Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

God's Perfect Child

Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church

Caroline Fraser; With a New Afterword for the Paperback Edition

Picador

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1. “A Very General Acquaintance”


The “traveller with the twisted staff” in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale “Young Goodman Brown” is Satan. Goodman Brown, a newly married Puritan, encounters the Devil on an evening walk through the wild gloom of a New England forest. Tempted, he follows the Devil to a meeting in the heart of the woods where he watches as all of his pious, God-fearing, do-gooding neighbors and friends—even, to his despair, his young bride—perform a Black Mass and worship evil. After he returns to his village, not knowing if the fantastical night and its terrifying visions were real or a dream, Goodman Brown lives out the rest of his life in a state of deep and ominous suspicion, despising the hypocrisy of everyone he sees. “A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become from the night of that fearful dream,” Hawthorne writes.1

“Young Goodman Brown” is a parable not about the power of Satan but about the power of the belief in Satan. “Wickedness or not,” the story seems to say, an overwhelming conviction of the evil of others can ruin human life. It is a parable about the perils of self-righteousness, something Hawthorne here, as in The Scarlet Letter, takes as a given of human nature and religious zealotry.

Mary Baker Eddy dreamt the same fearful waking dream as Goodman Brown. For her, the world was peopled by beings governed by dark compulsions, wielding a terrible power that she later identified as “malicious animal magnetism.” Nothing and no one was safe. Her creation of Christian Science was an attempt to protect herself from the terror around her and within her. But, although she became successful beyond her imagining in all the worldly ways, acquiring wealth and power, she never found refuge from those demons; she distrusted her own followers and even her own Church. So she stamped her people and the generations born after them with her peculiar paranoia, bequeathing her fears to an entire religious movement: fear of weakness, of powerlessness, of the needs and frailties of the human body, of sexuality, of death.

“Young Goodman Brown” is set in the New England of the 1600s, but Hawthorne wrote it in 1835. He knew who his neighbors were. He knew that beneath the placid surface of New England life beat a Puritan heart that yearned for perfection and punished its absence. He wrote it when another New England native, the girl Mary Baker, was fourteen years old.

2. “Mere Historic Incidents”

Mary Morse Baker was born in Bow, a rural township five miles from Concord, New Hampshire, the state capital of the first colony to declare its independence from Great Britain. She was delivered into this world on July 16, 1821, the sixth and last child of Mark and Abigail Baker. Those are among the few undisputed facts in the life of the woman who came to be known as Mary Baker Eddy. Just as she would be a compulsive revisionist of her own writings—issuing 432 editions of her textbook, Science and Health, and revising it until the month before she died—she was also an unapologetic revisionist of her own history.2 She asserted her right to do as she pleased with the facts of her life in her highly idiosyncratic and much revised autobiography, Retrospection and Introspection: “Mere historic incidents and personal events are frivolous and of no moment.… The human history needs to be revised, and the material record expunged.”3

Since her death, the Christian Science Church has followed her lead, revising and expunging, reshaping and elaborating the mythology she wove around herself, preferring that the world see Eddy as a religious genius and leader, divinely inspired. But the trajectory of her life as she progressed from humble farm girl to one of the wealthiest, most powerful women of her day tells a different story.

* * *

Mary Baker Eddy grew up on a farm. The Baker family had been in New England for seven generations, since the first Baker had emigrated from England, and the land Mary Baker grew up on had been cleared by her father’s father. The Bakers were strict Congregationalists. The family home, two and a half stories with a sloping roof, on a hill above the Merrimack River, housed nine people: Mark and Abigail Baker; their six children—Samuel, George, Albert, Abigail, Martha, and Mary—and Mark’s mother, Maryann Baker. It was a modest farm. Outside the house were two barns, a garden, and an orchard surrounded by a stone wall three feet thick. The house faced east and overlooked the Londonderry Turnpike, the road to Boston. At the time, Bow consisted of several farms, schools, and a meetinghouse.

Mark Baker, a tall, thin man, was apparently an adequate farmer; he kept oxen, cows, horses, pigs, sheep, and chickens and raised hay, wheat, corn, and other crops. To supplement his income, he also took on legal work for neighbors, drawing up wills and other documents, and he was the county coroner for Bow. He was notably pious, an active, even obstreperous member of the Congregational church in Bow. Shortly after his daughter Mary was born, he became clerk of the church, and his complaints about the “backsliding” of fellow members are still to be found in the church records.4 The family prayed together morning and evening, seated on benches before him, while he read from the Bible and extemporized on the Scriptures, sometimes at great length. As a young child, Mary found her father’s sermonizing tedious and once claimed to have stuck him in the behind with a pin during a particularly protracted session.5

Baker’s neighbors remembered him as an inconsistent disciplinarian, thundering with righteous indignation one minute, relenting the next. He could hold a grudge and was estranged for years from one of his brothers, who lived on a neighboring farm. Baker’s apparent rigidity may have derived at least in part from his religion; he was known for his orthodoxy, his “view that the vast majority of mankind must and would be damned for the glory of God.”6

According to neighborhood legend, Mark Baker once lost track of the day and worked on the Sabbath, upbraiding his neighbors for their godlessness on his walk to church the next day. He was horrified when he learned that he had profaned the Lord’s Day and prayed for forgiveness with his pastor. But on his way home, his outraged feelings got the better of him:

A tame crow, a pet of the children of the neighbourhood, hopped on a bush in front of him, cawing loudly. In his perturbed condition, the sight of the bird made Mark angrier than ever, and raising his stick, he struck the crow dead. “Take that,” he said in a passion, “for hoppin’ about on the Sabbath,” and he stormed on up the hill. At home he kept the day strictly as Sunday to atone for his worldliness of the previous day.7

Robert Peel, a Christian Scientist and the author of a three-volume biography of Eddy, noted that Mark Baker’s farmhands and relatives considered him “kind-hearted,” and other recent biographers have suggested that his portrayal as an unyielding parent and rigid religionist has been exaggerated.8 The source of that image, however, was his youngest daughter. There is little doubt that Mark and Mary Baker had a fraught relationship. The only description he earns in Eddy’s autobiography is a terse one: “My father possessed a strong intellect and an iron will.”9 This is one of several hints in Eddy’s writings and other sources that she remembered her father with a certain coldness, even contempt; she once said of him, “Father kept the family in the tightest harness I have ever known.”10 There is only one extant photograph of him, a tintype revealing a lean, stern face with a penetrating gaze strikingly similar to his daughter’s.11

As a child, Mary sporadically attended a one-room schoolhouse with her older sisters, Abby and Martha, when illness did not keep her at home; Eddy later attributed her frequent absences to her father who, she said, “was taught to believe that my brain was too large for my body and so kept me much out of school.”12 Late in life, she reported to her students a recollection of her first day at school, when she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Most girls would probably have replied, “A mother” or something similar, assuming the question would have been asked at all. But Eddy described her four-year-old self as replying, “I want to write a book!”13


Copyright © 1999 by Caroline Fraser