Massachusetts: The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As the headquarters of the Christian Science movement, The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, is also known as The Mother Church.

Site Office

The First Church of Christ, Scientist

Visitor Services

175 Huntington Avenue

Boston, MA 02115

ph.: (617) 450-2000

Web site: www.tfccs.com/GV/TMC/

The unique position of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, is marked by the exclusive “The” in its title–branch church buildings elsewhere are called “First Church of Christ, Scientist” or “Second,” and so on, without the definite article. The Mother Church consists of two adjoining parts lying on an east-west axis: the smaller “Original Edifice,” built from 1893 to 1894 to the plans of a local architect, in a Romanesque style with a bell tower at the eastern end; and The Mother Church Extension, built back to back with it, an imposing domed basilica-type construction completed in 1906 in a mixture of the Byzantine and Italian Renaissance styles. In 1975 a portico was added to the Extension, harmonizing the church buildings with the rest of the complex, the modern part of which was planned and executed in concrete between 1962 and 1975 by the firm of I. M. Pei and Partners. The partners included individuals who later composed the firm of Cossutta and Ponte. The center also includes the neo-classical Christian Science Publishing House building of 1934, the five-story Colonnade Building, the twenty-eight-story Church Administration Building, and the quadrant-shaped, three-story Sunday School.

Mary Baker Eddy

The directive to begin constructing the original edifice in Boston was given to the Christian Science Board of Directors by the movement’s founder and leader, Mary Baker Eddy, in September, 1893. The building was to be finished and ready for use by the end of 1894.

Eddy had been born into a New Hampshire Congregationalist family, the Bakers; she is best known by the last name of her third husband, Asa G. Eddy, whom she married in 1877. Suffering from delicate health, she had long been interested in questions of healing, about which she wrote and lectured, and she had investigated the apparent curative powers of hydropathy, the Graham system, mind cure, suggestion, and homeopathy, among others. Her most constant and in-depth study, however, was of the Bible, in particular the cures brought about by Jesus and his disciples. A turning point in her thought occurred in 1866 when, after reading passages in the New Testament about Jesus’ healings, she recovered unexpectedly from the nearly fatal effects of a fall. This experience, confirming her theory that disease was a mental phenomenon, inspired her to evolve over a period of years, through study of the Bible, prayer, and demonstration, a spiritual regimen intended to enable students to practice Scripture-based Christianity. In particular, an understanding of the divine laws behind Jesus’ healings would aim to shed light on the problem of suffering and evil of all kinds. This spiritual practice, which she called Christian Science, would develop morals, joy, and healing for the difficulties encountered in life, and at the same time cure illness through prayer, without medication, thus demonstrating faith in action, the practicality of God’s law of good.

Matter in Christian Science is seen as a human mental construct which yields to an understanding of the spiritual nature of God’s creation. According to Eddy, true reality is spiritual. Christ healed sickness and sin and overcame death by his understanding of the spiritual nature of God’s creation. Anyone can follow his example, through systematic Bible study, prayer, effort, trials, patience, repentance, and unselfish love, and can progressively and practically prove that the understanding of the nature of God, the divine Mind, or Love, heals.

Science and Health

Eddy published in 1875 her primary work on Christian Science, Science and Health. Completed later by the addition of the Key to the Scriptures, its ideas were considered both by her and her followers to be divinely inspired. The Bible and Science and Health constitute the fundamental texts of the Christian Science faith. With the same goals of spirituality and simplicity, Eddy later set out in her Manual of The Mother Church (1895) the By-Laws governing the Church. The business of the Church is carried out by the self-perpetuating five-member Christian Science Board of Directors.

Eddy taught and healed according to her “discovery,” expecting it to be accepted by and incorporated into orthodox Christianity. When it was not and increasing interest was evident, in 1879 she and fifteen of her followers organized the Church of Christ (Scientist) in Boston, meeting in the early days in private houses and hired halls. On September 1, 1892, Eddy reorganized the church as The First Church of Christ, Scientist, by giving land upon which to build the church to the Christian Science Board of Directors. The plot was on a marshy spit of land called Gravelly Point.

Building the Original Church

There was a rule that The Mother Church was not to be funded from debts or mortgages, only from money in hand. The story of its construction was marked by a repeated need for ad hoc adaptation to changing circumstances, financial and technical, to reach the goal of completing the church edifice by December 30, 1894.

A stone building was approved and gray New Hampshire granite chosen. Then new laws requiring fireproofing increased the projected cost by over a third. The sum the Board of Directors had at their disposal was far less than the total amount projected. To get permission to start building, estimates had to be obtained and a plan selected and approved by city officials. The problem was not only financial; there were difficulties in getting specifications and estimates from contractors. The permit was finally obtained, and work proceeded with confidence that God would provide.

The pile-driving and foundations contracts were signed on October 19, 1893, and the first stone was laid, on time, on November 8. Work had to be suspended for the worst of the winter, but funds began to flow in again, enough for it to be decided that a start could be made on the walls. The contractors agreed to halt the work if funds failed and then resume again as necessary. Once more, in spite of hitches and delays, materials were obtained and building proceeded. The cornerstone, together with a sealed copper box containing (among other items) one copy of the Bible and one of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (bound to match), was placed in position on May 21, 1894, and marked with a plaque. So it went, with cash flow problems, workmen’s anxiety, and delays. Snow fell early in October and November, 1894, into the still roofless, floorless, windowless church, but impressive energy, persistent prayer, and trust were brought to bear, and the struggle to meet the deadline succeeded. On December 30, 1894, the first Sunday service was held in The Mother Church.

Architectural Features of the Church

From outside, the gray stone building displays a mixture of rounded and straight window shapes, turrets and chimneys and little arcades, a complicated roof, and a semicircular apselike feature attached to its square tower. Inside there is a vestibule, then a rectangular auditorium with a semicircular balcony, a fresco under the ceiling, rows of pews arranged in an arc in front of the platform with its two readers’ desks, and at the rear of the platform the organ, donated by a member of the church in gratitude for a healing. Slender bronze casings instead of wooden frames minimize the darkening effect of narrow Romanesque-style stained glass windows. The stained glass, set mainly around the auditorium, the balcony, and on either side of the platform, includes a rose window representing the raising of Jairus’s daughter; another, representing the biblical New Jerusalem, whose four principal sides are discussed in Science and Health; rectangular windows depicting such scenes from the New Testament as the raising of Lazarus and the resurrection of Christ; one span of six long, narrow windows representing the six water jugs that figured in the narrative of the wedding at Cana; and two narrow windows depicting lamps which refer to Psalm 119:105, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”

In the tower off the main vestibule, an apartment known as “Mother’s Room” was built–including marble features matching those in the church itself–and carefully furnished for Eddy. The general use by Christian Scientists of the term “Mother” to designate the founder of their movement drew some public criticism, notably from Mark Twain. Eddy decided that “Leader” should be used to describe her role instead. To dispel a sense of personalization, in 1908 she had the Mother’s Room closed and dismantled.

Expansion

With the Christian Science congregation growing rapidly, the original Mother Church’s capacity of just under one thousand people soon proved inadequate; by 1905 there had to be three Sunday services to cope with the numbers. In 1902 Eddy called for the building of an extension which, it was decided at the June annual meeting of the movement, should be able to seat four thousand to five thousand people, at a cost of up to two million dollars to be contributed voluntarily by Christian Scientists and others worldwide. By 1903 the rest of the triangular plot on which the original Mother Church stood had been acquired and paid for. The land lay between Falmouth, Norway, and St. Paul Streets. Building was begun early in 1904 and proceeded as more funds were contributed. Because of the nature of the terrain (a landfill site affected by underground tidewater), it was necessary to support the structure on wooden piles, this time more than four thousand of them. The cornerstone was placed at the angle of St. Paul and Falmouth Streets on July 16, 1904. Once again the stone contained copies of the two basic texts of Christian Science, the Bible and Science and Health.

Money came in to the building fund from branch churches and individual members, but it was settled that whereas for the original Mother Church individuals had been allowed to donate specific items such as the organ and stained glass windows, the use of donations would now be decided by the Board of Directors. As the June, 1906, deadline approached–the date of the annual meeting–tradesmen labored in shifts around the clock. The essential work was done in time and paid for in stages, with enough money left over for the remaining finishing touches.

The architects for The Mother Church Extension were Charles Brigham of Boston, who had designed the old Boston Art Museum, Solon Spenser Beman of Chicago, and later the firm of Brigham, Coveney, and Bisbee. Eddy, though she never visited the Extension, was involved in some of the planning. A combination of Byzantine and Italian Renaissance style was evolved, using for the walls, around a steel skeleton, New Hampshire granite to match the tone of the older building, and Bedford limestone from Indiana, with Tennessee marble for ornamental features. The extension’s twelve bells are housed in the lantern of the 224-foot-high dome, 82 feet in diameter, that forms the apex of the auditorium, with its shape echoed at the north and south ends of the building.

The Mother Church Extension is built onto the western end of the Original Church, along the same east-west line, and symmetrically, so that their respective platforms and organs stand back to back against the middle wall and their vestibules lie one at each end of the double structure.

Development of the Surrounding Neighborhood

In the decades prior to its most recent development, The Mother Church was surrounded by low-rise buildings, street traffic, and a railroad yard. It has taken on a different aspect, as the nucleus of an organic whole, in the public setting created for it by the Christian Science Center’s plaza.

The center project got under way in 1962 under the direction of the Christian Science Board of Directors. The Church had already acquired much of the land needed, giving assistance to displaced tenants, and had a justified confidence that the seventy-five million-dollar cost of the center would be covered by voluntary contributions from members and well-wishers.

The architectural scheme was planned by I. M. Pei, a Chinese architect who had studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and designed the glass pyramid at the Louvre as well as Boston’s John Hancock Tower. He appointed in overall charge Araldo Cossutta, a graduate of Harvard and of the Paris École des Beaux-Arts, with Vicente Ponte as planning consultant.

Any tendency one might feel to see the juxtaposition of old buildings and new as a sort of two-way architectural irony is prevented by the planners’ obvious regard for the priority and centrality of The Mother Church edifices as the material symbol of a spiritual intention. The colors, textures, and shapes of these edifices, systematically taken up and continued in a modern mode and on a modern scale, are re-created in the bold curving and rectilinear designs of the new buildings, with their concrete colonnades, sweeping futuristic walkways, frameless plate glass windows, and coffered ceilings (which conceal telephone and power lines and air-conditioning ducts).

The 525-foot-long Colonnade Building houses media studios for television, radio, and shortwave radio broadcasting; editorial offices for The Christian Science Journal, Sentinel, and Herald; editorial and publishing offices for The Christian Science Monitor, an authoritative international daily newspaper; and a nondenominational Bible Discovery Place for the community, especially young people. The Christian Science Publishing Society is one of the biggest distributors of the Bible around the world. The tall Church Administration Building contains the directors’ offices and board room and the church’s administrative departments; and the quadrant-shaped three-story Sunday School, for young people up to age twenty, has classrooms and an auditorium seating over a thousand.

Distinct from the administrative buildings is the 1934 Publishing House. In 2000, the Board of Directors announced plans for a multimillion-dollar research library there. Called the Mary Baker Eddy Library for the betterment of Humanity, it would house more than 500,000 documents of the church’s founder, as well as exhibits and meeting spaces. The building has always contained a proportioned, thirty-foot, illuminated stained-glass globe, the Mapparium, which allows a visitor to step inside and experience a unified view of the world with 1935 boundaries.

The elements of the complex are situated around and reflected in a rectangular pool 670 feet long, 110 feet wide, and 2 feet deep, bordered along most of its south-east length by flower beds; beyond these is a promenade lined with linden trees. At the eastern end of the reflecting pool is a circular fountain 80 feet in diameter, the size and shape of the extension’s dome.

The Modern Church

The form of religious service used in The Mother Church is followed in the branch churches. On Sundays (in The Mother Church Extension in the morning and in the Original Edifice in the evening), after an opening hymn, a scripture reading, silent prayer, and praying the Lord’s Prayer aloud, two elected readers, one male and the other female without priority by gender, read from the Bible and from related passages in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. The subject and citations differ each week, the subject being one of a rotating set of topics studied by the congregation during the previous week. There is no preacher, no altar, and no outward form of sacrament, although communion is observed twice a year as silent prayer, without a bread and wine ceremony. Baptism is considered an ongoing purification of thought and action. The first part of the Wednesday meetings is given to readings from the Bible and Science and Health on a subject chosen by the first reader; in the second part, members of the congregation bear witness to their experiences of spiritual learning and healing. There are over sixty thousand testimonials, published in church periodicals, to physical and mental cures effected for over one hundred years through Christian Science treatment. In 2000, there were branch churches in over seventy countries worldwide.

For Further Information
  • Armstrong, Joseph, and Margaret Williamson. Building of the Mother Church: The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, Massachusetts. Boston: Christian Science Publishing Society, 1980. Contains accounts of the planning and building processes.
  • Gill, Gillian. Mary Baker Eddy. New York: Perseus Books, 1998. New research on all aspects of the founding of Christian Science, including aspects of building the Church edifices.
  • Marlin, William. “Formed Up in Faith: The Christian Science Center in Boston’s Back Bay. . . . ” Architectural Forum, September, 1973. A detailed and technical account, with plans and photographs, of the center building project up to 1973.
  • Peel, Robert. Mary Baker Eddy: The Years of Authority, 1892-1910. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977. Though partisan, contains some useful factual material about Eddy and the early stages of the Christian Science movement.
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