Rediscovering The Years of Discovery
By Timothy C. Leech
Shortly after finishing college, I read several biographies of Mary Baker Eddy. The three-volume biography by Robert A. Peel (1909–1992) especially stood out to me. This trilogy impressed me with its thorough documentation of its sources and ability to contextualize Eddy in the intellectual and spiritual currents of American culture. Unlike many other accounts of Eddy’s experience, Peel’s work doesn’t shy away from depicting her struggles and challenges. As a young adult who was striving to make Christian Science my own, I found it encouraging to see this human side of the woman who discovered and founded my religion.
The Christian Science Publishing Society recently released an updated edition of The Years of Discovery, the first volume in Peel’s biography, Mary Baker Eddy.1 In scholarly publishing, it is quite common that revised versions of important books are released, as new information becomes available and publishing technology offers opportunities for enhancements over earlier editions. The dust jacket of the new edition of Years of Discovery rightly points out that it should find appreciation among both new generations of readers and those already familiar with the original edition. It covers Eddy’s experiences from childhood through her initial publication of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures in 1875.
A couple of decades after first reading Peel’s books, I conducted research that gave me information about his life, which has enriched my appreciation of his accomplishments. Peel was born in London, England, where his family had embraced Christian Science prior to his birth. His father, Arthur, was a writer, and his mother, Anne, worked as a Christian Science practitioner. His sister Doris would also grow up to be a writer and poet. Around the time of the First World War, the family moved to Canada, before eventually settling in Boston.2 As a teenager he attended both the elite Boston Latin School and the Sunday School at The Mother Church. This gave him the chance to meet some of the Christian Scientists who had known and worked with Eddy.3
In 1928 Peel entered Harvard University. He received his undergraduate degree in 1931, majoring in literature and philosophy and continuing on with graduate studies. One of his mentors was Perry Miller, a scholar who has since been hailed as one of the founders of the new field of scholarship known as American Studies. Unlike conventional approaches to American history, American Studies seeks to understand “the American mind” through examining arts, literature, and philosophy. Another of Miller’s students, historian Edmund Morgan, praised Miller as “the master of New England intellectual historians.”4 His two major areas of interest were the Puritan faith of colonial New England, and transcendentalism, which flourished in nineteenth-century Massachusetts. These intellectual touchstones would also be significant throughout Peel’s writing on Eddy.
At Harvard, Peel proposed a project to explore Eddy’s “intellectual and literary development” for his doctoral dissertation, but his proposal was not approved.5 He received his master’s degree from Harvard in 1940.6 He had already been hired at Principia College, a school in Elsah, Illinois, founded by Christian Scientists, where he taught until 1942, when he joined the United States war effort in the Second World War. During the war, he served as a counterintelligence officer in the Pacific theater. Having worked with Japanese students and their families at Principia, Peel had valuable insights into the Japanese language and culture. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, he employed his knowledge as a liaison officer between the occupying American forces and the Imperial family. Perhaps it is apocryphal, but following an audience with Emperor Hirohito, General Douglas MacArthur is said to have exclaimed to him, “How the hell do you know how to behave around here?”7
After the war, Peel returned to Boston and found employment at the headquarters of the Christian Science church. He started as an editorial writer for The Christian Science Monitor, before moving to the Committee on Publication—the public affairs arm of the church—in 1955. There he began the research and writing that would lead to the eventual fulfillment of his thwarted graduate school ambitions.8
In 1958 he published Christian Science: Its Encounter with American Culture.9 With this book, Peel clearly followed the example of his mentor Perry Miller, by deeply rooting historical narrative in literary and philosophical contexts. The book sketches the ideas, personalities, and trajectory of the nineteenth-century Transcendentalist movement centered in Concord, Massachusetts. It then examines the brief interaction between Transcendentalism and Christian Science. Here Peel contrasted the romantic philosophy of the Transcendentalists with Eddy’s practical metaphysics; from 1876 to 1878, A. Bronson Alcott corresponded with Eddy, expressing interest in her ideas and support for her book, and he visited Eddy and her small group of students in Lynn, Massachusetts. This greatly encouraged her while she was struggling to establish her movement. With Christian Science: Its Encounter with American Culture, Peel began exploring themes and interpretations that he would subsequently carry to fruition in his Mary Baker Eddy trilogy.
For Peel the 1960s and 1970s were decades devoted to researching, writing, and editing his groundbreaking biography, in addition to other books. Along the way he gained prominence as a scholarly spokesperson for Christian Science. In her 1998 biography Mary Baker Eddy, Gillian Gill asserted that “Peel was probably the best mind Christian Science has attracted.”10
This biographical knowledge only increases my appreciation for the new edition of Years of Discovery. While a few errors have been corrected, the editors have scrupulously preserved Peel’s original writing. The major improvements lie in the treatment of peripheral items to the main text—the formatting of footnotes, inclusion of images, additional front matter, and a new foreword by Thomas Johnsen, are all significant enhancements.
When I first read Discovery, it was inconvenient to have to flip from the text to the endnotes. In subsequent research, when looking up a particular topic in the index, it has been even more annoying to have to search for the relevant endnotes. In addition to providing citations for his sources, Peel also used his notes for fascinating digressions that, if included in the main text, risked distracting from the overall narrative. Now the notes are presented as footnotes on each page, and the online version available at JSH-Online includes hyperlinks to the full online versions of the sources that are held in The Mary Baker Eddy Library.
When Discovery was first published, it was generally well-received by reviewers, but one critic lamented that the notes were essentially worthless, since they cited materials in the then-closed archive of The Mother Church, which were inaccessible to anyone wanting to check the accuracy of Peel’s interpretation.11 Now readers can instantly view the full sources!
A lovely section of archival images at the center of the book is visually appealing and informative. Also, the chronology of Eddy’s life, which was originally included as an appendix, has been moved to the front. This is helpful to readers who tend to start at the beginning and possibly ignore appendices.12 An additional chart of Eddy’s family relations also helps. Thomas Johnsen (1951–2020), a long-time scholar on both Eddy and Peel, wrote a new foreword that establishes the context and importance of the book for the twenty-first century.
Even with the improvements to its presentation, Discovery very much remains Peel’s book. It continues to exhibit his insights as a scholar deeply embedded in the emerging field of American studies in the mid-twentieth century. The text references thinkers who were very much in vogue in intellectual circles during that time, such as Søren Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich.13 A text that is over 50 years old has no way to account for advances that have since been made in both our general understanding of history or specific research discoveries concerning Eddy. For instance, the institution of slavery was an extremely contentious issue throughout the first several decades of Eddy’s life, and new scholarly insights have enhanced our understanding of that issue’s complexity in nineteenth-century US history. New discoveries have also uncovered details about Eddy’s own evolving attitudes toward slavery and abolition.14
Readers who want to get to know Eddy’s lived experience should look to this new edition of Discovery as a key resource. Peel’s insights continue to be eye-opening and relevant. His writing continues to be elegant. And now his documented research is finally accessible to all. His deep, abiding appreciation for Eddy and her discovery of Christian Science comes through his writing, and I think he would be happy to know that his book continues to convey that appreciation in an up-to-date format. Discovery remains a great starting point for those seeking a deep scholarly dive into her history—which should hopefully lead researchers to seek out other resources as well. I am very much looking forward to rediscovering The Years of Trial and The Years of Authority, volumes 2 and 3, in the new editions slated to be released in the coming years.
Timothy C. Leech is an independent scholar currently based in Ontario, Canada. He received his PhD in American history from The Ohio State University. His prior experiences include graduate studies at Harvard University and employment as a researcher and curator at the inception of The Mary Baker Eddy Library.
To learn more about the background of this book and the project to revise it, listen to our Seekers and Scholars podcast episode “Reissuing a masterwork—a new edition of Robert Peel’s Mary Baker Eddy biography.”
- Robert Peel, Mary Baker Eddy, vol. 1, The Years of Discovery, 2nd ed. (Boston: The Christian Science Publishing Society, 2022 [first published in 1966]).
- Fred Hunter, “Robert Peel,” The Independent, 13 January 1992.
- Robert Peel, Health and Medicine in the Christian Science Tradition: Principle, Practice, and Challenge (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1988), 120.
- Edmund Morgan, The Genuine Article: A Historian Looks at Early America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), 58. See also Murray G. Murphy, “Perry Miller and American Studies,” American Studies 42, no. 2 (2001).
- Peel, “The Intellectual and Literary Development of Mary Baker Eddy,” Dissertation Proposal, no date; in the Robert Peel papers held by his estate, quoted in Thomas C. Johnsen, “Understanding Mary Baker Eddy” (paper presented at the New England American Studies Association conference on “The Tyranny of Facts: Cultural Institutions and the Authority of Evidence,” Boston, April 2002).
- James L. Franklin, “Robert Peel, Journalist, Scholar, Author on Christian Science, at 82,” The Boston Globe, 10 January 1992. Peel also became a US citizen in 1940.
- Fred Hunter, “Robert Peel,” The Independent, 13 January 1992.
- Franklin and Hunter.
- Peel, Christian Science: Its Encounter with American Culture, (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1958).
- Gillian Gill, Mary Baker Eddy (Reading, Massachusetts: Perseus Books, 1998), 581.
- Charles Braden, “Mary Baker Eddy: The Years of Discovery,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 35, no. 4 (1967), 407.
- For a downloadable 80-page annotated chronology of events surrounding Eddy’s life, visit the deep-read page on The Mary Baker Eddy Library’s website.
- Peel, Years of Discovery, 180, 338–339.
- See, for instance, “From the Papers: Mary Baker Eddy’s convictions on slavery,” 13 September 2021, https://www.marybakereddylibrary.org/research/from-the-papers-mary-baker-eddys-convictions-on-slavery/ and Keith McNeil, “Was Mary Baker Eddy an Abolitionist?”, https://prayerfulliving.com/learningcenter/mcneil-LCKM002.html.