The issue of religious exemptions for vaccine mandates has raised the profile of “Christian Science,” a group that previously helped push through similar exemptions in American jurisprudence. Yet despite Christian Science’s having been around for 142 years, most people don’t know much about this small and declining religious movement.
Here are nine things you should know about Christian Science.
1. The ‘science’ of Christian Science is spiritual healing.
Christian Science is a non-Christian sect that was created by New Englander Mary Baker Eddy. After being severely injured in 1866, Eddy turned to the Bible, where she claims to have discovered the laws of spiritual healing. In her view, spiritual healing isn’t miraculous, but an “effect of understanding God’s all-power and love.” Eddy and two dozen of her followers were granted a charter by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1879 to found the “Church of Christ (Scientist).” The group changed its name to the “Church of Christ, Scientist” in 1892.
2. Christian Scientists claim to have no doctrines—though they do have six tenets.
When asked if Christian Scientists had a religious creed, Eddy replied, “They have not, if by that term is meant doctrinal beliefs.” Yet Eddy did offer six tenets that briefly summarize the teachings of Christian Science:
1. As adherents of Truth, we take the inspired Word of the Bible as our sufficient guide to eternal Life.
2. We acknowledge and adore one supreme and infinite God. We acknowledge His Son, one Christ; the Holy Ghost or divine Comforter; and man in God’s image and likeness.
3. We acknowledge God’s forgiveness of sin in the destruction of sin and the spiritual understanding that casts out evil as unreal. But the belief in sin is punished so long as the belief lasts.
4. We acknowledge Jesus’ atonement as the evidence of divine, efficacious Love, unfolding man’s unity with God through Christ Jesus the Way-shower; and we acknowledge that man is saved through Christ, through Truth, Life, and Love as demonstrated by the Galilean Prophet in healing the sick and overcoming sin and death.
5. We acknowledge that the crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection served to uplift faith to understand eternal Life, even the allness of Soul, Spirit, and the nothingness of matter.
6. And we solemnly promise to watch, and pray for that Mind to be in us which was also in Christ Jesus; to do unto others as we would have them do unto us; and to be merciful, just, and pure.
3. Their ‘pastor’ is not a human, but a pair of books.
For Christian Scientists, the ultimate textual authority is not the Bible but Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. In that book, Eddy says that “Christian Science is unerring and Divine” while the Bible has been corrupted and contains “manifest mistakes.” Yet together, Science and Health and the Bible (usually the KJV) are considered the “universal Pastor” for the Church of Christ, Scientist. During worship services on Sundays, a Bible lesson—a sermon of passages from these books—is presented by readers. Their Wednesday services include “topical readings from the pastor” and time for congregants to “share how it has illumined their inseparable relationship with God and brought about healing through prayer.”
4. Christian Scientists distinguish between Jesus and Christ.
For Christian Scientists, Jesus was a man who lived in first-century Palestine and Christ is the name for a certain divine idea: “Jesus is the human man, and Christ is the divine idea; hence the duality of Jesus the Christ.” The invisible Christ (“the ideal Truth, that comes to heal sickness and sin through Christian Science”) became perceptible in the visible Jesus, who was a mere man and demonstrated the divine idea. Eddy once said, “If there had never existed such a person as the Galilean Prophet, it would make no difference to me.”
5. Christian Scientists deny the Trinity and replace the person of the Holy Spirit with ‘divine Science.’
In Science and Health, Eddy denies the historic doctrine of the Trinity: “The theory of three persons in one God (that is, a personal Trinity or Tri-unity) suggests polytheism, rather than the one ever-present I AM.” In place of this concept, Eddy outlines her version of the triune God:
Life, Truth, and Love constitute the triune Person called God,—that is, the triply divine Principle, Love. Divine trinity They represent a trinity in unity, three in one,—the same in essence, though multiform in office: God the Father-Mother; Christ the spiritual idea of sonship; divine Science or the Holy Comforter. These three express in divine Science the threefold, essential nature of the infinite.
6. Christian Scientists believe that matter—and sin—are illusions.
Christian Scientists believe that while matter (material existence) appears real to our physical senses, it is ultimately illusory. To discover what is ultimately real, we have to rely solely on “spiritual sense.” The “blessed purpose of Christianity” is therefore to “awaken thought spiritually.” For this reason, they believe Jesus provided proof that the “material senses themselves are mistaken about the nature of reality” and that he “showed that Spirit and its spiritual creation are the reality.” Sin and evil may appear to be real, but are merely a delusion. “The only reality of sin, sickness, or death,” Eddy wrote, “is the awful fact that unrealities seem real to human, erring belief, until God strips off their disguise.”
7. Most people only know of Christian Scientists because of their Reading Rooms and their newspaper.
Two institutions most associated with Christian Science are Reading Rooms and The Christian Science Monitor. The Manual of The Mother Church directs that “each church of the Christian Science denomination shall have a Reading Room” and that “literature sold or exhibited in the reading rooms of Christian Science Churches shall consist only of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, by Mary Baker Eddy, and other writings by this author; also the literature published or sold by The Christian Science Publishing Society.” The sect describes a Reading Room as “a place to read, pray, and get inspired” and “a space where many have been healed by studying the lessons of the Bible and nurturing a connection with God.”
The Christian Science Monitor was founded by Eddy in 1908 as a daily newspaper. The paper, which has won seven Pulitzer Prizes, doesn’t consider itself a religious publication, despite being one of five publications produced by The Christian Science Publishing Society.
8. Christian Scientists helped create religious exemptions for medical-neglect laws.
A Christian Scientist named Dorothy Sheridan was convicted in 1967 of involuntary manslaughter for refusing to treat her child’s illness with antibiotics. The conviction promoted Christian Scientists to lobby the government for a religious exemption from state medical neglect laws. Massachusetts, where Sheridan was convicted, granted one in 1971.
Three years later, President Nixon’s Department of Health, Education, and Welfare issued a ruling requiring states either to pass exemptions to child medical-treatment laws based on religious exemption or lose federal funds (H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, and John Ehrlichman, the chief adviser for domestic affairs, were both Christian Scientists).
As a result, 44 states eventually passed exemptions. This requirement was removed in 1983. A religious exemption was added to the text of the law in 1996 but was again removed in 2003. The most recent reauthorization does not include a religious exemption. In 34 states (as well as the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico), exemptions remain in the civil child-abuse statutes when medical treatment for a child conflicts with the religious beliefs of parents.
9. Christian Scientists can take medicine, visit doctors, and don’t necessarily oppose state-mandated vaccinations.
Spiritual healing is a core teaching of Christian Science. Yet while Christian Scientists are discouraged from using medicine or seeking health care from a doctor, it is not necessarily forbidden by the religion. The official position of the sect is that it is a matter of individual conscience. On the issue of vaccine mandates, the official position of the sect is it has “appreciated vaccination exemptions and sought to use them conscientiously and responsibly, when they have been granted.” But it also notes,
For more than a century, our denomination has counseled respect for public health authorities and conscientious obedience to the laws of the land, including those requiring vaccination. Christian Scientists report suspected communicable disease, obey quarantines, and strive to cooperate with measures considered necessary by public health officials. We see this as a matter of basic Golden Rule ethics and New Testament love.