Faith on Trial

A late-in-life ordeal for the founder of the Christian Science Church.

It’s a familiar scene, today. A person of power and fame is accused, then pilloried in the media. Soon the story takes on a life of its own, and becomes a public duel of charges and countercharges. The spectacle amuses the public and sells newspapers, but for those involved the consequences are real and personal.

For Mary Baker Eddy in 1906 it was also about her legacy as founder of a new religious movement, the Christian Science Church. She was 85 when she was taken to court by her son and a group of litigants, and expected to prove her ability to manage her own affairs.

Peter Wallner’s new book about the trial and its aftermath, “Faith on Trial” [Plaidswede Publishing Co., $29.95], is filled with meticulous detail, carefully assembled for posterity. It’s also studded with fascinating glimpses of the era at the start of the 20th century and specifically of the city of Concord, NH, where Eddy had taken refuge from the burdens that her fame and fortune had placed upon her.

And while many trials are won or lost in the news journals of their day, this one was largely brought about and funded by media interests.

“Eddyism,” as Christian Science was sometimes called, was a sensational topic of the day and many newspapers took a stand either for it on the grounds of the First Amendment or against it on the stance that it was bogus and in opposition to both science and orthodoxy.

The great American author Willa Cather (who is buried in Jaffrey) cut her journalistic teeth on a number of exposé articles written about Eddy and Christian Science for McClure’s Magazine.

The book’s conclusion is never in doubt since Boston’s Mother Church and the impressive Christian Science church on State Street in Concord stand as testaments (alongside the religion’s estimated 400,000 adherents) to Eddy’s victory. But after all she had endured to establish her church, this battle for control of her personal fortune, late in her life, could easily have relegated it to a footnote of religious history.

Mark Twain, himself an occasional visitor to the Granite State, was a critic of the Christian Science religion, but had an honest admiration for Eddy, calling her “the most interesting woman that ever lived, and the most extraordinary.”

Wallner uses this pivotal story to bring new light to her remarkable life and times.

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