100 years on: Abraham Lincoln and Mary Baker Eddy, growing in their grasp of racial justice.

Next in our “100 years on, and still going strong” series, celebrating the continued resonance of Mary Baker Eddy’s life and ideas 100 years after her passing.

Over the weekend, our Prime Minister David Cameron made multiculturalism a hot button issue again in Europe, with a speech at the International Conference on Security in Munich.  His words – and the timing of his talk – have sparked fierce debate.  However, it is self-evident that the question of how best to live together harmoniously has been around for a long time and demands constant thoughtful attention.  Jesus addressed the question of the need for each person to love all his/her neighbours as himself/herself in the same breath in which he zeroed in on the basic need to love God with all one’s heart, and soul, and mind and strength!

Two figures from 19th century US history – one a politician and the other a spiritual innovator – illustrate how, on the personal level and on the social level, our grasp of justice and mercy is a journey of understanding.

The BBC is currently broadcasting – on BBC4 – what some might call a revisionist documentary on “Honest Abe” Lincoln called Abraham Lincoln: Saint or Sinner? Its premise is that Abraham Lincoln had a “dark side” and that American adulation of him has been excessive, given some of the things he said and some of the decisions he made.

The main focus of this documentary is scrutiny of his views on race, identifying campaign speeches and private communications which – despite his sincere conviction that slavery was immoral – articulated a belief in the inferiority of those we now know as African-Americans. Even as he was writing the Emancipation Proclamation – the wartime executive order, proclaiming freedom for millions of slaves – the programme asserts that his vision was to “colonize” freed slaves – to persuade them to leave for another country – rather than to integrate them.

However, the documentary concludes that these commonly held misconceptions of his era which he held had become adjusted in his thinking by the time he was tragically assassinated. Particularly through his admiration for how black soldiers had helped the war effort, he had evolved a much greater respect for the African Americans and his view of what to do about the newly freed slaves had evolved away from colonization to inclusion.

So, despite the documentary’s provocative title, far from proving that Abraham Lincoln was a ‘sinner’ rather than a ‘saint’, the programme shines a spotlight on the fact that remarkable people are shaped by the context of their times, but become remarkable because of their ability to grow past even strongly held views as they see more, experience more, and learn more.

Though the documentary includes scholars with a variety of views, ultimately it shows a Lincoln of multi-faceted skills who, in the question of race, grows beyond his preconceptions and is willing to be led step by step beyond the limitations of his earlier views to embrace and implement a world that we, with the gift of hindsight, can more easily appreciate is a better world.

Mary Baker Eddy was also remarkable as an individual who was of her times and yet transcended her times.

Like Abe Lincoln, the woman who was to become the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science also grew up in the USA – in its northern States – in the era when slave ownership was central to life in the southern States. She wrote several forthright poems and letters in support of the war effort to overturn slavery. And she lived through, and evidently approved of, Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, since she kept an etching that portrayed him reading this to his Cabinet.  This etching hung in her favourite home, Pleasant View, and it moved with her to her last home at Chestnut Hill.

That clarity of righteousness was not ingrained in her during her childhood, however.  She was brought up by a father who, like many northerners at the time, held conservative views on slavery and believed abolitionists to be troublemakers.  Her dearly-loved brother, Albert – who also became a member of the New Hampshire legislature – had a similar view.  Their views were not atypical in her time, so much so that the young Mary Baker found herself fearful of those who – as hindsight shows – were working on the right side of history.

After the civil war, as a spiritual writer and leader of the Christian Science movement, she believed – as she wrote in her later, more overtly spiritual poetry – “Tis writ on earth, on leaf and flower: Love hath one race, one realm, one power.”

So how did she get from childhood timidity to fearless adult convictions of humanity’s universal right to freedom?

Referring to the treatment received by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison she describes her journey in this way: “Honor to faithful merit is delayed, and always has been; but it is sure to follow. The very streets through which Garrison was dragged were draped in honor of the dead hero who did the hard work, the immortal work, of loosing the fetters of one form of human slavery. I remember, when a girl, and he visited my father, how a childish fear clustered round his coming. I had heard the awful story that “he helped ‘niggers’ kill the white folks!” Even the loving children are sometimes made to believe a lie, and to hate reformers. It is pleasant, now, to contrast with that childhood’s wrong the reverence of my riper years for all who dare to be true, honest to their convictions, and strong of purpose.” (See her Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896, p. 237:24)

The phrase “one form of human slavery” is telling in this biographical paragraph. Mary Baker Eddy saw the welcome freeing of the African-American slaves, on the plane of physical interaction, as pointing to the need for all humanity – black and white, male and female – to be freed in “the higher plane” of mental enslavement to materialistic thinking. And she saw this freedom as needing to come about through spiritual growth on the part of individuals and communities.

Today, through the spiritual resources provided by Mary Baker Eddy – particularly the healing ideas articulated in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures –  people facing all kinds of problems, including prejudice and inequality, have found that God’s love can be proved to be “a very present help” in times of trouble.  Understanding the nature of God as infinite and divine Love is a very practical liberator!

Complete social justice is still a work in progress today around the world – and on a case by case basis, good people can disagree about what constitutes genuine justice.  Abraham Lincoln showed how even the best of our politicians need to keep opening their thought and hearts to a higher vision than that which their current perspectives might allow.  And Mary Baker Eddy discerned and articulated the highest possible expression of universal unity and equality in her teachings of one impartially all-loving Creator and one equally all-loved creation, including all humanity, summed up in the following words:

“One infinite God, good, unifies men and nations; constitutes the brotherhood of man; ends wars; fulfils the Scripture, “Love thy neighbor as thyself;” annihilates pagan and Christian idolatry, — whatever is wrong in social, civil, criminal, political, and religious codes; equalizes the sexes; annuls the curse on man, and leaves nothing that can sin, suffer, be punished or destroyed.”

Some of the information for this blog was sourced from a couple of items posted on TMC Youth called “Mrs Eddy and slavery” (Pts 1 and 2)“, by Mike Davis, a researcher at The Mary Baker Eddy Library for the Betterment of Humanity.  Thanks, Mike!


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Categories: Mary Baker Eddy

Author:Tony Lobl

I write and edit articles on spirituality from the perspective of the practice of Christian Science as an Associate Editor for the Christian Science periodicals. I studied at the University of Surrey earning a BSc Hons Degree in Modern Mathematics before the teachings of Christian Science transformed my life and re-shaped my career.


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One Comment on “100 years on: Abraham Lincoln and Mary Baker Eddy, growing in their grasp of racial justice.”

  1. February 7, 2011 at 4:31 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your insights on these two slavery “abolishers.”

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