BOSTON (AP) – The church was founded after a fall that left Mary Baker Eddy bedridden and turning to the Bible in her suffering. It is said that a revelation she received while reading about Christ’s healings was so powerful, Eddy walked away from her bed, instantly healed.
The Christian Science church she left behind hasn’t been as quick to cure its problems.
The church has recently faced major job cuts and a sell-off of historic properties. It’s also struggled with low membership at a time when its core principle of healing through prayer is criticized as obsolete.
Meanwhile, its own members accuse church leaders of betraying its founder with foolish expenditures or diluted teachings meant to accommodate modern times.
”It’s withering on the vine,” said Maryfrances Cassell, a church member who has criticized its leadership.
Church officials acknowledge recent difficulties, but speak with conviction about a brighter future. The church’s finances have stabilized, said treasurer Ned Odegaard, who said the church has a $66 million surplus in its general fund and no debt.
Decisions to sell real estate, including two of Eddy’s historic homes, were more of a spiritual than financial necessity, church officials said. One of every four dollars was being spent on the church’s real estate holdings, and that was detracting from its healing mission – which church leaders say will demonstrate the church’s power and lead to growth.
”I just feel we’re at the cusp of something very special here,” said Phil Davis, head of the church’s Committee on Publications.
Reminders of the church’s problems are found around its 14 acre headquarters in Boston’s Back Bay.
Its 26-story office tower is 75 percent vacant after the church cut 300 jobs – about 35 percent of its workforce – in the last two years.
The $26 million Mary Baker Eddy library, opened in 2002, pays tribute to the church’s founder, and, some say, the folly of the leadership’s financial decisions.
Inside the same building, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Christian Science Monitor newspaper operates with a mandate to be profitable by 2009 as the church reduces financial subsidies in an attempt to make the paper independent.
The church, officially called the First Church of Christ, Scientist, was established in 1879, 13 years after Eddy’s revelation.
She taught that God is all and that the material world is an illusion, including sickness. Healing, both of the body and soul, comes by recognizing through good works and prayer that the only true reality is a good and perfect God, and that illness is an error in thought.
The church is supported primarily by its members through contributions, legacies, etc. The church has no clergy, and considers its pastors the Bible and Eddy’s book ”Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.” Lessons based on the books are developed by a church committee and read on Sundays.
Eddy was castigated by skeptics of her time, including Mark Twain, who portrayed Eddy as dim and greedy. ”I do not think that she has ever allowed a dollar that had no friends to get by her alive,” he wrote in 1907.
But Eddy gained enormous influence. Her church, which does not keep membership numbers, grew from just under 9,000 members in 1890 to nearly 269,000 worldwide in 1936, according to a 1998 study by former University of Washington sociologist Rodney Stark. According to Stark’s study, by 1990, worldwide membership was at 106,000, and shrinking.
At the annual meeting, Nathan Talbot, chairman of the church’s five-member board of directors, acknowledged its limited reach.
”There are about six billion people on this planet and yet there are just a little handful of us who have caught a glimpse of this revelation,” he said.
Stark blamed the church’s decline on factors including inadequate missionary efforts and low birth rates. Caroline Fraser, who grew up in the church and criticized it in her book, ”God’s Perfect Child,” said modern medicine has robbed the church of its purpose.
”It was developed as a viable, spiritual alternative to medicine when medicine had very little to offer people,” she said. Today, science offers a treatment for just about anything, so discarding medicine ”seems insane, if not impossible,” she said.
Some say the message remains powerful, but the church has suffered from disloyalty to Eddy’s writings. Cassell accuses church leaders of trying broaden its appeal by diluting its principles. The worst example, she said, is the church’s increasing acceptance of members who routinely turn to medical care.
”We’re working at odds with each other,” Cassell said. ”It’s either one or the other.”
Denis Glover, a church member from Chatham, said that Eddy did not want any buildings named after her, but the church still built The Mary Baker Eddy library in a failed attempt for publicity.
”Everything about it was flawed from the start,” Glover said.
Church officials defend the library as a way to preserve Eddy’s writings.
”It can become the writings of a club, or people who subscribe to it, but it’s for the world,” Davis said.
Norm Bleichman, a spokesman for the church, denies the leadership has deviated from Eddy’s teachings. And he said while the church has never prohibited members from seeing doctors, it also doesn’t pretend that when they receive medical care, they’re practicing Christian Science.
But the church has been distracted by things like the real estate and administrative operations, he said. With its operations streamlined, the church’s focus and its road to better health are clear.
”Do you know what we need to do?” he said. ”We need to be better healers.”