Celebrating Women in Religion

This is the text of a talk given in June 2018 to Bath Interfaith Group. It celebrated the role of three women who shaped thought in their religious traditions : – Ellen G. White, Seventh Day Adventist Church – Mary Baker Eddy, The Church of Christ, Scientist – ‘Amma’, Hindu Guru.

Jo Gray, a Christian Science practitioner and member of Bath Society, was invited to give the talk on Mary Baker Eddy:

Overview

“I do not pretend to know all there is to know about Mary Baker Eddy, but I’ll do my best to outline her background, and the deep spiritual values that transformed this 19th Century woman into a 20th century religious leader and reformer who wrote a best selling book on Christian healing, founded a church, several denominational periodicals and a newspaper — all of which continue today.

When Mary Baker Eddy was born in 1821, women had little voice in the public and religious spheres and no vote. Yet as her life progressed, this Christian woman preached sermons, lectured, commented on Scripture, and led a denomination with confidence and authority, activities usually reserved for men. How did that happen?

Childhood

The founder of Christian Science was an American born into a New England farming family and raised in the Congregational Church. She inherited a deep love of the Bible, and professed her faith as a teenager, joining the church.

As a girl, Mary Baker’s opportunities for formal education were limited, but an educated brother tutored her. She often spoke of the Bible as “her sole teacher” and “my only textbook,” which she loved and turned to, seeking God’s guidance, throughout her long life.

The “eventful” trend “of human life” (Ret.23:1)

During the first half of her life, Eddy faced many challenges, such as prolonged illness, personal tragedies, & financial poverty. Through years of struggle with illness she developed deep empathy towards the sick, and wanted to find relief for herself and others. She investigated various therapeutic methods of the day in the hope of finding permanent cures, but found none. Then Eddy experienced a profound healing that set her on a new course.

The accident and its impact on Mary

One frosty evening in 1866, she fell and was injured on an icy street. The prognosis was so dire that the minister of her church came to her bedside to say goodbye.  Finding no other help she asked for her Bible. She opened it at a New Testament account of one of Jesus’ healings. As she read, her thought was filled with a new sense of God’s nature as Spirit, as Life itself, as the great reality of all existence, and she found she was healed.

This healing altered her life. She wanted to understand how she had been healed. She glimpsed that the teachings, healings, and saving ministry of Christ Jesus provided a practical Christianity that could both save from sickness, as well as sin. This led her to spend the next three years searching and pondering the Scriptures for answers.

Searching the Bible alone for answers to her recovery

Eddy writes of this time that she “searched the Scriptures and read little else, kept aloof from society, & devoted time & energies to discovering a positive rule.”  She was certain that God had been the source of her healing, and the healings Jesus had performed only confirmed this for her.  

She reasoned that “cures were produced in primitive Christian healing by holy, uplifting faith; but I must know the Science of this healing . . . .”  She felt there was a science to Christianity, that God and His grace acted as a law of good that could be understood spiritually to bring healing. She began to see what Paul meant when he spoke of the “law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus” that makes us free, not only from “the law of sin and death,” but any material law of sickness, too.

The writing of Science & Health with Key to The Scriptures

During these years of searching, she made notes of what she was learning in the Scriptures, which, she explained, “laid the foundation of my work called Science & Health [with Key to the Scriptures], published in 1875”. Eddy’s book is considered the textbook of Christian Science and spiritually inspired, but it is not considered a second Bible. Christian Scientists see the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, as their “sufficient guide to eternal Life.”

The use of the word ‘Science’ in Christian Science and Science & Health

Eddy chose the word ‘Science’ not to indicate the physical sciences, but the knowledge of God. She taught that the healings of Christ Jesus were not miraculous, but pointed to underlying divine laws, or the reality of God’s power and goodness, that govern our universe. The word ‘science’ is found several times in the Wycliffe Bible.  Luke 1:77 talks of giving people, “science of health”, & in Rom 2:20 it describes knowledge as ‘science’ saying, “the form of knowing [having the form of science, or knowing,] and of truth in the law”.  This is the Science that Science & Health talks of.  It is the knowledge or Science of God, God’s law at work in our lives bringing harmony & healing, as demonstrable now as it was in Jesus’ time.

The spreading of these ideas

Mrs Eddy began to heal others through prayer. Such prayer is rooted in basic Christian values such as humility, love, self-sacrifice, and a spiritual understanding of God and His love. Many who Eddy healed wanted to know how they might become practical Christians and learn to heal. Eddy began to teach and to preach how to follow Jesus in this way.  

Just as the law of mathematics can be taught, studied and proved, Eddy and her students felt they must prove what they learned of God’s law of divine Love by the lives they lived, by their genuine love for others, and by their practice of Christian healing. The proof was in the pudding. It was the effectiveness of the practical Christianity Eddy had discovered, which she called Christian Science, that gave her a voice and a following that was so unusual for a woman of her time.

As a Protestant church member in good standing, Eddy’s initial thought was that Christian churches would embrace this revival of Christian healing. She hoped clergy would see it was both possible and practical, to follow Jesus’ command “to heal the sick.” Instead, her teachings were often denounced from the pulpits. So she and her students organised their own church in 1879, which was “designed to commemorate the word and works of our Master, which should reinstate primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing.”

Objections to a woman breaking out of society norms

Some of the objections to Christian Science stemmed from differences over theology—but not all of it. A good deal of opposition came from Eddy’s bucking the gender norms of the 19th century.

She was acting outside of the usual domestic sphere generally assigned to women at the time. She was writing, lecturing, teaching, and preaching publicly on matters of theology, church, and society, at a time when these pursuits were almost exclusively male-dominated.

She was also healing the sick through the power of God and teaching others, including many other women to do so too. But although many denounced her for it, a significant number of clergy and individuals from a wide range of Protestant churches became interested in what they called “practical Christianity,” and many joined the movement.

While Eddy overturned traditional gender roles as a matter of experience, her primary aim was to reinvigorate Christianity. She founded her church to “reinstate primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing,” and the re-focus of attention on this area of Christian experience — that a living Christian faith includes spiritual healing — is arguably her greatest legacy. “

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