If one can believe the statisticians-a practice that is sometimes suspect, but probably appropriate in this instance-then it is an American truism to say that slightly more than nine out of every ten of us look at religion through the lens of personal faith. The faiths and variations on faith which we represent and employ may be as diverse and even idiosyncratic as the proverbial sands of the sea, but they are nonetheless personally held, personally claimed, personally practiced systems of belief. It is, of course, the believing and the self-identification as believers, and not just our credos themselves, that are the lens. From time to time, however, some of us either receive the opportunity, or are required by circumstance, to look at religion from a more removed perspective. My own is such a case.
I am paid to observe religion objectively, as a very fluid and very potent phenomenon in American culture and, therefore, as one which is very important to the interests and health of the book industry that serves the culture. One of the first principles of religion-watching as a profession, and certainly of the more limited profession of religion-book-watching, is that one discovers early on that every major trend or sea change in either of them is always foreshadowed by a precursor. Once one has arrived at that rather beguiling realization, then forever after, identifying the precursors of active and dynamic trends becomes a kind of intellectual sport, a quasi-professional and pleasing preoccupation which delights as well as informs. This essay arises from my own adventures with one such precursor.
The problem with precursors, whether they be books or religion movements or religious leaders or all three at once, is that there can be no full, public appreciation of their predictive role until the change or growth they foreshadowed actually occurs and becomes publicly visible. Obviously, this does not mean that the particular book or leader or movement cannot be, or was not, fully appreciated within its own time. It just simply means that its place as a herald of future trends cannot be perceived until well after those trends have indeed occurred. Certainly this is the case, at least within the history of religion book publishing in this country, with Mary Baker Eddy and the publishing history of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures as a religion book.
Mrs. Eddy's first prophetic accomplishment was to realize that a religious upheaval was coming and, after that, to perceive the role books would play in the coming wave of religious change. In all fairness, the upheaval we must assume Mrs. Eddy probably saw was the growth of Christian Science and of metaphysical healing. What we must assume she probably did not foresee is what America actually got in the last half of the twentieth century. When religious upheaval finally did come, it engaged and reshuffled all things religious, including our principal concerns related to the nature of the material world and of the relationship of body and mind to health and spirit, and of environment and conduct to all of them.
Most students of American religion would probably agree that our current foment in religion has its roots in, at the very least, some three dozen separate and distinctly modern cultural, political, sociological, technological, and scientific changes, the chronicling of which lies well beyond the scope of any brief essay. Suffice it to say, then, that since 1965 this country has undergone, at a pervasive, popular, and democratized level, a reconsideration and/or restructuring of every belief system, ecclesial structure, and canonical verity with which it entered the twentieth century.
Above it all, one can almost see Mary Baker Eddy smiling. Certainly one can hear her words. "The time for thinkers has come; and the time for revolutions, ecclesiastic and social, must come. Truth, independent of doctrines or time-honored systems, stands at the threshold of history.. Let that method of healing the sick and establishing Christianity, be adopted, that is found to give the most health, and make the best Christians," she wrote in her now-famous Preface to the first edition. Within the body of that edition, she wrote that, "No time was lost by our Master in organizations, rites, and ceremonies, or in proselyting [sic] for certain forms of belief: members of his church must answer to themselves, in the secret sanctuary of Soul, questions of the most solemn import." (Science and Health, 1875) Nor did she change her mind. Over twenty-five years later she was still speaking to the same issues. "I do not believe in much organization in church. The churches are over organized," she fretted to a friend.
But in matters of the soul itself, it was mystery that Mary Baker Eddy seemed best to understand. "Although I healed through spiritual power-the divine influx of Truth-," she retrospectively wrote in 1902, "students could not be taught up to the silent effectual prayer that casts out evils and heals the sick, till they received the unction of the Spirit. This was as impracticable as for a clergyman to make a sinner pray for himself effectually until he is moved by divine Spirit to seek salvation. A preparation of the heart or the individual consciousness is requisite in both cases."
The other thing that Mrs. Eddy clearly understood was that, in late-modern times, books were to be the key to religious change, both for the individual believer struggling toward salvation and for the culture at large struggling toward the same thing. In a note to Bronson Alcott in 1876, she asked that he accept as a gift an enclosed copy of the first edition of Science and Health, and then she said, ".'tis a work difficult to write in this age, its only character is that it contains truth that is demonstrable and of great importance to man. It is but a textbook." Years later she was still saying the same thing to her students, suggesting that if they ".go through the book as you would any textbook in College, it it [sic] will be a great advantage to you."
In our own post-modern days of massive sales of religion books, of the presence on secular best seller lists of religion title after religion title, and of racks of religion titles in every secular retail outlet from amazon.com to Sav-A-Lot and the neighborhood bookstore, it is easy to forget how outre, even peculiar or heretical, was the notion of spiritual instruction received through the private study of a non-canonical book written by a lay person and sold through a secular bookstore. It was never easy for Mrs. Eddy to forget these things, however. Near the end of her career, she reminisced to friends that, "Those to whom I whispered the name I had given my 'book' laughed at me, and said it was not suitable; even as before, my literary friends had advised me not to write such a book; and my students had said nobody will understand it. But the courage of my convictions never failed."
It is, quite possibly, not too much of a stretch to say that in her inspired use of secular delivery systems for marketing religion books, Mrs. Eddy did indeed foreshadow our present-day bonanza of massive sales of religion titles. There certainly is no stretch at all in saying that when she opened the first Reading Room for the study and sale of Science and Health, she established herself as an inspired marketer of such books. When, after that, she insisted that every Christian Science church have a Reading Room attached to it, she innovatively adapted a franchise-like model for the publishing and distribution of her writings.
It would undoubtedly be more than enough said just to stop here, were there not one other small matter which needs noting. Mary Baker Eddy did one thing that religion books and religion writers as a group are sometimes loath to do. She grew spiritually-certainly with grace, we all do that-and as she grew and changed, so she also saw to it that Science and Health grew and changed. During her lifetime, the book evolved through almost 400 editions. Even as late as 1906 we find her still engaged in this process as she wrote from Pleasant View, "Beloved Students. I have given much thought day and night to revise this book so as to make its meaning clearer to the reader who knows not Christian Science." And instinctively we understand that she means every word of what she has just written.
For this reason alone, even if there were no other, Mary Baker Eddy, quintessential author and marketer of American religion texts and strong believer in the power of a book to heal and persuade, would see a library of books dedicated "to the betterment of humanity" as no more than the next logical step in a career that has continued to grow long after she herself laid it aside. She might say to us what she said to those "Beloved Students" who were helping her with the publication of a new edition of Science and Health. She concluded that 1906 letter to them by saying: "I write to you on this subject to urge you to help carry out this result viz. To be done rightly and so soon as possible.. Lovingly yours, Mary Baker Eddy." Instinctively we know that she means every word of that, too.