I drive past the church several times without seeing it, which I find hilarious once I start to grasp the tenets of Christian Science. I don’t know if it’s because I’m expecting the exterior of the building to be white, which I’ve read is the color favored by Christian Scientists to represent the “divine light of truth.”
The third time past it seems to materialize: an ordinary little brown-shingled building, not particularly church-like, more reminiscent of a small medical office, but obviously my destination. I pull into the parking lot a few minutes late, and run inside.
Harold Bloom, the lauded cultural critic, uses the term “American religion” for those off-shoots of Protestantism invented solely on these soils. These include the Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists but culminate with Joseph Smith and his Latter-day Saints. It wasn’t until my journey through Christianity was well underway that I even dared pick up a copy of Bloom’s book The American Religion. It’s a good thing I waited, too, because otherwise I wouldn’t have understood what the heck he was talking about.
According to Bloom, early America was particularly ripe for religious innovation not only because of broad social changes like rapid urbanization, but also because the notion of God as punishing and judgmental had leached into every nook and cranny of the national subconscious.
The first waves of settlers had been heavily influenced by Protestant reformer Calvin who taught that everyone was either saved or damned from birth. Unlike Luther, who said anyone with faith could be saved, Calvin insisted God had made all those decisions before we got here; never could we know or change our status. This idea may have worked for a self-confident theologian and his supporters with prosperous and stable lives, but it was too much for most Americans whose difficult circumstances offered no proof of salvation. As if times back then weren’t stressful enough, here was another reason for one’s anxiety to turn crippling.
These years seem to be unique in the degree to which physical illness preceded religious innovation. Ellen White, spiritual head of the Seventh-Day Adventists, was often bed ridden. But perhaps no one suffered more than Mary Baker Eddy, who “discovered” Christian Science.
Phineas Parkhurst Quimby flat out blamed Calvin for the overwhelming number of ill patients who walked through his doors. Quimby was the clockmaker-turned-healer who treated Mary Baker Eddy when her condition failed to improve under the care of traditional doctors. He claimed his mission in life was to free people from Calvin’s “iron grip.” For many, Calvinism seemed to ratchet up the anxiety associated with perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the human condition: death. As Quimby surmised, “The fear of death is the cause of nine-tenths of all disease.”
Quimby was all for Christianity, but he advocated a return to the healing aspects of Jesus’ work. It’s hard to imagine today because so much progress has been made in the fields of medicine and psychoanalysis, but fewer than 200 years ago it was not unusual for doctors to give up on patients whose indeterminate sources of suffering did not respond to the usual remedies. This is where Quimby came in. He treated hordes of people, some of whom travelled great distances to his office in Maine for help.
What was Quimby’s remarkably effective medicine? Empathy.
He noted that if traditional doctors couldn’t categorize the disease, the patient would be labeled “nervous, spleeny or hypochondrical and receive no sympathy from anyone.” His treatment included holding hands with his patients and listening intently to their tales of woe. For a time, he cured Mary Baker Eddy with his care and attention.