“Figuratively speaking, Mrs. Eddy is already as tall as the Eiffel tower,” wrote American author Mark Twain. “She is adding surprisingly to her stature every day.” Like any popular comedian in any era, Twain explored topics of universal relevance, including current events and the influence of famous people—the things that were on everyone’s mind. The fact that he focused so much of his colorful remarks, critical analysis, and biting humor on Mary Baker Eddy was a testament to her towering accomplishments and her unique fame in the world. At the time Twain made his comparison, the newly built Eiffel Tower was the tallest building in the world, hailed as a wondrous monument to man’s ability.
By 1910 at the height of her career, every move Eddy made was monitored and publicized by the news media. A mere wave of her hand seen through a window could make the newspaper front page headlines in Boston, where her headquarters dominated the city skyline.
When Twain referred to Eddy as “the Boston Pope” it was not a compliment, but it reflected the wide recognition of Eddy’s strong leadership within the movement she launched, which Twain noticed was “spreading with a constantly accelerating swiftness.” She founded a world religion—a new expression of Christianity for a scientific age, which she called “Christian Science.” By the end of Eddy’s career there were over 1100 established Christian Science congregations across the globe, with a new church being dedicated every few days. Twain believed that Eddy could very well “conquer the half of Christendom.”
To women’s rights leader Susan B. Anthony, Eddy’s extraordinary accomplishments were a wondrous monument to woman’s ability: “No man ever obtained so large a following in so short a time. Her churches are among the largest and most elegant in Boston, Chicago, and other cities.”
In addition to her churches, Eddy established her own publishing company to extend her reach through books, magazines, and literature. The international daily newspaper she founded, The Christian Science Monitor, quickly established itself as a model for American journalism and a trustworthy news source. Eddy had a staff of professionals dedicated to managing her public relations and lobbying lawmakers, and a team of lecturers who took her message to public halls throughout the world. Sales of her book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures were brisk and profitable.
Eddy had achieved this extraordinary prominence despite all normal expectations for her gender. From Eddy’s platform of international fame and financial success she announced that the time had come for woman to be a force in the public sphere: “In natural law and in religion the right of woman to fill the highest measure of enlightened understanding and the highest places in government, is inalienable, and these rights are ably vindicated by the noblest of both sexes. This is woman’s hour, with all its sweet amenities and its moral and religious reforms.” (No & Yes, p. 45)
At the very start of Mary Baker Eddy’s career in the early 1870’s, when she was struggling to find an audience for her ideas, another woman had the attention of the American people. During those years, Victoria Claflin Woodhull was being hailed as “the most prominent woman of our time.”
Woodhull’s greatest achievement was campaigning for President of the United States of America. It was the first time a woman had announced candidacy for the highest place in American government. To support her campaign for the 1872 Presidential election, Woodhull became a lecturer, consistently filling the largest halls to overflowing on her frequent lecture tours throughout America. She became a writer, an author, had her own weekly newspaper, and a staff for managing her public relations. She became personally acquainted with some of the most famous and influential Americans in that era.
But by the year 1875, Woodhull was most famous for the philosophy of social freedom she preached to Americans which was commonly known as “free love.” Eddy must have had Woodhull in mind when she wrote: “It was about the year 1875 that Science and Health first crossed swords with free-love, and the latter fell hors de combat; but the whole warfare of sensuality was not then ended. Science and Health, the book that cast the first stone, is still at work, deep down in human consciousness, laying the axe at the root of error.” (Miscellaneous Writings, p. 285)
To Americans from that era, the name Woodhull would have been the first name to come to mind in association with the free-love movement and the year 1875. Between 1870 to 1876 when Eddy was laying the foundations of her Christian Science teachings and organization, Victoria Claflin Woodhull brought free love to the forefront of American thought by publicly declaring war on the institution of marriage and promoting social freedom as the more enlightened alternative. She announced to her audiences all over America: “I am conducting a campaign against marriage, with the view of revolutionizing the present theory and practice. I have strong convictions that, as a bond or promise to love another until death, it is a fraud upon human happiness; and that it has outlived its day of usefulness. These convictions make me earnest, and I enter the fight, meaning to do the institution all possible harm in the shortest space of time; meaning to use whatever weapons may fall in my way with which to stab it to the heart, so that its decaying carcass may be buried, and clear the way for a better institution.” (“Tried as by Fire”)
Woodhull waged her ideological war against marriage with a take-no-prisoners intensity. In an attempt to weaken the institution of marriage and demoralize its defenders, she triggered the most explosive sex scandal of the nineteenth century involving some of the most prominent public leaders in the country. Eddy entered the war in defense of marriage through her book Science and Health. Within a short chapter called “Marriage” and throughout the book, she weighed in on marriage-related issues being discussed in the civic dialogue. Eddy’s disagreement with free-love philosophy turned into a more personal attack in 1876 when Woodhull came to lecture in Eddy’s home town of Lynn, Massachusetts.
Victoria Claflin Woodhull and Mary Baker Eddy were not the only public figures to frame marriage issues as a battle. In the dynamic American society dedicated to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the public debate around the institution of marriage was often phrased in terms of warfare. The American Civil War was still a fresh memory at that time. It was a violent conflict over African slavery—the question of whether individual rights and liberty belonged equally to all or only to a portion of the population—and also whether the union between the states could be dissolved. Through the loss of about one million American lives, it was resolved that the union could not be broken and that slavery would no longer be tolerated in America. During the same time period, the women’s rights movement was gaining momentum, questioning whether women were really free citizens. The nature of the marriage union was directly or indirectly the focus of much of the women’s rights debate, which from the very beginning often used emotionally-charged terms associated with warfare and slavery. The free-love movement took those analogies to their logical conclusion by setting a goal of abolishing the institution of marriage as the worst form of slavery.
Meanwhile, Mary Baker Eddy was fighting for a higher platform of human rights through Christian Science, which she saw as a return to the spirit of the very earliest Christians who were healers. To Eddy the worst form of slavery was the belief that a mortal material body is the master of mankind. She described the war she was fighting: “It is a revolutionary struggle. We already have had two in this nation; and they began and ended in a contest for the true idea, for human liberty and rights. Now cometh a third struggle; for the freedom of health, holiness, and the attainment of heaven.” (Miscellaneous Writings, p. 101)
But Eddy’s revolution involved improving marriage, not abolishing it.
Looking back on the ideological conflict of this period, Eddy framed the free-love issue in Biblical terms—as she did in writing on any topic. Just as a tree is known by its fruit, and according to Jesus any spiritual teaching can be known by its fruits, so would free love be known by its fruit. Eddy’s attack on free love, “laying the axe at the root of error,” was the sort of Biblical battle weapon expressed in this citation: “…the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.” (Matthew 3:10, Luke 3:9)
Eddy believed her Christian Science teachings would eliminate free love from society, not through coercion or physical force, but by causing a change in human consciousness—a shift away from materialism, selfishness, and sensuality.
There was a very personal dimension to Mary Baker Eddy’s war against free love as well. Biographer Robert Peel briefly mentioned that in the gossip around the town of Lynn, Massachusetts, Eddy was accused of practicing free love. In a footnote Peel attributed this gossip in part to the public influence of Victoria Woodhull, whom he described as a “flamboyant exponent of free-love.” Like Woodhull, Eddy had recently begun to deviate from societal norms for respectable women. Eddy was taking the first steps in her career as a spiritual teacher and religious leader. She was teaching small classes of students her method of healing through prayer and had begun writing manuscripts which circulated among her small circle of students. By 1876 her theology would be more defined and she would begin establishing it under the name Christian Science. But in the early to mid-1870s in its developing informal state, the townspeople of Lynn, Massachusetts didn’t quite know what to think of her unconventional activities.
On top of this, circumstantial evidence supported the distrustful suspicions of her neighbors. Eddy was a single woman at that time, known to be very charming and attractive, but also carrying the social stigma of separation and divorce. Many of her early students were young single men who frequently visited her at home. This alone was enough to suggest improper behavior. But in fact, there was much more going on within her close community of students to fuel the flames of the local gossip.
To really understand how Eddy’s Science and Health crossed swords with free-love in 1875, the story needs to start at the very beginning of the American experience. Mary Baker Eddy’s revolution had deep roots in Protestant Christianity. Likewise, Victoria Claflin Woodhull’s revolution was an outgrowth of the American free-love movement. The values conflict began shortly after the establishment of the American republic, this “new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” as United States President Abraham Lincoln famously described it.
The undeveloped American continent offered European settlers the opportunity to create new forms of community to express their ideals. It was an unprecedented era of reform, change, and experimentation. Rethinking society also meant rethinking marriage. Both the Protestant Christian establishment and the counter-culture free-love movement were made possible by American freedom.
And so the battle for the soul of marriage begins.
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