Suffering Children and the Christian Science Church

April 1995 | The Atlantic Online

I am one. Most people who have heard of Christian Science know one thing about it: Christian Scientists do not "believe" in doctors.More accurately, Christian Scientists do not believe in medical science, or what they call "materia medica."

He had braces on his teeth (Christian Scientists often accept dental care), and his hair was cut short.

His grandmother, Ruth Wantland, who lived nearby, and his father were Christian Scientists.She wanted to move with her children and her new husband to Pennsylvania, but James Wantland wanted his children to stay with him.Gayle Quigley, who had been raised as a Christian Scientist but had left the faith after her remarriage, told the judge that she wanted her children to be provided with mainstream medical care and not just Christian Science treatment.

His treatment had consisted of the prayers of his father, his grandmother, and a Christian Science "practitioner," or Church-appointed healer, Ann McCann.

Within the past decade criminal convictions have been obtained in California against two sets of Christian Science parents who allowed their children to die without medical treatment.

The Mother Church was built in 1894, at the behest of Mary Baker Eddy, who was for years known to her followers as Mother. Along with the Bible, it became the foundation of Christian Science.

The Mother Church, from another perspective
The Mother Church, from another perspective (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During the 1960s and 1970s a number of Christian Scientists occupied powerful positions in the federal government, as judges and as directors of the FBI and the CIA. H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, both Christian Scientists, used their influence as top aides in the Nixon White House to shepherd a bill through Congress which extended the copyright of Eddy's Science and Health (its full title is Science and Health With Key to the Scriptures) for an extra seventy-five years.

In recent decades the Christian Science Church has succeeded in most states in establishing the right of Christian Scientists to deny their children medical treatment. Lobbyists have encouraged state legislatures to enact laws that protect Christian Scientists from prosecution for child abuse or neglect.

The Church refuses to release any figures on its membership, but in 1989 a Church official told the Los Angeles Times that there were roughly 7,000 Christian Science children in this country. No national studies on the mortality of Christian Scientists have ever been done, but smaller studies have pointed to a high mortality rate among Christian Scientists--for example, among the graduates of Principia, the Christian Science college.

The late Robert Peel, a Christian Science scholar, in his 1987 book Spiritual Healing in a Scientific Age, offered expanded anecdotal accounts of Christian Science healing.

Christian Scientists have persuaded many insurance companies to make reimbursements for the "treatment," or prayers, of Christian Science practitioners. Insurance companies must be happy to cover Chris-tian Scientists: Church members do not smoke or drink; and in an age when even the simplest visit to a doctor costs up to several hundred dollars and a stay in the hospital costs thousands, a Christian Science practitioner charges, on average, somewhere between $10 and $50 for a treatment.

How do people become Christian Scientists?Nearly every Christian Scientist I have known has been involved with the Church from childhood and has a long family connection to it, going back several generations.

The religion encourages secrecy. My father has never once in my presence admitted to feeling ill.

Gottschalk has a reputation, unusual among Christian Scientists, for being brutally frank about his religion. Finally, here was a Christian Scientist for whom nothing, not even the protracted illness of the Church itself, was unmentionable.

For almost thirteen years Gottschalk worked at Church headquarters, a twenty-eight-story building designed by I. M. Pei, in Boston's Back Bay.Gottschalk is still an avid and active Christian Scientist, but his inside knowledge of the personalities and practices of the committee has made him one of the most effective enemies of the Church's current leadership. In 1973 Gottschalk published the first scholarly work about the Church, The Emergence of Christian Science in American Religious Life.

(He died of an intestinal blockage that could have been surgically corrected. ) The trial, which was taking place "in the very shadow of the Mother Church," as The New York Times put it, attracted an unprecedented amount of scrutiny and raised troubling questions about the Christian Science way of life and its dangers to children.

"Toes haven't uncurled since," Gottschalk told me cheerfully. Nathan Talbot was deeply disturbed by the letter.

Steve Gottschalk is now a free-lance scholar. He writes regularly about Christian Science for encyclopedias (including the Encyclopaedia Britannica) and religious periodicals, and his wife, Mary, is a free-lance teacher of German.

Gottschalk seems to enjoy being a thorn in the Church's side.

His parents were consumed with Christian Science, believing that one of Eddy's followers had cured Mrs. Knapp of a serious illness. He became known among Christian Scientists as "the Revelation man," and Eddy named him one of the first directors of the board that would oversee her Church.

Knapp had his book--part family history, part religious speculation--privately printed in 1947 and submitted it to the Christian Science Publishing Society.

Mary Baker Eddy was nobody's fool. Her ambiguity left the door open for Knapp's re evaluation.

Nothing has ever rocked the foundations of Christian Science as did the publication of Knapp's Destiny of the Mother Church. What's more (and what was even worse to many members), the Church, in granting its imprimatur to Knapp's beliefs by publishing his book as authorized literature, had tainted the religion's hard-won status as a Christian faith and handed the enemies of Christian Science all the ammunition they needed to brand it a cult.

Hundreds of branch churches refused to sell it in their reading rooms. What seemed like a minor theological squabble to outsiders was like an earthquake inside the Church.The directors of the Church--who claim to this day that they did not publish the book for the money- had apparently despised and feared the influence of Bliss Knapp before their about face in 1991. In 1987, while working on a TV documentary about the life of Mary Baker Eddy, Church members asked the actor Robert Duvall--who was raised as a Christian Scientist and graduated from Principia--to provide the narration. When the directors learned of this, they at first refused to approve him, solely because Duvall's parents had studied Christian Science with Bliss Knapp. (I have heard such students called "Knappers" by other Christian Scientists).

At this Gottschalk grew uncomfortable, sighing and shifting in his chair. It seemed to me that Gottschalk, an involved and affectionate father, would never neglect the well-being of his own children. But he is firmly opposed to any legal restrictions on the right of Christian Science parents to treat their children with prayer alone.

We both knew what they were. The illnesses and deaths of Christian Science children--and adults--are not only frequently senseless, they are often shockingly grotesque. The only child of John King, a real estate executive in Phoenix, Arizona, and his wife, Catherine, both Christian Scientists, she was withdrawn from school in November of 1987 because of "a problem with her leg."

Ashley stayed in the hospital for only six days.Officials with Child Protective Services reached an agreement with her parents whereby Ashley would be transferred to Upward View, a Christian Science nursing home. She died on June 5, 1988.

The Church took the position, as it always has, that children die in hospitals, too. The difference--that children who die in hospitals have the benefit of something other than the words of Mary Baker Eddy ringing in their ears--does not figure in the Church's logic.

The year 1988 was a busy time for Nathan Talbot.

My own mother was a late convert to Christian Science. She married a man who had been a Christian Scientist all his life, and, although she did not join the Church for many years, she obediently followed him to church every Sunday and Wednesday. She put on a compliant face and never openly questioned my father's beliefs, raising us children to be churchgoing, Science and Health--reading "Scientists." But underneath I know she was a skeptic.

Memories of childhood are necessarily subjective, and although my parents loved their children and were generally responsible, the power of Christian Science to alter or distort normal parental impulses colored my childhood. Before I went to high school, nearly everyone I knew well, except for my mother's family, was a Christian Scientist. The first inkling I had of how other people felt about my beliefs was when I tried to explain to my high school boyfriend, who was Jewish, what Christian Science was all about.

. . . This makes Christian Science early available").The Church's religious periodicals regularly publish children's own accounts of illnesses they have been allowed to treat themselves.

Christian Scientists not only don't like to acknowledge illness; they don't like to see it. Mark Twain, who thought Mary Baker Eddy was a charlatan, was so outraged by the illogic of Christian Science that he wrote a book, Christian Science, about it.

I thought there must be some mistake."

She was a Christian Scientist, so she had a distance on those things.

It's your choice." "

That infuriating, smug calm in the face of crisis is part of what makes Christian Science so dangerous.

My mother sent me newspaper clippings about his death, about a bomb threat to my parents' church, and about the Seattle prosecutor's decision not to indict Betty Schram for manslaughter.

Shortly after I left home, my mother finally joined the Christian Science Church.

We were in the classic bind of the lapsed children of Christian Scientists: we wanted to save our parents from themselves.

Spalding Gray has written extensively about his mother, a Christian Scientist who was also a manic-depressive: not a good combination.

Christian Science isn't working for my mother either. Being a Christian Scientist is an education in what life must have been like in the centuries before medical science discovered antibiotics, penicillin, the art of diagnosis. H. R. Haldeman's son Peter wrote recently in The New York Times Magazine about his father's death, in 1993, of an undiagnosed, untreated stomach ailment. My mother momentarily believed he was dead.

Not every Christian Science mother has toed the line when faced with a choice between obeying her Church and saving her child. Two women--one who lost a child under Christian Science treatment, and another who saved hers at the last minute with medical care--have attacked the Church's position on the incompatibility of medicine and prayer, and their campaigns have begun to take a toll.

Rita Swan was a Christian Scientist until she left the Church, in 1977, after her sixteen-month-old son, Matthew, died of bacterial meningitis under Christian Science treatment.

Finding these cases is not easy. Swan documented one case of a Christian Science child whose experience may have been very much like that of Ashley King--thirteen-year-old Kris Ann Lewin, who in 1981 died at home of bone cancer after an illness lasting at least a year. But the full story of what happened to Kris Ann Lewin may never be known; Child Protective Services in Pennsylvania, the state where she died, was required to destroy her records because child abuse couldn't be proved.

As Rita Swan has found, this is something that state and federal legislators, pressured by lobbyists for the Christian Science Church and fearful of being labeled intolerant, are reluctant to do. In September of last year the Los Angeles Times reported that Church lobbyists, working with two U.S. representatives with connections to Christian Science, (Lamar Smith, of Texas, is a Christian Scientist, and John Porter, of Illinois, was raised as one), managed to ensure the insertion into the year's largest appropriations bill of a provision blocking the Department of Health and Human Services from denying some financial aid to states that flout its demand that parents provide medical care for children.

Recently Swan has focused her energies on a new method by which to compel the Church and its members to realize that their "radical reliance" on Christian Science when it comes to children is unwise.

In August of 1993 the jury held Ian's mother, Kathleen McKown, partly responsible for his death and awarded Lundman damages of more than $5 million, to be paid by McKown, her husband, the Christian Science practitioner who treated Ian, the Christian Science nursing home that provided his nurse, the local representative of the Committee on Publication, and the Church itself.

The Lundman decision has paved the way for similar civil suits, which could conceivably be filed by any close relative of a child who dies under Christian Science treatment.

Suzanne Shepard is another waking nightmare for the Church. In 1987 she watched her six-year-old daughter, Marilyn, lapse into a coma, and asked herself if she wanted "to be a good Christian Scientist and not have a daughter, or be a bad Christian Scientist and have a daughter." Against the wishes of her practitioner, and followed by two Christian Science friends who hoped to talk her out of her decision, Shepard drove her daughter to St. Louis Children's Hospital and saved her life; Marilyn had appendicitis and peritonitis. Shepard says, "He said that if she lived, her next healing would be more difficult, because she would not be able to understand Christian Science."

In 1993, after Aaron Witte, the child of one of Shepard's Christian Science friends, died of diabetes the day before his thirteenth birthday, she took her story to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

A fourth-generation Christian Scientist, Shepard has seen many members of her family die prematurely and terribly. As a teenager, she was paralyzed for several weeks after fracturing two vertebrae in her neck; her right side is still affected because she didn't go to a doctor until years after the injury.

The parents of a six-year-old girl called to ask her to pray for the child because she had fallen and bruised her arm. Her parents had gone to work and left her on the floor with the telephone. As Church authorities well know, she is not the first to suggest that prayer and medicine can be combined in the Christian Science faith.

As everyone from Mark Twain to the police detective who investigated the case of Ashley King has noticed, Christian Scientists wear eyeglasses, go to dentists, use canes. Mary Baker Eddy suggested that Church members who did not find healing through her methods might go to a doctor. Bliss Knapp is not the only Christian Scientist to have engaged in revisionism.

A year and a half ago, when I began investigating the controversies discussed in this article, I got in touch with Nathan Talbot and Victor Westberg to ask for their responses--indeed, for any statement about the Church's position on the treatment of children or on any of the child cases.

Virginia Harris, the chairwoman of the board, recently completed a twelve-city promotional tour, publicizing the Church's new trade edition of Science and Health.

No one would argue with the Christian Scientist's right to religious freedom, but the unnecessary deaths of Christian Science children raise pressing questions about the conflict between an adult's right to practice his or her religion and a child's right to live.

The dogmatic reaction of the Church in many of these cases is particularly puzzling in light of the reality that most Christian Scientists strike a balance between their faith and their children's welfare. Christian Scientists willingly obey this country's laws requiring the presence of a physician or a licensed midwife during childbirth; some have cesarean sections (including the Christian Science mother in Florida who was tried for the death of her daughter). My own recollections and interviews with those currently practicing suggest that some Christian Scientists are willing to have their children vaccinated.Moderate Christian Scientists say, "C.S. stands for Common Sense," and a number of those I interviewed insisted that the individual parent must decide which children's illnesses or injuries can or cannot be "handled in Science."

In Great Britain and Canada, countries with no ambiguous religious-exemption laws, Christian Scientists are required, along with everyone else, to provide their children with medical care. But although Christian Scientists in those countries seem to have adapted to that arrangement, it is difficult to find any Christian Scientists in this country who agree that the British system is preferable.

Some of these same eminent Christian Scientists have publicly criticized the Church's broadcasting and publishing plans. As it is, if 7,000 children attend Christian Science Sunday schools in this country, then 7,000 children may have nothing standing between themselves and death but the Science and Health and dumb luck.

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