“Set free the captive”: Mary Baker Eddy and prison reform

March 1, 2014Ask a researcher

White wicker rocking chair with rolled frame.  Cross and Crown emblem in center back.  Gift to Mary Baker Eddy from inmates of The New Hampshire State Prison. 0.1957, Art and Artifact Collection. The chair was transferred to Longyear Museum in June 2016.


While many of our readers may be aware of Mary Baker Eddy’s generous donations to a variety of charities, her deep interest in the reformation of prisoners is much less well known. This interest went back to a family connection she had with some of the greatest prison reformers of her era, and specifically with the New Hampshire State Prison in Concord.

This gift of a wicker rocking chair, given to Eddy by inmates from that prison to express their gratitude for what she did for them, symbolizes this long-standing commitment to helping prisoners. The chair is formed of hundreds of pieces of rattan (a kind of palm), laboriously rolled and woven together. Into the back is woven the cross and crown design found on Eddy’s published works. She was so touched by the gift that she displayed it in the dining room of her home in Concord, Pleasant View, and later in a front room after she moved to Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.1 (The chair was given to her sometime between 1900 and 1907.)


Chair displayed in the dining room at Pleasant View (P06268).


Captain Moses Pilsbury, the head of the Pilsbury family, became a good friend of the Bakers while he was warden of the same prison (1818-1826, 1837-1840). In an age when the prison system in America was harshly punitive, Pilsbury implemented reforms such as reading the Bible to all inmates twice a day, encouraging literacy, hiring staff based on moral character rather than physical strength, and banishing corporal punishment. In 1819 Moses had a workshop built for the prisoners, in which they were taught trades to provide skills that would facilitate their employment upon release. This was a precursor of modern prison industries,2 and in fact would much later enable the Concord prisoners to make this very rocking chair for Eddy. As wardens of Concord, and later as builders and wardens of other prisons, Moses and his sons John, Amos, and Luther continued to spread their reforms throughout New England and New York. Amos even gained world recognition for his methods at the Connecticut State Prison, when he was sent to the International Penitentiary Congress in London.3 Irving C. Tomlinson, who worked closely with Eddy for a number of years, later recalled that “Christian Science activities in the prisons greatly interested Mrs. Eddy…. Her interest in prison work never flagged.”4 Indeed, she was familiar with prison work from early childhood. Her family was close friends with the Pilsburys, a family of wardens reputed to be the greatest prison reformers of the nineteenth century.5 Her brother George worked for the Pilsburys in the Connecticut State Prison; her sister Martha married Luther Pilsbury, deputy warden of the New Hampshire State Prison in Concord. As soon as they were married, Mary visited them at the Concord prison and probably stayed overnight there in their apartment.6

With such close family connections to these reformers, it is little wonder that Eddy understood the importance of actively working with prisoners. As early as 1891, The Christian Science Journal reported that Christian Science literature was being distributed in prisons. In 1900 Eddy strongly encouraged Irving Tomlinson to visit the jails around Concord and was very keen to hear his reports from it. Tomlinson writes in his reminiscence: “One of her early talks with the writer after his arrival in Concord concerned the unfortunates in the county jails and state prison. At her earnest request, the writer visited Sheriff Edgerly of the County and made the proposition to hold on each Sunday at two o’clock in the afternoon in the Merrimac County jail a Christian Science service for the prisoners. The Sheriff welcomed the plan .…”7 Eddy’s response to the plan was enthusiastic: “I am glad you have begun the C.S. Mission with faith that you can open the prison doors and set free the captive. God will bless you in this way of His appointing.”8

Services were held from 1900 to 1906; Tomlinson also served as a practitioner, praying for the inmates when they requested spiritual help during the week. As a result of his work, many of the prisoners had healings and sent their thanks and testimonies to Eddy, who sent them on to be published in the Christian Science periodicals. Tomlinson recalled how in March 1907 a newly released prisoner came to Tomlinson and asked to purchase a copy of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Tomlinson offered to give him one, but the man declined, saying that he had saved money while in prison so that he could pay for a copy. Tomlinson reported that he never committed another crime. When Tomlinson relayed the incident to Eddy, she was deeply moved.9

To learn more about Irving Tomlinson’s experiences in the Concord jails, read his reminiscences in the Research Room of The Mary Baker Eddy Library.

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  1. Irving C. Tomlinson, Twelve Years with Mary Baker Eddy, Amplified Edition (Boston: The Christian Science Publishing Society, 1994), 243.
  2. Caleb Smith, The Prison and the American Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 125.
  3. David E. Coughtry, Mary Baker Eddy and Institutional Work (New York: Christian Science Institutional Committee for New York State, 1998), 1-2.
  4. Tomlinson, Twelve Years with Mary Baker Eddy, Amplified Edition, 243.
  5. Orlando Faulkland Lewis, The Development of American Prisons and Prison Customs, 1776-1845: With Special Reference to Early Institutions in the State of New York (Albany: Prison Association of New York, 1922), 176.
  6. Mary Baker Eddy to Augusta Holmes Swasey, 24 February 1843, L02682.
  7. Eddy to Irving C. Tomlinson, 12 May 1900, L03728.
  8. Rem. Irving C. Tomlinson, 622-623.
  9. Ibid.