What did Eddy say about reporting and treating contagious diseases?

April 26, 2021

Archibald McLellan, “Rights and Duties,” Christian Science Sentinel, 6 November 1902, 152.

Our December 2020 article Vaccination: What Did Eddy Say? reported on Mary Baker Eddy’s responses to public demands for vaccination against smallpox in 1900 and 1901. Related questions arose in 1902 surrounding Christian Science, the reporting and treating of contagious diseases, and quarantining. Public concern increased that Christian Scientists might ignore health requirements designed to protect the population, given the perception of their exclusive reliance on prayer for healing. We were interested in the development of Mrs. Eddy’s thought on broad public health considerations in that year. How did she respond to these questions?

Despite the prayer-based approach to healing that the religion presented, Christian Science practice was not intended as a means of circumventing legal requirements. Archibald McLellan, then the editor of the Christian Science periodicals, drafted an editorial titled “Rights and Duties,” which Eddy had reviewed, to address these concerns. In a letter he thanked her for her revisions and improvements, emphasizing that the public must know that “any shirking of our legal duty is discountenanced by you and by the denomination” and that “we cannot successfully question the constitutional power of the State to enact and enforce laws making the reporting of contagious and infectious diseases compulsory, therefore, our position is strengthened by fairly and squarely conceding that point.”1

McLellan’s editorial went beyond the issue of complying with the law and included new advice from Eddy to calm the public stir surrounding the treating of contagious diseases through Christian Science. “Rights and Duties” was published in the November 6, 1902, Christian Science Sentinel and included this: “Mrs. Eddy advises that ‘until the public thought becomes better acquainted with Christian Science the Christian Scientists shall decline to doctor infectious or contagious diseases.’” Across the title page of her copy of that Sentinel issue, Eddy wrote, “My advise on contagion etc.”

A week later Alfred Farlow, the manager of the Committee on Publication—the Christian Science Church’s public affairs office—wrote to William D. McCrackan, the Committee for New York State, that “[Eddy’s] message in the Sentinel has created quite a sensation here.”2 McLellan wrote to Eddy at about the same time: “The more that mortal mind storms about your declaration regarding infectious and contagious diseases, the more I feel convinced that the declaration was timely. I believe that your words will awaken Christian Scientists to the need of fore-seeing and fore-stalling evil. I feel that I have been awakened.”3

The “sensation” and “storms” produced by Eddy’s words came from within and outside the Christian Science movement. Some newspapers falsely portrayed her advice as an admission that Christian Science did not heal, leading to several responses from Farlow, such as this one prepared for The Detroit News:

The recent concession of Mrs. Eddy in regard to the treatment of contagious disease on the part of Christian Scientists lies in the fact that the popular mind does not know that Christian Scientists have successfully handled such cases…. Christian Scientists do not expect to lose anything by the tender, Christian regard which their leader has manifested in regard to the beliefs of those who do not understand Christian Science.4

Eddy quickly addressed the issue of treating contagious disease through Christian Science in an article she titled “Wherefore?” It was printed in both the Sentinel and the monthly Christian Science Journal. Later it was included in The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany. She reiterated, “…until the public thought becomes better acquainted with Christian Science, that Christian Scientists decline to doctor infectious or contagious diseases.” And she continued:

Christian Scientists should be influenced by their own judgment in taking a case of malignant disease. They should consider well their ability to cope with the claim, and they should not overlook the fact that there are those lying in wait to catch them in their sayings; neither should they forget that in their practice, whether successful or not, they are not specially protected by law.5

Two days before “Wherefore?” was published, Eddy wrote to McLellan, “I shall expect you will add your approval as Editor of my saying that you published,” adding that “[s]urely mother [Eddy] cannot meet all these issues. Our periodicals should be made effectual and strong on these subjects and on such occasions as require it.”6

The Sentinel published “Wherefore?” as lead editorial, followed by McLellan’s endorsement:

No question of the efficacy of Christian Science in cases of infectious and contagious diseases is involved in Mrs. Eddy’s advice that until public thought becomes better acquainted with Christian Science, Christian Scientists shall decline to doctor such cases.

Attempts to pervert her words into an admission that Christian Science is impotent in cases of malignant disease are unwarranted by the facts, and fail of their purpose. The healing of cases of this character, diagnosed and designated by physicians and recorded by Boards of Health and other health officers, proves beyond question that Christian Science is most efficacious, and every effort to controvert this evidence must signally fail if public records are correct and medical diagnosis is of value.

Mrs. Eddy’s advice is wise and timely, and we can best serve our Cause, and express our gratitude for her loving care, foresight, and leadership by giving heed to it.

When we fully awaken to the necessity of preventing disease instead of waiting for its manifestation, we shall see more clearly the wisdom of her advice, and that we have been led to a potent realization of the powerlessness of all evil, whether present in manifestation, or feared for the future.7

Meanwhile, Farlow continued to respond to the public press. He stated in the Christian Advocate that “[Christian Scientists] have no desire to insist upon rights and privileges which the present period will not grant. They knock at the door of public opinion, they do not break in.” 8 To the Journal of Medicine and Science, he wrote:

[Eddy] has not admitted any lack of ability to heal contagious diseases on the part of her followers. She has made this concession in view of the fears and apprehensions of the public. It is thought better to wait until the efficacy of Christian Science in the healing of such is better understood rather than to force a practice which the public at present do not seem willing to grant.”9

Over a month earlier, Farlow had also given this explanation to John E. Playter of Minnesota:

You should make it plain to your [newspaper] editors that the reporting of contagious diseases and the quarantine of the sick are not because Christian Scientists are forced to do so but because careful quarantine is on the basis of Christian Science and the observance of the law is in accord with the teachings of science. Mrs. Eddy does not give out this advice to indicate a change in the practice of Christian Scientists but to indicate her individual support of the law. It had been the custom among Christian Scientists to strictly observe the laws of quarantine even before Mrs. Eddy deemed it necessary to speak on this subject though perhaps some careless Christian Scientists like other careless people have neglected to do this….

It is not because Mrs. Eddy recognizes that it is unsafe to handle contagious diseases that she has given out her advice but because she has noted the contention on the part of the opposition and has concluded to turn the other cheek also. Christian Scientists have proved that they can heal contagious diseases effectually.10

This article is also available in French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish. To read the article in Italian, click here.

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  1. Archibald McLellan to Mary Baker Eddy, 5 November 1902, 005aP1.04.016. McLellan had been an attorney.
  2. Alfred Farlow to William D. McCrackan, 13 November 1902, Farlow Letterbooks, #271–272.
  3. McLellan to Eddy, 18 November 1902, 005aP1.04.017.
  4. Farlow to “Editor of the News,” 20 November 1902, Farlow Letterbooks, #307.
  5. Eddy, “Wherefore?,” The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany (Boston: The Christian Science Board of Directors), 227.
  6. Eddy to McLellan, 25 November 1902, L03041.
  7. McLellan, editorial commentary on “Wherefore?,” Christian Science Sentinel, 27 November 1902, 200.
  8. Alfred Farlow, Christian Advocate (Pennsylvania), 30 December 1902.
  9. Alfred Farlow, Journal of Medicine and Science (Portland, Maine), 2 January 1903.
  10. Farlow to John E. Playter, 20 November 1902, Farlow Letterbooks, 314.