Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Book Review: Mary Baker Eddy by Gillian Gill, 1998

Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910,  founder of the Church of Christ, Scientists; and founder of the Christian Science Monitor newspaper) is possibly the most important person that many people nowadays have never heard of.   This extensive biography was released after a 6-year, mostly successful effort to obtain original materials from the mother church library, with an amount of access to that library unavailable to previous biographers.  The book cannot be described as easy reading.  That is not surprising when one considers the difficulties and unlikely accomplishments of Mrs. Eddy's own life, the controversial press received over the decades by the stable and successful church she founded, and the undeniable biases and polemic of the ten or so earlier biographical works published before Ms. Gill's 712-page tome appeared in 1998.  But I find both the existence of this biography, by a respected feminist scholar, and the apparent facts of Mrs. Eddy's life pretty darned fascinating--and well worth the effort.

With several intervening years, I now have twice read this monster biography (which does not exist on Kindle, but is an economical purchase used).  For the second reading, I was as much intrigued by the careful and helpful notes and appendices as by the text itself.  This additional information was provided, not just to document sources, but to explain to the reader how the author navigated the forest of conflicting and uncertain claims in preceding works and attempted to reconcile them with the extensive new source material.  Ms. Gill's scholarly credentials, her unprecedented access to archives of mother church library (obtained at great effort), and her experienced, confident and relatively neutral voice make this biography worth the substantial effort required to read it.   It is a clear-eyed treatment of Mrs. Eddy's life and works, and I find it interesting in every respect as a work of, not just women's history, but of the nineteenth century as a whole.

Mary Baker Eddy herself broke every rule and expectation ever provided to keep women within bounds.  Married three times, divorced, owning property, earning money, setting herself up as a healer, writing and self-publishing a work of compelling spirituality (which was to be fully underestimated and misunderstood both by the reading public and her later biographers), she was demonized, essentially homeless and very poor for decades, and yet ended her life wealthy and having founded a lasting church and a world-acclaimed, highly professional and successful newspaper (the Christian Science Monitor).

If you think you are a feminist, or know anything about the history of women, this is in my opinion a must-read book.

The first time, I came to this book via a favorable review of it in the New York Times.  Some years later, on a quest of spiritual discovery of my own, I picked up a free edition of Mrs. Eddy's most famous work, Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures.  After working with that for a while, I found things in it that are compellingly compatible with other respected mystics, including Jesus and the teachings of the Buddha as detailed in recent translations of the Pali Canon.  Thus, I came back to this remembered biography, and read it again in much deeper detail.

No comments:

Post a Comment