Women of History: Josephine Otterson

Josephine C. Otterson, undated. PA00007.13, Courtesy of The Mary Baker Eddy Library.

Josephine Curtis Otterson (1840–1896) was the largest single donor to the building fund of the Christian Science Mother Church in Boston, completed in late 1894. Her philanthropy was the result of her gratitude for the religion, but family dynamics complicated her involvement with Christian Science.

Otterson grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Her father, pharmacist Jeremiah Curtis, became wealthy through trademarking and selling Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, a patent medicine.1 In 1865 she married Dr. William Carter Otterson, a New York physician and surgeon. They had three children.2

Otterson suffered from chronic digestive trouble, which her husband was unable to cure.3 She described the resolution of her illness in The Christian Science Journal:

With the consent of my husband, who is a physician, I was finally led to Christian Science for healing. I had sometime before read Science and Health [written by Mary Baker Eddy] which I considered a wonderful book, and had been conversed with upon the subject by a friend; so, when Truth brought her to help me, I was more than ready. One talk and treatment gave me such realization of Love, that the special form of fear for which I sought help left me, never to return. I was healed of a serious trouble, one which had caused my sister to pass out of our sight.4

Sheet music for Eddy’s poem, “Feed my Sheep,” 1889, Courtesy of The Mary Baker Eddy Library.

Along with her 13-year-old daughter Lucy, Otterson took Primary class instruction from Eddy in 1889. Within the year, Eddy sent her a copy of her new hymn “Feed my Sheep,” which asks for God’s shepherding guidance. Otterson felt it represented a “sacred charge” to help the fledgling Christian Science movement and replied, “dear heart be sure I will answer to the call.”5

Otterson received an allowance from her father’s patent medicine fortune, which she was determined to use in the interest of the new religion that claimed to heal without drugs.6 For example she helped provide housing and stipends for several needy Christian Scientists. She described herself as “the Steward who tries to be faithful,” acknowledging that the funds came from God.7 In referring to Otterson’s charity, Eddy called her “a co-worker in Christ.”8 She also wrote this to Otterson’s good friend Henrietta Chanfrau: “Darling Mrs. Otterson is…a true hearted, honest, noble Christian Scientist.”9Otterson gave Eddy a diamond cross pin, which she treasured and wore often.10

P00010, Eddy wearing the diamond cross pin, 26 November 1891, Courtesy of The Mary Baker Eddy Library.

Otterson’s willingness to study the Bible and Eddy’s book for inspiration and direction, instead of constantly badgering her teacher with questions, was a quality that Eddy prized in Christian Scientists.11 “Dear Teacher,” she wrote in 1892, “when I would ask you questions, I open Science and Health and the answer comes.”12 She encouraged others to do the same: “I shall not hesitate to give to one and all the understanding that Science and Health is the Teacher and must be studied.”13

On September 23, 1892, Otterson was one of the first members admitted to The Mother Church.14  15 Money was needed for the planned church building, and Otterson sent $500 (worth about $14,500 in 2018), noting that she wished she could send ten times that amount.16 Eventually she would far surpass that wish. At Christmastime in 1893, Eddy asked some of her students to pledge $1000 each ($29,000) for the Building Fund. The names of the 42 contributors, including Otterson, were placed in the cornerstone, laid on May 21, 1894.17

P07876, Original Edifice under construction, December 1894, Courtesy of The Mary Baker Eddy Library.

Otterson’s financial contributions continued. In December 1894, as construction on the church was nearing completion, the Treasurer sent out an emergency call for funds in the Journal.18 The response was swift, and Otterson participated, sending $7000 ($202,000).19 “I am happy to see that Christian Science has it” she wrote.20 To Eddy’s expression of thanks, she replied, “I do not deserve any thanks dear, for doing what God put into my hands to do.”21 At its completion Otterson was the single largest donor to the building of Original Mother Church, having donated over $14,000 ($421,000).22

Early in 1896 Otterson wrote to Eddy that she wanted to move to Boston so she could regularly attend The Mother Church. But Otterson’s family appeared skeptical of the plan and concerned about her financial contributions to the church.

“What a good child you have been,” Eddy wrote in a July 10, 1896, letter, adding, “no more faithful daughter could a mother have.”23 Two weeks later, Josephine Otterson died unexpectedly. After Eddy heard the news, she wrote to Henrietta Chanfrau: “Can words speak of our Mrs. Otterson? Oh no, my heart alone mentions her and sometimes I kiss the diamond cross she gave me and ‘Long to know a world more bright.’ But our loss is her gain. Let us be patient, and we shall meet where farewells never come.”24

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  1. William Henry Browne, A Treatise on the Law of Trademarks and Analogous Subjects. (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co, 1885), 215.
  2. “Dr. William Carter Otterson,” The New York Times, 19 August 1898, 7.
  3. Otterson to Eddy, 22 March 1894, IC222.37.069; U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedules, 1850-1885 for Lucy C. Taylor.
  4. Otterson, “Faith and Works,” The Christian Science Journal, September 1892, https://journal.christianscience.com/shared/view/puu7ruh72k?s=t; Otterson to Eddy, 7 May 1889, IC 222.37.001.
  5. Otterson to Eddy, 4 January 1890, IC 222.37.003.
  6. Eddy to Otterson, 4 June 1892, L18417; Otterson to Eddy, 1 June 1893, IC222.37.056.
  7. Otterson to Eddy, 7 November 1891, IC222.37.018.
  8. Eddy to Lathrop, 11 November 1891, L12950.
  9. Eddy to Henrietta Chanfrau, 16 June 1892, L03890.
  10. Otterson to Eddy, 23 September 1891, IC222.37.012.; Eddy to James B. Harrington, 18 June 1891, L02570.
  11. Otterson to Eddy, 19 November 1891, IC222.37.021.
  12. Otterson to Eddy, 16 January 1892, IC222.37.026.
  13. Otterson to Eddy, 20 January 1892, IC222.37.027.
  14. Calvin A. Frye to William B. Johnson, 27 September 1892, L01087; Calvin A. Frye, 30 September 1892, L01092.
  15. Eddy first organized the Church of Christ (Scientist) in 1879. Ten years later she asked that it be disorganized (L00008). Christian Scientists continued to meet as a voluntary association until September 23, 1892, when the church was reorganized as The First Church of Christ, Scientist (The Mother Church).
  16. Otterson to Chase, 12 January 1893, Subject File, The First Church of Christ Scientist – Edifices – Original – Building Fund – Correspondence, 1887 – 1893.
  17. Pinkham, A Miracle in Stone, (Nebbadoon Press, 2009), 139-141; Eddy to Otterson, 17 January 1894, V01284.
  18. “The Mother Church building…,” The Christian Science Journal, December 1894. https://journal.christianscience.com/imagearchive/view/?i=JRL_1894_012_09&p=0003.
  19. Chase to Eddy, 25 December 1894, IC007P1.07.018.
  20. Otterson to Eddy, 6 December 1894, IC222.37.079.
  21. Otterson to Eddy, 17 December 1894, IC222.37.080.
  22. Treasurer’s Letter Press Books, Box 20849.
  23. Eddy to Otterson, 10 July 1896, L03900; Chanfrau to Brother, 28 July 1896, 246.40.015.
  24. Eddy to Chanfrau, 3 August 1896, L03901.