For more than four decades the Christian Science church refused to publish a book it considered heretical.
But now, faced with the loss of $92 million in potential revenue, the church has changed its mind. The book in question The Destiny of the Mother Church by Bliss Knapp, a Christian Science lecturer who died in 1958 — elevated church founder Mary Baker Eddy to the status of a biblical prophet. Until this year the 260-page book, which was written and privately published in 1947, was on the church’s “incorrect literature” list.
Stephen Gottschalk, an authority on Christian Science and a leader in a growing dissident movement within the church, said in the October 2, 1991 Los AngeIes Times that the book “comes close to deifying Eddy.” Similarly, former church archivist Lee Z. Johnson, who was fired in January, 1991, told the October 14, 1991 Philadelphia Inquirer that the book is blasphemous” because it gives Eddy the same stature as Christ and that the church is publishing it “because it is desperate for money.”
Mrs. Eddy, who founded the church in 1879, actively discouraged her followers from elevating her to the status of prophet, the Inquirer article states.
According to published reports, under the condition of the wills of the author, his wife, and his sister-in-law, if the church published the book as “authorized” church literature and displayed it prominently in “substantially all” Christian Science reading rooms (which number about 2500) within 20 years after the death of the last of the family, the church would get about $92 million left in trust. If they didn’t publish it the money was to be divided between Stanford University and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The last of the family died in 1973, which meant that in order to receive the money the book had to be published and displayed by May, 1993.
According to a church official quoted in the Times article, the church decided to publish the book and mail copies to the reading rooms in late September 1991 as part of a series of 15 biographies of Eddy. But within the church this decision is being debated due to growing opposition from some reading rooms to carrying the book.
Many church observers suggest that the decision to publish the book was related to the church’s declining financial condition, the church treasurer quoted in the Inquirer article said that it would have been “fiscally irresponsible” for the church’s board not to consider publishing it.
The article noted that in the past five years the church’s total available funds have dipped from $208 million to $117 million. Operating expenses have more than doubled from $54 million to $115 million. Additionally, the church has been losing members — a reported slide from 270,000 in the 1930s to about 150,000 today.
The church has also been facing a handful of highly publicized government prosecutions under child abuse and manslaughter statutes related to deaths that some say could have been prevented. (See the Winter/Spring 1989 CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL.) A hallmark of Christian Science teaching is that all disease can be cured by prayer rather than through medical treatment.
At the same time the church has been increasing its media outreach at a high price. In addition to publishing the Christian Science Monitor the church in recent years has gotten into television, shortwave and public radio, and began publishing a monthly international news magazine. In May 1991 the church launched what the Inquirer called “their biggest undertaking of all — a 24-hour, advertiser-supported cable television network called the Monitor Channel.”