Year of Sundays

Year of Sundays

There’s Something About Mary Baker Eddy

When Mary Baker Eddy was a young girl, farmers used to bring their sick animals to her for healing. Of course, this was New England in the 1820’s, the birthplace of American transcendentalism. In Russia, Madame Blavatsky was soon to begin expounding her occult-philosophical Theosophy theories and, up the road from Mary, Joseph Smith was digging up a book of golden plates that he would use to found Mormonism. But what the hell? If I was a diarrheic cow, I would have gone to see Mary.

A few years later, following an accident, she discovered that she could heal herself and others, too, and soon she was healing neighbors far and wide, just like Jesus did in olden times. Along the way she taught people how to stave off everything from the common cold to cat allergies to breast cancer. Then she fell among “magnetic healers” and hypnotists, sharing notes and developing a system of thought that took on the entire sweep of Western philosophy’s questions about the relationship between mind and body.


Eventually, Mary grew up. Believing that anyone could be taught self-healing powers, she codified her beliefs and compiled them into her 1875 book Science & Health With Key to the Scriptures. Blending mystical wisdom with old school Congregationalism,  her teachings find modern correlatives (a favorite Christian Science word) in books and movies ranging from The Power of Positive Thinking to What the Bleep Do We Know? to The Secret. By the time she died, she’d established hundreds of churches and, to date, nine million copies of Science and Health have been sold.

Thus was born the Church of Christ, Scientist, a.k.a. Christian Science. But if you’re looking for lab jackets and, well, the scientific method, you might be disappointed. On the mind-body question, Eddy drove her stake into the ground on the notion that the two are distinctly separate, the mind being a manifestation of God’s spirit. Nothing wrong with that belief (and I’m even willing to believe it myself), but last time I checked, science holds a different view.


The idea, you see, is that the body is matter. And matter is an illusion and therefore evil. That goes for sickness, rashes, broken bones and fibromyalgia, too. The only real reality is that which is spiritual. So, if you get sick, or you break a leg or pop an eardrum, well, you’ve probably been allowing the material world to sort of get in the way of the spiritual. As Eddy put it:

“That matter is substantial or has life and sensation, is one of the false beliefs of mortals, and exists only in a suppositious mortal consciousness. Hence, as we approach Spirit and Truth, we lose the consciousness of matter.”


“Life is, always has been, and ever will be, independent of matter; for Life is God, and man is the idea of God, not formed materially but spiritually, and not subject to decay and dust.”



“How can intelligence dwell in matter when matter is non-intelligent and brain-lobes cannot think? Matter cannot perform the functions of Mind.”


Usually, I try to avoid discussing theology on this blog. But I thought you might want to know what we walked into this last Sunday. At the Sixth Church of Christ, Scientist, you won’t find a lot of science. You will, however, find loads of history. In fact, from the moment we entered its doors, it was the present world that quickly faded from memory, as if of no more consequence than a soap bubble.

This is a church that hasn’t changed since the day it was built—right down to the threadbare, yellowing hymnals we found scattered about.


Even the members—a scant 12 were in attendance the day we visited—were apparently survivors of the original congregation, grey-headed and doddering in to hear a service that has not been altered by as much as a single word.

If the cavernous church architecture, with its labyrinthine hallways and ornate brickwork had the flavor of a Masonic Lodge, that could be due to the fact that its architect, Morris H. Whitehouse, was a prominent Mason, who patterned the design on the Christian Science Mother Ship Church in Boston. The church has, for years, fended off allegations from wacko conspiracy theorists that Christian Science is an offshoot of Freemasonry. Coincidence? I think not.


The Christian Science service goes something like this: members stand and sing a hymn and then sit as a professionally-trained opera singer belts out a hymn to a piano accompaniment. The massive, 1,990-pipe organ will chime in at some point, performing another hymn. The music is perfect and godly and exactly what Mary Baker Eddy herself would have heard 150 years ago.

Then the readings begin. This part forms the core of the program. Two readers (both women) stand at the pulpit. One reads a passage from the Bible (the King James Version, naturally) and that is followed by the second reader, who recites a “correlative passage” from Science and Health.  They go back and forth like that for about an hour. That’s it. No explanation. No sermon. No hallelujahs. No kidding.


As drop-in visitors, we were left scrambling to find the right text and to keep up with the recital. Forget trying to actually comprehend the loping, circular cadence of Eddy’s and William Tyndale’s gospel passages, the experience couldn’t have been dryer if it had been conceived in a dust bowl. Which explains the low head count. The other church members had apparently died of the one ailment that Christian Science can’t cure: boredom.

Sunday school was no better. A patient, kind adult reader sat at a low elementary school table and declaimed scriptures at a girl who could only struggle to keep her eyes open. No wonder a new generation hasn’t exactly glommed on to Eddy’s “science.”


Note to self: in the Christian Science community, reading is apparently kind of a big deal.

If there’s any new blood to be found at all here, it probably wandered off the street by accident. The old faithful, reiterating long passages they could probably recite from memory by dint of decades of ritualized repetition sat with their eyes glazed and heads bowed in quiet piety. At least, that’s how the women, who sat somewhat toward the front looked to me. Sitting in the back were the grumpy old men, cantankerously suspicious of doctors and isolated in this women-led community, apparently useful only as doormen and ushers.

Don’t get me wrong. The church building is impressive and handsome, and the teachings have a charming, oddball earnestness. I’m sure that if you apply the principles of Science and Health in your life, you’ll make fewer trips to the doctor. Nevertheless, the church we visited was a relic. It is as perfectly preserved—yet manifestly dead—as a dragonfly entombed in amber.


The service concluded with a rousing organ arrangement of one of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, intended apparently to disperse the congregation with joy and high spirits. But for these octogenarians, wobbling to their feet was about all they could muster.

In 1866, when Eddy first articulated Christian Science, it must have seemed so modern! It was science!  “New Thought”! A panacea for all ills, forcing medical doctors, dentists, surgeons and other placebo-peddling snake oil  quacks to confess their sins and seek an honest profession! But its time has come and gone. Christian Science has the wistful mien of a prophet who has lived to see the outcome of his predictions, and has outlived his usefulness.

It is Ezekiel in winter.

Comments read comments(17)
post a comment

posted January 20, 2012 at 10:45 am

although the Christian Science Church (The Mother Church) is floundering , as Mary Baker Eddy said it would. ,The Independent Christian Science movement isngrowing by leaps and bounds around the world.. Mrs. eddy never even entered the Church the board built.m Boston. EVER ONCE. she knew and said that Ecclesiastism would destroy the Church. she attempted to set it up that it wouldn’t destroy the movement. though the Church is dwindling away, the movement is stronger than ever. if you want to do an accurate scientific test. go to the services for six months and then see what happens in your life. do the Readings daily and Watch. that’s what I did, not believing in it at all…

All I can tell you is after a little mover a year, it has changed my life and I have had multiple healingss with my own physical problems and a couple with some other people. by the way Einstein was into Christian Science. he used to visit the Fifth Church in N Y. it is documented. so do a real study. Not a one time thing. by the way I am a nutritionist and microbiologist.

report abuse


posted March 30, 2011 at 11:38 am

Hi Joel,

I’ve enjoyed reading your and Amanda’s experience and I appreciate your sharing.

Your blog does raise questions.

I was raised in Christian Science and remain one to this day. I’ve seen first hand the same things you mentioned, i.e. the thread bare hymnals, dwindling memberships, aging members, etc.

Jesus had only a few disciples who left a record for us to refer to today, and all of them except John turned away from him to some extent. That plucking out the right eye, cutting off the right hand, and selling everything, giving it all to the poor and following him separated the men from the boys, we might say.

Other Christian denominations have lots of members, some are even growing, but do they follow him in the way he commanded and expected? I don’t know. Just wondering.

Let’s say one has a headache. It’s much easier to “take two aspirin, go to bed, and call the doctor in the morning” than it is to stay up all night or a good part of it praying. I know, I’ve tried both methods. I’ve also found in my earlier years that a couple beers or glass of wine and falling asleep on the couch works too. Not very inspiring, but if ridding oneself of a headache is the only aim, it’ll do.

Imagine a scale. On one end is “Complete Enlightenment”, perhaps the Kingdom of Heaven is a more acceptable term.

On the opposite end to “Total Moral Idiocy”, i.e. the complete inability to discern right from wrong, and I suppose Hell could be used to describe this.

Where are we as individuals on that scale? Where is mankind? Which direction are we moving in?

If we can agree that “Complete Enlightenment” is the ultimate goal, what best promotes our growth? Taking two aspirin, going to bed, and calling the doctor in the morning, or staying up all night or a good part of it praying?

Is this implying that those who take medication don’t pray? No, not at all. But then again, Jesus was well aware that one cannot serve two masters, teaching that we’ll find our treasure by looking for our heart.

We know our own heart. We know what our focus is. We know how hard we’re working to achieve our goal. But not many of us will bare that intensely private part ourselves to others though will we?

Not many today can fathom the humility to pray as David in Psalms 139.
“Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Christian perfection is won on the basis of pure Love.

How are we doing?

report abuse

John D

posted March 29, 2011 at 6:14 am

A famous painting hangs because of Christian Science.

A thought for you.

I have read your posting about CS, I enjoyed the read and resonate with some of what you point out. Being in a family that is in its 5th generation of Christian Scientists, we certainly have not kept up with the times like Mary Baker Eddy. I have had dozens of healings confirmed by medical doctors, I even had a health problem once that did not heal quickly in CS and I opted for a medical treatment. I do not take my heath or that of my family lightly. Most of our healings have come in hours or a day, when they have not, I like Mary Baker Eddy consult with a physician. Mary had quite the admiration for the profession, and on more than one occasion had her patients consult with the medical community. You accurately point out that if someone reads Science and Health, you will probably make fewer trips to a doctor. Next time come visit us, we use internet in the Sunday school, and are trying to figure our where we expand as we are running out of seats. When people actually see healings taking place they tend to show up especially in times like these today.

Now to the famous painting
“Scene at the Signing of the Constitution,” by Howard Chandler Christy

The famous painting, “Scene at the Signing of the Constitution,” is a huge 18′ x 26′ oil portrait by one of our nation’s greatest artists, Howard Chandler Christy. It was completed in 1940 and hangs today in the east stairway of the House wing of the Capitol building. Congressmen and congresswomen have been walking by it since the early days of WWII. It is among the best known images in the United States Capitol.
If I could, I’d like to share with our nation’s leaders how the painting represents more than a great work of art or a significant moment in United States history. It also signifies how Christian Science has been, and continues to be, a benefit to the world. You see, Christy would have never painted this amazing portrait if his sight had not been restored by Christian Science years earlier.
In the following letter, published in Time magazine on April 12, 1937, Christy recounts how he fully regained his sight by the healing work of a Christian Science practitioner:

“It is fitting that I should give testimony of my healing in Christian Science on this Easter morning, as it was twenty-eight years ago at Easter Time when first my health was returned to me. Previous to this time I had been partially blind, and numb from the knees down. I had tried all kinds of cures but no help. I tried to forget through drink. The doctors said I could live but a few months.
One day my relative, a Christian Science practitioner, called to see me. I managed to hobble into the front room where she was sitting and during the conversation she asked me if I would like her to give me a treatment. Right then something told me from within that I would regain all my strength; so I answered ‘Yes, go ahead.’ While she was talking everything in the room began to clear. I could even see the color of her eyes, which were blue. It was as if a fog had lifted. I stood up and wanted to walk out in the clear air and did for a three-mile walk—bought tickets for the theatre that night, and actually saw the actors clearly for the first time in many months.

“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” by Mary Baker Eddy) and had no trouble in reading the fine print. The next day I went to work and have worked ever since. In a few minutes’ time my life was changed from discouragement to joy and light and happiness, and gratitude is mine and will always be so long as I live.

That night I read three pages of the Christian Science textbook.
(Signed) Howard Chandler Christy, March 28, 1937“
Among the distinguished men and women who sat for Christy after his healing were President Warren G. Harding, President Calvin Coolidge, Will Rogers, Amelia Earhart Putnam and Vice President John Nance Garner.

Another famous CS we don’t really know much about, well watch the movie “Kings Speech” the Jeff Rush character, Lionel was also a CS healer. You will note in that movie, it is made clear that Lionel has no formal training in fixing speech problems. Yet the movie speaks to the effect of his healing work with King George VI.

Really did enjoy your column and look forward to reading more from you. Keep up your work!

report abuse


posted March 28, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Joel, thanks for the post. I attend the Christian Science church and I am quite a bit younger than 80. The “one ailment that Christian Science can’t cure – boredom” comment left me on the floor laughing. I can see that. You’re right, there aren’t bands, overhead screens, lattes, or, for that matter, excitement in the services. I kinda like the simple peace and quiet of it myself. There are actually CS churches out there with more than 12 members and, depending on the community, a bit more enthusiasm and life. The one I attend keeps the opera singing at a minimum and the Sunday School for my kids can actually be fun and rowdy due to the large number of students. I agree with Christopher’s comment that the “atheist/agnostic’s perspective” (or anyone from a different perspective) is valuable because it shows us what is laughable about some of the traditions of denominations, mine included. You’re doing a good think with your blog. You can come and sleep in my church anytime!

report abuse


posted March 24, 2011 at 9:37 pm

I just read your review of the Christian Science church. The “dragonfly entombed in amber” quote is a thing of sad beauty. I consider myself a born again evangelical, I grew up in the South and now live in the Portland area. Plenty of the “Christian” beliefs that I formed growing up in the Bible Belt have turned out not to be based in religion or the Bible at all, but rather in culture or one pastor or denomination’s biased opinion. I have read several of your reviews and laughed my head off quite a bit, and also teared up a little because you say a lot of things that need to be said, that no “polite” churchgoer will ever have the heart, or nerves, to say. I love your unfiltered honesty about church. To me, an Atheist/Agnostic’s perspective on a church is one of the most valuable perspectives a church leader can get. You should seriously make a book of this project and sell it in Christian bookstores, maybe collaborating with a known pastor to give contrasting perspectives. I think it would be fascinating. You’re the kind of guy I would love to have a beer with. And I couldn’t say that and be part of a southern church!

report abuse

Joel Gunz

posted March 24, 2011 at 11:08 am

Dale, you’re awesome. Don’t go changing, baby. 😉

report abuse


posted March 23, 2011 at 8:27 pm

I think it’s safe to say that this church’s skim-read, half-assed appropriation of ‘science’ didn’t get them as far as subjecting their methods to peer review. Had they done so, they’d realize that when it comes to restoring and maintaining health, nothing fails like prayer. But oh well, it’s all in good fun until the last ~12 of them die of preventable, treatable, or curable ailments.

Until then, the whole scene seems like a waste of perfectly good amber.

It’s not that I’m bitter — oh wait, it’s exactly that I’m bitter. Watching old people waste their lives watching each other (and each other’s kids) die and suffer needlessly makes me bitter. I admit it. They didn’t ask me, of course, but there it is.

report abuse

Joel Gunz

posted March 23, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Thanks much!

report abuse


posted March 23, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Great post, I, too am learning lots.
I thought of your blog yesterday when my local Jehovah’s Witness knocked on my door causing my dog to go ape-shit, nearly giving me a heart attack. They come faithfully every couple weeks despite my firm “I’m not interested”. I thought to myself ” I would love to know why they do this ????” I get “why” they do it but I want to understand the thinking behind it, as I am enjoying for all of the churches and religions. I am hoping you will visit and give your review of the church and your experience, even as an ex-member Joel. I am also excited about learning more about Scientology and I hope it’s on the list !
Thanks !

report abuse

Joel Gunz

posted March 23, 2011 at 2:40 pm

Agreed! I’ve tended to call the Jehovah’s Witnesses, of which I was a member for 35 years, “cultish.” That is, they have a certain cultosity about them. Then again, cheerleaders, political ideologues and iPhone aficionados sometimes also come across as rather cultesque. 😉

report abuse

David L Rattigan

posted March 23, 2011 at 2:12 pm

In my evangelical days, a “cult” was always primarily a theological thing. If a group denied the Trinity or some other “essential doctrine,” they were a cult. If they affirmed those things, they were “sound,” and even if they were ridiculously abusive and dangerous, you really shouldn’t challenge their Christianity by calling them a cult.

These days, I reserve the term for blatantly abusive groups. In fact, I much prefer the term “cultish,” because it seems more honest and accurate to say a group is cultish or has some cultish elements than to put them in a category that has no clear boundaries. It’s just so arbitrary to say that the Mormon church on the corner is a cult because they have extra scriptures, but the equally manipulative and insular Pentecostal church on the opposite corner isn’t a cult because it’s orthodox.

But mainly, the term “cult” is a bit like “brainwashing.” Not really that useful, because the term’s so loosely applied, it usually just means “socialized into a subculture I disagree with.” Sure, there are extreme examples — being deprived of sleep for days and literally shouted at for hours on end, say — that might warrant such a colourful term as “brainwashing,” but generally the word’s a bit empty the way it’s applied.

Er, I think that’s it.

report abuse

Joel Gunz

posted March 23, 2011 at 1:53 pm

You bet, David! You raise an interesting question about the term “cult.” It’s such a hot word, but the literal definition is so loose, that it can be hard to agree what it actually means. Sometimes I think that when people use the word “cult” they reveal as much about themselves as they do the religion to which they refer.

report abuse

Joel Gunz

posted March 23, 2011 at 1:50 pm

Good point, Susannah – and you’re not the only one who gets confused. I meant to cover that in the post, that Christian Science and Scientology having almost nothing in common except their (pseudo) science! 😉

report abuse

David L Rattigan

posted March 23, 2011 at 1:41 pm

I’ve been eager to go to my local Christian Science church for ages. I first encountered them as a young evangelical reading about the “cults.” In theological college, I met a Christian Science lady, and we struck up a brief friendship. Nowadays, as a non-evangelical, I can see most of the stuff I was told about them was obviously a load of bunk. Not that I think the teachings are true (I can see the potential for some of the teachings to be very dangerous), but for years I had a notion of Christian Science as some weird cult. The reality is they’re mostly a bunch of harmless old ladies, probably not much different from what you’d find in a dwindling congregation of any mainline Christian denomination. (I don’t mean to sound patronizing. I’m just saying they’re not the cloak-and-dagger brainwashing society I’d been led to believe.) It’d be cool to go visit one Sunday, now that I no longer have the born-again suspicion that I’d be opening myself up to demonic forces!

report abuse


posted March 23, 2011 at 12:53 pm

You know, I have a confession. And PLEASE forgive my ignorance but I figure you and Amanda are taking on this project, in part, to deal with some of our ignorance… so… thanks for that. Until I read this, I am pretty sure that I thought Christian Science and Scientology were the same thing. Obviously, as a quick internet search has shown me, anyone with half a brain would realize that is not the case.

report abuse

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

More blogs to enjoy!!!
Thank you for visiting A Year of Sundays page. This blog is no longer being updated. Please enjoy the archives. Here are some other blogs you may also enjoy: Religion 101 Fellowship of Saints and Sinners Happy Reading!!! ...

posted 8:38:43am Jul. 10, 2012 | read full post »

Gnock Gnock Gnocking on the Gnostics' Door
When Amanda and I started our church tour, I'd had it up to here with vanilla religion. I wanted to take a walk on the wild side (read: nothing Christian), but it turns out that, for a city that prides itself on "keeping weird," Portland doesn't ...

posted 1:39:14am Feb. 14, 2012 | read full post »

Home PDX: A Church By Any Other Name
Yesterday, we went downtown to check out Home PDX. If you want to make head honcho Bruce Arnold, squirm, call their community a church.  The word has so many negative connotations, they'd just as soon not use it. Then again, the PDX Homeys ...

posted 6:54:51pm Feb. 06, 2012 | read full post »

Full-On Faith
It's been almost a year since the inspiration for this blog began with a trip to the First A.M.E. Zion Church in North Portland. It was a predominantly black church in a predominantly black neighborhood and what I wrote about it ended up being ...

posted 7:25:08pm Jan. 26, 2012 | read full post »

Happy Anniversary from Emmanuel Temple Church
One year ago, Amanda and I embarked on our Year of Sundays tour of the Portland church scene. To celebrate, we decided to head back to my roots in North Portland and visit a full gospel church, just like we did in our first week of blogging. ...

posted 12:40:57am Jan. 23, 2012 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.