by Cindy Safronoff
Afro-Americans were involved in the Christian Science movement from the early decades. The movement began around the time that Afro-Americans gained United States citizenship and voting rights after centuries of enslavement. In a letter in 1897 to her local church congregation in Concord, New Hampshire, in the predominately Euro-American populated region of New England where Christian Science began, Reverend Mary Baker Eddy shared how she made a high priority of praying for people throughout the world and she specifically mentioned Africans. She wrote, “…I am helping them. You have less need of me than they have…” By 1899, there were regular reports in the Christian Science periodicals about and from Afro-Americans relating to Christian Science activity, news items about the general progress being made in education, careers, and businesses, and calls for people of European ancestry to more actively apply The Golden Rule to race relations.
An Afro-American man who ran “a prominent institution in the South for the education of colored people” expressed appreciation for gifts of Christian Science literature, saying, “The disseminators of such literature as you have been furnishing me, have not the remotest idea of how much good they are doing. . . . Would that we had more such friends as you.”
A woman from South Carolina wrote of including the laborers on her rice plantation in Wednesday evening testimony meetings and how they were learning to apply Christian Science in their lives. “This account is a strong hint of the work that may be done, and ultimately will be done, among the colored race,” the editors commented, and “…although their first applications seem small, they, nevertheless, prophesy of the larger and greater demonstrations which are certain to follow.” Leonard Perry, Jr. of Washington, D.C. joined The Mother Church in 1900 and began advertising his healing practice in the official church directory in 1906. More Afro-American Christian Science practitioners soon followed.
Yet even as progress gave rise to optimism, societal reaction made further progress for Afro-Americans increasingly difficult, especially the establishment in the late 1800s and early 1900s of the racial segregation system referred to as “Jim Crow” laws. Marietta Thomas Webb, whose testimony was selected by Mary Baker Eddy herself for inclusion in the “Fruitage” chapter in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures and who later became a Christian Science practitioner, concluded a testimony in the Sentinel with this commentary:
O, glorious Truth that makes us free; that guides us into all the avenues and through all the vicissitudes of life; that is a healing balm for all human complaints; and that protects us from all evil; and which I verily believe is to be the only salvation of my race, the Afro-American, and that it will abolish the prejudice which exists throughout these United States; for, go where we will, we are made to feel our color. But with the wide and rapid spread of Christian Science man is not only learning what the true love of God is, by loving all mankind; but he is getting out of his old prejudiced self, into the spiritual sense of man’s union with God.
In a similar spirit, Grace Kennedy wrote in the Sentinel in 1919 about the challenges she faced: For more than four years I have been struggling and fighting against the thought of my color and the bondage of the negro race. I fought and prayed daily, hourly, for that Mind to be in me ‘which was also in Christ Jesus,’ that I might see the perfect man and overcome hate, prejudice, fear, and the many beliefs which seem to rise from this bondage. This final conflict was mastered by steadfast reliance on God and the understanding gained through the study of Christian Science. … Through a knowledge of … man in the image and likeness of God, we prove man’s birthright to be dominion, not subjection.
As legal and sometimes mandated racial segregation became more entrenched and wide-spread, the Christian Science periodicals carried occasional news items with quotes from civic and religious leaders expressing support for policies of equality and desegregation. Yet, even so, the Christian Science church, as a concession to the practices and laws of the times, adopted some segregation practices, including labeling Afro-American Christian Science practitioners as “colored” in the directory in the Christian Science Journal between 1922 and 1956. Branch churches with predominately Afro-American membership were also labeled in the directory of churches. In a 1950 article about the Christian Science movement in Ebony, a magazine by and for Afro-Americans, it was reported: [The] basic racial principle of the church is expressed in Mary Baker Eddy’s declaration: “With one Father, even God, the whole family of man would be brethren.” Say church spokesmen: “That expresses the idea of equality of all men which all Christian Scientists accept as the spiritual fact.”
Ebony described Christian Science church practice and policy on segregation this way: The attitude of the church toward the race question is idealistically fair, but neither its board of directors (the governing body) nor its manual define any overall policy regarding a color line. Equality is an ideal toward which it is pressing “as fast as humanly possible.” In the South the church complies with existing patterns and state laws which prevent race mingling but in Washington, D.C., Negros and whites attend the same churches. In Birmingham, Alabama, Negros and white members of the church used to meet together but they now hold separate gatherings due to intensified agitation for racial segregation by city officials. The two groups would like to meet together but the “law” forces them to observe Jim Crow. In Boston no record of racial background is kept on the official list of the world-wide membership of the Mother Church. Despite the difficulties Christian Scientists faced during the era of segregation, progress for AfroAmericans continued within the religious movement. Racially mixed congregations were common in the northern states. Lulu M. Knight, a member of Eighth Church of Christ, Scientist, in Chicago, became the first Afro-American Christian Science teacher in 1943 after being taught in the Normal Class by Dr. John M. Tutt. Her church on Michigan Avenue at 44th Street, built in 1911 and dedicated in 1914, was among the largest Christian Science branch churches in the world, with seating for 1300. Originally the membership had been entirely of European ancestry. In 1926 it admitted its first Afro-American member and only six years later, by 1932, there were so many, the church’s official designation changed to “colored.” Twenty-two Christian Science churches or societies were specifically designated as “colored.” The segregated branch churches were in the southeastern states where African slavery had once been legal―Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas―and in the nation’s capitol, Washington, D.C. Black churches were also in states that during the civil war had fought to free the slaves―California, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, and Ohio. At least eleven of these churches had Christian Science Reading Rooms by 1950. The Christian Science Sentinel reported on dedications of several church edifices built by congregations designated “colored” from their earliest beginnings.