What is the background on the Oxford University essay mentioned in Science and Health?

October 26, 2020

We are sometimes asked about a statement Mary Baker Eddy made on page 111 of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures:

A prize of one hundred pounds, offered in Oxford University, England, for the best essay on Natural Science, —an essay calculated to offset the tendency of the age to attribute physical effects to physical causes rather than to a final spiritual cause,—is one of many incidents which show that Christian Science meets a yearning of the human race for spirituality.1

Our patrons are often curious about the winning essay’s subject, and whether it was related to Christian Science. On June 14, 1870, the Oxford University Gazette printed an offer from Francis K. Leighton, Vice-Chancellor of All Souls College at the University of Oxford:


Circumstances have induced an Individual, who wishes to remain unknown, to offer a Price of £100, to be competed for by Members of the University of Oxford of not less standing than Master of Arts, and by any above that standing, for the best Essay in confutation of the Materialism of the present day by arguments derived from Evidences of Intelligence, Design, Contrivance, and Adaptation of Means to Ends, in the Universe, and especially in Man considered in his Moral Nature, his Religious Aptitudes, and his Intellectual Powers; and in all Organic Nature. The observation also to be made and supported in the course of the Essay that the Will and Wisdom of the Creator may be a sufficient cause for deviations from the established course of nature, and that the Free-will of man, in things within his power and influence, may be a cause of similar deviations.

It is desired that all arguments used against Materialism should be independent of those of Hegel, and of what is called the Spiritual Philosophy, which had its rise in Germany.

A period of two years will be allowed after the Public Announcement of the subject before the competing Essays will be required to be sent in to the Judges: and it is a condition of the competition that the Copyright of the successful Essay shall be the property of the Donor of the Prize; but that if published, the profits (if any) shall belong to the Writer.

The Very Reverend the Dean of St. Paul’s, the Regius Professor of Divinity, and the Rev. C. Pritchard, Savilian Professor of Astronomy, have consented to act as Judges.

Essays must be sent to the registrar of the University on or before the 12th of June, 1872. The Essays are to be distinguished by mottoes, the writer’s name being sent at the same time in a sealed envelope, in the manner prescribed for the Chancellor’s Prizes.

F. K. LEIGHTON, Vice-Chancellor.

All Souls College, June 13, 1870.2

The following announcement appeared in the Gazette on November 26, 1872:


The Judges appointed to award a Prize of £100 offered for the best Essay in confutation of Materialism have adjudged the Prize to the Rev. W. Jackson, M.A., F.S.A., late Fellow of Worcester College.

H. G. LIDDELL, Vice-Chancellor.

November 25, 1872.3

In 1874 the winning essay by William Jackson was published as a book, The Philosophy of Natural Theology: An Essay in Confutation of the Scepticism of the Present Day, which Obtained a Prize at Oxford, Nov. 26th, 1872.

Eddy first mentioned this essay on page 9 of the 1st edition of Science and Health (1875):

A few years since we clipped the following from the reports on Science:

“At the University at Oxford, a prize of one hundred pounds was offered for the best Essay on Natural Science, to refute the materialism of the present age, or the tendency to attribute physical effects to physical causes, rather than to a final spiritual cause.” This demand for metaphysics coming from the very fount of erudition meets the wants of the age, and is the one question towering above all others, insomuch as it relates more intimately to the happiness and perfection of man.4

It appears that shortly after the 1875 publication of Science and Health, one of Eddy’s students, Asa T. N. Macdonald, wrote to J. E. Sewell, then Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, asking about the benefactor. Sewell confirmed the prize was offered in 1870, but indicated that the benefactor wished to remain anonymous.5

While we don’t find any connections with Christian Science, it is interesting to note that Eddy’s mention of this contest headed the very first chapter of Science and Health from the 1st through the 15th editions—suggesting that she considered it an important indication of current trends in thought. We have been unable to determine whether any of the other submissions are extant.

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  1. Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (Boston: The Christian Science Board of Directors), 111.
  2. Reverend William Jackson, An Essay, in Confutation of the Scepticism of the Present Day, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, vii) .
  3. Reverend William Jackson, An Essay, in Confutation of the Scepticism of the Present Day, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, viii).
  4. Eddy, Science and Health (Boston: Christian Scientist Publishing Company, 1875), 9.
  5. Asa T. N. Macdonald to J.E. Sewell, 31 January 1876, IC593b.61.002.