Science in Christian Perspective



"Science Never Fails:" 
Popular Science and the Emergence of American Metaphysical Religion


Simon Greenleaf University
School of Christian Apologetics
3855 East La Palma Avenue
 Los Angeles, CA 92807

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 44 (June 1992): 95-108.

The "Science" in the names of metaphysical groups such as Christian Science, Divine Science, and Religious Science goes back to a time in the nineteenth century when the new republic was riding a wave of enthusiasm for the Baconian philosophy and for science made popular. Phineas Quimby, father of the metaphysical movement, found the science of the day to be an authoritative and infallible foundation for his practice of mental healing and his new religious ideas. Quimby ultimately claimed science and God to be one and the same. His concept of science as an infallible theological absolute provided the budding metaphysical movement with an authoritative foundation on which to stand.

In 1873 John W. Draper declared in The History of the Conflict between Religion and Science that

...the time approaches when men must make their choice between quiescent, immobile faith and ever-advancing Science--faith, with its mediÊval consolations, Science, which is incessantly scattering its material blessings in the pathway of life, elevating the lot of man in this world, and unifying the human race.1

The title of his book begets the imagery of science and religion as Old West gunslingers in a showdown on Main Street, and his comment indicates that science clearly wears the white hat. Similarly, but with greater influence, Andrew Dixon White in A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom uses a military metaphor of "warfare" to describe the history of what he sees as a long and destructive dispute in which science again is set forth as the good and true hero in an almost melodramatic fashion. In an 1869 lecture, which inaugurated his twenty-seven year study, White concluded that

 in all modern history, interference with science in the supposed interest of religion, no matter how conscientious such interference may have been, has resulted in the direst evils both to religion and to science--and invariably. And, on the other hand, all untrammeled scientific investigation, no matter how dangerous to religion some of its stages may have seemed, for the time, to be, has invariably resulted in the highest good of religion and of science.2

Although over a century later there still remains an affinity for the conflict and warfare approaches to the interaction of science and religion on a popular level, the academic world has recently taken some significant steps toward discrediting these positions that have set the "terms of the debate" for decades. Historians of science Ronald L. Numbers, David C. Lindberg, and James R. Moore have attempted to disarm the military metaphor by showing that it is "a gross distortion," "entirely misleading if not utterly false," and is "neither useful nor tenable in describing the relationship between religion and science."3 Lindberg and Numbers conclude that the relationship between science and religion is much too complex to be wrapped up neatly by the simplistic conflict approach.

Not only is the conflict approach inadequate to make sense of the complex relationship between religion and science, but it invariably overlooks periods of remarkable harmony that have done as much to influence our current perceptions of both religion and science as have periods of pronounced discord. The popular and paradigmatic example of the interaction of religion and science in America still remains the Scopes trial of 1925, in which a conflict interpretation is, to a large degree, very appropriate. However, little attention is given to antebellum, pre-Darwinian America, where religion and science not only coexisted in peace but were profoundly and shamelessly symbiotic. Herbert Hovenkamp calls this a "honeymoon" period,4 which is a descriptive term light-years removed from military metaphors. In the same vein, Theodore Dwight Bozeman concludes that "antebellum America, marked by a lively and growing interest in natural science and evangelical Protestantism, widely nurtured the comfortable assumption that science and religion... were harmonious enterprises cooperating toward the same ultimate ends."5

With the dogmatic conflict theses of White and Draper setting the terms of the debate over the interaction of religion and science this century, it is no wonder that little attention has been paid to the antebellum honeymoon period. It is only in the last twelve years that significant work has been done on the interaction of religion and science concentrating on this period, with Hovenkamp and Bozeman being the only full-length studies, and these dealing only with Protestant orthodoxy.

We suffer today from the drought of interest in this period. According to historian of fundamentalism George M. Marsden, the resurgence of creationism in the last twenty years and modern fundamentalist views of science in general cannot be well understood without an examination of the interaction of religion and science during the early nineteenth-century, which was the formative period for the fundamentalist attitudes toward science that are active today.6 In addition, a number of modern alternative religious movements such as New Age (including channeling), Scientology, Transcendental Meditation, and the Unification Church, have relationships with science similar to the relationships that nineteenth-century movements such as spiritualism, phrenology, mesmerism, and various medical sects developed with the science of their day.7

Still another religious movement that survives today cannot be fully understood in its modern manifestation without reference to the honeymoon period of religion and science in antebellum America. This is the metaphysical religious movement. Springing to life just before the Civil War, and thriving at the time White and Draper were writing, this movement is another significant counter-example to any notion of a universally valid warfare thesis. It is a living testimony to the honeymoon that science and religion experienced even beyond Protestant orthodoxy. In fact, at the same time theologian Charles Hodge of Princeton was developing a scientific approach to theology, Phineas Parkhurst Quimby of Maine, the father of the metaphysical movement, was taking the relationship between science and religion far beyond the mere application of the "inductive method" to things sacred. Instead, he was establishing no less than "the Science of Truth" in which "Science [was] the one living and true God to worship."8

Today, a century and a half after the advent of the movement in New England, the church section of the telephone directory in almost all of the major cities in the United States reveals the remnant of practical metaphysics in listings for churches with names such as Church of Religious Science, Divine Science, Christian Science, and Unity. The existence of these churches reflects an aspect of the movement which at first glance seems especially peculiar to those who may be preoccupied with the warfare mentality; that is, the copious and confident use of the term science by religious groups that are in an alleged state of war with it. The pervasive use of the term science throughout metaphysical literature, as well as its multifarious use in book titles and key concepts (Science of Mind, Science of Being, Spiritual Science, Science of Health, and Mental Science) suggests much more than a movement in a peaceful state of coexistence with science. Rather, here is a movement with a history infused with the concept and with organizational titles that boldly proclaim that allegiance.

This study is an attempt to examine the origins of the relationship that developed between the metaphysical religious movement and science in antebellum America. It is also an attempt to explore popular philosophies and attitudes toward science that made the relationship possible. I offer this study as another significant counter-example to the warfare thesis broadly conceived and as another positive example of how religious movements, both traditional and nontraditional, have, since the scientific revolution, used science as an authoritative foundation for their belief systems.

In order to get at the roots of the relationship between the metaphysical movement and antebellum science, I will first focus on the scientific culture of the day by examining its foundation in the "Baconian philosophy" and by pointing to the presence of this philosophy and the concept of science it helped to create in the popular mind. Secondly, I will investigate the origins of the metaphysical movement through the thought and practice of its founder, Phineas P. Quimby, and show how Quimby's religious thought and practice are bound to the scientific fervor of the period. Lastly, I will discuss how Quimby's concept of science, aided by the philosophy of Bacon and the rising tide of scientific enthusiasm, ultimately took on the character of a theological absolute and thus provided his system of thought with an authoritative foundation.

American Baconianism as Popular Philosophy of Science

Historian of New Thought Charles S. Braden, in his Spirits in Rebellion: The Rise and Development of New Thought, lists a number of important intellectual currents in New England in Quimby's day that may have influenced the culture in which the metaphysical movement was to arise. Although in his list Braden mentions the philosophical and religious influence of John Locke, the Transcendentalists, the Unitarians, and the Calvinists, he leaves out the influence of what is called the "Baconian Philosophy" which, given Quimby's exaltation of science, is at least as important as the currents of Transcendentalist idealism upon which Braden chooses to focus.9 Braden, writing in 1963, did not have the advantage of calling upon the more recent work of George H. Daniels and Theodore Dwight Bozeman, who identify the Baconians as representing "the broad foreground of Anglo-American intellectual leadership" in the antebellum period.10

It was not just the scientists of the day 
who were "almost to a man Baconians," 
but "most of the intellectual community" as well.

At a time when science was coming of age in the new republic, Baconianism, or the "inductive method," provided a tried and true foundation and framework for the blossoming fields not only of natural science but also of all fields of inquiry where "facts" could be gathered. It was not just the scientists of the day who were "almost to a man Baconians," but "most of the intellectual community" as well.11 Indeed, the physical scientists and naturalists shared their rapture with Bacon's inductive method with a variety of disciplines, not the least of which was religious scholarship. C. Leonard Allen points out that American Protestant theologians found Baconianism a "deft and flexible tool that could be employed in the services of numerous antebellum theologies."12

Moreover, Christian theologians, most likely to their chagrin, shared the Baconian bandwagon with others who occupied themselves with more heterodox spiritual concerns. Practitioners of spiritualism, mesmerism, phrenology, psychography, and other phenomena which touched on things metaphysical also tried to hitch their claims to this powerful mental tool that was thought to be able to settle all disputes through proof by demonstration.13

The pervasiveness of Baconianism in antebellum thought is by no means proportionate to the minimal attention it has received from modern scholars.14 Daniels, who has done one of the most important studies of Baconianism to date, attempts to illustrate the significance of this philosophy by citing nineteenth-century bellwether Edward Everett.

Edward Everett, editor of the North American Review, Unitarian minister, and Massachusetts politician, began a review in 1823 with a remark that might very well characterize the intellectual temper of the period in which he lived. "At the present day, as is well known," he observed, "the Baconian philosophy has become synonymous with the true philosophy." Everett's choice of the adjective "true" was not a matter of accident--it was not merely that Francis Bacon's philosophy was the most adequate or the most useful, but that it was thought to be true, and any other philosophy was correspondingly false...

 The Baconian philosophy so dominated that whole generation of American scientists that it was difficult to find any writer during the early part of the nineteenth-century who did not assume, with Everett, that his readers knew all about it. Dugald Stewart in his history of philosophy, also disclaimed any need to speak of Bacon's experimental philosophy on the grounds that this was so well known as to be obvious.15

American Baconianism was, however, at least two steps removed from 
anything Sir Francis himself had to say.

What was referred to as "Bacon's philosophy," however, had less to do with the seventeenth-century nobleman than the prolific application of his name might imply. American Baconianism was at least two steps removed from anything Sir Francis himself had to say. It was first the distinctive interpretation of Bacon by Thomas Reid, Dugald Stewart, and the school of Scottish common-sense realism, whose writings were popular among America's intellectuals in the early nineteenth century. American intellectuals themselves, such as Samuel Tyler, then added some of their own distinctive interpretations before Bacon's scientific thought blossomed into America's "true philosophy."16

Although one of the central characteristics of this true philosophy which was "engrafted wholesale into the main structure of nineteenth-century American ideas"17 was "vagueness," Bozeman, building on the work of Daniels, nonetheless finds a pattern with four general elements: (1) a "spirited enthusiasm for natural science"; (2) a "scrupulous empiricism," with a corresponding trust in the senses and a real outer world; (3) an intense distrust of speculation and of concepts not derived directly from observed data; and (4) a celebration of "Lord Bacon" as founder and the work of Newton as paradigm example of Bacon's inductive method.18 Elaborating on the importance of the empirical nature of Baconianism and on the priority of the senses, Daniels observes:

First, and most evidently, "Baconianism" meant "empiricism," in the sense that all science must somehow rest on observation and that it must begin with individual facts and pass gradually to broader and broader generalizations... The impressions of the mind were considered direct, immediate perceptions of a real objective order. The testimony of the senses had to be admitted as true, and its validity depended upon no outside, additional evidence. The truthfulness of the testimony of the senses could not even be questioned, as one spokesperson said, "without questioning the truthfulness of our constitution, nay, the veracity of God himself--without questioning everything, through whatever channel derived."19

Daniels also points out that the method of Bacon meant avoiding "hypotheses" (a term to which Baconians attached a degree of contempt) by not going beyond what could be directly observed. Going beyond observation and entering the realm of hypothesis meant moving away from indisputable fact into the world of what Phineas Quimby often referred to as opinion, prejudice, error, ignorance, and superstition. The average scientist of the day, assured that this philosophy was grounded in the firm foundation of common sense, knew that if one had carefully observed facts and avoided hypotheses one could confidently deduce laws of nature from the comparison of these facts with one another. As Bozeman writes, "In other words, nineteenth-century Baconianism, as most American scientists used the term, implied a kind of naive rationalistic empiricism--a belief that the method of pure empiricism consistently pursued would lead to a rational understanding of the universe."20

Science and the Common Person in the Nineteenth-Century

The important studies of Daniels and Bozeman on the reign of Bacon in antebellum America deal very effectively with the veneration of the "inductive method" by the intellectual community. However, for the purposes of examining the origins of a movement that began well outside of academic circles and whose founder, Quimby, had but a "meager education,"21 we must look to the popular mind of the common farmer, smith, and shopkeeper to see how the Baconian philosophy and the scientific advances of the day were "playing in antebellum Peoria."

The period from 1820 to 1860 in the United States was a time 
when science was moving out of the hands of aristocratic amateurs into 
the laboratories and studies of professional "scientific men," or "scientists."

In the early nineteenth-century for an uneducated person such as Quimby to have what seemed, at least in his own mind, to be a firm grasp of experimental science was not unusual. The period from 1820 to 1860 in the United States was a time when science was moving out of the hands of aristocratic amateurs into the laboratories and studies of professional "scientific men," or "scientists," terms that were rapidly replacing "natural philosopher" by the late 1840s.22 During the transition, what was once considered an esoteric body of knowledge was diffusing out to the population at large. Two fashionable methods of dissemination were most responsible for this spread of information: the local newspaper and the expanding lyceum lecture circuit.

Although there were an average of fifty-five scientific journals in publication in a given year during this period, their circulation was still very limited, and it would be very unlikely that the common person would have much access to these for his scientific information. The local newspaper, on the other hand, provided amateur scientists like Quimby a wealthy source of science education. A study by Donald Zochert surveyed more than 1,500 issues of newspapers between 1837 and 1846 and found a wealth of material in all scientific disciplines in both quantity and substance, indicating a very vigorous and sustained interest in science among the common people and wide dissemination of the latest scientific information of all types.23 William Ellery Channing wrote in 1841, "Through the press, discoveries and theories, once the monopoly of philosophers, have become the property of the multitudes... Science, once the greatest of distinctions, is becoming popular." Channing thought that the characteristic of the age was "not the improvement of science, rapid as this is, so much as its extension to all men."24

During this same period, when scientific information was regularly making it into newspapers around the country, science was also finding a particularly successful path to the public through the burgeoning lyceum system which, at its peak in 1850, entertained an estimated 400,000 people a week.25 The scientific content of the information disseminated by lyceum lecturers ranged from the widely respected natural history of Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz, who packed 5,000 into Tremont Temple in Boston in 1846,26 to the "scientific practices" of itinerant phrenologists, spiritualists, and mesmerists such as Quimby, who at times found "reputable" lyceums closed to them. Due in great part to the successful dissemination of popular scientific information through the lyceum systems and the press of the day, Joseph Henry could say with conviction that there were "more interested in popular science among us than in any other part of the world."27

In the early nineteenth-century people everywhere had learned that to invoke the name of "science" was to appeal to utility, certainty, optimism, and progress. One newspaper proclaimed in 1837 that "the world is on the threshold of discoveries in science and the arts, which must change the whole face and fabric of societyº .Discovery after discovery, and improvement after improvement, follow each other in such rapid succession, that we are prepared to believe almost everything that may be asserted."28 Prominent professional scientists were not immune to this unbridled homage to their own occupation, as James Dwight Dana reveals in an 1856 address to Yale alumni: "Science is an unfailing source of human good... Every new development is destined to bestow some universal blessing on mankind."29

In the early nineteenth-century people everywhere had learned that to i
nvoke the name of "science" was to appeal to utility, certainty, optimism, and progress.

The diffusion of the scientific enterprise to the general public began increasing geometrically in the United States during the 1830s, and along with the diffusion came the notion that "the common man--no less than the philosopher--could fasten upon it [science] to his advantage."30 From 1820 to the time of the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861, the character of American science was undergoing rapid change from an activity once thought of as a gentlemanly leisure-time pursuit to one for the trained professional "who had a single-minded dedication to the interests of science."31 This period of rapid change saw not only the professionalization of science, but its democratization as well; what Channing referred to as its "extension to all men." The layperson, not just the professional scientist, was riding the wave of growth, fascination, and optimism generated by the science of the day; and it was often the layperson who, in little danger of being criticized by "professional" colleagues, saw in science almost limitless possibilities for health, wealth, and entertainment.

It is at this point that I turn to Phineas P. Quimby of Belfast, Maine, who was able to capitalize on some of the limitless possibilities that the science of the day seemed to make available. In the midst of this period in which the population at large was clearly enamored of science and immersed in a popularized Baconian philosophy, Quimby began a journey from clockmaker and amateur scientist to mesmerist and mental healer. Along the way he established a unique relationship between religion and science that defies any dogmatic warfare thesis. In doing so, he provided much of the metaphysical movement an authoritative base on which to build.

P. P. Quimby: Clockmaker, Mesmerist, and Mental Healer

Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866) was born in Lebanon, New Hampshire, but moved with his family to

 Belfast, Maine, at the age of two years and remained there most of his life. Because of his family's poverty he spent no more than six weeks in school, but was taken in as a clockmaker's apprentice while still a boy. New Thought philosopher Horatio Dresser described the young Quimby as a man with meager education who would, if given the chance, have sought training in the special sciences as "that was the tendency of his mind."32 Quimby's son George wrote of his father,

He had a very inventive mind, and was always interested in mechanics, philosophy and scientific subjects... He was very argumentative, and always wanted proof of anything, rather than an accepted opinion. Anything which could be demonstrated he was ready to accept; but he would combat what could not be proved with all his energy, rather than admit it as truth.33

Although Quimby never did receive any formal training in the sciences, his apprenticeship in the art of clockmaking gave him the ability to become a sort of first cousin to the natural philosopher who often found that the local clockmaker possessed the best skills for making precise scientific instruments. Quimby's inventiveness (four of his inventions received patents) and his inquisitiveness concerning new phenomena (he was one of the first makers of daguerreotypes) strongly hint at his personal identification with the tradition of clockmaker as applied scientist. Quimby faithfully carried out his work as mechanic of the clock until he was thirty-six years old. It was at that age that his fortunes began to change.

Through Charles Poyen's performances in Belfast, Maine, 
the recently imported science of animal magnetism encountered the spirit 
of American Baconianism in the person of Phineas P. Quimby.

Enter at this point the Frenchman Charles Poyen. In a small lyceum lecture hall in Belfast, Maine, in 1838, the self-proclaimed professor of animal magnetism lectured and performed demonstrations in the new science of mesmerism, which at the time was virtually unknown in the new republic. True to the reputation of many of the controversial "sciences" materializing on the lecture circuit during this time, Poyen was not simply claiming animal magnetism to be an interesting, curious, and entertaining phenomenon. He was, rather, as Robert C. Fuller explains, proclaiming with evangelical zeal the revelation of "lawful principles long hidden beneath the appearances of the outer world," and he thought himself "to be unveiling the hidden secret of human happiness and well-being."34 As Poyen's reputation spread throughout New England, many people came to the lectures to volunteer as subjects in hopes of obtaining medical cures. Magnetic treatments were a regular part of the act, and reports of success were not uncommon.

Through Poyen's performances in Belfast, Maine, the recently imported science of animal magnetism encountered the spirit of American Baconianism in the person of Phineas P. Quimby.35 Quimby was so enthralled with this remarkable new science that he dropped everything to chase Poyen from town to town, learning both mesmerism and show business at the same time. Through observation, inquiry, and experimentation Quimby soon became adept at wielding the mysterious power. He teamed up with Lucius Burkmar, a young man particularly susceptible to mesmeric trance, and took his own show on the road. Before small-town audiences Quimby would demonstrate his new science by putting Burkmar into a trance in which the young man would take clairvoyant journeys, read minds, and diagnose and prescribe treatment for illnesses. Cures abounded, including one for Quimby himself, who claimed to be healed of a serious kidney ailment with Burkmar's clairvoyant assistance. "Newspapers began to take note, and soon the magnetic doctor from Belfast was being touted as the world's leading mesmerist."36

At some point during his stint as an itinerant lyceum performer, Quimby began to doubt that animal magnetism could account for the success in curing the sick. Through extensive experimentation with the phenomenon on Burkmar and others, he decided that clairvoyant diagnosis and prescribed treatment had little to do with the patient's recovery. Burkmar was not detecting the actual disorder, nor was his prescribed treatment the cause of the cure. He was, instead, reading the patient's belief about his or her own physical condition. Quimby reasoned that the patient, being amazed at Burkmar's accurate diagnosis, would then put full trust in the suggested remedy. The actual cure would come by believing that the remedy would cure, not by the remedy itself. Drawing out this insight, Quimby soon concluded that not only were the patients cured by correcting the errors in their beliefs or ideas, but that the errors in belief were the cause of the illness in the first place. In an answer to the question "Is disease a belief?" Quimby wrote:

I answer it is, for an individual is to himself just what he thinks he is, and he is in his belief sick. If I am sick, I am sick for my feelings are my sickness, and my sickness is my belief, and my belief is my mind; therefore all disease is in the mind or belief. Now as our belief or disease is made up of ideas which are matter, it is necessary to know what ideas we are in; for to cure the disease is to correct the error; and as disease is what follows the error, destroy the cause, and the effect will cease.37

Quimby soon concluded that not only were the patients cured by correcting 
the errors in their beliefs or ideas, but that the errors in belief were the cause 
of the illness in the first place.

It was from this basic observation that Quimby began to develop a system of idealistic thought and practice that, although suffering from a lack of depth and cohesion, was the foundation of his new "Science of Health and Happiness." After his personal discoveries about the nature of illness, the mind, and the cosmos, Quimby eventually abandoned the lyceum circuit when people began regularly seeking him out for therapy. He set up a practice in Belfast but soon moved to Portland, where he performed his mental healing techniques for nearly seven years and treated, according to one estimate, over 12,000 people.38 Among his patients were some of the pillars of the soon-to-burgeon metaphysical movement--Mary Baker Eddy, Warren Felt Evans, and Julius and Annetta Dresser, all of whom were restored by Quimby's techniques, became students of his ideas, and eventually helped to carry them to wider circles of disciples.

Quimby's Healing: Practice and Theory

Looking back from twentieth-century intimacy with ideas such as psychosomatic disorders and the like, Quimby's therapeutic foundation that "disease is in the mind or belief" is one not unfamiliar to us. However, unlike most modern physicians, Quimby did not consider the mental roots of disease as just one among many possible sources. For Quimby, all physical maladies were the result of wrong belief, and there were no exceptions. In carrying this idea to what he considered its proper logical end, Quimby dogmatically spurned all of medical science, calling it "a theory based on the lowest grade of ignorance and superstition."39 And going a step further, not only were the physicians wrong and unable to help the sick (except by the occasional unwitting application of a form of Quimby's treatment), but they (along with the "priests") were the very source of almost all human misery. Quimby estimated that "nine-tenths of the sick at this time would be well and hearty if the medical faculty were annihilated."40

Quimby's disdain for medical science and the popularity of his unusual methods of treatment make much more sense when one takes into consideration the dismal state of mid-nineteenth-century medicine. When a person fell seriously ill the courses of action were few and frightful. According to William G. Rothstein, although other choices were available, trained physicians were still almost exclusively using the heroic treatments of bloodletting, calomel, blisters, and crude surgery.41 By turning to Dr. Quimby the patient was at least assured of coming out of the treatment no worse off than when he or she entered. The worst aftereffects of Quimby's treatment were dashed hopes and the charge from skeptics that the patient had fallen prey to humbuggery, a far cry from a gangrenous infection or mercury poisoning. Although conventional medical practice may not have deserved the degree of scorn issuing from Quimby, surrogate therapies with their grand claims must have been exceedingly attractive, given the established alternative.

Quimby's method of healing the sick was, obviously, vastly different from that of the orthodox physician. Stewart W. Holmes describes how with no instruments, no medications, and no formal training, Dr. Quimby would treat the patient:

Sitting down quietly beside the patient, without exchanging a word with him, he divined clairvoyantly what was wrong and what had been the origin of the disease. His findings he then revealed to the sufferer, pointing out how the belief in the disease had originated, perhaps in some fright, perhaps in a remark made by someone whose opinion was valued, and then how the abnormality operated,--or was manifested. He explained that the reality of the symptoms was conditional on the patient's belief in them. Then he formed a mental image of the patient in "normal," healthy condition and concentrated on this so strongly that the patient's mind, prepared by his explanation of the principles involved, accepted the image. Finally, with varying degrees of speed and permanence, the sick person's organism manifested this healthy belief. In other words, he was restored to health.42

 "Sitting down quietly beside the patient, without exchanging a word with him, 
he divined clairvoyantly what was wrong and what had been the origin of the disease..."

Quimby's method of treatment, although unorthodox, appears to have been straight-forward enough. However, below the level of application lies a rather tangled body of homespun theory developed by Quimby to undergird, explain, and defend his practice. Untangling and explaining the details of his metaphysical ideas is an awkward task since, as Braden writes, he "seems to have been groping for a consistent theory, but never quite to have achieved it," probably because "he himself was not clear in his own thought."43 Quimby leaves no doubt, however, concerning the basic premise of his thought, which is repeated continually in one form or another throughout his collected writings. Quimby argued that

there is no intelligence, no power or action in matter itself, that the spiritual world to which our eyes are closed by ignorance or unbelief is the real world, that in it lie all the causes for every effect visible in the natural world, and that if this spiritual life can be revealed to us, in other words, if we can understand ourselves, we shall then have our happiness or misery in our own hands; and of course much of the suffering of the world will be done away with.44

For Quimby the matter that we bump into everyday in the physical world is simply the manifestation (or "condensation") of mind. Mind is the cause; matter is the recognizable effect in the physical realm. However, what appears on the surface in the above passage to be a distinct mind/matter dualism is quickly confused by Quimby in his notion that mind is something called "spiritual matter." Quimby reasoned that

"mind was something that could be changed, so... I came to the conclusion that mind was something and I called it matter, because I found it could be condensed into a solid. ... and by the same power under a different direction it might be dissolved and disappear."45

Using a model based on a common chemistry demonstration performed on the lyceum circuit, the precipitation of a solid from a solution and back again, Quimby concluded that mind is a sort of solution, in which is contained invisible or "spiritual" matter.46 "Belief" then comes into play as that which has the power to cause the spiritual matter (or mind) to condense in one of two ways. Right belief will bring about the precipitation of life, health, and happiness, including, of course, the cure for the particular illness being treated. Wrong belief (or error), on the other hand, precipitates misery, sickness, and death.

For Quimby the matter that we bump into everyday in the physical world 
is simply the manifestation (or "condensation") of mind.

In practice, therefore, Quimby's treatment focused on one thing--changing the patient's belief. To accomplish this he used two methods. Sometimes he would simply talk to the patient, reason away false ideas about his or her own physical condition, and the cure would naturally follow. At other times he would use a more direct mind-on-mind operation during which he would not speak at all. He would sit silently and read the patient's feelings, which were "daguerrotyped" on his mind, correct the belief, and send it back to the patient. He continued this until, "the patient's feelings sympathized with his, the shadows [grew] dim and finally the light [took] its place and there [was] nothing left of the disease."47 The details of this silent method of treatment indicate that although Quimby renounced his earlier practice of mesmerism as "one of the greatest humbugs of the age," his methods and theory still retained, as Catherine L. Albanese argues, "something of the mesmeric model."48 Mesmeric notions such as magnetic fluid, clairvoyance, and action at a distance all remained entrenched in the system in one form or another.

Quimby: "I make war with what comes in contact with health and happiness,
 believing that God made everything good, 
and if there is anything wrong it is the effect of ourselves..."

From the description of Quimby's thought thus far, one might not regard it as necessarily religious. In fact, the whole system herein reported could be categorized as a sort of curious but practical homespun idealism. In addition, given Quimby's copious and consistent rhetoric against the "priests" and their "doctrines" that "humbug the people and keep them in their misery," one might come to the conclusion, as some latter-day disciples have, that he was overtly antireligious. However, this does not stand up in the face of some of Quimby's more perspicuous passages. Consider, for example, this statement:

My object is to correct the false ideas and strengthen the truth. I make war with what comes in contact with health and happiness, believing that God made everything good, and if there is anything wrong it is the effect of ourselves, and that man is responsible for his acts and even his thoughts. Therefore, it is necessary that man should know himself so that he shall not communicate sin and error.49

Charles Braden, convinced that much of Quimby's thought is religious in nature, writes that his ideas "were not orthodox ideas according to the theological standards of his day, but that he held profound religious convictions none can deny who has read the Manuscripts."50 His collected writings are rife with scriptural quotations and allusions and filled with reflections on Jesus Christ, God, Wisdom, and other religious themes. The first person to edit Quimby's writings, Horatio Dresser, estimated that at least half of the manuscripts are filled with references to religious problems and the Bible.51

For our purposes in this essay, the most important point concerning Quimby and religion is that his concept of science was clearly religious. While his religious ideas regarding science came as a later outgrowth of his discoveries and theories concerning healing, the seeds were germinating early on in his work with clocks, in his inventions, and in his apparent obsession with all things scientific. For Quimby, science was there from the beginning, lending authority, credence, and proof to the developing system. It is to Quimby's concept of science that I now turn.

P. P. Quimby and Science

Of all the studies that have been done which bear on the early history of New Thought and Christian Science, only one has touched on the importance of the scientific reckoning in the emerging metaphysical movement, and even that was indirectly. Stewart Holmes, writing in 1944, awarded Quimby the title "Scientist of Transcendentalism" because he "demonstrated visibly, on human organisms, the operational validity of Emerson's hypotheses." Holmes did not intend to trumpet the "truth" of the ideas of either Quimby or Emerson. But he was expressing his view that "while Emerson arrived at his theories deductively and never submitted them to anything approaching laboratory proof, Quimby forged his theories--and thence his metaphysic--from years of patient experiment with individual persons; something lawful and orderly occurred when he applied his technique."52 Quimby's use of science, however, goes far beyond the picture of the noble enterprise painted by Holmes. Indeed, Quimby appears to have been obsessed with the concept of science. It emerges from his writings as a theological absolute with universal authority in all matters, natural and spiritual, and with enough force of meaning to be carried to the present day by Quimby's spiritual offspring.

To say that science saturates Quimby's writings is not an overstatement. In fact, the term is used so often and in so many ways that the prospects for extracting a precise or comprehensive definition are problematic at best. Quimby uses the term interchangeably with charity, love, freedom, revelation from God, God, Christ, the Son, kingdom of God, kingdom, power, law, and Truth (most often equating the terms directly with an inclusive disjunction such as "Science or God"). Indeed, the confusion of Quimby's usage lends credence to the statement by Horatio Dresser that Quimby was not a regular reader of philosophy or theology.53 Take, for example, the following rambling passage:

When He [Jesus] was accused of curing disease through Beelzebub or ignorance, He said "If I cast out devils (or diseases) through Beelzebub or ignorance, my kingdom (or science) cannot stand; but if I cast out devils (or disease) through a science or law, then my kingdom or law will stand for it is not of this world".º He [Jesus] must have known what that power or science is and the difference between His science and their ignorance. His science was His kingdom; therefore it was not of this world, and theirs being of this world, He called it the kingdom of darkness.54

Quimby uses the term "science" interchangeably with charity, love, freedom, 
revelation from God, God, Christ, the Son, 
kingdom of God, kingdom, power, law, and Truth.

Yet in spite of the definitional difficulties inherent in working with his beclouded texts, Quimby uses the term science so often that certain patterns do emerge. The most obvious is that Quimby uses the term "Science" as the name for his system of metaphysical thought and practice. Although names such as the Science of Health, Science of Happiness, Science of Life, Science of Jesus, and Christian Science pepper his writings, the simple designation "Science" appears most frequently. This practice of using science-soaked titles is one of the more conspicuous legacies he unwittingly bequeathed to those who followed in his metaphysical footsteps. The other attributes of the term science, although a bit more slippery than the first, likewise do not completely defy description. An examination of the term in context yields characteristics that I describe as monistic, divine, living, certain, and pragmatic. I take these each in order.

The monism inherent in Quimby's use of science is almost completely unqualified. Science is "wisdom reduced to self-evident propositions"55 and is therefore the same throughout the world of matter, mind, or spirit.56 I do not intend here to suggest that Quimby was a monist in terms of rejecting categorically any distinction between matter and mind, or matter and spirit. I think it is safe to say that Quimby was ambiguous enough concerning the concepts of matter, mind, and spirit to keep that question alive for some time. What I am claiming is that for Quimby science is methodologically monistic and therefore holds true in all domains whether physical or metaphysical.

The only qualification apparent in Quimby's monistic approach to science is that his Science of Happiness, although built on the same foundation as other true sciences, requires senses beyond the five we usually recognize.

In contrast, his student Mary Baker Eddy and her Christian Science departed from Quimby and other metaphysical movements on this point by categorically rejecting all science of the physical world. Eddy saw no place for physical science in her system, claiming that her own "divine science wars with so-called physical science, even as truth wars with error."57 In a system like Quimby's, where mind is primary and causative and matter is secondary and resultant, one would expect the same distinction as that drawn by Eddy; not so with Quimby. His dedication to the legitimacy of the physical sciences never wavers. His writings are replete with illustrations drawn from physics, chemistry, astronomy, geology, physiology, and mathematics which are used to support his spiritual insights. To him, all these sciences rest on the same foundation as his own Science of Health and Happiness because all of them have the key to truth--proof by demonstration. The sciences that he ultimately rejects, such as medicine, phrenology, spiritism, and mesmerism, he negates on the basis that they are not really sciences at all. They are filled with error and opinions, and, like orthodox religion, "cannot stand the test of investigation."58

The only qualification apparent in Quimby's monistic approach to science is that his Science of Happiness, although built on the same foundation as other true sciences, requires senses beyond the five we usually recognize. Says Quimby:

A man may be scientific in many sciences--chemistry, mathematics, astronomy, botany--all that are acknowledged and admitted by even the natural man, though not understood. But the Science of Happiness is not acknowledged by the wisdom of the five senses, so it requires more senses to put man in possession of this Science that will teach him happiness.59

In a remarkable adherence to Baconian directives, Quimby does not abandon the all important "senses" when investigating a world that is beyond our natural abilities to detect. Rather, he introduces a new set of senses which can be "detached" from, and exist outside of, the body.60 These extrasensory senses, along with all the mesmeric baggage they can carry, become Quimby's instruments for exploring the unseen world of mind.

Nowhere is Quimby's obsession with science more evident than when he pays it the ultimate tribute by raising it to a divine level. In some passages he equates science directly with God, using the two as interchangeable terms: "God or Science." In others he makes the connection even more unequivocally. On a single page of his collected works he does this four times, writing "God is Science"; "there is but one living and true God or Science"; "Science is the one living and true God to worship"; and "Science is the God or Christ."61 At other times, rather than making science out to be God, he makes science one of God's attributes such as "the voice of God," or "God's religion."62 Despite the theological confusion, it is clear that for Quimby science is divine, for if it does not occupy the very throne of God, it surely issues forth from that location.

Nowhere is Quimby's obsession with science more evident than 
when he pays it the ultimate tribute by raising it to a divine level

Once it is established that Quimby considers science and God to be in some sense one and the same, the fact that science is living and certain should follow in step. And this they do. Consider the personality of science in Quimby's rendition of I Corinthians 13:

Science suffers long before it becomes a fact. It envieth not other science, it praiseth not self, is not puffed up, doth not behave unseemly, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, rejoiceth not over trouble but rejoiceth in the truth. Science never fails but prophesies. The knowledge of this world fails but science never fails.63

This passage is representative of many that speak of science as if it were some sort of animate entity. It also points to the absolute certainty wrapped up in Quimby's concept of science in that "science never fails." "Men never dispute about a fact that can be demonstrated by scientific reasoning," claims Quimby; and in his reckoning, "science holds no doubt."64 Science is therefore demonstrable to everyone and perfectly predictable. Unlike the God of Calvinism, Quimby's God of Science is in no way capricious. Science is certain, acts in accord with the orderly laws of Wisdom, and is available to every person.

Lastly, Quimby's science is pragmatic. It is "wisdom reduced to practice" and the healing of sick bodies is its most important demonstration. It is applicable in any situation and is always able to help people "get the most happiness out of the least labor."65 True to the popular fascination with the utilitarian aspects of the science of the day, Quimby used the daguerreotype, steam engine, telegraph, and various machines as important illustrations of his metaphysical insights. However, the practical nature of Quimby's program did not stop there. In a manner not unlike the millennialist movements of his day, Quimby sees his science as one that has the practical benefit of being able to heal society at large, as surely as it can heal the body. He declares, "Science is the axe in the hands of Wisdom to hew down this wilderness and destroy its inhabitants and introduce a better state of society."66

Unlike the God of Calvinism, Quimby's God of Science is in no way capricious. 
Science is certain, acts in accord with the orderly laws of Wisdom, 
and is available to every person.

Although Quimby's "Kingdom of Science" has not yet arrived in the way that he dreamed, his concept of science nonetheless had a significant impact on the mind-cure movements that followed. Horatio Dresser, a leader in New England's New Thought movement well into the twentieth century, continued to trumpet Quimby's idea of science in its purest form. Writing almost sixty years after the mental doctor's demise, Dresser reaffirms that Quimby's science is the fundamental knowledge of this our real nature, with its inner states and possibilities. It is light in contrast with the wisdom of the world. It is harmony in contrast with disease or discord. It corrects all errors, holds no doubts, proves all things, explains all causes and effects. It is Divine wisdom "reduced to self-evident propositions." It is the basis of all special branches of knowledge--when those other sciences are rightly founded. It is Christ, the wisdom of Jesus. It is in all, accessible to all. We all become parts of it in so far as we discern real truth. In fact, Quimby often says the real man "is" Science.67


Certainly few practitioners of mainstream antebellum science would recognize Quimby's concept of science as anything relevant to what was going on in their investigations. By the time Quimby was codifying his ideas and practices in the mid-nineteenth-century, the emerging professional scientific community in America had already established unofficial canons of scientific orthodoxy and heresy. If Quimby had published his "scientific" works soon after writing them, they would certainly have been anathematized as vigorously by the mainstream scientists as the other bizarre "sciences" that were floating across the young republic.68

But strange as it may seem, some of the scientific rules by which Quimby and the mainstream scientists played were the same. In many respects Quimby was a paradigmatic Baconian. In so far as he understood, Quimby showed a spirited enthusiasm for natural science, propounded a scrupulous empiricism, and had an intense distrust of speculation. However, he unwittingly fell into the gaping hole that existed in the common sense philosophy upon which American Baconianism was based: the fact that that which is common sense to one person is not necessarily common sense to another. Those ideas which Quimby considered "self-evident propositions" and demonstrable truths, were, to his critics in conventional medical practice, colossal humbugs. Yet, on the other hand, his critics too were victims of the common-sense dilemma. Holding tenaciously to their own common-sensical self-evident notions, Quimby's critics may have missed a golden opportunity to harness the curative power of suggestion decades ahead of the now recognized pioneers in psychosomatic medicine.69

In retrospect it is clear that Quimby was on to something with his practical connection between state of mind and state of body. However, the theoretical extrapolations which he derived from his experiences with healing were grounded in something far less than epistemological terra firma. He was clearly guilty of the same offense of which many spiritualists, phrenologists, and various medical sectarians (not to mention a number of "orthodox" scientists) of his day were guilty: making grand inductive leaps from a few observed phenomena to all encompassing laws of nature and supernature.

Although Quimby was leaping to conclusions alongside of the spiritualists and others, his notion of science was significantly different. Today, as in Quimby's day, the term "science" has two root meanings. The term can emphasize the method by which knowledge is obtained or the knowledge which is obtained by the method. While Quimby had no problem using the term in both senses, it was his uncommon and unbridled emphasis on science as knowledge that most set him apart from the antebellum scientific culture. Even those religious people who found science to be a useful tool for investigating the trappings of spiritual realities, such as Protestant theologians and spiritualists, used the term in its methodological sense almost exclusively.70

For Quimby, however, science was equivalent with infallible knowledge, or what he referred to with reverence as "Wisdom." It was a theological absolute that grounded his radically different view of the world. Without the authority of something comparable to the scriptura or traditio that grounded the denominational churches, Quimby's ideas would likely carry no more weight than the simple musings of an uneducated craftsman. Science, popular and trustworthy in the public mind, infallible in Quimby's, provided the perfect foundation. In the antebellum Protestant culture, it was the only thing that approached scriptural revelation in authoritative stature.

In this light it is not hard to understand how Quimby could elevate science to the level of God; in Quimby's mind they shared so many of the same attributes. As was mentioned earlier, Stewart W. Holmes in 1944 gave Quimby the title of "Scientist of Transcendentalism." It appears that he also deserves the title "Transcendentalist of Scientism" for making science equal with God and declaring science to be as effective in the metaphysical sphere as in the physical.

Contrary to White's and Draper's warfare theses, Quimby saw science and religion as altogether compatible. Indeed, he saw them as one and the same. In the midst of the nineteenth-century American love affair with science and the Baconian philosophy, Quimby journeyed from his background as an amateur scientist and inventor to experimentation with mesmerism and mental healing and ultimately found a spiritual science that was "the greatest of the sciences or the kingdom of God."71 When one takes into consideration the tremendous influence of Baconianism and popular science on many aspects of life in antebellum America, it seems far less puzzling that it was incorporated into Quimby's brand of Christian Science and that it still remains today in the teachings of the religious movements that can be traced back to this metaphysical healer.





1John William Draper, History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1898), 364.

2Andrew Dixon White, The Warfare of Science (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1876), 7, quoted in David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 3. The italics are White's.

3David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, "Beyond War and Peace: A Reappraisal of the Encounter between Christianity and Science," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 39 (September 1987): 140; James R. Moore, The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 89, quoted in Lindberg & Numbers, God and Nature, 7; Lindberg and Numbers, "Beyond War and Peace," 141.

4Herbert Hovenkamp, Science and Religion in America, 1800-1860 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978), 49.

5Theodore Dwight Bozeman, Protestants in an Age of Science: The Baconian Ideal and Antebellum American Religious Thought (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), xv. The italics are Bozeman's. See also Robert V. Bruce, The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846-1876 Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1987), 126.

6George M. Marsden, "Understanding Fundamentalist Views of Science," in Science and Creationism, ed. Ashley Montague (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 98.

7For an overview of the relationship between these nineteenth-century movements and science see Arthur Wrobel, Pseudo-Science and Society in Nineteenth-Century America (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987).

8Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, Phineas Parkhurst Quimby: The Complete Writings, ed. Ervin Seale, 3 vols. (Marina Del Rey, California: DeVorss & Co., 1988), 1:193, 354. Most of Quimby's writings were penned between the years 1859 and 1865.

9Charles S. Braden, Spirits in Rebellion: The Rise and Development of New Thought (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1963), 28-40.

10Bozeman, Protestants in an Age of Science, p. xii; and George H. Daniels, American Science in the Age of Jackson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968), 63-85.

11Marsden, "Fundamentalist Science," 98.

12C. Leonard Allen, "Baconianism and the Bible in the Disciples of Christ: James S. Lamar and The Organon of Scripture," Church History 55 (March 1986): 66. The best study to date on the topic of the influence of American Baconianism and Protestant theology is Bozeman, Protestants.

13Wrobel, Pseudo-Science, 8, 17.

14Bozeman, Protestants, 30.

15Daniels, American Science, 63.

16Ibid., 69-85.

17Bozeman, Protestants, 21.


19Ibid., 66-67.

20Ibid., 66.

21Horatio W. Dresser, ed., The Quimby Manuscripts (New Hyde Park, New York: University Books, 1969; repr., New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1921), 8.

22George H. Daniels, "The Process of Professionalization in American Science: The Emergent Period, 1820-1860," in Science in America Since 1820, ed. Nathan Reingold (New York: Science History Publications, 1976), 66.

23Donald Zochert, "Science and the Common Man in Antebellum America," in Science in America, ed. Reingold, 7-32.

24William Ellery Channing, Milwaukee Sentinel, 17 August 1841, quoted in Zochert, "Science and the Common Man," 7.

25Donald M. Scott, "The Popular Lecture and the Creation of a Public in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America," Journal of American History 66 (March 1980): 800.

26Bruce, Launching of Science, 116.

27Ibid., 80.

28Zochert, "Science and the Common Man," 29.

29James Dwight Dana, quoted in Bruce, Launching of Science, 131.

30Zochert, "Science and the Common Man," 7.

31Daniels, "The Process of Professionalization," 63.

32Dresser, Quimby Manuscripts, 8.

33Quimby, Complete Writings, 1:20.

34Robert C. Fuller, Mesmerism and the American Cure of Souls (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 17-18.

35There is some dispute concerning whether it was Charles Poyen or another mesmerist, Robert H. Collyer, with whom Quimby first had contact. Some light has been shed on this question with the publication of all of Quimby's extant writings in 1988. Quimby's own writings seem to indicate that he had personal contact with Poyen only. However, a number of years after his initial contact with Poyen, Quimby dismissed Poyen's demonstrations as humbug. Although it does not appear that Quimby had personal contact with Collyer, the writings clearly indicate that Quimby was familiar with his thought and had read some of his publications. See Quimby, Complete Writings, 1:103-4.

36Fuller, Mesmerism, 120.

37Quimby, Complete Writings, 3:197.

38Fuller, Mesmerism, 121.

39Quimby, Complete Writings, 1:191.

40Ibid., 2:301.

41William G. Rothstein, American Physicians in the Nineteenth Century: From Sects to Science (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972), 61, 249.

42Stewart W. Holmes, "Phineas Parkhurst Quimby: Scientist of Transcendentalism," The New England Quarterly 17 (1944): 360-61.

43Braden, New Thought, 81.

44Quimby as quoted in Dresser, Quimby Manuscripts, 319.

45Quimby, Complete Writings, 3:337.

46Ibid., 3:183

47Quimby, quoted in Braden, New Thought, 65.

48Quimby as quoted in Dresser, Quimby Manuscripts, 58; Catherine L. Albanese, "Physic and Metaphysic in Nineteenth-Century America: Medical Sectarians and Religious Healing," Church History 55 (December 1986): 498.

49Braden, New Thought, 68.

50Ibid., 66.

51Ibid., 69.

52Holmes, "Transcendentalism," 357.

53Dresser, Quimby Manuscripts, 18.

54Quimby, Complete Writings, 3:203.

55Ibid., 1:343.

56For a discussion of monism, dualism, and pluralism in the relationship between science and metaphysical concerns see Erwin N. Hiebert, "Modern Physics and Christian Faith," in Lindberg and Numbers, God and Nature, 434-44.

57Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (Boston: Trustees under the will of Mary Baker G. Eddy, 1906), 144.

58Quimby, Complete Writings, 2:297.

59Ibid., 3:92.

60Ibid., 1:185.

61Ibid., 1:354.

62Ibid., 1:401; 2:297.

63Ibid., 3:87.

64Ibid., 3:174; 1:370.

65Ibid., 2:296.

66Ibid., 3:179.

67Dresser, Quimby Manuscripts, 422.

68One of the best examples of these canons of scientific orthodoxy in action involved the reaction of the scientific community to one of its most prominent members, chemist Robert Hare. In 1855, Hare wanted to present the findings of his investigations into the phenomena of spiritualism, investigations that he considered scrupulously scientific. The American Association for the Advancement of Science refused to let him present his work because they considered it outside of the "scientific" concerns of the Association. See Robert Hare, Experimental Investigation of the Spirit Manifestations (New York: Partridge and Brittan, 1855), 430-31.

69For an introduction to the history of psychosomatic medicine see Franz G. Alexander and Sheldon T. Selesnick, The History of Psychiatry: An Evaluation of Psychiatric Thought and Practice from Prehistoric Times to the Present (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 388-401.

70See R. Laurence Moore, "Spiritualism and Science: Reflections on the First Decade of the Spirit Rappings," American Quarterly 24 (October 1972): 486-7; and Allen, "Baconianism and the Bible, 66-7.

71Quimby as quoted in Dresser, Quimby Manuscripts, 385.