Review: An Annotated Bibliography of Academic and Other Literature on Christian Science
By Timothy C. Leech
In compiling and editing this work, Shirley Paulson, Helen Mathis, and Linda Bargmann have undertaken a monumental project—one that has the potential to revolutionize scholarly inquiry into Christian Science and its history. The fruits of their labors are available as a hardcopy book, typifying a kind of volume that might have been found on the reference shelf of a research library not too long ago, as well as an interactive internet database.1 By publishing An Annotated Bibliography of Academic and Other Literature on Christian Science in both formats, its creators have ensured that it will have the widest reach and greatest utility for a diverse audience of potential users.
Before proceeding, we should explore exactly what an annotated bibliography is. Serious non-fiction books often have bibliographies appended to them—listings of sources and other publications relevant to the topic. But an annotated bibliography is far more than a simple list. The annotation of each entry provides a brief description and, ideally, places it in the context of other related literature. Readers of biographies such as Gillian Gill’s Mary Baker Eddy might be familiar with the author’s appendix, “The Essential Published Source Books,” as an example of an annotated bibliography—albeit one that is much more limited in scope and length than An Annotated Bibliography.2 The attempt to provide a comprehensive survey of all the literature related to Christian Science is an incredibly ambitious task.
As the compilers note in their introduction, this book was published in 2021, the bicentennial year of Eddy’s birth. They see it as their “contribution to the ongoing effort to understand the multiple dimensions of the life of Mary Baker Eddy and her Church” and note that “it presents a large index of literature in a central location to help jumpstart scholarly research.”3 In addition to its potential benefit to academic researchers, this is a work that Christian Scientists may find quite interesting and useful. However, this community of readers may be surprised to find entries critical of their religion and its founder. Why are these included? More on that below. Rather than list a collection of bibliographic annotations in purely alphabetical order, the compilers have arranged them into a series of nine broad topical areas:
- The Bible, Religion, Philosophy, Theology, and Science
- Biographies and Chronologies
- Christian Science After 1910
- Church Building, Governance, and Legal Issues
- Feminist Perspectives
- Focus on Healing
- Polemical Literature
- Social and Cultural Studies
The book includes three finding aids: a subject list expanding the nine principal categories to 31 subjects; a cross-reference listing of all the works annotated within each of the nine categories; and a complete alphabetical index. As one would expect, the online version includes automated search tools, including exploration by author, title, and key words. There is also a section that reprints three highlighted works by Andrew Ventimiglia, Katie Simon, and Stephen Gottschalk. Originally printed in scholarly publications, these would not be easily available to people lacking the resources of an academic research library. These three pieces hint at the recent diversity in areas of inquiry and scholarly approaches to Eddy and the religion she founded.
With over 400 entries, this work represents the culmination of a massive research project. Each entry includes a standard bibliographic listing of the author, title, and publication data—vital information for locating the referenced work. A paragraph follows that describes the work with special attention to its relevance in understanding Eddy and/or Christian Science. Sometimes the annotation also includes useful information about the author’s background. These paragraphs run from about half a page to a full page. For a casual reader, flipping through the volume and selecting a single annotation can be interesting and informative. Or one may choose to systematically read through all the annotations.
In the mid-1990s, research libraries were among the first institutions to embrace the internet age. Online research aids such as databases and search engines rapidly became normal tools for scholars. Today an entire generation of researchers has come of age that have seldom, if ever, put their hands on hardcopy reference materials, annotated bibliographies included. There are, however, limits to what electronic search tools can accomplish. Each search result is constrained both by the program’s algorithm and the search terms entered by the researcher. Many online databases have significant gaps in the materials that they include.
For instance, there are databases that specialize in antiquarian publications out of copyright, while other databases provide access to materials that have been created since the beginning of the electronic age—in other words, works that have existed as digital files from the time they were originally published. The gap between the paper-based materials and those born digital spans a period from roughly 1910 into the 1970s—a vital era for anyone interested either in the literature on Eddy or the history of the Christian Science movement. By publishing An Annotated Bibliography in both formats, its compilers have the potential to reach and benefit the widest possible audience of scholars and readers.
I must admit that I was surprised and encouraged by the amount of scholarship touching on Christian Science that has been published in recent decades. It is eye-opening to see how academic writers are treating the topic from a broad array of diverse scholarly perspectives.
Despite its overall excellence, I do have some minor complaints about An Annotated Bibliography. For anyone reading the annotations in the sequence they are presented—alphabetically within each broad topic—it is sometimes a bit jarring to read annotations of works that jump around chronologically, for instance from 1991, to 1907, to 1953, to 2019. This is an unavoidable drawback of the book’s arrangement. It also becomes repetitive to read remarks along the lines of “This work would have benefited from the resources of the Mary Baker Eddy Library”—a criticism that should go without saying but frequently crops up in annotations of works published in the 1980s and 1990s, prior to the Library’s 2002 opening. As well, it is almost inevitable that a project of this scope would miss an item or two; but it is nevertheless disappointing to see that books by Andrew Hartsook and Margaret Pinkham are not included.
An Annotated Bibliography is a collaborative effort involving a far larger team than the three principal editors/compilers. Although all the contributors are listed, it would have been nice to read short biographical sketches including these people’s qualifications. Some works in this genre also include an author’s signature or byline at the end of each annotation or essay—an editorial choice facilitating precise attribution of credit for the work that each individual contributes. But all these criticisms are minor and do not detract from my overall admiration for this work.
Regarding the inclusion of polemical sources and publications outside the mainstream of Christian Science or Christian Scientist readers, it’s important to keep the purpose of this compilation in mind. An annotated bibliography is designed to bring together significant evaluations of its subject, including influential critical works. Other titles may challenge these critics. One example would be Robert Peel’s three-volume biography of Eddy, which pays particular attention to the work of hostile biographers Georgine Milmine, Edwin Franden Dakin, Ernest Sutherland Bates, and John Dittemore, in a sustained (and, some would say, overdue) effort to debunk them. This bibliography takes in a broad range of perspectives, including those that may be highly charged, controversial, and inaccurate, and readers should keep that in mind. Its purpose is, in part, to help them understand the context surrounding various publications, in order to reach their own conclusions.
I sincerely hope that the online version of An Annotated Bibliography will continue to undergo updates with new annotations for a long time to come—adding to its richness, comprehensiveness, and utility. The compilers assert “that the literature on Christian Science we have annotated will be beneficial and insightful not only to scholars, but to Christian Scientists themselves.”4 As a scholar, as well as a Christian Scientist, I heartily endorse this assessment.
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 employment as a researcher and curator at the inception of The Mary Baker Eddy Library and graduate studies at Harvard University.
NOTE: Readers will be interested to know more about this recent compilation of sources on Mary Baker Eddy and the movement she founded. The internet has made all kinds of material on Christian Science widely available, but it provides no filter for assessing bias or judging accuracy. An Annotated Bibliography of Academic and Other Literature on Christian Science offers evaluations of each source it lists, inviting user feedback and suggesting additions to improve the summaries. It is an independent project of its compilers and is not published by The Christian Science Publishing Society.
- Shirley Paulson, Helen Mathis, Linda Bargmann, An Annotated Bibliography of Academic and Other Literature on Christian Science (Chesterfield, Missouri: Scholarly Works on Christian Science, 2021). https://csbibliography.org
- See Gillian Gill, Mary Baker Eddy (Reading, Massachusetts: Perseus Books, 1998), 563–582.
- Paulson, Mathis, and Bargmann, An Annotated Bibliography, ii.
- Paulson, Mathis, and Bargmann, An Annotated Bibliography, iii.