, and the body was merely an appendage of the mortal mind.
Mary Baker’s mind cure theory involved a magnetic mental divine energy and willing a person to wellness. She also developed a theory about the flip-side of this energy, a ‘malicious animal magnetism’ which could be directed against a person by their enemies. She once chastised a student: “You are so full of malicious magnetism; your eyes stick out like a boiled codfish’s.”
While Mary’s theories were decried as a farrago of nonsense by physicians and cultural commentators including Mark Twain, there was some support for the cures claimed by Christian Science healing being genuine, based on the power of suggestion and placebo.
Mary Baker Eddy was charismatic and pragmatic enough to hold onto power in her Church. She did not believe in communicable disease but recommended Christian Science nurses decline to treat infectious or contagious patients. She was an anti-vaxxer but promoted her grandchildren being vaccinated.