Mary Baker Eddy’s “Last Class” in 1898 was well chronicled by the students who attended.1 In their written recollections are many descriptions of Mrs. Eddy’s grace and authority as their teacher. Sue Harper Mims, a well-known Christian Science practitioner from Atlanta, Georgia, recalled the prestige of the students attending the class — among them lawyers, successful businessmen, and clergymen. But from the crowd, Mrs. Mims writes, “the sweetest thing to me was to see those young men — just leaving all for Christ.”2
James Neal was one young man in attendance, and Mrs. Mims may well have been describing him. His life had taken on a wholly new direction twelve years earlier when he was introduced to Christian Science at the age of twenty. He had been a teller at a bank owned by Joseph Armstrong, when Mr. Armstrong’s wife, Mary, was healed of a life-threatening illness through Christian Science. Afterwards, Mr. Neal had an evening discussion about Christian Science with the Armstrongs and practitioner Fannie Wilkinson, and he left with an issue of The Christian Science Journal. Enthralled with what he had heard, he read the Journal for hours when he got home. A preview of his affinity for healing came when, with no other formal training, he healed Mr. Armstrong’s brother as his first case.
By 1888, still just twenty-two years old, Mr. Neal had resigned as teller of the bank and had begun travelling the Midwest as an itinerant practitioner of Christian Science healing. His first formal instruction in Christian Science came in May of that year, when he took Primary class instruction from Janet Colman.3 Afterwards, he continued his healing work, but his traveling was halted in Kearney, Nebraska, when he was charged with violating state law by treating a patient without a medical license. Forced to remain in Kearney for his trial, Mr. Neal was unfazed. He hung his sign in the hotel lobby where he was staying and ran a newspaper ad announcing he would be available to anyone who needed him. The jury found him not-guilty, and one juror even came to Mr. Neal’s hotel room seeking healing. In February 1889 he attended Mrs. Eddy’s final Primary class, which she taught at the Massachusetts Metaphysical College in Boston, and then returned to the Midwest after the class to resume his healing practice.
Mr. Neal continued working as a Christian Science practitioner for four more years, and in January 1893 he was invited back to Boston to work for the Christian Science Publishing Society. Although he was disinclined to give up his healing profession, he agreed to the move when he was told that Mrs. Eddy had requested him personally. From Mrs. Eddy’s letters to Mr. Neal during this time, it is clear she held her young student in high regard. In a September letter, she wrote to him, “When thinking of you…I almost say, ‘of such is the kingdom’, you so practically obey the command to leave all and follow [Christ].”4 In 1898, Mrs. Eddy appointed him to serve as a Trustee of the Publishing Society and later that year, he was invited to attend her final class in Concord, New Hampshire.
Despite his important contributions to the Publishing Society, Mr. Neal’s real passion was healing and he missed his practice. To accommodate him, Mrs. Eddy gave him permission to work half-time at the Publishing Society, but he later stepped down from the Board of Trustees entirely to have a full-time practice.
Mrs. Eddy encouraged his desire to be a healer. During the 1896/1897 holiday season, she wrote Mr. Neal thanking him for a gift she had received and commented:
I have felt for a year it was not right for you to attend to aught but healing. May this Xmas [sic] and New Year be to you a great epoch in the progress of your growth and the great good you are so capable of doing and are so richly accomplishing[.] My prayer is for your prosperity and success.5
Later in January, she expounded on the importance of the healing work:
To this glorious end I ask you to still press on, and have no other ambition or aim. A real scientific Healer is the highest position attainable in this sphere of being. Its altitude is far above a Teacher or preacher; it includes all that is divinely high and holy. Darling James, leave behind all else and strive for this great achievement.6
Over the course of his career, Mr. Neal took Mrs. Eddy’s words to heart. He continued to be appointed to influential positions in the movement, even becoming a member of the Christian Science Board of Directors in 1912. Yet after spending seventeen years as a member of the Board of Directors, he retired once again to focus on healing — having “no other ambition or aim.”