Pioneer Portraits: Christian Science Pioneers in the American Midwest
Janet T. Colman, C.S.D.
Janet T. Colman was born in the 1850s on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, off the Massachusetts coast. Soon after her marriage to Erwin L. Colman of Boston, Janet descended into five years of invalidism. In 1882, two of Janet's relatives were successfully treated by a Christian Scientist. Janet wanted the same for herself. On the advice of a practitioner she went straight to the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, at the Massachusetts Metaphysical College, where Mrs. Eddy accepted her as a student. Janet wrote: "There were fourteen in my class when I studied, in [January] 1883, in our Leader’s back parlor on Columbus Avenue.” Using what she had learned in that class, Janet was healed of all her ailments. She immediately thought of healing others. The first case — a growth on her mother-in-law’s hand, — was healed overnight. In April 1883 a card advertising Janet Colman’s services as a public practitioner of Christian Science healing appeared in the first issue of the Journal of Christian Science (later The Christian Science Journal).
Portrait by Ruth Colman. Original in Longyear Museum collection.
Janet and Erwin Colman
During the year 1883 Erwin Colman took up the religion that had healed his wife. Later that year the couple went west, working in Chicago and Wichita, Kansas. In 1885 Janet entered Mrs. Eddy's Normal class and became a Christian Science teacher, receiving the degree of C.S.D. In October of that year, in answer to a call from Beatrice (pronounced “Bee-AH-trice”), Nebraska, the intrepid young woman headed west again, traveling alone, to teach the first Christian Science class west of the Missouri River. In 1886 Janet and Erwin set out together on another arduous journey — this time a four-year mission to towns on the American frontier. Many of Janet's mid-western students would later come east to fill important roles at The Mother Church, The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston — including Joseph Armstrong, Alfred Farlow, James Neal, Ezra Buswell, Willis and Mary Epley Gross, and others. In 1892 Mrs. Eddy named Janet one of the twelve “First Members” who anchored the reorganization of The Mother Church. Janet continued her work as a Christian Science practitioner and teacher in Boston until her passing in 1918. The Colmans’ daughter, Ruth, who was trained as an artist, painted portraits of her mother and several other early Christian Science workers, which are in the Longyear collection.
Ezra M. Buswell, C.S.D.
By 1884 Ezra Buswell had become a successful farmer and lumberyard proprietor in Beatrice, Nebraska, one of the frontier towns springing up west of the Missouri River. But both he and his wife, Elizabeth, were wracked by ill-health. Hearing of Christian Science from a friend who had returned from Boston after being healed of a serious illness, Ezra urged his wife to try the new religion. Elizabeth went off to nearby Omaha, Nebraska, to meet one of the few Christian Science practitioners active in the West. Three days later she returned to Beatrice, completely healed. Ezra promptly bought a copy of Science and Health and studied it. Within a short time, he, too, was healed — of the chronic stomach, liver, kidney, and heart trouble he had endured for years. The Buswells spread the word about their healings to friends and neighbors. Soon the group contacted Boston to request a qualified instructor. In answer to that call, Janet Colman traveled to Beatrice, where she held the first Christian Science class west of the Missouri River.
Portrait by Allan G. Cram. Original in Longyear Museum collection.
Ezra and Elizabeth Buswell
Both the Buswells went on to take three series of classes with Mary Baker Eddy in Boston. In the next few years, Ezra served as pastor of the Christian Science church in Beatrice. He and his wife energetically pursued the work of healing and teaching, sometimes in the face of harsh opposition. The direst challenge came when he was brought to trial for practicing medicine without a license. The Nebraska court decided in his favor, and that successful outcome influenced future legislation with regard to the practice of Christian Science healing in other states as well. In the 1890s Mrs. Eddy called Ezra to Concord, New Hampshire, to assist in acquiring and remodeling the house that would become Christian Science Hall. In that hall Mrs. Eddy held her class of 1898, which the Buswells were invited to attend. Ezra served as First Reader in the Concord church until 1899, when he returned to Nebraska, there to continue his healing work for the next seven years.
Elizabeth Buswell, C.S.D.
In 1866 Elizabeth Le Poidevin married the up-and-coming Ezra Buswell in Beatrice, Nebraska,. But as her husband’s fortunes rose over the next eighteen years, Elizabeth’s health sank. Doctors raised the hope that the climate and mineral waters of Colorado might relieve her suffering. However, after a visit to Colorado, she had to be brought home on a stretcher. For the next three months she could not even turn herself in bed without extreme pain. Then a friend, returning from Boston, told of having been healed by something called “Christian Science.” Elizabeth wanted no part of it, but her husband urged her to give the new religion a try. They found just one Christian Science practitioner within a day’s travel — Jennie Fenn of Omaha. A novice in the healing practice, Jennie had only recently returned from a course in healing with the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy. Elizabeth, accompanied by a friend who was also in ill-health, went reluctantly off to Omaha for a consultation. Three days later, both women boarded the train for home — fully healed. For years Elizabeth had tried every medical treatment that promised help, but had steadily grown worse. Now, in a matter of days, she was perfectly well. Within a short time her husband, too. was healed of several chronic illnesses, purely by studying Science and Health.
Portrait by Allan G. Cram. Original in Longyear Museum collection.
The Buswells and a class of their students
With great enthusiasm, Ezra and Elizabeth Buswell spread the word about their healings to friends and neighbors. In the late 1890s, while her husband was serving as First Reader at the Christian Science branch church in Concord, New Hampshire, Elizabeth was able to help Mrs. Eddy in various ways at Pleasant View. In 1899 the Buswells returned to their healing and teaching work in Beatrice. After her husband’s passing in 1906, Elizabeth received a heart-felt letter of comfort from Mrs. Eddy. Elizabeth continued to practice Christian Science healing in her home town for another fifteen years.
Alfred Farlow, C.S.D.
In 1885 the Farlow family were all pitching in to support the household. Alfred and his brother Will, the oldest of the eight Farlow children, started a small factory to convert local reeds into brooms. And, along with their father and sisters and brothers, they formed their own family band. At their popular concerts, Alfred performed as both tuba player and on-stage comedian. However, Alfred suffered from an illness that was no joking matter — it threatened his life. When a friend who had been a chronic invalid was healed through Christian Science, Alfred sought the same treatment. He, too, was healed. The entire Farlow family promptly began to study Science and Health, sitting around the dining room table together. The very next year, Alfred and three siblings enrolled in a Christian Science Primary class taught by Janet Colman. Alfred and Will soon closed their broom factory and launched into the public practice of Christian Science healing. They went on the road, where they healed and lectured to audiences large and small. A year later, Alfred, Will, and two of their sisters attended Mary Baker Eddy's Primary class.
Portrait by I. M. Gaugengigl. Original in Longyear Museum collection.
The Farlow family in Boston
In 1895 the entire Farlow family moved to Kansas City, where they helped found Kansas City Mission Church, with Alfred as pastor. Soon the congregation grew to over five hundred. Alfred’s defense of Christian Science in the 1890s in public meetings and in the mid-western press was encouraged by Mrs. Eddy. In January 1900, she appointed him the first Manager of the Christian Science Committee on Publication. Alfred organized the system of local Assistant Committees, and for fourteen years he worked tirelessly to correct errors in the media about Christian Science and its Leader. In 1904 Alfred was elected President of The Mother Church. Ten years later, in 1914, he retired from his post as Manager and moved to California with his brother Will to continue his healing practice there.
Joseph Armstrong, C.S.D.
During the 1880s Joseph Armstrong embarked on a successful career in business development in Irving, Kansas — real estate, lumber and building materials, raising thoroughbred stock, and founding the Armstrong Bank. He was drawn to the possibility of making millions of dollars for himself. As he was succeeding, however, the health of his beloved wife, Mary, was failing. By 1886 the Armstrongs’ once-golden future looked dark. Then Mary learned that her niece in Omaha, Nebraska, had been healed of a longstanding illness through treatment in Christian Science. In desperation, Joseph urged his wife to travel to Omaha and find out about this healing religion. With much coaxing, she went to Omaha. After no more than three days of Christian Science treatment, she wrote her husband that she was well. He was astonished. She sent him Science and Health to read. He wrote back that he didn’t understand a word of it. His wife returned, accompanied by fledgling practitioner Fannie Wilkins of Beatrice, Nebraska. Fannie had been bedridden for some thirteen years before she was healed through Christian Science. Now she was on her way back to Beatrice, having just finished a Christian Science class taught by Janet Colman. That night the Armstrongs listened to Mrs. Wilkins’ explanations. They studied the textbook and tried to apply what they were learning. A few months later, they, too, were students in one of Janet Colman’s classes. The Armstrongs then took Primary and Normal classes with Mary Baker Eddy.
Portrait by John Young-Hunter. Original in Longyear Museum collection.
Joseph Armstrong, member of the Christian Science Board of Directors
Joseph retired from banking to devote his entire time to Christian Science healing and teaching. As he became a successful practitioner and teacher, the man who had wanted to make millions now only wanted to make people whole and bring the new religion into their lives. This work was not without opposition. In one incident, health officials in Salina, Kansas, maliciously locked him up for six weeks in the smallpox “pest house.” “While confined there,” his wife tells us, “he healed four cases of smallpox and forced his release by his manifest evidence of perfect health, coming out untouched by the belief.” In 1892 Mrs. Eddy called Armstrong to become publisher of the periodicals and later of her writings, as well. In 1893 Joseph was appointed a member of the Christian Science Board of Directors. He oversaw the construction of the original Mother Church edifice, as recounted in his book The Mother Church, and played a leading role in building The Mother Church Extension.
Mary Armstrong, C.S.D.
On November 6, 1878, Mary Perrin of Carrollton, Illinois, married the promising young businessman Joseph Armstrong. The newlyweds moved to Iowa, then settled in Irving, Kansas. Her husband was a success at everything he did there. But Mary contracted a life-threatening illness. Their family physician told them her only hope was to appeal to a “higher power.” Joseph worried for the wife he loved, and Mary worried about leaving their two young sons motherless. In 1886 Mary received word that her cousin, who had been an invalid for fifteen years, had been healed in Christian Science. Urged by her husband, Mary visited the girl’s mother (her aunt) in Omaha, Nebraska, received Christian Science treatment from a practitioner there, and was healed after three treatments. Mary and her husband then studied the Christian Science textbook, Science and Health, and went to work applying what they were learning. A few months later, they were in one of Janet Colman’s classes. In November, at Mrs. Colman’s urging, the Armstrongs went to Boston for Primary class instruction with Mary Baker Eddy, returning to Boston two years later for the Normal class with Mrs. Eddy.
Portrait by Ruth Colman. Original in Longyear Museum collection.
Joseph and Mary Armstrong at The Christian Science Publishing Society
Mary recalled: “Soon after completing the Normal Class, my husband and I gave our entire time to the Cause of Christian Science. Our work for the Cause in healing the sick and preaching the gospel in the West was fought against on all sides. Still we pressed on, healing our quota.… Our demonstrations over the seeming ills of the flesh and material difficulties have been truly wonderful.” When Joseph became publisher of the periodicals and Mrs. Eddy’s writings at The Christian Science Publishing Society in Boston, Mary assisted at the Publishing Society. For a month in 1898 Mary filled in as cook at Pleasant View, where she established a warm relationship with Mrs. Eddy. After her husband’s passing in 1907, Mary continued her work in the public practice of Christian Science in Boston.
James A. Neal, C.S.D.
James Neal was a personable, twenty-year-old cashier at the Armstrong Bank in Irving, Kansas, renting a room from his employer, Joseph Armstrong. He encountered Christian Science in 1886 when Mary Armstrong returned to Irving, fully healed of a life-threatening illness. Neal joined the Armstrongs for an evening of discussion with Fannie Wilkins, a Christian Science practitioner who had accompanied Mary on the train home. At the end of the evening, Mrs. Wilkins handed Neal an issue of The Christian Science Journal, which he read that night for several hours . That brief introduction emboldened Neal to take on his first case: Joseph Armstrong’s brother, who was experiencing “a good deal of distress and suffering.” The brother was soon healed by Neal’s prayers. Later, after their class with Mrs. Eddy, the Armstrongs passed along to Neal what they had learned. Soon he resigned from the Bank and set out on a new career as a Christian Science practitioner, blazing a trail of healings wherever he traveled.
Portrait by Erik Haupt. Original in Longyear Museum collection.
Young James Neal
As young James Neal visited the prairie towns, many healings occurred. A man who for many years had been totally deaf in one ear found his hearing restored. A doctor’s son who had been totally blind for over two years regained his eyesight. A sheep drover from Russell, Kansas — so lame for over a year that he could hardly stand — was completely healed and wrote Neal how easy it now was to get on his horse and ride all day. A farmer’s wife who had been an invalid for seven years due to injuries suffered in childbirth, was healed and went back to doing her normal farm chores. A bedridden woman diagnosed by doctors as having a hopeless cancer was healed, and she and her husband went on to work on a large ranch for many years. After class instruction with the Armstrongs’ teacher, Janet Colman, Neal set out on the trail again. Then in Kearney, Nebraska, he was charged with having violated state law by treating a patient without a medical license. The jury acquitted him of all charges, and afterward a member of the jury called at the hotel to ask Neal to treat him and his sister. Both were healed. After that, so many patients came to see Neal that chairs had to be lined up in the hall outside of his hotel room to take care of the overflow. In 1889 James was one of seventy students in the last Primary class Mrs. Eddy would teach at the Massachusetts Metaphysical College in Boston. Then he returned to his healing work in the Midwest. Four years later, Neal was called to Boston, and in 1898 Mrs. Eddy named him a Trustee of the newly-formed Christian Science Publishing Society. Later he was among the seventy invited to Mrs. Eddy’s class of 1898. In 1912 Neal became a member of the Christian Science Board of Directors, retiring seventeen years later to have more time for healing and teaching. He served also as a Trustee under the Will of Mary Baker Eddy; Trustee of the Christian Science Benevolent Association in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts; and Trustee of Pleasant View Home at Concord, New Hampshire.
Willis F. Gross, C.S.B.
Willis Gross of Knoxville, Illinois, was just twenty-two years old when, in 1886, he first heard about the new religion called Christian Science. Willis's former schoolmate, having exhausted the skill of several physicians, had found help in Christian Science. “My friend introduced the subject of Christian Science,” Willis recalled, “by handing me an open Bible, pointing out the words: ‘And these signs shall follow them that believe. They shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.’” At first, Willis found the new teaching too contrary to what he had been taught, and he argued many points. But, he later wrote, “Science and Health appealed to me as the most logical, consistent, and practical work I had ever read.” In September Janet Colman arrived in Knoxville. Willis took her class and immediately decided to give up the study of law for the study of Christian Science. A month later he answered a call for help at Aledo, Illinois, and for the next year devoted all his time to the healing practice there. One patient in the neighboring town of Keithsburg was healed of an illness of twenty years’ duration.
Portrait by I. M. Gaugengigl. Original in Longyear Museum collection.
Willis Gross, practitioner in the Midwest
In 1887 Willis married another young Christian Scientist, Mary Epley. Looking for a place to expand their efforts on behalf of the Cause of Christian Science, they moved to Wichita, Kansas, where they worked as practitioners. They joined a handful of local people to form a church, and Willis was elected pastor. In 1893 the couple moved to Topeka, Kansas, where Willis served in the same capacities. In 1899 he attended the first Normal Class taught under the newly-established Board of Education. He and Mary then moved to Boston to assist Judge and Mrs. Hanna in the editorial office of the new Christian Science Publishing Society. Willis was appointed President of The Mother Church in 1906, the year the Mother Church Extension was dedicated. Later, he became a member of the Board of Lectureship, on which he served as one of the first lecturers on Christian Science.
Mary Epley Gross, C.S.B.
In 1886 Mary Epley attended parlor meetings in Knoxville, Illinois, which were conducted by a Christian Scientist who was being bitterly attacked in the pulpit and the press. But twenty-two-year-old Mary had a mind of her own, writing, “It was clear to me that the Scientist manifested more love and more of the spirit of Christ than did those who sought to oppose him.... I loved Christian Science from the time I first heard of it.” Mary's staunchly religious family opposed Christian Science, as they understood it, and gave her a hard time over her new faith. Friends she loved turned against her. But the young woman held firm to what she now believed. Like her friend Willis Gross, Mary signed up for a class with Christian Science teacher Janet Colman. After the course, she went to Keithsburg, Illinois, which may have been suggested by Willis as a place where she could do some good. Mary had never been to Keithsburg and knew no one there, but she went. Mary later recalled, “If ever anyone went out alone with God, I surely did. I had been in the town but two days when I was asked to treat the banker of the place. He was helped very quickly, and in three days the local paper referred to his improved condition.... The third day I began to treat the wife of a railroad man. I went to see her and found her in a dark room, as she was unable to bear the light. That evening she went outdoors. The next day she was much better, and in a very short time she was completely healed.... A young girl afflicted with a stiff arm came for help. After the first treatment all pain disappeared, and in a few days the arm was straightened and she was able to resume her sewing. A case of tuberculosis which had been given up by the doctors was healed in a short time. A tumor was quickly healed…. One case after another was healed, and the work went on, bringing comfort and healing to scores of needy ones.” Mary soon had all the cases she could handle, sometimes working night and day.
Portrait by I. M. Gaugengigl. Original in Longyear collection
Willis and Mary Epley Gross
Later that year, Mary and Willis were married. The young couple soon moved to Wichita and then to Topeka, Kansas, where they helped form churches, with Willis as pastor. In 1895, when the Bible and the textbook of Christian Science, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, were ordained by Mrs. Eddy as Pastor in all Christian Science churches, Willis and Mary became First and Second Readers. After attending the Normal class in 1899, Mary and Willis relocated to Boston to assist Judge and Mrs. Hanna in the editorial office of The Christian Science Publishing Society. Mary Epley Gross continued her healing practice through the 1920s.