Does The Secret Garden have connections with Christian Science?

May 17, 2021

Was Frances Hodgson Burnett a Christian Scientist? Can one find the influence of Christian Science teachings in her popular children’s novel The Secret Garden?

Note to those who have not read The Secret Garden: This article contains spoilers!

Frances Eliza Hodgson was born on November 24, 1849, in Cheetham, Manchester, England. Her family emigrated to the United States in 1865, and she began her writing career at age 19, composing stories for magazines. She married Swan Burnett in 1873, and they had two sons, Lionel and Vivian. After spending two years in Paris, the Burnetts returned to the United States and settled in Washington, D.C., where she began a successful career as a novelist, writing for children as well as adults. The first of her popular children’s novels, Little Lord Fauntleroy, was published in 1886.

In the early 1880s, Burnett became interested in Christian Science, as well as in mind cure (which developed into the New Thought movement), spiritualism, and theosophy. Her interest in these might have been triggered by a life-long struggle with depression and “nervous prostration.”

According to her son, Vivian, during this period Burnett took a course of metaphysical study with a former Christian Scientist, Anna B. Newman.1 In March 1881 Newman had studied with Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, but left the Christian Science movement later that year. Correspondence between Eddy and various Christian Scientists during the 1880s indicates they believed that Newman’s practice and teaching was not in accord with authentic Christian Science. Nonetheless, Burnett apparently viewed Christian Science favorably, although she never joined any Christian Science church or organization.

In 1890 Burnett’s son Lionel died of tuberculosis, at age 16. She lived in England for a time during that decade, and in 1898 divorced her husband. She married Stephen Townsend in 1900, but that union also ended in divorce after two years. Her final residence was in Nassau County, New York. She died there in 1924 and was buried in Roslyn Cemetery, Greenvale, New York. Her son Vivian eventually became a Christian Scientist and joined The Mother Church (The First Church of Christ, Scientist) in 1918. He later joined First Church of Christ, Scientist, Great Neck, New York. Vivian’s article “Unity in Church Building” was published in the December 12, 1931, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel. The following year his poem “O, when we see God’s mercy” was published as a hymn in the Christian Science Hymnal.

Burnett published The Secret Garden in 1911. Over the years some have believed that she was a Christian Scientist and that Christian Science teachings can be found in this novel. But the book actually does not contain any teachings that can be specifically identified as representing Christian Science as taught by Eddy. Rather, the reader can find clear evidence of New Thought, Eastern philosophy (possibly filtered through the lens of theosophy), and spiritualism.

The storyline of The Secret Garden focuses on young Mary Lennox, who spends her early childhood in India as a spoiled and sickly child: “[Mary] had a little thin face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression. Her hair was yellow, and her face was yellow because she had been born in India and had always been ill in one way or another.… by the time she was six years old she was as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived.”2 After the death of her parents, Mary is sent to live with her bitter uncle, Archibald Craven, in a 600-year-old mansion called Misselthwaite Manor, containing close to 100 rooms and located on the edge of an English moor. When Craven’s wife tragically died ten years previously, he ordered the walled garden she loved to be permanently closed and the key to its door buried. Craven spends much of his time traveling, and is rarely at home.

Mary Lennox arrives at Misselthwaite Manor and eventually finds, in one of its rooms, Craven’s son, Colin, who is also spoiled and sickly. Archibald Craven and his staff of servants believe that Colin is debilitated, developing a hunchback, and will not live to adulthood. During the course of the novel, both Mary Lennox and Colin gain excellent health through the healing powers of nature, repeating and chanting of positive words, and engaging unexplained powers of the mind that they refer to as “Magic.”

The healing powers of nature find their way to Mary and Colin through a local boy named Dickon, the brother of a servant girl who looks after Mary. Dickon spends his days on the moor, is very healthy, and has a natural affinity for plants and animals. Mary and Colin become acquainted with Dickon, who encourages them to spend time outdoors, appreciating the beauty and health-giving aspects of the natural world. One place where they engage in these activities is in the Secret Garden, after Mary has discovered the buried key to its door. As they spend more time outdoors, their health improves.

Being outdoors is not the only thing that is necessary for improved health in Colin’s case. He discovers that his negative thoughts about himself need to be replaced with positive ones. This is accomplished through repeating many positive thoughts and phrases, in which he makes declarations that his legs are strong, he is perfectly healthy, and so forth. Mary recalls stories she heard as a child in India about “fakirs” (adepts and yogis said to have immense mental powers used to control their own bodies). There are suggestions of spiritualism and reincarnation.

It is true Colin proclaims that what he is doing to improve his health is “scientific.” But nowhere in The Secret Garden is there anything that indicates or suggests Christian Science as a theological and metaphysical system. In fact, Christian Science is never mentioned in the book. Nor is there any reference to Jesus, Christianity, or of Christian healing as coming through the power and light of one infinite God, dispelling the darkness of the false beliefs lying at the root of weakness, poor health, and bad character traits. There is as well no suggestion that Jesus was the human embodiment of the eternal Christ “which comes to the flesh to destroy incarnate error”3 or that the Christ is still today “coming to the flesh” in its saving and healing mission.

It is true that the characters in The Secret Garden come to recognize that fear is an element that is causing their ill health and that it must be overcome. This is a teaching found in Christian Science, but it is also a feature of New Thought teachings. There is only one place later in the novel where, after Dickon is persuaded to sing the Doxology, it is vaguely suggested that the “Magic” practiced by the characters could indicate the existence of a higher Godlike power.

Near the end of the book, Colin speaks of the future he sees for himself as a “scientific discoverer.” This he does in terms that suggest the teachings of mind cure or New Thought, rather than Christian Science:

“‘The great scientific discoveries I am going to make,’ he went on, ‘will be about Magic. Magic is a great thing and scarcely any one knows anything about it except a few people in old books–and Mary a little, because she was born in India where there are fakirs. I believe Dickon knows some Magic, but perhaps he doesn’t know he knows it. He charms animals and people. I would never have let him come to see me if he had not been an animal charmer—which is a boy charmer, too, because a boy is an animal. I am sure there is Magic in everything, only we have not sense enough to get hold of it and make it do things for us—like electricity and horses and steam.’”4

In the June 1885 issue of The Christian Science Journal, Eddy articulated her sense of the differences between mind cure and Christian Science:

“If God does not govern the action of Mind it is a wrong action. If He does govern it, the action is Science. Take away the theology of mental healing, and you take away its science, leaving it a ‘mind-cure,’ nothing more or less than one human mind governing another, by which you admit there is more than one God, if you agree that God is Mind. Having no true sense of the healing Theology of Mind you can neither understand, nor demonstrate its Science, and will practise your belief of it in the name of Truth.”5

Despite the popularity of The Secret Garden—even among some Christian Scientists—the spiritual eclecticism of Frances Hodgson Burnett echoes teachings of New Thought, theosophy, and spiritualism. This work contains no specific Christian Science theology or metaphysics.

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  1. Vivian Burnett, The Romantick Lady: The Life Story of an Imagination (New York: Scribners, 1927), 146.
  2. Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1911) 1, 2.
  3. Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (Boston: The Christian Science Board of Directors), 583.
  4. Burnett, The Secret Garden, 299.
  5. Eddy, “Questions and Answers,” The Christian Science Journal, June 1885, 50. She is answering the question, “Does the theology of Christian Science aid healing?”