The Woman Mark Twain Thought Was the ‘Most Interesting That Ever Lived’

As one of the few female founders of a major denomination in the 19th century, Mary Baker Eddy was a major figure—but her life was so much more.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

If we can fly in airplanes, defying gravity, because a little old apple fell from a seventeenth-century tree near Isaac Newton, if we can turn on lights because lightening hit a little eighteenth-century key of Benjamin Franklin’s, many of us think positive when trying to heal—and sometimes blame ourselves when we don’t—because a little old nineteenth-century lady slipped on the ice, Mary Baker Eddy.

Actually, in 1866, when the then Mary Baker Glover Patterson had the little fall that launched a bestseller, a religion, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning newspaper, 1,200 Reading Rooms, a communications empire, and some Supreme Court lawsuits, she was only 45 years old. And she would live another 44 years. But she had already hit the average life expectancy back then – and lived a stressful life. In the previous fifteen years she had buried a husband, a fiancée, a brother, her mother, and her spiritual mentor, Phineas Quimby. She had also lost contact with her only child because—depending on which faction you believe—either no one wanted to care for a widow and her rambunctious son or she was too self-involved with psychosomatic illnesses to mind him. Beyond that traumatic pile-up, Mary Baker Eddy was an emotional wreck, one of those fragile, melodramatic Victorians, prone to acting hysterical and staying in bed. Professor Harold Bloom called her "a monumental hysteric of classic dimensions, indeed a kind of anthology of nineteenth-century nervous ailments." However, this great American go-getter put the theatrics to great use.

Now, on February 1, 1866, Mary was in critical condition, having sustained a serious spinal injury after slipping on the ice while walking in Lynn, Massachusetts. Instead of dying, she had her life-defining, empire-creating, history-making, faith-healing epiphany. On her third day of anguish, writhing in pain, she opened the Bible, and, “As I read, the healing Truth dawned upon my sense.” She rose, feeling better.

She realized the power of “Life in and of Spirit; this Life being the sole reality of existence.” She would say, “I gained the scientific certainty that all causation was Mind, and every effect a mental phenomenon.” This insight would make her a Gilded Age spiritualist celebrity whose legacy resonates in every health food store entered and healing ritual attempted, in every organic vegetable consumed and homeopathic vitamin swallowed.

Born on a farm in Bow, New Hampshire in 1821, Mary Morse Baker married George Washington Glover in December 1843. By the time their son George Washington II was born nine months later, his father had died of yellow fever. Thus began a trying decade and a half that culminated with her seeking healing with a charismatic, mesmerist, Phineas Quimby, setting the stage for her new religion. Now Mary Patterson, she would repudiate hypnosis and shrug off those who accused her of stealing Quimby’s ideas. “Whether she took it or invented it,” her bete noire, Mark Twain would acknowledge, “it was a sawdust mine when she got it, and she has turned it into a Klondike.”

Mary started refining her theory that disease resides in the mind more than the body. By 1875, recently divorced, she published what became her magnum opus, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. That book fused the power of American Christianity with the lure of nineteenth-century science, promising what Jesus Christ and George Washington promised: individual salvation.

Two years later, another brief marriage to Asa Gilbert Eddy provided her final name change. Until 1910, even as Mary Baker Eddy revised her textbook in 432 editions, showing her ongoing spiritual quest, she gave her ideas an institutional infrastructure. In 1879, she established the Church of Christ, Scientist, which became the First Church of Christ Scientist 13 years later. Understanding that you needed a communications strategy, she conquered the fields of education, publishing, and journalism. She founded the Massachusetts Metaphysical College in 1881, the Christian Science Journal in 1883, the first Reading Room in 1888, the Christian Science Sentinel and the Christian Science Publishing Society in 1898, and the Christian Science Monitor in 1908.

Spiritualism shaped Mary Baker Eddy. But most Spiritualists spoke to or through the dead, while Eddy focused on the self. Moreover, as Professor Anne Braude notes in Radical Spirits, “Where spiritualists emphasized personal spiritual knowledge, Christian Scientists emphasized doctrinal uniformity.”

That uniformity, reinforced by zealous, and profitable institutions, infuriated Mark Twain. The satirist believed Eddy was fleecing the masses. While considering her “the most interesting woman that ever lived,” he also found her "[g]rasping, sordid, penurious, famishing for everything she sees—money, power, glory—vain, untruthful, jealous, despotic, arrogant, insolent, pitiless where thinkers and hypnotists are concerned, illiterate, shallow, incapable of reasoning outside of commercial lines, immeasurably selfish.” In short, Mary Baker Eddy was the kind of American Twain believed Americans loved to love and he loved to hate to show how much he loved them.

The great Mary Baker Eddy debate continues. Some biographers, like Gillian Gill celebrate her as one of those nineteenth-century “women who were strong in their religious faith, in their fruitful bodies, in their property rights, in their talents” – and endured sexist attacks. Others echo Twain, blasting this chronically unhealthy women – and rumored morphine addict -- who tried healing Americans by denying them medicines she used; this spiritual leader who was enough of a materialist to leave a $3 million estate. Similarly, the debate about Christian Science continues, especially with the occasional court case pitting First Amendment rights to practice religion freely versus parents’ responsibilities to treat sick children medically not just spiritually.

Mary Baker Eddy’s tale is about the Puritans, and their debate about a covenant of works, whether God makes you do well if you do good. It is the story of the American Revolution, creating a redemptive New World Order. It is the story of Thomas Jefferson’s belief in individualism and the pursuit of happiness. It is the story of the nineteenth century religious revivalists, and Spiritualists, spreading Christianity as a Gospel that delivers the goods for the good. And it is the story of Gilded Age capitalists, mass marketing with mass media.

Few Americans are Christian Scientists, but we have all been Christian Scientized. When we ask lung cancer victims if they smoke, trying not to sound accusatory. When we judge the overweight harshly. When we start exercising to avoid medication, start meditating while undergoing cancer treatments, or simply pray for our health, we are calculating that healing is not just about science. Studies suggest that prayer works – but not exclusively and – what’s that most unfashionable phrase today -- “in moderation.”

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Caroline Fraser, God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church (1999, 2000). A former Christian Scientist says the church – and Mary Baker Eddy – are not very Christian nor scientific.

Gilliam Gill, Mary Baker Eddy (Radcliffe Biography Series) (1998). A positive reading of Eddy.

Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (1875). The original.

Mark Twain, Christian Science (1907). Twain on the warpath!