Annie Macmillan Knott probably didn’t set out to be a pioneer and role model. Growing up in the latter half of the 19th century, her life was on track to follow a more typical path of her day — that of wife, mother, and homemaker.
But other plans were in store for her.
“I am glad you are the first woman Director,” Laura Lathrop would write in March 1919, when she heard the news that Mrs. Knott had been elected to The Christian Science Board of Directors. “You have won the position by long years of faithful labor, which have well fitted you for it. I have long felt that woman was not taking her rightful place in The Mother Church, and I knew the step just taken was inevitable.”1
Mrs. Lathrop, who like Mrs. Knott was a seasoned Christian Science practitioner and teacher, as well as a fellow student of Mary Baker Eddy’s, was not the only woman to be encouraged by Mrs. Knott’s appointment.
“I know of no one who is more fully equipped for this unspeakably important work,” Frances Thurber Seal told her. “For years I have prayed to see a woman on this Board, and words cannot express my joy at the fulfillment of this desire. We who know you and love you (and we are legion) know that this is divine demonstration.…”2
The path that led Annie Knott to the boardroom of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, wasn’t an easy one, however. There were roadblocks and setbacks along the way, some of them heartbreaking. Great courage would be required of her, as well as an unshakeable faith in God. Fortunately, she was well-equipped with both.
Raised in Scotland and Canada by devout Presbyterian parents, Mrs. Knott’s early acquaintance with the Scriptures stood her in good stead during a series of years that she would later refer to as “my long, dreary struggle.”3 She turned to the Bible repeatedly as a young woman as she faced a succession of blows, from the agonizing illness and death of her beloved father, who had shared with her his love of the Word of God,4 to her own severe bouts of ill health, to the tragic loss of an infant son. Through all these sorrowful experiences, she pointed out, “though loved and reverenced, the Bible was a sealed book, so far as deliverance from suffering was concerned.”5 And yet, there remained an abiding faith — “a clear conviction,” as she put it — “that without God life is impossible, so I waited for more light.”6
With her father’s passing “came the deepest desire to devote the whole of my life to aiding the sick, fully convinced that God must have a way to help His children could it only be found.”7 Young Annie resolved to become a doctor.8 That earnest desire to help others would eventually come to fruition, though not in the way she originally envisioned. Ultimately, Annie Knott would find herself ministering to the sick and sorrowing with the medicine of Mind, not matter, through her work as a Christian Science practitioner.
In 1876, she married Kennard Knott, an Englishman living in Ontario. A baby daughter was born the following year, and in 1878 the young family moved to London, where another daughter and a son soon arrived. While still an infant, her boy became seriously ill. “Again there was the verdict, no help, from the best physicians,” Mrs. Knott recalled of the baby’s subsequent passing.9 Nearly two decades later, looking back on this heart-rending episode, she reflected that “the whole sad experience prepared the way for the acceptance of Christian Science….”10
In 1882, after four years abroad, the Knott family returned to North America, settling in Chicago, where another son was born the next year. It was at this juncture that Mrs. Knott first heard of the religion that would change the course of her life.
“When Christian Science first came to my notice it was with the startling statement that these people claimed to heal the sick by the same method which Christ and his apostles practiced,” she would say. “Although the words were spoken in scorn they kindled anew my faltering hope and faith with the ardent desire that they might be found true….”11 Far from embracing Christian Science instantly, however, she struggled initially with “pride, prejudice, and doubt…. But God’s purpose can never really be hindered, and I was seeking and knocking, and in an hour of supreme agony the door opened.”12
That hour came when her toddler son accidentally swallowed carbolic acid. The shock of the incident, said Mrs. Knott, “threatened to crush my heart”13 — not difficult to imagine, given the loss of her other son just a few years earlier.
“The next half hour would be too painful to recall were it not that it stands to-day in memory as the entrance into Life,” Mrs. Knott would note. Physicians held out little hope for the boy’s recovery, and “as materia medica had nothing to offer, I sought God through the open door of Christian Science.”14
Christian Science friends were called, and the child’s swift, complete healing through prayer was accomplished within twenty-four hours.15
“What words could tell the blessedness of that hour?” the relieved and profoundly grateful mother commented afterwards. “It was not merely the child given back to life, but all the hopes and prayers of the early years had come to a resurrection morn. The Bible was true, not one word of its good promises failed, God was seen at last and seen as Love.”16
From that moment on, Annie Knott never looked back. She began at once to study deeply Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy, and within just days of her son’s recovery found herself healing others.
There were more trials ahead, including her husband’s desertion of the family. Mrs. Knott took class instruction from one of Mrs. Eddy’s students, and in 1885, she and her three children relocated to Detroit, where her budding healing practice thrived.
Mrs. Knott traveled to Boston in February 1887 to enter a Normal class with Mrs. Eddy at the Massachusetts Metaphysical College. A decade later, speaking of her teacher’s work in this capacity, Mrs. Knott noted, “she sent out many brave soldiers, ready to fight every form of oppression and tyranny.…”17
She could have been speaking of herself.
As a “brave soldier” for the Cause of Christian Science, Annie Knott’s mettle would be tested again and again. After taking an obstetrics class with Mrs. Eddy in 1888, for instance, she was asked by her teacher to begin holding regular Sunday services in Detroit, and to preach at them.
Less than five feet tall and reticent about speaking in public, this request gave Mrs. Knott pause (“the first time you tried that, you would probably be carried out on a shutter before the service was over,” was her initial thought, she later admitted to a friend).18 Determined to be obedient to her Leader’s instruction, however, Mrs. Knott overcame her fear. The fledgling services flourished, and a decade later, on Sunday, February 13, 1898, Annie Knott, who by then was serving as First Reader, gave the dedication address at First Church of Christ, Scientist, Detroit. It was the first Christian Science church to open its doors in the state of Michigan. Included in her inspiring remarks for the occasion was this comment: “There are few who deny that this is woman’s hour, when she stands by the side of man, not to displace him, but one with him in religion, hence in all lesser things, because of spiritual equality.”19
While she was speaking of Mrs. Eddy and Christian Science at the time, again Mrs. Knott could have been speaking of herself. She would repeatedly be called upon to demonstrate that level of “spiritual equality,” including during a stretch of years between 1890 and 1898, when she represented Christian Scientists in the Michigan legislature.20 This work was most often assigned to men — perhaps due to its rough-and-tumble nature — but while Annie Knott was both a woman and diminutive of stature, her stoutness of heart was larger than life. When legislation that would have restricted or made illegal the practice of Christian Science was proposed sometime in the winter of 1896 to 1897, Mrs. Knott traveled to Lansing and found herself addressing the House of Representatives.
“I had never intended to speak at all and did so only because it seemed a demand of Truth,” she later explained of her spirited argument for the constitutional rights of Christian Scientists.21
Her courage paid off, and the bill failed.
“Darling,” Mrs. Eddy wrote her on hearing the news, “‘Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled’ — have a moral force innate. Thank God, and my faithful Annie for this brave just defense of Christian Science.”22
Mrs. Eddy would soon have more work for her “faithful Annie.” In 1898, she appointed Mrs. Knott as one of just two women on the newly-formed Board of Lectureship.23 For the next five years, Mrs. Knott would serve as an “ambassador for truth,” as she termed it, crisscrossing the Midwest and beyond.24 The new appointment got off to a rocky start, however, with very few calls for her services.
“Even personal friends who were members of Christian Science churches wrote me that while they would be glad to hear me, people in general preferred to have a man lecture for them.” Mrs. Knott told her teacher the following year, describing the prejudice she was facing.25
Mrs. Eddy responded emphatically that “it would not do to let that argument stand” — and made it clear that it was Mrs. Knott’s job to “make good” on her appointment. Then she added, “You must rise to the altitude of true womanhood, and then the whole world will want you as it wants Mother.”26
Mrs. Knott was again obedient to her Leader’s instruction, with the result that she soon had plenty of lecturing work — “and what is more,” she later commented, “[I] felt the inspiration of Truth to accept these fearlessly and to prove that a woman can declare the truth and heal the sick as well as a man.”27
Mrs. Knott’s next tour of duty brought her to the headquarters of the Christian Science movement. In the summer of 1903, Mrs. Eddy recommended that she be appointed an associate editor of the Christian Science periodicals.
“When Mrs. Eddy called anyone to come to Boston, this took precedence of every other consideration, and a quick response was expected,” Mrs. Knott told a student some years later. “When I was called here, it was far from pleasing to my human sense, as Detroit was so dear to me, and I had a large number of loving students there, besides which my work was established.”28
Again, however, Mrs. Knott didn’t hesitate to obey, and within 10 days she was settled in a new city and new job.
The work was demanding. “I was expected to write an editorial for the Sentinel every week, one for the Journal once a month, to examine carefully all the contributions which were sent in … and there was a very considerable amount of correspondence with the entire field involved with the editorial work,” Mrs. Knott later explained.29
Looking back on that assignment, though, she told a student, “I would not have missed the experience for anything in the world.”30
In 1904 came an added post: the Bible Lesson committee. “I thought you might enjoy the position and I deem you well adapted to it,” Mrs. Eddy wrote to her.31 Other duties followed, including teaching the college-age class in the Sunday School of The Mother Church, also at Mrs. Eddy’s request. Meanwhile, Mrs. Knott continued to embrace her writing and editing work wholeheartedly. Her articles and editorials touched many hearts, including that of a humble farmer from Maine who traveled to Boston one day for the express purpose of seeing Mrs. Knott.
When he arrived in her office, she was perched on a high stool at a counter, editing copy for one of the periodicals. The man stood, hat in hand, “looking at her with the deepest respect written all over his serious countenance,” Mrs. Knott’s secretary would later recount.32 Somewhat discomfited, Mrs. Knott pondered her awkward position, wondering how she might get down from the stool gracefully to greet him. The farmer quickly begged her not to interrupt her work. He asked if he could just stand there for a bit and look at the one who wrote the articles he loved so much.
Mrs. Knott had never felt more highly complimented.
“No doubt many in the Field felt as this man did,” her secretary later reflected. “They knew her through what she wrote, from her heart, out of her rich experience and association with Mrs. Eddy. Many thought of her as they would of a close friend. To them she was ‘Annie Knott.’ It was her great love flowing from her pen to all impartially.”33
Sixteen years and some nine hundred editorials later, Annie M. Knott shattered one more glass ceiling. On March 17, 1919, she was elected to The Christian Science Board of Directors. She would be the first woman to serve in this capacity. Once again, the “brave soldier” mustered her courage and stepped up to the challenge of demonstrating the spiritual equality she had spoken of twenty years earlier.
“While I shrank from the responsibilities involved in this forward step,” she would acknowledge, “it seemed that obedience was the need of the hour, and I at once responded.”34 Some years later, she told a student that her experience as a Board member “meant more to me than anything else from my childhood up.”35
The appointment wasn’t for the faint of heart. Shortly after taking up this new position, a sheriff appeared on Mrs. Knott’s doorstep to serve her with a subpoena. She would be among the witnesses required to appear in court in the litigation that had just been filed by the Trustees of the Christian Science Publishing Society against the Board of Directors. At stake was the authority of the Church Manual, and control over the Christian Science publications, including Mary Baker Eddy’s writings.36
Mrs. Knott was called to testify on the afternoon of July 30. Her testimony touched in part on a visit that she and seven other women — all graduates of the Massachusetts Metaphysical College Normal class — had with their teacher in October 1892, shortly after the church’s reorganization as The First Church of Christ, Scientist. During their two-hour conversation, Mrs. Eddy had spoken to her students about her intent regarding church organization, and the “impossibility of having The Mother Church governed by or controlled by the votes of members, as they would be in all parts of the world.”37 She told them of her work with lawyers and her insistence that the form of organization she proposed — “that is, The Mother Church being governed by a minority,” as Mrs. Knott explained to the court, was possible.38
The litigation dragged on for two and a half more years. Finally, the day before Thanksgiving 1921, a decision was handed down by the Massachusetts Supreme Court which ruled decisively in favor of The Christian Science Board of Directors and the authority of the Church Manual.
A month earlier, Annie Knott had this to say about her fellow Board members in an address:
I want you to know what splendid men you have in The Christian Science Board of Directors. Never in all my years of experience in Christian Science have I known the mental and spiritual freedom which I have experienced in my close association with them; and to me, it is nothing personal. It is the promise and prophecy of what awaits womanhood when men, spiritually enlightened, work with women for the uplift of humanity. I want you all to be grateful to them for their work in the last few years, and for their recognition of women’s place in this movement. First, and what is most important, in their devotion and brave efforts to obey all our dear Leader’s teaching, and also for their kindness and consideration of myself as a fellow-worker, as a representative of the other women of this movement.39
After the resolution of yet another court challenge to the Board’s authority was announced in 1924,40 William McKenzie wrote to Mrs. Knott: “From the very first meeting when in 1919 I was invited to visit the new directorate, we who love the Cause have recognized that you were indeed in your right place. Now comes the external confirmation and the past warfare is over, the battle is won….”41
Annie M. Knott would remain on the Board until her retirement in 1934, and would continue to practice and teach Christian Science until her passing in 1941. All told, this “brave soldier” spent nearly 60 years on the front lines of the Christian Science movement, inspiring both women and men alike through her courageous example, her healing work, her writings, and her faithful obedience to the teachings and instruction of her Leader, Mary Baker Eddy.