The Origin and Current Status of Christian Science
Stephen Barrett, M.D.
In about 1850, Phineas Parkhurst Quimby of Maine used Anton Mesmer’s ideas of animal magnetism to develop his own healing approach. Quimby would place his hands on a sick patient’s head and abdomen and encourage supposed magnetic healing forces to flow through them. He claimed that diagnosis and cure resulted from the individual’s faith in him. He professed that conventional medicine was useless, that disease itself was “error,” and that only health was “truth.”
In 1862, Quimby treated Mary Baker Glover for a spinal problem that had failed to respond to orthodox medical care. The water massage and hypnotism that he used reportedly had a positive effect. On awakening from her trance Glover found herself cured. She concluded, however, that her cure was not due to Quimby but to “truth in Christ.” In 1875 she published Science and Health, which described her theories about religion based on the Bible and some of Quimby’s ideas. She said that God was the author and that she was only the writer. In 1877 she married for the third time, becoming Mary Baker Eddy, and named her new philosophy Christian Science. The Church of Christ, Scientist was founded in 1879.
Mary Baker Eddy represented herself as the supreme healer and as infallible as Christ. She claimed to be able to perform miracles and said she had healed many people with crippling disabilities. She demanded absolute obedience to her system as well as to her person. She could not bear to be contradicted or found wrong. In her determination to justify herself on all counts, she frequently twisted evidence and facts to her purposes. Her writings contain many contradictions .
Faulty Beliefs and Practices
Christian Science contends that illness is an illusion caused by faulty beliefs, and that prayer heals by replacing bad thoughts with good ones. Christian Science practitioners work by trying to argue the sick thoughts out of the patient’s mind. Consultations can take place in person, by telephone, or even by mail. Individuals may also be able to attain correct beliefs by themselves through prayer or concentration.
In Science and Health , Eddy reported that her experiments with homeopathy had made her "skeptical as to material curative methods." After noting that extreme homeopathic dilutions removed all trace of the original active ingredient, she concluded:
Metaphysics, as taught in Christian Science, is the next stately step beyond homeopathy. . . .
Christian Science exterminates the drug, and rests on the Mind alone as the curative Principle, acknowledging that the divine Mind has all power. Homeopathy mentalizes a drug with such repetition of thought-attenuations, that the drug becomes more like the human mind than the substratum of this so-called mind, which we call matter; and the drug's power of action is proportionately increased.
A pamphlet of the Christian Science Publishing Society states that “every student of Christian Science has the God-given ability to heal the sick.” To become a practitioner, an individual takes 2 weeks of “primary class instruction” from a qualified teacher. The course is based on questions and answers from Science and Health. When training is completed, “C.S.” may be placed after the person’s name. After 3 years of full-time practice, a practitioner may apply for the 6-day “normal class.” Completion merits the degree of Bachelor of Christian Science (C.S.B.) and certifies the person as a teacher who may give primary instruction to 30 pupils a year.
Devout Christian Scientists do not use medications and usually eschew medical aid. They are opposed to vaccination, immunization, and quarantine for contagious diseases, although official church policy advises members to comply with state laws. A physician or midwife may be used during childbirth. A physician may also be used to set a broken bone if no medication is administered.
The weekly magazine Christian Science Sentinel publishes several “testimonies” in each issue. To be considered for publication, an account must merely be “verified” by three individuals who “can vouch for the integrity of the testifier or know of the healing.” Believers have claimed that prayer has produced recovery from anemia, arthritis, blood poisoning, corns, deafness, defective speech, multiple sclerosis, skin rashes, total body paralysis, visual difficulties, and various injuries. Most of these accounts contain little detail, and many of the diagnoses were made without medical consultation. The church also publishes The Christian Science Monitor, a daily newspaper.
Christian Scientists may legally practice in all states. Medicare and some insurance companies cover care given by Christian Science practitioners, and their services are also tax-deductible as a medical expense for federal income-tax purposes. It is not known how many members continue to fully accept Mary Baker Eddy’s premise that disease is an illusion, or how many continue to visit practitioners instead of physicians. Eyeglasses, hearing aids, and dental treatment are used by some members who still maintain that illness is the consequence of mental error.
Consequences of Medical Neglect
Rita Swan, Ph.D., whose 16-month-old son Matthew died of meningitis in 1977 under the care of two Christian Science practitioners , quickly collected allegations of 75 deaths and 95 serious injuries to children of Christian Scientists . Angered by her experience, she formed Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, Inc. (CHILD) to work for legal reforms that could protect children from inappropriate treatment by faith healers . She also sued the church but lost the case. During the proceedings, church officials testified that the church had no training, workshops, or meetings for practitioners that included any discussion on how to evaluate the seriousness of a child’s condition . A 1993 lawsuit following the death of an 11-year-old boy resulted in a $1.5 million judgment against the boy’s mother and stepfather and two Christian Science practitioners. Press reports indicate that the boy died after passing into diabetic coma while the mother prayed at his bedside and the practitioner took notes about his condition .
During an appearance on the “Donahue” show the Swans were asked why Matthew’s illness had not been reported to state health authorities as required by law in Michigan. They replied that no one had made the diagnosis. Devout believers, they did not want to face possible abandonment by the church if they sought a medical opinion. The broadcast triggered many responses, including this one from 43-year-old Paul Michener of Waynesville, Ohio:
At age nine, my left leg was burned in a gasoline fire (1st to 3rd degree). Although the area burned was not too large, from the ankle to just above the knee, it became a lengthy trauma. . . . I was fifteen years old before the injury had grown closed with scar tissue. In the meantime, the knee became stiff and the pain was beyond description. I was bedridden for about two years and walked on crutches for another two and a half years. Today I walk with a four-inch limp, a curved spine, and some recurring back and hip pain. . . . I have undergone three surgical operations in the last four years trying to patch up the damage done by this insidious philosophy. I find it neither Christian nor a science. . . . Today when I look at our nine-year-old daughter, I ask how could any “loving” and “religious” parent put his child through such an experience.
Two studies suggest that Christian Scientists who rarely consult doctors pay a high price for avoiding medical care. The first study, study published in 1989, compared alumni records from Principia College, a Christian Science school in Elsah, Illinois, with records from the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. Even though Christian Science tenets forbid the use of alcohol and tobacco, the death rates among those who had graduated from Principia between 1934 and 1948 were higher than those of their University of Kansas counterparts (26.2% vs. 20.9% in men, and 11.3% vs. 9.9% in women).  The second study compared Christian Scientists and Seventh-day Adventists (who also are admonished to abstain from cigarettes and alcohol but use scientifically oriented medical care) and found even greater differences in the death rates .
Undeserved Political Privilege
In August 1996, a federal court judge ruled that Medicare and Medicaid payments for Christian Science nursing violate the Constitutional principle of church-state separation. The ruling came in response to a suit by CHILD and two individuals. At that time, about 500 Christian Science nurses practiced in the United States. (Today, only 20 are listed in the church's online directory.) When the suit was filed, CHILD noted in a news release that these nurses are neither licensed nor trained in science-based nursing. The release also stated:
Christian Science nurses cannot take a pulse, use a fever thermometer, give an enema or even a backrub. They have no training in recognizing contagious diseases. They have been retained to attend sick children and have sat taking notes as the children suffered and died, but have not called for medical care nor recommended that parents obtain it. The notes of these . . . nurses indicate that they observed children having “heavy convulsions,” vomiting repeatedly, and urinating uncontrollably. They have seen the children moaning in pain and too weak to get out of bed. They have seen their eyes roll upward and fix in a glassy stare. One Christian Science nurse force-fed a toddler as he was dying of a bowel obstruction.
Although the court ruled in CHILD’s favor, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) rescued the Church by engineering passage of a law providing for Medicare payment for “religious non-medical health care.” CHILD sued under the new law but was not successful.
The Christian Science Church is declining rapidly. Between 1971 and 2009 the number of U.S. practitioners and teachers listed in the Christian Science Journal fell from about 5,000 to about 1,160 and the number of churches fell from about 1,800 to about 900 . In November 2005, Rita Swan noted:
The Christian Science Monitor had over 175,000 subscribers in 1988. Today it has 53,203 subscribers worldwide, but its circulation has fallen by more than 10% in the past six months. Even more startling, the Christian Science Board of Directors recently told a regional membership gathering that only 15,000 of those subscribers are members of the Christian Science church. (Thousands of the subscribers are libraries.) The Manual of the Mother Church, which provides the rules for church members, requires all members to subscribe to all church periodicals if they can afford it. Many of those subscriptions are going to homes with only one church member (a widow, a single person, or a person who married outside the faith). It therefore seems highly likely that the Christian Science church today has no more than 30,000 members. Around the time of World War II, when the church had to report its membership to the government in order to be allowed to have military chaplains, it reported having 268,915 members in 1936 .
In March 2016, Swan sent me this update:
The Christian Science church will not disclose how many members it has, but one can estimate from U.S. Postal Service data. Because of the class of postage used, the USPS requires the church to report how many copies of their Christian Science Sentinel they mail worldwide. The figures for the past 20 years are:
At least 1,000 of those copies are going to church "reading rooms" rather than private homes.
In Article VIII, Section 14, of the Manual, the church's governing instrument, founder Mary Baker Eddy decreed: "It shall be the privilege and duty of every member, who can afford it, to subscribe for the periodicals which are the organs of this Church. . . ."
Some homes would have two Christian Science church members in them, and perhaps some members believe they are too poor to pay for the magazine, but those would be few and far between because the theology encourages people to believe in "abundance." It is also possible that some of the drop is the result of switching from the print to the online version. But I believe it is safe to estimate that the Christian Science Church has fewer than 40,000 members in the entire world.
The Christian Science Church's decline is not surprising because its doctrines have little appeal to modern youth.
For Additional Information
- Christian Science (Mark Twain)
- God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church (Caroline Fraser)
- Kinsolving L, Barrett S. The miracle merchants. In Barrett S, Jarvis WT, editors. The Health Robbers: A Close Look at Quackery in America. Amherst, N.Y., Prometheus Books, 1993.
- Eddy MB. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, pp 152-157. Reprinted by First Church of Christ Scientists, Boston, 1994.
- Mathew Swan. Quackwatch Web site, June 18, 1998.
- Swan R. Faith healing, Christian Science, and the medical care of children. New England Journal of Medicine 309:1639–1641, 1983.
- Swan R, Swan D. Civil suits against Christian Science providers; no standards established. CHILD Newsletter, No 1, 1991.
- Christian Scientists challenged. Physicians Financial News 14(3):23, 1996.
- Simpson WF. Comparative longevity in a college cohort of Christian Scientists. JAMA 262:1657–1658, 1989.
- Comparative mortality of two college groups. CDC Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report 40:579–582, 1991.
- Barrett S. Christian Science statistics: Practitioners, teachers, nurses, and churches in the United States. Quackwatch Web site, Dec 18, 2009.
- Swan R. E-mail message to Dr. Stephen Barrett, Nov 14, 2005.
- Swan R. E-mail message to Dr. Stephen Barrett, March 15, 2016.
This article was revised on March 16, 2016.