Christian Science Reading Rooms 1887–1910
(Updated January 2019)
The beginnings of Christian Science Reading Rooms can be dated to January 1887. According to a later article in The Christian Science Journal, in that month the “Free Dispensary of Christian Science Healing” opened in Boston, possibly at 3 Boylston Place. Dispensaries provided free or discounted Christian Science treatment, as well as literature, for those of limited financial means.1
Today it’s not entirely clear whether the dispensary was a part of the Church of Christ (Scientist) or the Christian Scientist Association (CSA: Mary Baker Eddy’s association of students), or whether it was an independent activity. By April the Christian Scientist Association was considering opening a “reading and waiting room for Christian Scientists in Boston.”2 Note: the 1886 edition of Webster’s dictionary defines reading-room as “a room provided with papers, periodicals, and the like, to which persons resort for reading.”
While this undertaking apparently turned out to be difficult for the Boston church, it seems that elsewhere in the rather small Christian Science field, Reading Rooms were opening. On July 11, 1888, Calvin Frye, Mary Baker Eddy’s secretary, wrote to Mary Hinds Philbrick, then living in Anamosa, Iowa. Apparently she had written to the Publishing Society about a “CS reading Room.” Frye responded: “Mrs. Eddy says Yes she does approve of a Reading Room open to the public as you propose. Our Association intend opening one here in B[oston].”3 A year later, in the August 1889 issue of the Journal, Philbrick described the work in Iowa: “At Cedar Rapids we have opened a public reading room, and have regular Sunday services, with an attendance of from twenty to thirty. We have also a Bible class….”4
By September 1888 there was a Reading Room in Boston. That month’s issue of the Journal included an article titled “A New Home,” which described the rooms as not only “a publication-room for our Journal, and a salesroom for other Christian Science publications,” but also “a reading-room and social place for our friends, — a sort of clubroom ….” 5 A notice in the April 1889 Journal, titled “Christian Science Reading Rooms,” described both the Boston and New York City locations (because the Reading Room was considered a part of the Publishing Society, and Editor Joshua Bailey lived much of the time in New York, Publishing Society “rooms” were established there for several years):
Both at Hotel Boylston, in Boston, and at 138 Fifth Avenue, New York City, pleasant rooms will be found, supplied with the leading Christian Science publications, and visitors are cordially invited to make use of these rooms as a resort and resting place.
It is intended also that these rooms shall be centres of information on all matters relating to Christian Science, and persons will be in attendance competent to give information….
But things were changing. In May 1889 Mary Baker Eddy left Boston, eventually settling in Concord, New Hampshire. With this move, the structure of the Boston organizations began to change. In September the Christian Scientist Association was dissolved, although it continued as a voluntary association. The Boston Reading Room apparently survived through “dues” paid voluntarily by Christian Scientists. Elsewhere Reading Rooms were becoming more common; in January 1890 the first listings of “Christian Science Dispensaries, and Reading Rooms” were published in the Journal [iv].
Neither dispensaries nor Reading Rooms were required to be associated with a Christian Science branch. For example in March 1890, Christian Science practitioners E. H. Bradner and Clara H. Bradner began to advertise on their card a “Dispensary and Reading Room” in Sacramento, California [vi].
In July 1894 the Boston Reading Room closed. While there is no indication in the records as to Eddy’s reasons for this request, the reason was apparently a local one; the listings of Christian Science Reading Rooms continued in the Journal. It’s possible that the closings of both the dispensary and the Reading Room were related to the building of the Original Edifice of The Mother Church, which was making great financial demands on the church and its membership.
Major change began in December 1899, when the Christian Science Board of Directors adopted a number of Church Manual By-Laws, including: “The Churches of the Christian Science denomination shall have one reading-room for each Church.” (L00759; first published in Eddy, “By-laws,” Christian Science Sentinel, January 4, 1900, 288. Today this By-Law is Article XXI, Section 1, “Establishment.”)
The Journal announced in January 1900 that “Christian Science Reading Rooms will be advertised only when established under the auspices of a recognized Church of Christ, Scientist, or congregation holding regular Sunday services.” It went on to say, “No mention of Reading Rooms which are not established and advertised in our Reading Room columns under this rule will be made in personal cards or Church Notices.” 6 Reading Rooms were now, without question, a part of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and its activities.
The local Boston church members were interested in having a Reading Room in the city, and appointed William P. McKenzie to head up the undertaking. 7 McKenzie’s correspondence with Eddy seems to indicate that the Reading Room project was put on hold until she gave direction, and that she did in May when she wrote the Board of Directors: “Beloved Students: Once more God thunders in your ears ‘Get a reading room in Boston and locate it in that part of the city where people will be most apt to go into it.’ …. I beg for God’s dear sake for your own and for mine that you obey this call. Commence at once and not stop till you have accomplished my request in this letter. Write to me that The Mother Church establish a Reading Room in Boston, to be opened in less than three weeks.”8
Eddy was only giving her church about three weeks to establish the new Reading Room—the first one in Boston in nearly six years. But the Board was able to respond the next day. William B. Johnson, Clerk of The Mother Church, presented two possible locations to her, one on Tremont Street and one on Boylston Street. He appeared to prefer the latter: “It is a very pleasant location opposite the Public Garden, but is not so near the business part of the city … although it is a pleasanter room than is the one on Tremont street ….” The rent for the Boylston location was also considerably less than the Tremont space. Later that day he wrote again: “In regard to a reading room we have made further search for rooms and have found two others on Boylston St. that are preferable to the one mentioned in my letter this morning, as a much larger number of people and street cars pass than at the other rooms. The rent of these two is $2,000 each. These are the best places to be had at this time.” 9 Frye responded on Eddy’s behalf that same day: “Mother says she has no preference to cite for Reading Room and will leave it to the good judgment of the Directors.”10 The Reading Room opened about two weeks later.
On June 5, as a part of his report at the Annual Meeting of The Mother Church, Johnson spoke of Reading Rooms: “By request of our Leader, Rev. Mrs. Eddy, the Christian Science Churches have established Christian Science Reading Rooms. There are 212 of these where the Bible and all the works of our Teacher and all genuine Christian Science literature can be read. Besides these, others have been opened and supported by individual effort. The patronage and the appreciation that the public has shown toward these rooms prove her foresight and her wisdom in providing them. In these pleasant places,—these harbors of rest,—in the midst of the rush of the business districts,—the merchant and the shop-hand can escape from the whirl of daily life and find a resting-place where on a work-day they can think about God, and return to their tasks with sweeter thoughts, strengthened courage, and regenerated hopes…. There has been a general compliance with the request of our Leader to establish reading rooms where the public can have access to genuine Christian Science literature. One church organized in 1895 with twelve members, reported that the sale of literature during the past year amounted to over two thousand dollars, and the sale of Science and Health averaged one copy each day….”11
Having a Reading Room in Boston enabled Eddy and the Directors to have a closer acquaintance with what was working (and not working) in these spaces, and to adopt By-Laws in the Manual that could guide those serving in and supporting Christian Science Reading Rooms. For example, in August 1900, Eddy sent a By-Law to the Directors for their approval: “The individual who takes charge of the Reading Room shall be elected by the Trustees of the Christian Science Publishing Society, subject to the approval of Mary Baker G. Eddy. He or she shall have no bad habits, shall have had experience in the field, shall be well educated, and a devout Christian Scientist.”12
Christian Scientists in the field would at times write Eddy for counsel regarding their Reading Rooms. On February 14, 1901, Charlottie J. Allan of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, wrote Calvin Frye: “Dear Brother: — May I trouble you for the following information? While visiting in Chicago recently I learned that the reason there are no Reading Rooms in the three beautiful churches there, is that it is Mother’s wish, that the Reading Rooms should be in the business centres, and that she desires to see the sanctity of the edifice maintained, which is more or less interfered with where the buying & selling of Literature and other business [are] indulged in, when the Reading Room is in connection with the Church building. The Second Church of Christ, (Scientist) in Toronto-is contemplating building a Church, also of moving their present Reading Room from the ‘Christian Science Hall’ down to the centre business portion of the city. A members meeting is to be held on next Monday evening (Feb 18th), & if I am not asking too much, may I hope for a word of advice regarding Mother’s wish in this connection?….” 13 The telegram reply to Allan was succinct: “Have your reading room separate from your Church.”14 Card listings in the Journal indicate that both Toronto churches moved their Reading Rooms out of their church edifices within a few months.
In October 1903, writing to her student Annie Dodge, Eddy approved “The Central Christian Science Reading Room Association of New York City” that Dodge had proposed. “Yes, by all means,” she wrote, “do whatever you can for the cause that you and I know is ushering in the salvation of our race. A reading room is an essential in your large city, no matter how many you have if you secure readers sufficient to patronize them.”15 By late 1903, however, Eddy’s student Carrie Harvey Snider, indicated in a letter to Eddy that her branch church (Third Church) was having difficulty supporting both the Central Reading Room and the branch’s own Reading Room; the other branches were providing little help with the effort.16 On December 22, 1903, George Kinter, who was serving in Eddy’s household as a secretary, responded to Snider’s letter: “Under existing instructions we cannot take your letter to Mrs. Eddy, but we can give you information which will help you to decide the question which you present. The plan for unity of action of all the branch churches in New York City, by cooperation in the conduct of a Central Reading Room, having failed, she has said, Each church may maintain its own Reading Room. As I understand she expects the Central Reading Room on 23rd. St. will be continued, and that it is being supported by contributions from several churches; nothing has been said to my knowledge which would prohibit any one contributing, in his individual capacity.”17
In 1905 Eddy approved a plan to extend Reading Room hours. Writing to her, the Trustees of the Publishing Society explained that the Board of Directors had asked them to keep the Reading Room open evenings and to hire an individual to serve those hours: “It seems very desirable that the Reading Room should be open at hours when working people are free to visit it, and if there is no objection to the plan proposed, we understand that the Directors will make announcement in the Church, of the evening hours added during which the room will be open.” Eddy agreed.18
In the summer of 1907, George Kinter was again serving in Eddy’s household and wrote her about several issues, including Reading Rooms (her comments are in bold): “The subject of revenue for the Workers in the Field demands attention, and I assume, your wise consideration, and counsel. Our Cause is growing, and the future portends an even greater growth than the past, but the burden of supporting it financially still rests largely upon the Teachers, who have ever taken their place in the van (note: probably vanguard)…. in Chicago, there are at the present time building plans on the way for three new church edifices, and the Reading Room work there ought to be expanded as it is being in New York, that is, there should be several branch Reading Rooms, or one each at or near each church; the city is well supplied with branch public Libraries, and we, the Scientists, should keep good pace with such progress, Chicago now has over two millions (2,000,000) population…. Would you favor, say in a large city like Chicago, to have several reading rooms? Yes indeed And what is your view upon the subject of individual churches having reading rooms, either in connection with the general reading room or independently thereof? all they need each church a reading room”19
Eddy and the Board of Directors continued to work to define and refine the mission of Reading Rooms. In March 1909 they wrote her: “The Directors feel that it would be well to have a By-Law which shall specify the literature that may be sold or exhibited in the Reading Rooms of Christian Science Churches, and they think that such an one as the enclosed will protect students from the temptation to expose or sell in these Reading Rooms literature which is not authorized, as is in some cases being done now. If you approve of this By-law, will you kindly sign the request for its adoption?”20 Eddy approved this, and on March 25 the Board adopted a By-Law titled “Literature in Reading Rooms.” It states that “the literature sold or exhibited in the Reading Rooms of Christian Science Churches shall consist only of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, by Mary Baker Eddy, and other writings by this author; also the literature published or sold by The Christian Science Publishing Society.”21 It was first published in the 80th edition of the Manual. (See Manual, Article XXI, Section 3.)
In May 1909 this notice from Eddy appeared in the Christian Science Sentinel: “In view of complaints from the Field, because of alleged misrepresentations by persons offering Bibles and other books for sale which they claim have been endorsed by me, it is due the Field to state that I recommend nothing but what is published or sold by The Christian Science Publishing Society. Christian Scientists are under no obligations to buy books for which my endorsement is claimed.” 22In July 1909 Eddy sent a draft of a By-Law to the Directors. As adopted, it reads: “Teachers and practitioners of Christian Science shall not have their offices or rooms in the branch churches, in the reading-rooms, nor in rooms connected therewith.” (Manual, Article XXIII, Section 11) In her letter to the Directors, Eddy indicated that the By-Law related to Augusta Stetson’s “present movements.” 23 (Stetson and 14 practitioners had offices in the edifice of First Church, New York City, according to that month’s Journal listings.) The By-Law was first published in the July 31 Sentinel and then in the 83rd edition of the Manual.
Early in 1910 George Kinter wrote Eddy from Chicago: “I once heard you say; — ‘Next they will be selling literature in our churches.’ Recalling this I am prompted to ask whether you have had a change of heart on this subject, or if you would now like the churches of our denomination to sell Quarterlies or other literature at the church edifices on the Sabbath?” On the envelope she wrote: “No buying or selling on Sabbath day in The Mother Church.”24 In earlier years she had approved the selling of literature in the church on Sundays. (L00098  and L00395  document this; both are correspondence between Eddy and the Board of Directors.) This change possibly relates to a legal opinion offered by lawyer Samuel J. Elder on the matter in 1906; he felt that selling literature in The Mother Church on Sundays was not legal, due to Massachusetts “blue laws.”25
Mary Baker Eddy’s final statement on Reading Rooms dates from September 28, 1910. She requested that “…. all inquiries or information relating to Christian Science practice, to publication committee work, reading-room work, or to Mother Church membership, should be sent to The Christian Science Board of Directors of The Mother Church; and I have requested my secretary not to make inquiries on these subjects, nor to reply to any received, but to leave these duties to the Clerk of The Mother Church, to whom they belong.”26 This notice was republished in several succeeding issues of the Sentinel, in the Journal and The Herald of Christian Science, and later in The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany (242).
Note: This chronology of the early years of Christian Science Reading Rooms is far from complete! A JSH-Online search using “Reading Room” and related terms will bring up many interesting articles on this subject. Don’t hesitate to contact The Mary Baker Eddy Library with your historical questions on Reading Rooms ([email protected]).
- See Emily (Mrs. Geo. H.) Meader, “Dispensary Work,” Journal, June 1889, 154-155
- CSA, meeting minutes, Volume 2, 6 April 1887, EOR11
- Frye to Philbrick, 11 July 1888, L10430
- “News from Abroad,” Journal, August 1889, 271
- “A New Home,” Journal, September 1888, 317
- “Publisher’s Department,” Journal, January 1900, i
- McKenzie to Eddy, 22 January 1900, IC 013bP1.08.029
- Eddy to Directors, 16 May 1900, L00247
- Johnson to Eddy, 17 May 1900, L16305
- Frye to Johnson, 17 May 1900, L01219
- “Annual Church Meeting,” Sentinel, 7 June 1900, 644-645
- See Frye to Johnson, 9 August 1900, L01225; L00781 is the By-Law. See also Manual, Article XXI, Section 2, “Librarian.”
- Allan to Frye, 14 February 1901, Subject File, Allan, Charlotte (Lottie)
- Eddy to Allan, 16 February 1901, L09080
- Eddy to Dodge, 8 October 1903, L10519
- Snider to Eddy, 20 December 1903, IC 239.38.039
- Kinter to Snider, 22 December 1903, V04055
- Trustees to Eddy, 23 May 1905, L12698
- Kinter to Eddy, 24 August 1907, L16718
- Directors to Eddy, 22 March 1909, L17855
- Eddy to Directors, 23 March 1909, L01013
- To Whom It May Concern,” Sentinel, 8 May 1909, 710; this notice was later republished in The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany, 354
- Eddy to Directors, 22 July 1909, L00613
- Kinter to Eddy, 26 January 1910, L03248
- A copy of this letter is found in Eddy’s files; see Elder to McLellan, 13 July 1906, IC 186.32.060
- “Take Notice,” Sentinel, 1 October 1910, 90