One hundred and twenty years ago this month (January 6, 1895), the original Mother Church edifice was dedicated in Boston. Its cornerstone had been laid less than eight months before.

Since Bible times, laying a cornerstone has carried marked significance in the construction of many buildings, churches included. Notable references appear in both Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament. Ephesians 2:20 refers to Jesus Christ as “the chief corner stone” in the house of God. Besides functioning architecturally as the first building block around which all other stones join, the cornerstone symbolizes the integrity of the structure—a foundational position marker. Frequently a special trowel is used at such occasions.

Cornerstone ceremonies were held for both the Original Mother Church (May 21, 1894) and its Extension (July 16, 1904). In our collection, we have a trowel from the second ceremony. It is sterling silver with three Gorham hallmarks and a bone (or ivory) handle. This beautiful object raised some interesting questions. What characterized the two ceremonies? How did Mary Baker Eddy feel about these events? And what led her to write a 1903 Church By-Law that gives pointed guidelines on cornerstone ceremonies?

Commemorative trowel used to lay the cornerstone of the Extension of The Mother Church. (0.1094)

Commemorative trowel used to lay the cornerstone of the Extension of The Mother Church (0.1094).

In order to answer these questions, it is helpful to look at the events surrounding the 1894 and 1904 Mother Church ceremonies—as well as a third cornerstone ceremony that took place in Concord, New Hampshire.

Mary Baker Eddy asked that only the four church directors be present at the 1894 ceremony. “God had arranged that I must not change it,” she observed.1 She wanted it to be simple, “without pomp or pride.”2 At the same time, she clearly valued the importance and symbolism of the cornerstone for that church. She indicated that various items be placed in a box sealed within the stone (what today we might call a “time capsule”): “This box with its sacred contents and associations is to be placed as above named in our monumental Church.” Those contents included Eddy’s book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, copies of Christian Science periodicals, and a list of donors to the project.3 A message Eddy dictated to her secretary Calvin Frye on the day of the ceremony, titled “Laying the Corner Stone,” was later published in The Christian Science Journal.4

Throughout April and May of 1894, Eddy was becoming increasingly displeased with the progress of construction and specifically complained about delays in the laying of the stone. “Have box ready & lay Corner-stone next Tuesday sure,” she wrote in a telegram, giving the directors a May 1 deadline.5 But that day came and went. Finally she insisted on Thursday, May 21. But this was looking more and more impossible—necessary materials had not been shipped, requiring that William B. Johnson, one of the directors, travel to Pennsylvania. A prolonged storm was hampering efforts, and on May 21 the laborers insisted there was no way to complete preparations in time to lay the stone that day. It fell to the three onsite directors present to spur the work on, despite their lack of experience in constructing churches.6

Thus, while it may seem surprising that we have no trowel in our collection for the original Mother Church, this makes sense given the logistics. When the hour finally did come to mark the occasion, darkness was descending. Ira O. Knapp recounted to Eddy the simple yet momentous ceremony: “… a little before the seventh hour, in the twilight of the evening, the three Directors consecrated the event as you had directed us to do. So with one hand upon the Stone, our heads uncovered and faces toward the western sky, where the clouds of the weary day were disappearing, we stood in silent communion with God, followed with the Lord’s Prayer in unison, as we lifted our voices upon the stillness around us.”7 Joseph Armstrong recalled that at that moment “the sun, which had been behind the clouds for three days, burst forth in brightness just at this moment and shone upon the corner stone.”8

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Cornerstone placement in the Original Edifice of The Mother Church, 1894 (P07911). Courtesy of The Mary Baker Eddy Collection

A decade later, the ceremony for the Mother Church Extension contrasted significantly. Instead of happening in a soggy twilight, it occurred in the brightness of a summer morning. It was planned to a greater extent and there were more attendees; in addition to the directors, a number of church officers, the architect, and the builder were all present. There were readings from the Bible and Eddy’s writings. This time the directors laid the cornerstone. The trowel in our collection was used and later presented to Eddy. Nevertheless, the event was still fairly simple.9

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Laying of the cornerstone of the Extension of The Mother Church, July 16, 1904. People identified include (left to right): Stephen Chase, Archibald McLellan, Joseph Armstrong, William Johnson, Ira Knapp (Directors); Ella Williams (Second Reader); Hermann Hering (First Reader); Charles Brigham (Chief Architect) (P8246). Courtesy of The Mary Baker Eddy Library

And by that time, Eddy had seen fit to ensure that all cornerstone ceremonies for Christian Science church buildings would remain understated. Less than a year before she had added a By-Law to the Church Manual: “No large gathering of people nor display shall be allowed when laying the Corner Stone of a Church of Christ, Scientist. Let this ceremony be simple, prayerful, devout.”10

What could have prompted that special guidance? It seems likely that Eddy was noticing a growing pageantry surrounding these occasions—turning them into spectacles that she may have felt distracted from the purpose of church activity. Many new Christian Science branch churches were being built, and news of their cornerstone ceremonies and dedications appeared frequently in Christian Science publications and the public press.

As an example, in her own city of Concord, New Hampshire, a new Christian Science church was under construction in 1903 that Eddy herself had paid for. Initially, the laying of the stone for that church was to have been quite a spectacle. “But for the expressed desire of Mrs. Eddy,” reported the Christian Science Sentinel in covering that ceremony, “the attendance would have been very large, as people from various parts of the country, to the number of two or three thousand, had arranged to be present.” And nevertheless, upwards of 100 onlookers watched a group of 25, including the Board of Directors and Readers of The Mother Church, who had traveled from Boston, walk in a procession to the construction site. (The trowel used that day, a gift of Eddy’s student Lady Victoria Murray of Manchester, England, is also in our collection.) Whether or not Eddy considered that occasion too elaborate, or prompted her to write the By-Law on laying cornerstones, remains unclear. But compared with the humble happenings of May 21, 1894, it was certainly sophisticated and lengthy.11

In 1907 Eddy further amended the By-Law to specifically instruct that “no special trowel” be used. She also further stressed the importance of devoutness: “The true worship” begins, “We worship spiritually, only as we cease to worship materially.”12

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  1. Mary Baker Eddy to Ebenezer J. Foster Eddy, 8 May 1894, L01898.
  2. “Laying the Corner Stone,” The Christian Science Journal, June 1894,  http://journal.christianscience.com/shared/view/kxlreji69s?s=t.
  3. This is from a letter that Eddy sent to a number of students, requesting donation, probably in late 1893 and early 1894. See, for example, Eddy to Ellen L. Clark, L04668.
  4. “Laying the Corner Stone,” The Christian Science Journal, June  1894,  http://journal.christianscience.com/shared/view/kxlreji69s?s=t.
  5. Eddy to Joseph Armstrong, 28 April 1894, L06541.
  6. Margaret M. Pinkham, A Miracle in Stone: The History of the Building of the Original Mother Church (Santa Barbara, CA: Nebadoon Press, 2009) 322-333.
  7. Bliss Knapp, The Destiny of The Mother Church (Boston: The Christian Science Publishing Society, 1991), 95-97.
  8. Joseph Armstrong and Margaret Williamson, Building of The Mother Church (Boston: Publishing Society, 1980), 20.
  9. “The Corner-stone Laid,” Christian Science Sentinel, July 23, 1904, http://sentinel.christianscience.com/shared/view/i3jwfmmptu?s=t.
  10. Mary Baker Eddy, Manual of The Mother Church, 29th ed. (Boston: Joseph Armstrong, 1903), 75.
  11. “The Corner-Stone Laid in Concord,” Christian Science Sentinel, July 25, 1903, http://sentinel.christianscience.com/shared/view/892ybehh6m?s=t.
  12. Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (Boston: The Writings of Mary Baker Eddy, 1906), 140.