As the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issues its rules for employer-mandated COVID-19 vaccinations, discussions have heated up over who may claim an exemption to such mandates due to religious beliefs. And in these discussions, one religious group stands apart from the others. As a faith community, Christian Scientists—who believe above all in divine healing power over human-created cures and treatments—do not fit neatly into the anti-vaccine, vaccine-hesitant, or pro-vaccine categories. The beliefs and attitudes of Christian Science as a religion toward both disease and health put its adherents in a class of their own, even among other Christians.
Christian Scientists believe in the power of faith in God to heal. But unlike many big-tent revival faith healings, or the belief in miraculous healings held by Pentecostal or charismatic Christian communities that view medicine as simply another conduit for divine healing that cooperates with prayer, Christian Science beliefs emphasize prayer instead of medicine, even if the church stops short of officially forbidding medical interventions. This conviction that has led to notoriety in the form of certain court cases about the religious rights of parents to refuse medical treatment of preventable diseases for their children, and the published personal experiences of some former members of the church. Although it has its origins in America, Christian Science is evidently well-known enough in Australia that there was a concern that the vaccine-resistant would convert in order to claim the country’s religious exemption rules for the church. In the Christian Science’s home country, 34 states offer various levels of exemption from liability for parents who refuse medical treatment for their children on religious grounds, and Christian Scientists have opposed vaccine mandates in the past. Given this history, it perhaps isn’t surprising that the denomination appears so frequently in recent articles about COVID-19 vaccine mandates. What readers may find surprising, however, is that these mentions usually highlight Christian Science’s lack of opposition to the shot.
“It’s a common misunderstanding about our church,” said Adrienne Gilman, from Christian Science’s North Carolina Committee on Publication, in an email. “Christian Science actually does not have a theological prohibition regarding vaccination.” She linked in the email to a press statement on church views toward vaccines and public health, and said the church has “made a point to let its members know there is no pressure or judgment for whichever decision one makes.”
The church doesn’t keep official numbers, but its membership has declined since 1936, when the U.S. Census reported nearly 270,000 members. Even so, Christian Science punches above its weight in the national consciousness. “No major religion opposes the COVID-19 vaccine,” read a recent CNN explainer on religious exemptions, “and that includes Christian Science, whose church members focus on prayer, not medicine, for healing.”
Christian Science, as a religion, seems largely ambivalent whether or not its believers should get vaccinated. It’s an attitude that goes back to the faith’s beginning over 100 years ago, when Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy counseled church members who were wrestling with vaccine requirements for their children to attend school, telling them to let their children get the shots. “Rather than quarrel over being vaccinated,” she wrote in 1900, when the vaccination in question was for smallpox, “I recommend that, if the law demand an individual to submit to this process, he obey the law; and then appeal to the gospel to save him from any bad results. Whatever belongs to this century, or any epoch, we may safely submit to the providence of God, to common justice, individual rights and governmental usages.”
The Christian Science website states that its adherents “are always free to choose for themselves and their families the kind of health care that meets their needs,” and it offers resources for its churches to help with confronting both the logistical and spiritual challenges of the pandemic.
A Christian Science Reading Room librarian (the church name for the person in charge of a Christian Science Reading Room) I spoke with who asked to remain anonymous said: “I think the main reason Christian Scientists who get vaccinated are doing it is because of other people.” She said she knows people who have chosen to get vaccinated as well as those who have not. She estimates that at her church, the breakdown of vaccinated and unvaccinated members is about half-and-half. But what makes some adherents willing to get vaccinated, and others not?
A lifelong, third-generation Christian Scientist, she said that in her family, her daughter and grandchildren had been vaccinated against COVID-19 because of her son-in-law’s job, and she herself got vaccinated to see her grandchildren. It’s a decision that, for her and other adherents to her faith, is left up to conscience. “And that’s true not only for the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s for any temporary medical route that someone feels he has to take, whether it be his own fear or maybe some family member, or close friend who’s very afraid, because fear is very important in seeming to give disease power.”
“As far as we’re concerned, disease has no power, God did not make it, the Bible says clearly that God made everything good,” said the Reading Room librarian, whose position, according to the faith’s Church Manual, requires her to be “well-educated” and “devout.” “That’s in the first chapter of Genesis. That whole chapter describes Christian Scientists’ view of Creation. It is a spiritual one. That’s what our religion is based on and that’s what Jesus’ teachings and healings were based on: spirituality. He never used any matter, he never suggested anybody take anything or do anything physically. He just healed, and that’s what we try to do to follow in his footsteps.”
Although the Christian Science librarian with whom I spoke doesn’t know anyone personally who she believes to have been healed of COVID-19 by Christian Science, she has read accounts in Christian Science publications of COVID-19 being healed, accounts that she said have to be verified in order to appear in those publications. When someone submits an experience to a Christian Science publication, she said they are asked to provide names of individuals who can verify their accounts.
The Supreme Court decision Jacobson v. Massachusetts established that government has the authority to impose vaccine requirements where there was a prevailing public health concern. But just as there are Catholics insisting their religious faith prohibits them from getting the COVID-19 vaccine even though the Vatican has said it is licit, there is nothing to stop a Christian Scientist from trying to claim a religious exemption from the vaccine.
Christian Scientists also serve in the military, where a battery of vaccines is routinely administered to service members, and the burden of proof to obtain religious exemptions for vaccines is rigorous. Service members can, however, try to claim religious exemptions based on individual personal beliefs. “It’s not just about what the denomination thinks—it’s the belief of the individual,” said Navy Chaplain Richard Ryan in a recent Stars and Stripes interview. “It’s still a sincerely held belief [and] it qualifies to be processed under that religious accommodation waiver,” he said, while noting it was not a guarantee the service member would actually obtain one.
It’s a common misunderstanding about our church. Christian Science actually does not have a theological prohibition regarding vaccination.
Such a request with regard to the COVID-19 vaccine would not contradict Christian Science’s traditional stance on vaccination requirements. According to the Mary Baker Eddy Library, in 1901, four years before the Jacobson decision, the church’s public affairs office issued a statement in the Boston Herald with regard to vaccine mandates. It said that “while it is true that Christian Scientists, as well as many others, do not believe in compulsory vaccination,” the statement noted that they were “quietly submitting” to vaccination laws. It described a believer’s decision with regard to the requirements as “purely an individual matter,” that the faith “neither encouraged nor indorsed [sic].”
Christian Science’s primary document, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, written by its founder, Mary Baker Eddy, draws a distinction between matter and spirit. Christian Science does not consider matter—the world we can see and experience all around us—to be real, unlike spirit, which they believe is real. This belief isn’t exactly new. Plato wrote of the difference between the world of appearances and the perfection of abstract forms or ideas, considering the latter to be authentic. The earliest Christians were at loggerheads with groups like the Arians and Gnostics, who held distinct views about the irreconcilability of the spiritual and physical worlds. Indeed, much of Christian orthodoxy was developed in reaction to the beliefs of Arianism and Gnosticism.
“The flesh,” Baker Eddy wrote in Science and Health, “can no more unite in action than good can coincide with evil.” According to Christian Science, “There is but one way—namely, God and His idea–which leads to spiritual being. The scientific government of the body must be attained through the divine Mind. It is impossible to gain control over the body any other way.” By this, Baker Eddy elucidates what she perceives to be the problem with a mind out of balance, which results in a body out of harmony. When believers mentally plug into the divine Mind, or God, they can subjugate the forces of disease and suffering. In this framework, thought is what gives power to disease and suffering, and also what takes it away.
The belief that our mindset makes manifest our outcomes probably sounds familiar to many in the 21st century. It has been pursued by everyone from the CIA’s Gateway Experience experiment to followers of the philosophy of Rhonda Byrnes’ The Secret, which holds that individuals can shape their own lived reality by their thoughts. However, Baker Eddy was coming out of a distinctly late-19th-early-20th-century milieu.
New Thought was a movement that began in the 19th century, propagated in its best-known form by a New England clockmaker named Phineas Parkhurst Quimby. A practitioner of hypnosis, Quimby went on to develop a belief system based on the idea that most diseases were primarily mental in origin. Referring to the healing of one man, Quimby wrote that to put someone “in full possession of his faculties is to remove the burden that binds him down.” The burdens to which Quimby referred were merely “the effect of error having control of the mind. These errors are made of mind or matter first formed into an opinion, then comes reason, then comes disease or death, accompanied by all the misery the idea contains.” For Quimby, in light of the New Testament descriptions of Christ healing the sick, it seemed evident that this concept was a form of science that must have been known to Jesus. “To enter into Christ’s Kingdom or Science,” Quimby wrote, “was to enter into the laws or knowledge of curing the evils of this world of darkness.”
As New Thought gained in popularity, Quimby gained a disciple, Mary Baker Eddy. Their relationship later became controversial, as Baker Eddy sought to distinguish herself from Quimby. The Mary Baker Eddy Library chronology of her life asserts that while her poor health improved at first after she went to Quimby for a combination of “mental suggestion” and “therapeutic touch,” she eventually became disenchanted with his methods and philosophy. After slipping on ice in February 1866 and becoming bedridden, Baker Eddy reported feeling well suddenly a few days later while reading an account of one of Christ’s healings in the New Testament, a moment referred to as the “discovery” of Christian Science. She founded the Church of Christ, Scientist in 1879.
In 2010, Philip Davis, the national spokesman for Christian Science spoke in a New York Times interview. The article focused on the decline in the church’s membership, and quoted Davis as saying the church was curbing “the judgmental part of our nature,” in response to diminishing numbers, in hopes that people would see Christian Science interventions as “value-added health care.”
Under the Christian Science way of doing things, healings are conducted by practitioners. Anyone can contact one confidentially. If engaged, they will then intercede for healing through “consecrated, disciplined prayer” (needs can include relationships, finances, financial difficulties, “an ethical dilemma, a lack of purpose or worth, or any other problem”). Practitioners are not compensated for their services directly by the church, and fees can be discussed between the practitioner and client.
Today, many individual Christian Science churches have on their website some formulation of the statement, “There is no Biblical or church mandate to forgo medical intervention, nor do Christian Scientists believe that it’s God’s will that anyone suffer or die. A Christian Scientist’s decision to rely on prayer comes from trust, not blind faith, in God, and from a conviction that God’s care continues under every circumstance.”
“Obedience to the law is also integral to our practice of Christian healing, as is moral accountability,” said Gilman. “This Golden Rule ethic of caring for others does not compromise nor limit the inspiration, health, and well-being we experience by following the healing example of Christ Jesus, which is at the heart of our faith. So it is, in working together with public officials and local governments, Christian Science tries to be balanced on this question of requesting and using available religious accommodations or exemptions. Christian Scientists share a concern for public health and safety and remain mindful of the responsibility all citizens have to respect the rights of others. Over a number of years, we have appreciated the availability of religious accommodation from vaccination requirements for church members who requested it. But that privilege was never intended to pit the conscientious practice of Christian Scientists as a religious minority against the wellbeing of society at large.”
Mary Baker Eddy wrote in the church’s Manual, which contains the bylaws of the faith: “Christian Science can only be practised [sic] according to the Golden Rule: ‘All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.’ (Matt. 7:12.).” Over a century after the Manual was written, it would appear this maxim extends to the COVID-19 vaccine if it makes others around them more comfortable, or is the condition that allows them to continue to provide for themselves and their families.
The Reading Room librarian I spoke to said of the COVID-19 vaccine: “I didn’t get it for myself. I have absolutely no faith in it. Nor do I believe it can hurt me. I just did it for other people.”
This story is part of a yearlong series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.