The 1887 Christmas Fair: A lesson in misplaced zeal

  • Kelly Byquist

Christmas 1887 brought a flurry of activity to the Christian Scientists living in Boston.

For nearly a decade, ever since “a little band of earnest seekers after Truth” — students of Mary Baker Eddy’s and therefore members of the Christian Scientist Association — had voted in favor of her motion to form the Church of Christ, Scientist,1 worship services for the group had been held in rented halls. Now, they were eager for a church building of their own.

Raising money in support of a church edifice had begun in earnest around 1885.2 Various initiatives to support the project were announced in The Christian Science Journal, and financial gifts from the field began streaming in. In the summer of 1886, a committee acting for the church purchased a plot of land in an area of the city known as the Back Bay. In addition to the initial down payment of $2,000, the church committee took out a three-year mortgage for the remainder.3 Following this purchase, however, “means and methods for raising money to pay off the mortgage in the allotted time became the absorbing topic of interest to the members of the Church.”4

Program advertising the Christmas sale. Artifact, Longyear Museum collection.

Socials, bazaars, and suppers were familiar fundraising avenues to those who had left mainstream churches of the day for Christian Science. At some point in the spring of 1887,5 the girls in Mary Eastaman’s Sunday School class had a bright idea. Why not hold a Christmas fair?

“They were but children, yet they possessed earnestness and zeal, and their faithful teacher encouraged them in the undertaking,” the Journal reported.6

Initially, the adults were skeptical. “We are a very busy people,” the official program for the event would eventually explain, “and the thought of a Fair at first seemed frivolous.”7 In the end, though, the enthusiasm of the Sunday School students proved irresistible. “Their zeal inspired their elders, and so the Scripture was fulfilled, ‘Out of the mouths of babes, Thou hast perfected praise,’” noted the Journal.8

Mrs. Eddy, however, wasn’t as enthusiastic, cautioning her flock in that summer’s communion service about the dangers of casting their nets on the wrong side. “This is the important thing to understand,” she would tell them. “Which is the right side? Is it the material or the spiritual side of life and its pursuits?”9

The congregation didn’t heed her thinly-veiled message — or didn’t connect it to their fund-raising plans — and proceeded undeterred. Mrs. Eddy agreed to let the event take place, apparently willing that the event should be an object lesson.10 A call went out to all readers of the Journal, requesting that any financial contributions or donated articles for the bazaar be sent to Boston.11

Billed as a “Christmas sale and fair,” the event was held in Boston’s old Horticultural Hall on the corner of Tremont and Bromfield Streets. It lasted three days, from Monday, December 19, through Wednesday the 21st.12 The doors opened at 10 am and didn’t close until 10 pm each night. It was a gala event, complete with live music, fresh flowers, and rugs and draperies on loan from local businesses “for decorative purposes,” which “enhanced the beauty of the goods and the appearance of the hall.”13

According to one account, “the hall was prettily decorated with fans, Japanese umbrellas, and embroideries. The eleven committees in charge provided for the refreshments, confectionery, flowers, needlework, and other commodities usually found at such bazaars.”14

A section of the space was set apart as a restaurant. In a review of the event afterward, the Journal proclaimed the food “excellent in quality,” including cake “gratuitously furnished by friends,” salad, beverages, and turkey (“unusually well roasted, one of the members sitting up over night to accomplish this feat for the feast”).15

As for the offerings for sale, there was more food, including crackers, ears of popcorn, preserves, and candy. There was artwork, including paintings of all sorts, “on brass, porcelain, china, canvas, velvet, satin, silk.” There was bric-a-brac and needlework, from hand-painted and embroidered cushions to mantel-scarfs, tablecloths, and more.16 And there were books — some of them handmade.

A handwritten and hand-painted book of Mrs. Eddy’s poem, “Christ My Refuge.” She would later edit this stanza to read: “Then His unveiled, sweet mercies show / Life’s burdens light. / I kiss the cross, and wake to know / A world more bright.” Held together by a ribbon, these delicate pages are examples of the way an individual crafted together art and the words of Mrs. Eddy. This was one of the items purchased at the Christmas Sale. Artifact, AF0328, Longyear Museum collection.
A handmade book of selections from Mrs. Eddy’s writings and from the Bible. The two quotations from Science and Health pictured here would also be edited by Mrs. Eddy: “Man is never God, but spiritual man, made in God’s likeness, reflects God” (p. 70). “Man is properly self-governed only when he is guided rightly and governed by his Maker, divine Truth and Love” (p. 106). The pages in the book are printed, with the exception of one handwritten and hand-painted page, which is drawn with graphite, pen, and paint. This compilation was also purchased at the Christmas Sale. Artifact, AF0329, Longyear Museum collection.

Despite her misgivings, Mrs. Eddy attended the fair on Tuesday evening with her son and his family, who were in Boston visiting from their home in the Dakota Territory. Their presence caused a delighted stir.

Mary Baker Eddy’s son George Washington Glover II and his family, circa 1887. From left to right: Mary, George, Nellie, Evelyn, and Gershom. Photograph, P0525-1, Longyear Museum collection.

“On the evening when our Leader was present, the hall was packed,” observed one report, “and happiness and good-fellowship prevailed.”17

The fair was remarkably successful in raising funds for the payment on the mortgage. “The net profits for the building-fund were piles of dollars and heaps of happiness,” enthused the Journal.18

Alas, that happiness would be short-lived. Several months later, William H. Bradley, the treasurer for the sale, absconded with the proceeds.19

Without the funds to pay off the mortgage, the church was facing a substantial loss, including its prime piece of real estate. Mrs. Eddy took action, stepping in to acquire legal control of the land in late 1888. She transferred the title first to Ira Knapp, and then to three trustees tasked with raising funds to build an edifice.20 In the summer and early fall of 1892, after the trustees tried to incorporate the Publishing Society into the construction project, creating a “Christian Science Headquarters,” Mrs. Eddy dissolved that trust and deeded the land to the Board of Directors, for the sole purpose of building and maintaining a church edifice.21

Explaining her actions — and perhaps offering a rebuke to the human ways and means behind such measures as the Christmas fair — she would write, “The lot of land which I donated I redeemed from under mortgage. The foundation on which our church was to be built had to be rescued from the grasp of legal power, and now it must be put back into the arms of Love, if we would not be found fighting against God…. The First Church of Christ, Scientist, our prayer in stone, will be the prophecy fulfilled, the monument upreared, of Christian Science.”22

Within two and a half years after these words were written and the idea was “put back into the arms of Love,” the building Mary Baker Eddy called “our prayer in stone” was constructed, and Christian Scientists finally had a church to call their own.


  1. Mary Baker Eddy, Manual of The Mother Church, 17.
  2. Robert Peel, Mary Baker Eddy: The Years of Trial (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), 240.
  3. Ibid. Peel pegs the mortgage at $8,763. The following year, the note was paid down by $3,000, leaving $5,800 at the time of the fair.
  4. Bliss Knapp, Ira Oscar Knapp and Flavia Stickney Knapp: A Biographical Sketch (Norwood, Massachusetts: The Plimpton Press, 1925), 57.
  5. October 20, 1887, Early Organizational Records 13 (1878-1889), The Mary Baker Eddy Library, Boston, Massachusetts (hereafter referenced as MBEL).
  6. “Church and Association,” The Christian Science Journal 5 (Oct 1887): 372. Mary Eastaman was the wife of Captain Joseph Eastaman. You can read more about her here.
  7. “Good Tidings,” Christmas Sale and Fair program, December 21, 1887, LMDB-8296, Longyear Museum collection, Longyear Museum, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.
  8. “Our Fair,” The Christian Science Journal 5 (Jan 1888): 529.
  9. See “Communion Service,” The Christian Science Journal 5 (Aug 1887): 264 and Stephen Gottschalk, Rolling Away the Stone: Mary Baker Eddy’s Challenge to Materialism (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2006), 199-200.
  10. Bliss Knapp notes, “If the church members were not sufficiently advanced to learn through the inspiration of Science, then they must learn through experience. Mrs. Eddy was, therefore, quick to waive her opposition when she saw the course they must take, and she gave her consent for the church fair.” Ira Oscar Knapp and Flavia Stickney Knapp, 58. See also Peel, Trial, 240.
  11. S.H.C., “Our Church-Building,” The Christian Science Journal 5 (Nov 1887): 427; S.H.C., “Fair Matters,” The Christian Science Journal 5 (Dec 1887): 478.
  12. In 1901, Horticultural Hall acquired a new home at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Huntington Avenue, where it still is today.
  13. S.H.C., “Fair Memories,” The Christian Science Journal 5 (Jan 1888): 531.
  14. Bliss Knapp, The Destiny of The Mother Church (Boston: The Christian Science Publishing Society, 1991), 52.
  15. “Our Fair,” CSJ 5: 528.
  16. Ibid., 530.
  17. S.H.C., “Fair Memories,” CSJ 5: 531.
  18. “Our Fair,” CSJ 5: 530.
  19. William H. Bradley had primary class instruction from Mrs. Eddy in 1883, and attended Normal class in February of 1886. He had been named to two prior positions of trust in the Christian Science movement: the Finance Committee of the National Christian Scientist Association, tasked with auditing the books of the Treasurer, in April 1886; and in October of that year, he was appointed Secretary of the Christian Science Publishing Society. Perhaps not surprisingly, in light of what transpired, at the December 3, 1888 annual business meeting of the Church of Christ (Scientist), “it was voted that our Treasurer be required to furnish bonds.” EOR 13, 1878-1889, MBEL.
  20. Gottschalk, Rolling Away, 200; Knapp, Destiny, 60-95.
  21. For further information on this complex series of legal transactions, and the history behind it, see Margaret M. Pinkham, A Miracle in Stone (Santa Barbara, California: Nebbadoon Press, 2009), and Gottschalk, Rolling Away, 199-210. The Deed of Trust by which Mrs. Eddy conveyed the land to the Christian Science Board of Directors can be found in the Church Manual, 128-135.
  22. Mary Baker Eddy, Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896, 140-141 (originally published in the July 1892 issue of The Christian Science Journal, titled “Hints for History”).

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