Seeking “the place that God wants me to goˮ

By
  • Webster Lithgow
-

Recent news reports in Boston of efforts to halt development of a property in Roslindale, Massachusetts, once owned by Mary Baker Eddy have prompted us to take a closer look at the time she spent living there.


In the winter of 1891, while living in Concord, New Hampshire, Mary Baker Eddy was once again looking for a home. And, as always, she was looking for God’s direction.

Two years earlier, in the spring of 1889, she had withdrawn from teaching a Normal Class at the Massachusetts Metaphysical College after just one day in the classroom, and left Boston and her home on Commonwealth Avenue. Seeking peace and quiet to pursue the work she felt God had given her to do, Mrs. Eddy stayed briefly in Barre, Vermont. Soon, however, the summer vacationers arrived, filling the town with their bustle and noise. She moved on to her native New Hampshire. In the city she called “dear, quaint old Concord,”1 Mrs. Eddy settled into a large rented house at 62 North State Street. In addition to her secretary Calvin Frye, her maid, and a cook, the household now also included a personal assistant: her student Laura Sargent.2

In a series of surprising moves over the next months, she closed her college in Boston, resigned the pastorate of her church, dismantled its organization, and transferred The Christian Science Journal to the National Christian Scientist Association. Then she plunged into a major restructuring of the Christian Science textbook, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. By the end of 1890, she had completed her revision, and in January 1891, 3,000 copies of the pivotal 50th edition were rolling off the presses in Cambridge, Massachusetts.3

As Mrs. Eddy worked, her rented house just blocks away from the state capitol was proving unsuited to what she most needed and yearned for — a home that could be both a base for her efforts for mankind and a retreat from mankind’s clamor. Should she, perhaps, relocate nearer her students in Boston, but in a place that provided seclusion for her work? During late fall and early winter, her student Ira Knapp and her recently adopted son Ebenezer Foster Eddy, whom she affectionately called “Benny,” searched for just such a property. At the start of 1891, an elegantly-designed house with spacious landscaped grounds became available across the street from the Knapp’s home in Roslindale on the outskirts of Boston. Mr. Knapp recommended it to Mrs. Eddy.4

175 Poplar Street in Roslindale, Massachusetts, circa 1898. Photograph, P1671-1, Longyear Museum collection.

She hesitated, waiting for some sense of God’s command. For one thing, she was concerned about how “Benny” and the sometimes hard-pressed secretary Calvin Frye might be affected by the turmoil of thought stirred up at her return to the center of the Christian Science movement. Not long before they left Boston, Calvin, struggling under the enormity of his duties, had collapsed and tumbled down a flight of stairs, where he was healed on the spot by Mrs. Eddy.5 Now she wrote Knapp:

If only I could be sure that my son and Mr. Frye would stand the fire upon them if I was there, I would go without another word…. If only I knew that Boston or the suburbs was the place that God wants me to go I would go without further counting the cost….?6

When she finally decided to move forward, Mrs. Eddy exhibited her usual practicality in business transactions. She instructed Knapp to tell the owner of 175 Poplar Street that $14,000 would be her best offer. “If he does not see fit to accept I shall be satisfied,” she wrote. “Our loving Father will direct.”7

When prolonged negotiations caused months of delay, she arranged for the house to be acquired through a third party, Knapp’s brother-in-law, Seth P. Stickney.8 A price of $17,000 was agreed on, and the house was vacated so that some alterations could be made.9 On May 23, 1891, Mrs. Eddy moved into her Roslindale home. It would prove to be a short stay.

The Knapp Family. Clockwise from bottom right: Ira, Flavia, Sprague, Bliss, Ralph, Daphne. Photograph, P0868-1, Longyear Museum collection.

Her neighbors, Ira Knapp and his wife, Flavia, were both faithful workers who had been taught by her at the Massachusetts Metaphysical College. Several years earlier, they had entertained her at their former home in Lyman, New Hampshire, and thus were personal acquaintances as well.10 In 1892, Mrs. Eddy would appoint Ira as one of the first Directors of The Mother Church, and both Knapps would be appointed First Members when the church was reorganized in 1895.

A warm relationship developed between the two households. For example, Mrs. Eddy wanted access to a telephone, still a fairly recent invention, but did not want the disruptive device in her own house. So a phone was installed for her in the Knapp home. Presumably, Flavia or one of the Knapp children would run across the street with any messages, should the need arise.11

On a few occasions, Ira took Mrs. Eddy out on her daily drive. As she got to know him better, Mrs. Eddy became aware that Ira had developed what his son Bliss described as “an abnormal sense about celebrating birthdays.”12 Ira refused to celebrate them, perhaps rigidly considering them to be contrary to his Leader’s instruction: “Never record ages.”13 To correct this extreme posture, Mrs. Eddy decided to celebrate for him. On June 7, she sent a birthday present across the street to him: a vase filled with flowers, accompanied by her photograph in a hand-painted frame.

Left: Mary Baker Eddy gave Ira Knapp this vase as a birthday present in 1891. Artifact, LMDB-5410, Longyear Museum collection. Right: She also gave him this photo of herself in a Victorian Eastlake frame. Artifact, LMDB-13494a&b, Longyear Museum collection.

June 7 also happened to be Bliss’s birthday, so she sent him a present, too — her favorite canary in a fine brass cage. Mrs. Eddy also presented the Knapps’ daughter Daphne with a gift of two black-enameled bracelets which she herself had worn. Dropping in on the Knapps one afternoon afterwards, and receiving thanks all around for her gifts, Mrs. Eddy noted that Ralph Knapp was silent. It came to her that she had failed to send a present to him. As soon as she returned home, she sent Calvin Frye across the street with a beautiful small clock for Ralph.14

Charming ornamental clock that Mrs. Eddy gave to Ralph Knapp. Artifact, LMDB-2035, Longyear Museum collection.

But for all these occasional neighborly pleasantries, Mrs. Eddy soon came to feel this was not the place God had intended for her. She summed up her experience in a letter to Laura Sargent:

I have no desire to live in the place of beauty that the Roslindale home is — a beauty unavailing in Christian Science. There is no retirement, no solitude, no quiet in it. It is a hillside decked with flowers and ornamental trees and shrubs and luxurious fruit and garden, but the walks are so steep I cannot follow them…. The whole site is surrounded with streets. The piazza goes all around the house, but from every side you are saluted with noise.15

These words help explain why, after less than a month, Mrs. Eddy abandoned her Roslindale house and returned to the rented house on North State Street in Concord, where she reported to one student:

The summer is cool, and the shade trees friendly … that is about all I can say of dear, kind, old Concord. Wherever we are, God is, and that is all I can hope for here.16

In the more peaceful solitude of the next few months, Mrs. Eddy produced Retrospection and Introspection, that deeply spiritual examination of her life as Discoverer, Founder, and Leader of Christian Science and of its mission to humanity.

With that work finished and her church awaiting reorganization, she resumed looking for a home. Ira Knapp was again asked to aid in the search. But in late fall of 1891, Mrs. Eddy found it herself. During a drive on the outskirts of Concord, she passed a farmhouse on a hill that sloped away toward the distant uplands and pastures of her childhood at Bow. After rebuilding the structure to accommodate her needs and the needs of her household, she moved in the following June.17 Located on Pleasant Street, she named her new home accordingly “Pleasant View.” Here, over the next sixteen years, she would reorganize her church and guide its growth, write its Church Manual, continue to revise the Christian Science textbook, and against all her desires for peace and privacy, become one of the most newsworthy and talked-about women in America.

Pleasant View, Mary Baker Eddy’s home in Concord, New Hampshire. 1901 photograph by W. G. C. Kimball, P3003-1, Longyear Museum collection.

Through it all, Mrs. Eddy had bent to her sense of God’s purpose for her, seeking only to know “the place that God wants me to go.” As she told Ira Knapp, “I have longed for a home by the seaside, but now it seems that God has prepared one for me on a hillside.”18

Notes


  1. Mary Baker Eddy to Joseph Eastaman, quoted in Robert Peel, Mary Baker Eddy: The Years of Trial (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), 301.
  2. Calvin Frye was recommended to Mrs. Eddy by her husband Asa Gilbert Eddy, and began working for her in August 1882. Laura Sargent joined the household in January 1889. Maria Newcomb worked for Mrs. Eddy as a maid and Martha Morgan as her cook. Ebenezer Foster Eddy was also part of the 62 North State Street household for a time.
  3. Mary Baker Eddy to Caroline D. Noyes, January 15, 1891, L05447, The Mary Baker Eddy Collection, The Mary Baker Eddy Library, Boston, Massachusetts (hereafter referenced as MBEL).
  4. Peel, Years of Trial, 300.
  5. Yvonne Caché von Fettweis and Robert Townsend Warneck, Mary Baker Eddy: Christian Healer Amplified Edition (Boston, Mass.: The Christian Science Publishing Society, 2009), 167-168.
  6. Mary Baker Eddy to Ira O. Knapp, quoted in Years of Trial, 300.
  7. Mary Baker Eddy to Ira O. Knapp, January 8, 1891, L03389, MBEL. This affectionate letter ends “remember me always to your dear family. You all have a permanent place in my heart.”
  8. Bliss Knapp, Ira Oscar Knapp and Flavia Stickney Knapp: A Biographical Sketch (Norwood, Mass.: Plimpton Press, 1925), 48.
  9. Mary Baker Eddy to Ira O. Knapp, April 9, 1891, L03392, MBEL.
  10. Mrs. Eddy stayed with the Knapps for five weeks in the summer of 1888.
  11. Ira Oscar Knapp and Flavia Stickney Knapp, 48.
  12. Ibid., 49.
  13. Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, 246.
  14. Ira Oscar Knapp and Flavia Stickney Knapp, 49.
  15. Mary Baker Eddy to Laura Sargent, July 8, 1891, L05962, MBEL. Mrs. Eddy added: “I met a policeman one day. I spoke to him about the barking dogs. He asked if I was Mrs. Eddy of Commonwealth Avenue, Boston? I said Yes, and his hat came off instantly and was held till we parted.” Noting that road commissioners had promptly repaired the entrance to her driveway, once they learned the property belonged to her, she went on to remark, “This does not seem very much like Mrs. Eddy being driven out of Boston, does it?” Apparently she was referring to a rumor circulating among her students that she was being hounded out of the city.
  16. Mary Baker Eddy to Joseph Eastaman, quoted in Years of Trial, 301.
  17. Mrs. Eddy would live at Pleasant View from June 20, 1892 through January 25, 1908.
  18. Mary Baker Eddy to Ira O. Knapp, December 9, 1891, L03413, MBEL. In her letter to Mr. Knapp, Mrs. Eddy added: “My house here stands upon a very sightly hill, and the sides remind me of the Galilean slopes where my brother walked, and wept, and prayed.”

Support Longyear’s research

Your donation helps support our ongoing research into Mary Baker Eddy’s life and work