From the Papers: Social reform and Christian Science

November 16, 2020

Photos of Buffalo, New York, skyline and the Erie Canal, c. 1890s. LC-DIG-cwpb-04294, LC-DIG-det-4a07182,
and pan 6a15116. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC.
Newspaper article, The Buffalo Sunday News, 28 January, 1883. Courtesy of newspapers.com.

In publishing letters written to Mary Baker Eddy at mbepapers.org, we’ve noted that a good number of them came from people invested in social reform causes—including temperance, woman suffrage, education, and the health and welfare of women and children. Many of these correspondents wrote of the intersection they saw between their work and Christian Science.

One such writer was R. A. Rowley (c.1844–1919). A Civil War veteran, he had enlisted as a private in Company L of the Massachusetts 3rd Cavalry Regiment and was later promoted to first lieutenant in Company H of the 4th United States Colored Cavalry Regiment, which served in Louisiana. After the war Rowley held a number of jobs, including farmer, miner, and traveling salesman, before becoming a missionary.

When Rowley wrote to Eddy in 1883, he was doing missionary work in Buffalo, New York, where he was an integral part of the Canal Street Mission. Located on what was deemed “the wickedest street in the United States,”1 it served several thousand people each year, providing lodging and meals.2 Through his work there, Rowley was also helping women escape prostitution. He shared his efforts with Eddy when he wrote to her about his study of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures: “During the past three Winters I have been engaged in City Missionary work in Buffalo though my Home is here in Rochester… It was my privilege to take 23 Prostitutes from the slums of Canal St to a Home kept by Godly women for the Reformation of such cases.”3

A Buffalo newspaper article from January 1883 called out Rowley for his devoted work at the Canal Street Mission:

The most indefatigable worker, however, in the mission is Mr. R. A. Rowley, who is making a sacrifice of his whole life for the rescue of the miserable wretches. Surely, the “cry of the children” has entered his heart. He is often found at the bedside of the sick and dying, giving out the medicines which physicians are more willing to prescribe than to administer, and never failing to speak of that love which reaches down from Heaven, even to the fallen condition of those worst of men and women.4

Rowley mentioned dispensing medications as part of his missionary role in his letter to Eddy, but he also asked her if Christian Science would give him give a “new channel” for helping people—and if he could become a healer:

We have had a Lady Physician who the last Winter established a dispensary furnishing medicine free- This was a great help but as you know it is sometimes hard to bring Physician and patients together, I feel that I must give myself more fully to this kind of work and have wished that I might acquire a knowledge of Medicine in order to enhance my usefulness but this treatise of yours gives my desire a new channel – and I wish to know of you- Is this power of Healing acquirable by common mortals such as you can see I am.5

Rowley described the place where he took the women he was helping to escape prostitution was Ingleside Home, incorporated in Buffalo in 1869 as “The Ingleside Home for Reclaiming the Erring.” Originally serving as a home or placement agency for “wayward women,” it provided refuge for those who left “houses of ill fame.” Rowley’s efforts with Ingleside were publicly praised:

Within the past three years he has taken 20 girls to the Ingleside Home of Reform. Many of these have been converted and are living in Christian families. Mr. Rowley receives no salary for his services, and many a dollar from his own pocket is spent raising these fallen women to a better life.6

In addition to his work with Canal Street Mission and Ingleside Home, Rowley was also instrumental in starting the Working Women’s Home in Buffalo, which offered furnished rooms and meals for women who were working low-wage jobs in the city. In February 1883 he and other interested people had met in the rooms of the local Y.M.C.A., to discuss the possibility of starting such a home.7 For women whose jobs did not pay a living wage, Working Women’s Homes offered additional support and a way to avoid resorting to sex work as a means of survival.

At one point Buffalo faced the possibility that its tireless missioner would leave and take his work overseas:

He [Rowley] is now contemplating mission work in Africa. His services are invaluable, as no other person has yet been found who could do the peculiar work in which he is now engaged. The people of Buffalo ought not to allow him to leave this mission for the mere want of a salary with which to support his family. He is certainly needed here more than in Africa.8

Indeed, Rowley had expressed the possibility to Eddy that he would move his missionary activity abroad. He told her that in preparing his application for this work, he had secured a number of letters of recommendation from community leaders and he offered them to Eddy in support of his desire to study Christian Science further. Of his initial efforts he wrote, “My first reading of your book puzzled me a great deal- In going over it step by step the second time a great many things seem clearer I shall keep this up till I can at least understand what you mean to say.”9 In a subsequent letter he expressed his desire to go through Christian Science class instruction with her: “…I can simply say this that I can see a great disappointment before me if I do not have the privilege of your Class….”10 While we don’t have Eddy’s letters to Rowley in the Library’s collections, his letters do indicate that she replied to him.

Rowley didn’t study Christian Science with Eddy. His last letter to her reported that his mother was ill and that his wife was overburdened in caring for her and their two-year-old son, and he felt that he was therefore unable to make the trip to Boston. He also said he couldn’t afford to pay for her class at that time. It is possible that Rowley continued his study of Christian Science, but our records do not hold that information. He thanked her for the copy of The Christian Science Journal that she had sent and said he hoped to share it with others.11

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  1. “The Canal Street Mission,” The Buffalo Sunday Morning News, 28 January 1883, 4.
  2. “Faith and Works,” The Evening Telegraph, 14 December 1883,1.
  3. R. A. Rowely to Mary Baker Eddy, 29 August 1883, IC707BP2.84.023. https://mbepapers.org/?load=707BP2.84.023.
  4. “The Canal Street Mission,” The Buffalo Sunday Morning News, 28 January 1883.
  5. R. A. Rowley to Mary Baker Eddy, August 29, 1883, IC707BP2.84.023. https://mbepapers.org/?load=707BP2.84.023.
  6. “The Canal Street Mission,” The Buffalo Sunday Morning News, 28 January 28, 4.
  7. “The Working Women’s Home,” Buffalo Evening News, 7 February 1883, 9.
  8. R. A. Rowley to Mary Baker Eddy, August 29, 1883, IC707BP2.84.023. https://mbepapers.org/?load=707BP2.84.023.
  9. R. A. Rowley to Mary Baker Eddy, August 29, 1883, IC707BP2.84.023. https://mbepapers.org/?load=707BP2.84.023.
  10. R. A. Rowley to Mary Baker Eddy, 7 September 1883, IC707BP2.84.024. https://mbepapers.org/?load=707BP2.84.024.
  11. R. A. Rowley to Mary Baker Eddy, 12 September 1883, IC707BP2.84.025. https://mbepapers.org/?load=707BP2.84.025.