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The Falling Apple
The Rise of Christian Science
The origin story of Christian Science was refined over time, but the final and best-known version goes like this: On February 3, 1866, Mary Patterson — the future Mary Baker G. Eddy — was rendered unconscious after falling on a patch of ice in Lynn, Massachusetts. She was taken to the home of her friends and treated by Alvin M. Cushing, who considered her injury to be serious. Despite the protests of Dr. Cushing, she insisted on being taken home, where she was treated by two neighborhood women. These caregivers reportedly despaired for their charge's life, claiming that Patterson had broken her back. Three days after the accident, Patterson asked for her Bible and dismissed everyone from her room. Hours later, the woman thought to be suffering from a spinal injury left her bed unaided. This incident — retold in Mary Baker Eddy's autobiography and every account of her life since — eventually became the founding myth of Christian Science, the moment when, as its architect claimed in her autobiography, "my immediate recovery from the effects of an injury caused by an accident, an injury that neither medicine nor surgery could reach, was the falling apple that led me to the discovery how to be well myself, and how to make others so."
As Amy Voorhees indicates, the dating of the discovery to this precise event had both a personal and rhetorical purpose. On a personal level, it signaled Mary Baker Patterson's growing independence from her mentor, Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, whose influence framed accounts of her innovation prior to 1872. Voorhees also highlights a shift from "a narrative about a phenomenological discovery to an explicitly religious one," but what is truly remarkable about the 1866 account is the way it blends the tropes of religion and science to create a restitution narrative that addressed the perceived inadequacies of those offered by institutional religion and orthodox medicine. In its most essential elements, the story of "The Falling Apple" follows the pattern laid down by so many other religious origin stories, from Paul on the road to Damascus to Joseph Smith and the Golden Plates. Its rhetorical function is to assert the status of the protagonist as prophet, the epiphany as divine intervention. But through the apple metaphor, which calls back to another origin myth — Isaac Newton's "discovery" of gravity — Eddy attempted to distinguish her particular revelation from those of others by arguing that the event was a miracle "in perfect scientific accord with divine law," not a temporary suspension of the divinely ordained laws of nature, but in perfect keeping with them. She called her system "Christian, because it is compassionate, helpful, and spiritual." But she called it Science because its methods were supposedly true to natural laws that she believed to be empirically observable and verifiable. Christ's "demonstrations" were not supernatural events, she argued, but acts in keeping with laws of nature that humans were no longer able to access because of sin and ignorance.
This chapter provides historical background for the literary analysis that follows, and it explores how Christian Science healing narratives responded to a historical moment that demanded restitution narratives that provided solutions to the problems of contingency, mortality, and human existence in ways that encompassed reason and affect, science and faith. Dating Eddy's discovery to 1866 places it at a sensitive moment in American history and culture, right at the end of the Civil War, which had introduced carnage and suffering into the lives of ordinary Americans in a way that shattered conventional faith and placed institutions in a state of disarray. Amid this landscape, Christian Science satisfied the desire for, in the words of historian Drew Gilpin Faust, "an explanation that satisfied hearts as well as minds."
PROFESSIONAL CRISIS AND THE RELIGIO-MEDICAL MARKET
One of the ubiquitous tropes of Christian Science narrative is medical failure, signaled in Eddy's claim that her injury was one that "neither medicine nor surgery could reach." This likely surprised very few of her contemporaries. To be in the care of a doctor with conventional training in the middle of the nineteenth century was not necessarily to be set up for the best of all outcomes, and the many alternative therapeutic movements that populated the scene leveraged their stories of success against the inadequacy of doctors. To quote feminist historians Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, "Not until 1912, according to one medical estimate, did the average patient, seeking help from the average American doctor, have more than a fifty-fifty chance of benefiting from the encounter." Physician and Emmanuel Movement leader Richard C. Cabot, critiquing Christian Science in the pages of McClure's in 1908, similarly confessed, "It is impossible to study the evidence for and against the so-called Christian Science cures without crossing the track of many an incapable doctor. Indeed, there can be no candid criticism of Christian Science that does not involve also an arraignment of existing medical methods." At the time Cabot was writing, the field of medicine was coming to the end of several decades of deep soul searching, defined not only by changes to the field's methods and theories but a wholesale redefinition of what it meant to be a member of the profession. This period of professional crisis opened up a space in which alternative therapies that had emerged early in the century could continue growing and flourishing while new approaches were invented. The consolidation of medicine as a modern profession at the end of the nineteenth century served as the backdrop against which struggles over lay healing and therapeutic choice played out.
The concept of "professionalism" as it applies to medicine requires some explanation here, as its development over the course of the nineteenth century had profound implications for Christian Science and other forms of lay and alternative healing. The crisis of professionalism helped make those alternatives both possible and necessary, just as the resurgence of professional culture also beleaguered them by the century's end. Likewise, professionalism provided a rhetoric and a narrative that Christian Scientists at least partially appropriated even as they challenged the exclusivity of mainstream medicine. Professionalism also shaped the careers of many people of letters and is a concept I will revisit in the context of journalism in chapter 4.
The word "professional" does not simply mean one who has completed specialized training and obtained a set of qualifications that make him (and at this historical juncture, it was almost always a "him") suitable for a job. As historians Burton Bledstein and Samuel Haber define it, the professional is a third category of working person who is neither businessman nor laborer. He owns his own labor, but his allegiance is to a code of honor rather than the market. In short, professionalism is as much a claim to prestige as it is an occupation or a predefined field of knowledge. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the major professions were medicine, ministry, and law, though the category later expanded to include academics, journalists, editors, and other "brain workers" whose allegiances were supposed to be to a professional "code" rather than monetary gain.
In eighteenth-century Europe, the professions were limited to and therefore derived their authority from the genteel classes, and in the United States leading up to and just after the Revolutionary War, professions largely followed this European model. In late-eighteenth-century London, medicine, law, and the ministry were the few learned occupations considered respectable enough for gentlemen. Even within those professions, there were strata that distinguished the learned practitioner from the technician. A physician, for example, would have been classically educated and acquired "some medical training" in various casual ways. He attended to internal diseases and prescribed drugs; yet, as a gentleman, he did not work with his hands as surgeons and apothecaries did. Surgeons, who attended to injuries and "external disorders," were trained through apprenticeships rather than a liberal arts education, whereas apothecaries were simple businessmen who required no formal education. Social status and education level also determined one's potential rank within the clergy. Bishops were noblemen whose "preeminence contrasted sharply with the wretchedness of the deacons, who ... in the eighteenth century had become a fixed 'clerical proletariat.'"
Few nobles or gentlemen migrated to the American colonies, however, which meant that the professions in this expanding society had to be filled by relatively ordinary men. That period of leveling, however, was more a matter of necessity than a full-scale assault on the systems of privilege that underwrote the eighteenth-century concept of professionalism. Rather than lowering the status of physician, lawyer, or minister as professional titles, acquiring those distinctions raised the status of the individual who acquired them by attending one of the newly established universities, linking professionalism to social mobility. The professions, with their institutionalized associations with status and privileged knowledge, helped create the elite classes of early American society. Yet this ruling class would not exactly mirror that of Europe. American doctors never duplicated the occupational ranks of physician, surgeon, and apothecary, just as "the attempt to set up a cohesive elite of Anglican priests and to bring a bishop to America failed." The emerging professional class did, however, succeed in establishing collegial organizations in the style of the Royal College of Physicians and the Inns of Court. These organizations helped establish licensing laws and raise the prestige and, at times, the incomes, of their members.
This state of affairs was not to last. The precipitous decline of the professions beginning in the 1820s is attributable to the broader leveling impulses of the post-Revolutionary and Jacksonian periods. Yet, Haber notes, this was an "equivocal egalitarianism" that "mixed a vague animus for leveling with a distinct eagerness for rising in the world." Thus, institutional gateways into the professions and the social standing those professions could confer were collapsed, but only for white men. Rather than abolishing the notion of social hierarchies, "the expansion of political democracy in this era, through suffrage extension and the new political devices that accompanied it, to all appearances made most white males, irrespective of social standing, religious belief, merit, and even virtue, members of the ruling class." Any "well-behaved white male" could be a gentleman, and the traditional professions increasingly became a model for gentlemanly behavior for the emergent middle class. This had the dual effect of rendering professional status desirable and elite while simultaneously lowering the standards for entry into those professions.
Evangelical Protestantism was both an impetus for and a beneficiary of these processes. American evangelicalism largely eliminated denominational (Anglican) hierarchies. While elite divinity schools such as Harvard and Yale continued to produce learned clergymen in the tradition of the Puritans, the Second Great Awakening — an explosion of Protestant revivalism in the early nineteenth century — saw, in the words of evangelical historian Nathan O. Hatch, "a style of religious leadership that the public deemed 'untutored' and 'irregular'" become "successful, even normative in the first decades of the republic." New Protestant sects like the Millerites, the Latter-day Saints and the Holiness and Restorationist movements emerged under the leadership of religious visionaries who defined themselves against those elite institutions. American Protestants tended to emphasize the personal, unmediated relationship of the individual Christian with both the biblical text and even God himself, and these individuals based their claims to authority not on classical learning but on direct knowledge of the divine.
Just as populism and sectarian innovation had profound implications for the future of American Protestantism, so similar forces shaped nineteenth-century medicine. Animating each tiny revolution was the promise of redeeming predecessors' mistakes and democratizing communities of science as well as faith. Increasing emphasis on technical know-how over elitist classical education led to a proliferation of training colleges — more accessible alternatives to elite universities such as Harvard and Yale — opening the medical field to nearly all white men and even some women who wished to pursue medicine as a career. However, the ultimate outcomes of democratization in the medical profession were paradoxical, for accompanying that expansion of opportunity was a relaxation of standards that proved almost catastrophic for both doctors and their long-suffering patients. Attacks on medical licensure, for example, began as a way of ensuring competence, as popular opinion held that a medical license was "an expression of favor" rather than a certification of skill. As medical historian Paul Starr argues, a medical license was only meaningful "if it was accepted as evidence of objective skill. But the belief that medical societies and boards of censors were merely closed corporations, like the banks and monopolies, utterly subverted their value as agencies of legitimation." Abolishing licensure was a means of forcing traditional medical practitioners to compete on the market with other approaches, reaffirming the belief that rational knowledge ought to be accessible to the layman, free from "all the traditional forms of mystification that medicine and other professions had relied upon." This shift in attitudes was, in fact, a crucial turning point that enabled mid- and late-nineteenth-century doctors and researchers to challenge "outdated bases of legitimacy" and build a profession based on modern science, which "shares with the democratic temper an antagonism to all that is obscure, vague, occult, and inaccessible." However, that same populist shift also hampered those very scientific developments, which, in their constantly compounding specificity, give "rise to complexity and specialization, which then remove knowledge from the reach of lay understanding." Through this complex interplay of sociocultural forces, the mid-nineteenth century — that tumultuous period between the decline of eighteenth-century professionalism and the rise of what we might recognize today as the modern medical profession — saw that profession first reach its nadir in terms of both authority and competence.
Like the clergy, doctors during this period found themselves competing with various medical sects, and the religious connotation of the term "sectarianism" is not an accident. Starr argues that medical pluralism bore a great resemblance in both inspiration and practice to the explosion of religious sects: "A sect, religious or professional, is a dissident group that sets itself apart from an established institution — a church or a profession; its members often see themselves as neglected and scorned apostles of truth." It was also hardly unusual for religious sects to adopt a particular form of medical practice that suited their theology: "The Mormons favored Thomsonian medicine and the Millerites hydropathy. The Swedenborgians were inclined toward homeopathic medicine." The reason for such an affinity between religion and medicine is that the care of the body and the care of the soul were seen as linked enterprises. While the "pastor-physicians" of the eighteenth century — professionals with both theological degrees and medical credentials who attended to the physical and spiritual needs of the community — are largely gone today, "in America, various religious sects still make active efforts to cure the sick." As Pamela Klassen argues,
within Christian communities, healing, as the art and science of mending, or at least alleviating physical suffering, has long been considered the responsibility of both religious and medical specialists. Loosely defined as the restoring of physical or emotional wellbeing with recourse to medical, symbolic, or religious means, anthropologists have usually distinguished healing from curing as a therapeutic approach with broader goals than the cessation of particular physical ailments. In Christianity the distinction between medical technique and miraculous healing has been especially blurred, as the earliest Christians combined curing and exorcising by means of relics and charismatic authority with the techniques of hospitals and Galenic medicine.
Excerpted from "Healing the Nation"
Copyright © 2017 L. Ashley Squires.
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