Meet two NH women who founded global spiritual movements

Christian Science, First Church of Christ, Boston, founded by Mary Baker Eddy of New Hampshire, in Boston's Back Bay, completed in 1894. By Joseph Sohm/ Getty

By Stacy Milbouer

March 8, 2024

From its beginnings until now, New Hampshire has been a place where mavericks—male and female —find a home.  

Enter two such NH women leaders who founded nationwide and worldwide spiritual movements—Mother Ann Lee, the leader of the American Shaker movement, and Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Church of Christ, Scientist (also known as Christian Science).

In her 1908 “Manual of the Mother Church,” Eddy wrote Christian Science is a “return to primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing.” Christian Scientists view illness as a state of mind and not a physical disorder, and rely on prayer, not doctors, to treat disease and sickness.  That belief was rooted in Eddy’s childhood and adult life.

She was born, Mary Baker, on a farm in Bow, New Hampshire in 1821. She was, according to the Mary Baker Eddy Library, a sickly child whose parents took her to regular doctor visits but was never cured of her illnesses. She had no formal education but read and studied at home and became an avid writer. Her parents were religious Congregationalists, but she rejected their doctrine of predestination and sought spiritual doctrines of her own. She studied the Bible and was particularly fascinated by accounts of divine healing, according to a document at the Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University.

Eddy, who married three times, and was constantly sick into adulthood. In 1866, she suffered a severe spinal injury after a fall on ice. But according to her biographers, Eddy recovered completely from the accident which she attributed to a revelation she had while reading the Bible. Eddy began teaching her beliefs and writing her seminal work “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, published in 1875. The book, along with the Bible is at the center of the Christian Science belief. It’s been translated into 16 languages and sold over 10 million copies. By 1894 construction for the First Church of Christian Science in Boston began. Christian Science became the fastest-growing religion in the United States, with nearly 270,000 members in 1936, but, according to a New York Times article by Paul Vitello, its estimated membership has dropped to under 100,000. Over 1,000 Christian Science churches are remaining in the United States and 600 in other parts of the world. At the age of 87, Eddy launched the daily newspaper, “The Christian Science Monitor,” which has won seven Pulitzer Prizes and is still in publication today.  

In 1889, Eddy rented a furnished house on North State St. in Concord where she wrote “Retrospection and Introspection. Three years later she bought her own home on Pleasant Street, she called, Pleasant View, where she lived for more than 15 years – longer than any other place she lived as an adult. Here, according to Longyear Museum, she reorganized her church, wrote the “Manual of the Mother Church,” revised “Science and Health,” and led the Christian Science movement. She moved back to Boston in 1908 where she died of pneumonia at age 89 two years later. In 1995 Eddy became the first New Hampshire woman to be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

 Ann Lee was one of eight children born into a poor family in Manchester, England in 1736 and went to work in a textile mill as a young woman. She was illiterate but developed strong spiritual beliefs as a result of poverty and what she considered a moral decline brought on by the Industrial Revolution. At age 22 she joined the Shaking Quakers, a religious society founded by former Quakers, according to womenhistoryblog. Lee and eight disciples brought the Shaker religion to the American colonies in 1774 after hearing that Colonists were interested in new forms of spiritual awakening. There she began establishing societies of agrarian communal living, where property, work, and industry were equally shared. She believed that men and women were equal and should remain chaste. Shakers are also known for their craftsmanship, business practices, and inventions. They were the first to package and sell seeds and were once the largest producers of herbal medicines. Lee believed love in God could be best celebrated in hard work, dance, and song.

Because of the chastity rule, Shaker communities only grew with those who willingly joined. They also took in orphans who could opt to become Shakers if they wanted to. Lee died in 1784 at the Watervliet Shaker Village in New York, but her religion lived on.

In all, she established 19 Shaker Villages in America, which at their peak had a total of 6,000 members. In New Hampshire the Canterbury society opened in 1792 and one in Enfield a year later. The Canterbury Shaker movement lasted 200 years with the last living Shaker, Sister Ethel Hudson, dying in 1992. But since then,  Canterbury Shaker Village with 30 historic buildings has been a museum. Enfield Shaker Village at its peak in 1850, had over 300 members who lived, worked, and worshiped in three separate “families” and built more than 100 buildings. In 1923, the Shakers were forced to leave the village because of declining membership. In 1986, the Enfield Shaker Museum was established, preserving buildings, acquiring a large collection of Enfield Shaker materials, and educating the public about Shaker culture.

 

Author

  • Stacy Milbouer

    Stacy Milbouer is an award-winning journalist and has covered New Hampshire for many publications including the Boston Globe, New Hampshire Magazine, and the Nashua Telegraph.

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