Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

The most organized manifestation of the New Thought movement, which stressed mind cure or metaphysical healing (Gottschalk 1973). Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, a magnetic healer in the Portland, Maine, area, served as the pivotal figure in the development of New Thought. After noticing that some of his patients responded well to simple remedies, he concluded that healing was mental and decided to give up hypnotism for mental suggestion or mesmerism.

Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910), one of Quimby's patients, announced in 1866 that God had revealed to her the "key" by which to heal herself of an injury that physicians had declared incurable. She suffered from nervous disorders and a variety of physical ailments that eventually found relief through the belief, based upon her reading of the scriptures, that illness is an illusion and the recognition of such results in the restoration of health. Based upon the teachings in her book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (1875), Eddy established the Church of Christ, Scientist, in 1879. Christian Science denies the existence of matter, sin, death, and sickness, and asserts that all is mind, God, and good (Christian Science Publishing Society 1990). It is a religious healing system that claims to eradicate all manner of disease through spiritual power. In addition to drawing upon Quimby's work, Eddy incorporated ideas from transcendentalism, Swedenborgianism, and spiritualism. Christian Science recast God the Father of traditional Christianity into a father-mother god.

By 1900, the Church of Christ, Scientist, with its "Mother Church" in Boston, claimed to encompass nearly 500 congregations in North America and Europe. Because the church does not publicize membership figures, it is difficult to determine the size of the group. Estimates indicate that the membership may have reached 400,000 during the 1960s, but recent reports suggest a decline in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere. Studies of Christian Science suggest that its appeal has been mainly to the urban upper middle class, particularly to middle-aged and elderly women. Christian Science does not have a clergy but has its own professional body of teachers and practitioners. The board of directors has complete authority over the governing and doctrinal context of the Church of Christ, Scientist. Although branch churches elect their own officers, all officers are accountable to the board of directors.

Historians and journalists have given more attention to Christian Science than have social scientists. In contrast to the former, who have tended to focus on the life of Mary Baker Eddy and the organizational development of the church that she established, social scientists have expressed an interest in Christian Science as a religious healing system. Female practitioners reportedly outnumbered men by five to one by the 1890s and eight to one by the early 1980s (Schoepflin 1988). In contrast, men predominate in the more prestigious, higher paying administrative jobs in the organization (Fox 1989). Despite its religious orientation, Singer (1982:8) argues that Christian Science approaches to treatment for alcoholism function in much the same manner as conventional psychotherapeutic programs in that both "express a shared assumption: alcoholism is an individual problem rather than a reflection of more general structural contradictions in the larger society." This observation confirms DeHood's (1937:175) assertion that Christian Science constitutes "an opiate for those whose lives are already sheltered."

In the social scientific literature, Christian Science formed one of the four core groups upon which Bryan Wilson centered his pioneering work in church-sect theory (1961).

Hans A. Baer


Christian Science (Boston: Christian Science Publishing Society, 1990)

S. Gottschalk, The Emergence of Christian Science in American Medicine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973)

N. B. DeHood, The Diffusion of a System of Belief , Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, 1937

M. Fox, "The Socioreligious Role of the Christian Science Practitioner," in Women as Healers , ed. C. Shepherd (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989): 98-113

R. B. Schoepflin, "Christian Science Healing in America," in Other Healers , ed. N. Gevitz (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988): 192-214

M. Singer, "Christian Science Healing and Alcoholism," Journal of Operational Psychiatry 13(1982):2-12

B. Wilson, Sects and Society (London: Heinemann, 1961).

return to Encyclopedia Table of Contents

Hartford Institute for Religion Research   hirr@hartsem.edu
Hartford Seminary, 77 Sherman Street, Hartford, CT 06105  860-509-9500