Marietta Webb, Christian Science, and Race in America

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Guest post by Amy B. Voorhees, author of A New Christian Identity: Christian Science Origins and Experience in American Culture

Marietta Webb was a founding member of a Christian Science congregation attended almost entirely by African Americans on the east side of Los Angeles. Local or “branch” Christian Science churches are run democratically, and she served on her church’s elected governing board. Reports concerning the church were marked by fellowship, but at a fraught meeting, the board’s majority—all related by family ties—voted to remove Mrs. Webb from her elected positions as a board member and a reader, one of two people conducting worship services.

It’s not clear this decision was legitimate without a vote of the entire church membership, and the results were hugely contentious. Nationally syndicated Black media outlets reported the details from L.A. to Atlanta. Police were dispatched to monitor the church’s next midweek worship meeting, which almost certainly would not have happened in a white community.

Mrs. Webb was quite well known during the first half of the twentieth century. Her religious testimony of healing was included (and still is) in Mary Baker Eddy’s book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, the text that interprets the Bible for Christian Scientists. The Black press called her a “world known church worker,” and an article in Ebony magazine featured her achievements and photograph in a story about African American Christian Scientists. This speaks not just to her personal stature but to the stature of Christian Science within Black communities by midcentury. You have these towering figures like Pearl Bailey and the globally respected musical conductor Everett Lee associated with it.

The issues at the Eastside Christian Science church had to do not only with personality and democracy, but whether members wanted an entirely African American or mixed church. A key matter was also whether Christian Science practitioners should comply with the global church organization’s policy of placing a “colored” designation by their advertisements as healers.

Mrs. Webb wanted a mixed church, and she deftly sidestepped the racial designation for several years. She did this partly by claiming “Indian” heritage (which was not uncommon) but more crucially by insisting that the Christian Science founder, Mrs. Eddy, had “regarded her as [a] ‘Child of God’ and not a colored ‘Child of God.’” When she received a stock card from a Christian Science church department asking several questions, including one about each recipient’s national identity and color, she responded with dignity, “purely American, natural color.”

Simeon D. Youngmann, sketch of Marietta T. Webb, pencil on paper, 2020. Courtesy of the author.  Reproduction by permission only.

The historian Judith Weisenfeld recounts how a man named Joseph Nathaniel Beckles responded to the racial categories on his 1942 draft card by supplying his own terms. Instead of “Negro,” he had the clerk specify “Ethiopian Hebrew.” Weisenfeld argues that this was part of a larger new vision of spiritual identity that rejected the racial categories common in American culture. Webb’s views resonated with those of Beckles, though they were not entirely alike.

In articles she published in church magazines, Mrs. Webb wrote that she was attracted to Christian Science for its satisfying views of God, which she found joyful. Like other early African American testifiers, she wrote at length about her spiritual growth and healing experiences. She added that everywhere “we are made to feel our color,” yet she found Christian Science the basis for “not only learning what the true love of God is,” but “getting out of [the] old prejudiced self, into the spiritual sense of man’s union with God.”

A committee on several aspects of church life formed by the church’s headquarters stated that it felt racism was “slowly being solved on the basis of Christian Science.” It called this a very “complex” matter that needed to “be approached with courage, hope and love,” adding that in the short term, “some degree of consideration should be given to custom, condition and environment.” As Jim Crow advanced, the central church organization deferred to local branches to figure out how to comply or not with their local laws about segregation (most complied in some fashion, though not all). It required Black congregations and healers to identify themselves racially yet also welcomed everyone to its local services without regard to race and printed frankly antiracist articles. Black Americans encountered incidents of racism within predominately white branch churches, mixed with positive experiences they identified as healing, while claiming a rich Christian Science heritage themselves.

After the Eastside branch church incident, Mrs. Webb gathered together a group of supporters who ultimately started another Christian Science church group. She continued to serve as an advertised Christian Science practitioner until her death almost twenty years later.

Parts of Mrs. Webb’s story have been rediscovered in denominational sources recently, but not in scholarly sources until now. In this sense, she is like most adherents of Christian Science, whose daily lives have been not much known in scholarship. She can even be seen as representative of Christian Science as a whole. Her minority experience mirrored that of Christian Science itself as a minority religion in American culture. The triumphs, discussions, and difficulties that played out in her branch church were like those in predominately white branches.

A majority of early Christian Science adherents was European descended, but there was (and is) more racial diversity than is usually acknowledged, and part of my book’s purpose it to explore that history. Obviously, my book doesn’t present the full picture, but it takes steps in that direction. Hopefully more pieces of this interesting story will be reclaimed and told in years to come.

Amy B. Voorhees is an independent scholar.