Vaccination: what did Eddy say?

December 20, 2020

To learn how Mary Baker Eddy approached the subject of vaccination, we reviewed her published writings, correspondence, and submissions to newspapers, as well as the magazines that she established for The Church of Christ, Scientist. While she addressed this issue as early as 1880, she was most engaged on it from 1900 to 1902.

Before we get into the details, here is some background on vaccination in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

According to a 2014 Harvard University article, “Although inoculation was already common in certain parts of the world by the early eighteenth century, it was only just beginning to be discussed in England and colonial America. The Puritan minister Cotton Mather is largely credited with introducing inoculation to the colonies and doing a great deal to promote the use of this method as standard for smallpox prevention during the 1721 epidemic. Mather is believed to have first learned about inoculation from his West African slave Onesimus ….”1 Cotton Mather was a resident of Boston, and he partnered with Dr. Zabdiel Boylston on smallpox inoculation. They encountered opposition because of the commonly held view that inoculation ran counter to the will of God. They also had to confront skepticism regarding the safety and reliability of such a practice.2

By the early 1800s, Massachusetts was one of a handful of states with laws authorizing compulsory vaccination when communities were threatened by smallpox. In 1902 the board of health for the city of Cambridge ordered compulsory vaccination during one outbreak. Objection to this led to a lawsuit—Jacobson v. Massachusetts—that was decided by the US Supreme Court in 1905. The court upheld the city, through the police power of the state and the view that individual freedoms must sometimes be subordinated to the common welfare.3

We found Eddy’s first published reference to Christian Science and vaccination in the manuscript of her 1880 sermon at Boston’s Hawthorne Hall—“The People’s God, and the effect on health and morals.” According to that document, she took Ephesians 4:5 as her text and began:

Every step of progress is a step more spiritual. The great element of reform is not born of human wisdom it draws not its Life from human organizations, rather is it the crumbling away of material elements from thoughts and things, the translation of matter back to its original language, mind, and the final unity of man and God.

Toward the end of the sermon, after quoting several eminent physicians’ skepticism of medicine, Eddy noted the anomaly of using a virus from an animal to inoculate a human being, and the role of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in introducing inoculation against smallpox to England. She concluded this:

…a more spiritual and true ideal of Deity improves man physically and morally. God is no longer a mystery to the Christian Scientist but a Principle understood that destroys sin sickness and death…. The minds ideals are all brought out upon the body.4

When the sermon was printed—first in the June 1883 Journal of Christian Science and then as a pamphlet—the reference to vaccination was removed.5 Eddy published a brief article, “Contagion,” two months later in the Journal (subsequently reprinted in Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896).6 Both pieces appeared in the magazine’s inaugural year. Another brief reference to vaccination appeared in Eddy’s 1884 article “Mistakes.”7

During the following decade, Journal articles by other authors occasionally mentioned vaccination, sometimes critically. Several testimonies included healings of its bad effects.8 These contributions pointed to the fact that vaccination was controversial and sometimes compulsory.

During an 1894 smallpox outbreak, William B. Johnson, a member of the Christian Science Board of Directors, wrote to Eddy of his concern that he might be arrested if he refused to be vaccinated.9 She replied, “Defend yourself from the necessity you prophecy. If you are not equal to doing this, do not act as unwisely as Holmes, but of two evils choose the least which may be to be vaccinated.”10 11

On March 7, 1900, in a Leavenworth, Kansas, newspaper, Eddy’s guidance to Christian Scientists about vaccination appeared in print. The Christian Scientist parents of seven children who had been kept out of school for over a month, because they would not comply with the local school board’s order that all children be vaccinated, reversed course. Edward H. Keach, the First Reader of the local Christian Science branch church, explained to the reporter that they had “consulted with Mrs. Eddy of Boston, the founder of their church, and received the following instructions”:

Rather than quarrel over being vaccinated, I recommend that, if the law demand an individual to submit to this process, he obey the law; and then appeal to the gospel to save him from any bad results. Whatever belongs to this century, or any epoch, we may safely submit to the providence of God, to common justice, individual rights and governmental usages.12

This counsel became a key component in statements on vaccination by Eddy and her church.

About the same time as the incident in Leavenworth, Eddy’s son, George Glover, instigated a lawsuit against a school board that had ordered all children in the public schools in Lead, South Dakota, to be vaccinated. On February 19, 1900, Eddy wrote to him:

I am sorry that you have entered suit on the question of vaccinating your child or children although I have no doubt but that you will beat them at law as you always have done and for which I am quite satisfied to crow. But if it was my child I should let them vaccinate him and then with Christian Science I would prevent its harming the health of my child….13

But George Glover did not “beat them”; he lost his suit on appeal to the state supreme court, after his failed attempt to seek a writ of mandamus against the school board and have the members of the board adjudged in contempt.14 This was widely publicized. On January 9, 1901, a letter to the editor from Alfred Farlow, the manager of the Committee on Publication—the Christian Science church’s public affairs office—was published in the Boston Herald:

ADVISED TO OBEY THE LAW.

To the Editor of the Herald:

In a recent issue of your paper you publish a report from Lead, Col.,15 referring to a case in the courts of that state, wherein George Glover has sought to evade the vaccination law. It is said “a number of Christian Scientist families take the same ground as Glover.”

I desire to state that this is purely an individual matter, and is neither encouraged nor indorsed by Christian Scientists. While it is true that Christian Scientists, as well as many others, do not believe in compulsory vaccination, yet they are not fighting this law, but are quietly submitting thereto. Recently the Rev. Mary Baker Eddy, the Ieader of this movement, published the following statement:

Rather than quarrel over being vaccinated, I recommend that, if the law demands an individual to submit to this process, he obey the law; and then appeal to the gospel to save him from any bad results. Whatever change belongs to this century, or any epoch, we may safely submit to this providence of God, to common justice, individual rights and governmental usages.

Almost simultaneously, The Times in Marlboro, Massachusetts, reported that Christian Scientists were “starting a crusade against vaccination on the ground that smallpox is an imaginary disease.” Farlow replied in a January 12, 1901, letter to the editor, first acknowledging that “it is true that Christian Scientists have little faith in material remedies, for they have proved that Christian Science is not only a better cure, but a better preventive of disease than anything which they have heretofore employed.” But he went on to explain that Christian Scientists “have nothing to do” with the crusade against vaccination but “have long ago given up any fight on this question, and have agreed to allow vaccination” in accord with the advice of Eddy. He also wrote that “it is not the proper statement of Christian Science to say that smallpox or any other disease is imagination;” that “[c]are and discretion must be used in respect to the sick, whatever may be the constituency of disease, until the danger therefrom is past;” that “[i]t does not lessen the efficiency of prayers to be careful in respect to the spreading of disease;” and that “Christian Scientists do not recklessly rush into its presence.”16

This letter and others on vaccination were reprinted in the church’s magazines. Eddy wrote privately to her student Edward Kimball, concerned that her son’s litigation and stories of Christian Scientists resisting vaccination were reflecting publicly on Christian Science and acknowledging the need to “put my protest in our periodicals.”17

On February 17, 1901, the Boston Herald published a short 170-word letter—not from Farlow but from Eddy herself. It included her now standard guidance on vaccination, and elaborated further on the importance of Christian Scientists obeying the law. The final paragraph said this:

This statement should be so interpreted as to apply, on the basis of Christian Science, to the reporting of contagion to the proper authorities when the law so requires. When Jesus was questioned about obeying the human law, he declared: “Render unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s,” even while you “render unto God the things that are God’s.”

This was quickly reprinted in the Sentinel and Journal.18 It was also adapted for use in a longer letter from Eddy to the New York Sunday Journal, published under the headline “Christian Science Healing, Explained and Defended,” later revised as the article “Christian Science Healing,” and subsequently included in her book The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany.19

Later that spring the New York Herald published a wide-ranging interview with Eddy at her home in New Hampshire, including discussion of Christian Science and state health laws on infectious and contagious diseases. She repeated her prior statements about vaccination, after explaining that “we cannot force perfection on the world” and saying, “So long as Christian Scientists obey the laws I don’t suppose their mental reservations will be thought to matter much. But every thought tells, and Christian Science will overthrow false knowledge in the end.”20

Published interviews, articles, and letters to newspaper editors in 1900 and 1901 offered a consistent message from Eddy: the practice of her religion was not a threat to public health. When required to do so, Christian Scientists and their children would submit to vaccination. Eddy was a student of the Bible, and she may have drawn inspiration from one of the themes of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, to the effect that the young Christian church was a law-abiding religion that did not threaten the Roman government.21

After a break in press coverage for the rest of 1901, and most of 1902, new issues were raised about Christian Science and the reporting and treatment of infectious and contagious diseases. Some of this resulted from the continuing attempts by Josephine Curtis Woodbury—a student of Eddy who had lost a libel suit against her in 1901—to influence public opinion against Christian Science through the press. Again Eddy responded through the channels established by her church, affirming that Christian Scientists would report suspected cases of contagion and observe government quarantines. We will look more closely at the issues involved in a future article.

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  1. The Fight Over Inoculation During the 1721 Boston Smallpox Epidemic
  2. See John B. Blake, Public Health in the Town of Boston, 1630–1822 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1959).
  3. Lawrence O. Gostin, “Jacobson v. Massachusetts at 100: Police Power and Civil Liberties in Tension,” American Journal of Public Health, April 2005, https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/10.2105/AJPH.2004.055152#:~:text=A%20century%20ago%2C%20the%20US,liberty%20and%20the%20common%20good
  4. See The Mary Baker Eddy Papers, “The People’s God,” A10371A, for the handwritten draft and annotated transcription.
  5. The final title was The People’s Idea of God: Its Effect on Health and Christianity (Boston: The Christian Science Board of Directors).
  6. Mary Baker Eddy, ”Contagion,” Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896 (Boston: The Christian Science Board of Directors). For more on this article, see “What is the background on Eddy’s article ‘Contagion’?”
  7. Eddy, “Mistakes,” Journal of Christian Science, August 1884, 4.
  8. For one example, see “Letters and cases of healing,” The Christian Science Journal, October 1885, 135.
  9. William B. Johnson to Mary Baker Eddy, March 11, 1894, IC001bP2.01.054.
  10. “Holmes” is a reference to a South Boston man, Joseph Holmes, who refused to be vaccinated and was fined. See “Ill for Weeks,” Boston Daily Globe, 6 March 1894, 4.
  11. Mary Baker Eddy to William B. Johnson, 12 March 1894, L00059.
  12. “Christian Scientists Vaccinate Children,” The Leavenworth Times, 7 March 1900, 3. A similar statement from Eddy had appeared in The Boston Herald 12 days earlier, on February 24, 1900, in an article titled, “A Remarkable Event,” by Alfred Farlow. It was reprinted in the March 1, 1900 Christian Science Sentinel. Perhaps it was there that Keach saw Eddy’s words. Or Farlow may have sent the article to Keach, who also served as Committee on Publication for Kansas.
  13. Eddy to George Glover, 19 February 1900, L02130.
  14. “Supreme Court Decides the Vaccination Case,” The Daily Pioneer [Deadwood, South Dakota], 1 January 1901, 1.
  15. Actually South Dakota, not Colorado.
  16. Republished as “A Protest” in the Sentinel, 31 January 1901, 342.
  17. Eddy to Edward Kimball, 15 February 1901, L07515.
  18. See the February 21, 1901 Sentinel and the March 1901 Journal, under the heading “Obey the Law.”
  19. Eddy’s letter to the Sunday Journal was occasioned by publicity around a lawsuit concerning a contested bequest to First Church of Christ, Scientist, New York City.
  20. “Mrs. Eddy Talks of Christian Science,” New York Herald, 1 May 1901; reprinted as “Mrs. Eddy Talks” in the May 9, 1901, Sentinel and later in The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany (Boston: The Christian Science Board of Directors).
  21. Stephen L. Harris, Exploring the Bible (New York: McGraw Hill, 2014), 354.