How A New Christian Identity Came About
Guest post by Amy B. Voorhees, author of A New Christian Identity: Christian Science Origins and Experience in American Culture
The reason I wrote this book is because I was intrigued by the distance between differing definitions of Christian Science within academics. Over the decades, these have had varying degrees of alignment with one another and with key primary sources, and I wanted to know how this variation arose.
Scholars today agree on some core things about the Christian Science religion. For example, we know it has nothing to do with Scientology. This might sound obvious, but the myth that the two are connected is probably today’s leading public misconception about Christian Science. So it’s worth mentioning that the superficial likeness in part of their names starts and ends there. They are not connected in any other way, historical or theological.
Scholars also inevitably use three words to describe Christian Science: Christian, metaphysical, and healing. What we have meant by these words, though, has varied widely. In writing this book, I wanted to arrive at a single, cohesive historical definition of Christian Science identity—or the essence of how we can define and differentiate this religion from others as it developed in American culture.
What I find is that Christian Science is a distinctive expression of Christianity that emerged in the modern era with a restorationist, revelatory, healing rationale. It contains a radical, novel, practical or applied Christian metaphysics expressed in experiences deemed healing.
Some elements of this definition are new, or newly emphasized, but for the most part, scholars have been invoking them for years to describe Christian Science. What my book adds that is new is to define the terms within the terms. I do this by diving deeply into this religion’s foundational texts, historical reception, and vernacular or lived religion. What does Christian mean in this religion? What does metaphysical mean? What does healing mean?
As several scholars have noted, some Christian Science views are identical or close to traditional Christianity, while others are unorthodox, unusual, unexpected—or better, innovative, singular, distinctive (to use words that say what they are, rather than what they are not). We often group Christian Science with other American-generated innovators on the Christian spectrum: Shakers, Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostals. The outsider status of these minority religions, scholars argue, is paradoxically what makes them quintessentially American. These innovative religious expressions also have teachings and practices that scholars have not yet fully charted. This has made it difficult to locate them with precision on the map of American and global religions.
Building that map is a long-term process requiring the input of many sources and people. My book adds key pieces to the territory Christian Science inhabits. It examines its core views on salvation, communion, baptism, millennium, healing. I can’t encompass these teachings and practices from a religious viewpoint, or say all they might mean theologically, but I can show how they emerged historically as both familiar and distinctive in American culture, compared to other Christian denominations. In this manner, my book charts in detailed ways how Christian Science is at heart a new expression of Christianity, and what that means.
Large numbers of Christians, from Episcopals to Quakers to Baptists, became interested in Christian Science. They variously accepted or rejected its new tenets, joined the church or not, championed or criticized it, sympathized with it or not, or simply observed it. The range was truly broad, and each response made its way into a piece of the historiographic record, or how historians came to talk about Christian Science over time.
When we talk about Christian Science as a metaphysical system, we encounter different issues. “Metaphysics” generally means a few main things in the study of religions. One is a branch of philosophical inquiry related to being, time, space, matter, spirit, reality, ontology, and so on. Another is a loosely defined pantheon of eclectic, esoteric religiosity.
Yet the Christian Science founder, Mary Baker Eddy, engaged Christian metaphysics in an applied and innovative way, rather than in a way that was entirely traditional or purely philosophical. She charted new territory on our religious maps.
Esoteric or theosophical inquirers into Christian Science were initially attracted by its unorthodoxies, but they soon found themselves objecting to its exclusive use of the Bible, to Mary Baker Eddy’s exclusive focus on the Bible in her book Science and Health with key to the Scriptures, and very importantly, to the Christian Science acceptance of the doctrine of Christian revelation. Accounts of these rifts generally portray them as personal in nature, but I find that they were deeply theological. These esoteric inquirers pretty quickly left to innovate their own grouping of New Thought religions in the theosophical, enchanted, mesmeric, and ultimately psychological traditions that could accommodate their beliefs. They continued to invoke their own views about Christian Science in complex ways, which circulated its own set of hugely varied views about Christian Science and Mary Baker Eddy. These affected media coverage at the time and also affected later historiography.
The early textual history of Christian Science has also raised questions for scholars about how to classify and define this religion. Works on Mary Baker Eddy have focused largely on her person, or on pieces of her writings and what people said about them after they were written. So focusing on how the totality of her writings developed in real time, as I do in my book, has been a new and revealing endeavor. What I find is surprising and interesting.
The tools of historical analysis can’t either prove or disprove religious experience. They can’t either exonerate or debunk. My book isn’t interested in these approaches. My goal is to delve into primary sources—texts, objects, images—to understand how Christian Science religious identity developed.
As I pondered this, I found myself thinking about American religions in terms of a massive field of networks with nodes handling greater or lesser amounts of traffic over time. I trace how Science and Health tracked across multiple nodes on the vast networks making up American religion and culture, conversing and interacting with many while retaining its own singular teachings and message. As a result, I call Christian Science both “multi-nodal” and distinctive. Those are not words Christian Scientists use to describe their religious practice, but it is one way historians can grasp them.
Whether or not we agree with the religious tenets of Christian Science, we can and should describe it in a way that is academically singular, historically cohesive, and basically recognizable to those who actively practice this religion. That is the purpose of my book.
I take my cues from William James, who noted that definitions of religion must depend on both internal and external data points, as both objective and subjective experience is critical to knowledge formation.
My book introduces a wide range of data points to show that in the aftermath of the American Civil War, Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science emerged to describe what she called the divine law or Christian Science that animated the healings of Jesus and could now be validated and proved in modernity via a new system of applied Christian metaphysics. It therefore represents a new Christian identity.
Amy B. Voorhees is an independent scholar.
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