The anti-medical dogma of Christian Science led my father to an agonising death. Now the church itself is in decline – and it can’t happen fast enough.
By Caroline Fraser
Tue 6 Aug 2019
When I was a baby, my grandfather delighted me by playing a game. He made a fist sandwich, fingers laced together and hidden in his palms, showing me his thumbs closed upon them. Slowly, he would say, “Here’s the church, and here’s the steeple,” raising his index fingers together to form a peak. Then, throwing his thumbs apart, he flipped his interlaced fingers over, wriggling them and crying out, “Open the doors and see all the people!”
My grandfather was a Christian Scientist. His mother had been a Scientist. His only child, my father, was a Scientist. I was raised to be a Scientist.
Now I’m delighted by a different kind of game: counting the churches as their doors close. In 20 years, drastic changes have taken place, but the most arresting is the church’s precipitous fall. It’s getting harder and harder to see all the people, because they’re disappearing.
The early popularity of Christian Science was tied directly to the promise engendered by its core beliefs: the promise of healing. The overwhelming majority of those attracted to the movement came to be healed, or came because a husband, wife, child, relative or friend needed healing; the claims of Christian Science were so compelling that people often stayed in the movement whether they found healing or not, blaming themselves and not the church’s teachings for any apparent failures.
The teachings were radically simple. The founder and leader of the church, Mary Baker Eddy, taught that disease was unreal because the human body and the entire material world were mere illusions of the credulous, a waking dream. Those who awoke and knew the “Truth” could be instantaneously healed. (Eddy was big on capitalised generalities; “Life”, “Love” and “Spirit” were among her other “synonyms” for God.)
What was the “Truth”? We memorised it in Sunday School, the “Scientific Statement of Being”, which assured us that “there is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter”. Eddy’s definition of man was even more stark: “Man is not matter; he is not made up of brain, blood, bones, and other material elements.” We were instructed to repeat as needed for whatever ailment came along, from canker sores to cancer. The trick lay in the application: allow no hint of doubt, neither aspirin nor vitamin, a dogma so dire it was taken to absurd lengths. During the height of the London fad for the faith, in 1911, novelist VS Pritchett was indoctrinated into the mysteries by his father after “dying Cousin Dick” leapt from his deathbed, “miraculously cured”. Soon after, Pritchett, a lad of 11, was forced to walk to school on a sprained ankle.