Whittier and Mrs. Eddy

  • Kelly Byquist
Mrs. Eddy lived in Amesbury, Massachusetts from 1867-1868 and for a few weeks in 1870, the year this photograph was taken. Photograph, P0007, Longyear Museum collection. Neighborhood children were impressed by her “tall, slight figure and the long ringlets falling to her shoulders in the fashion of the time.” The Christian Science Monitor, February 21, 1914.

Everyone who came to Amesbury always went to see John Greenleaf Whittier, Sarah Bagley told her new tenant and teacher, Mary Baker Eddy (Mrs. Patterson at the time). Wouldn’t she like to go see him, too?

“No,” Mrs. Eddy responded. “I have no particular desire to see him.”

Well, if she changed her mind, Sarah told her, “you must see him soon for he is ill and will probably not live long.”

Hearing these words, Mary didn’t hesitate. “Well, said I, if that is his condition I will go and see him and help him.”1

John Greenleaf Whittier, the famous Quaker poet who fervently advocated for the abolition of slavery, lived just down the road from Sarah Bagley, a distant relative and a friend of his sister Elizabeth’s.2 Their small town of Amesbury, Massachusetts, sandwiched between the New Hampshire border and the placid Merrimack River, proved a captivating landscape to this 19th-century writer.3 Although born in the neighboring town of Haverhill, after Mr. Whittier moved to Amesbury in 1836, he never left.4

By 1867, Amesbury had become home to another writer, though this one did not stay nearly as long. That autumn, the woman who would come to be known as Mary Baker Eddy traveled north from Lynn in search of a quiet place to study her Bible and write. She found what she was looking for at the home of Captain Nathaniel Webster and his kind-hearted wife, who was known locally as “Mother Webster,” thanks to her generosity in offering shelter to those in need. Mrs. Webster gave her new boarder a room with a view of the river5 — the Webster home was near the ferry port — and a desk at which to write.6

Poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier. Mr. Whittier and Mrs. Eddy met on at least two occasions, and found interest in each other’s work. Photograph, LMDB-43845, Longyear Museum collection.

The previous year had been a momentous one for Mary. Not only had she experienced a transformative healing after a severe fall on icy pavement — a recovery brought about by spiritual means alone7 — but she had also taught her first student. Sadly, her husband had also deserted her, and she was struggling to make ends meet. Now, this boardinghouse in Amesbury would become, for a time, a refuge and a workspace.

“Writing, writing, writing, she was always writing, the sheets falling to the floor beside her,” a fellow boarder at the Webster’s home observed. “She seldom went out, she saw few people; she simply sat and wrote.”8 A neighborhood policeman confirmed this report, adding, “Never did I see a lady write so fast and so much.”9

Mrs. Eddy was busy pondering her mission, studying the Bible, and making “copious notes” of her findings.10

“I sought the solution of this problem of Mind-healing,” she later reflected, “searched the Scriptures and read little else, kept aloof from society, and devoted time and energies to discovering a positive rule.”11

This “positive rule” would be thought and re-thought, worded and re-worded for nearly a decade, until it finally took form in a finished book.12

Meanwhile, though, when the Websters’ son came home in June 1868 to make arrangements for his family’s annual summer vacation, Mary and the rest of the boarders were evicted. Fortunately, there was room nearby at the Bagley house, where Sarah Bagley lived with her widowed mother. Mary was shown to a small upstairs bedroom overlooking Main Street. Sarah was intrigued by her new lodger, who was not only reading and writing, but also teaching and healing!13 She determined that Mary and her famous relative had to meet.

Mrs. Eddy first advertised as a teacher in the July 4, 1868 edition of the Boston-based newspaper Banner of Light.

Mary and Sarah had only to walk a mile through town to reach Whittier’s house. They found the poet in his study, surrounded by brimming bookshelves and walls adorned with portraits of great men and women — poets, authors, ministers, politicians, and army officers — from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Marcus Aurelius, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and more. John Greenleaf Whittier lived directly across from the Friends Meeting House, which was very convenient for his Quaker friends, who huddled around him in concern on this particular day.

Whittier’s “Garden Room” at his home in Amesbury. He entertained guests in this room, including Mrs. Eddy, who healed him of pulmonary consumption in 1868. Vintage postcard, Longyear Museum collection.

Whittier sat helplessly by the fire, coughing incessantly, unable to speak louder than a whisper. Mrs. Eddy sat patiently and calmly beside him.

“The atmosphere is more comfortable outside than inside,” she said, motioning toward the windows and the warm summer day beyond. She continued talking with him “in the line of Science,” and soon noticed a change to his pallor. “By and by his countenance changed and the sunshine of his former character beamed through the cloud and his friends sat wrapped in interest in the truth that I presented. When I rose to go he came to me with both hands extended and said, ‘I thank you Mary for your call, it has done me much good’. . . . The next day he walked down to the village and was well.”14

Whittier must have heard something that resonated with him and prompted him to thank his visitor with such sincere appreciation. Years later, members of his family would recall him speaking about Mrs. Eddy with high praise, even talking about her with members of the community — including the local grocery driver.15

Whittier’s home at 86 Friend Street in Amesbury, Massachusetts. Vintage postcard, Longyear Museum collection.

Whittier’s writing certainly resonated with Mrs. Eddy. She’d been a lifelong fan of his poems, including the one he wrote the same year that she experienced her landmark healing. Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl, Whittier’s famous narrative-poem, was a sensation when it first appeared in 1866. The author himself was surprised by how popular and beloved this work became.16

The opening page to Whittier’s Snowbound: A Winter Idyl, 1866. LMDB-9067, Longyear Museum collection.

Set in his hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts, Snowbound nostalgically recounts a typical New England homestead in the dead of winter: the children collecting kindling for the fire and feeding the animals in the barn while a storm is brewing; the entire family looking forward to a few nights of storytelling by the fire with mugs of hot cider.17 The verses drew on Whittier’s own childhood memories of growing up on a working farm, with seven members of the family living under one roof (Whittier’s parents, a brother, two sisters, and a maternal aunt and paternal uncle), and Snowbound was dedicated to the members of his own household.18

Frontispiece to Snowbound. LMDB-9067, Longyear Museum collection.

By the time the book appeared, however, Whittier and his brother Matthew were the only surviving family members. A sense of melancholy fills the pages, although not without glimmers of hope:

We tread the paths their feet have worn,
We sit beneath their orchard-trees,
We hear, like them, the hum of bees
And rustle of the bladed corn;
We turn the pages that they read,
Their written words we linger o’er,
But in the sun they cast no shade,
No voice is heard, no sign is made,
No step is on the conscious floor!
Yet Love will dream, and Faith will trust,
(Since He who knows our need is just,)
That somehow, somewhere, meet we must.19

Produced by the highly-esteemed University Press — the same printer that Mrs. Eddy would eventually use when publishing later editions of Science and Health20Snowbound sold briskly and helped make Whittier a household name. After reading it, Mrs. Eddy was moved to draft a short poem of her own, titled “Lines On Reading Whittier’s Snow Bound.” Never completed or published, the lines nevertheless shed light on how deeply Whittier’s words and sentiments touched her:

But through times chinks thou let’st in light
My curtains hast uprolled
And from the chill and shadowy night
The chariot wheels of old
Roll back the morn the dewy morn
With sunshine on its breast
When those were here who now are gone
And would they might now loving come
All silently as thought
To look upon my labor done
And see ‘twere wisely wrought 21

The work to be done, which doubtless must have felt like “labor” at times, kept Mrs. Eddy speedily writing. In 1872, she sent Whittier a copy of “Questions and Answers in Moral Science,” an early teaching manuscript about her discovery22 — which he read and sections of which he praised.23 After Science and Health was published a few years later, she followed up by sending him an inscribed copy of the first edition. It was still among his belongings years later after his passing.

This first edition Science and Health was a gift to John Greenleaf Whittier from Mary Baker Eddy. LMDB-6824, Longyear Museum collection.

Mrs. Eddy’s admiration for Whittier and for his words stayed with her as well. Over the years, she had clipped his poems out of literary magazines and pasted them into scrapbooks. Interestingly, the same year that she sent him a first edition of Science and Health, Whittier wrote a poem that speaks to Christian healing, and “The Healer” would eventually find its way into the Christian Science Hymnal:

So stood of old the holy Christ
Amidst the suffering throng;
With whom His lightest touch sufficed
To make the weakest strong.

That healing gift He lends to them
Who use it in His name;
The power that filled His garment’s hem
Is evermore the same.24

Mrs. Eddy once referred to Whittier as the “grandest of mystic poets,” one whose words captured the precise character of Christ Jesus that she was also trying to elucidate in her writings.25 Although the two writers had their differences, Mrs. Eddy certainly felt that Whittier’s messages were important enough to share with her readers. Eight of Whittier’s poems were turned into hymns in the Christian Science Hymnal,26 and more than a dozen of his poems were published in the Christian Science Sentinel and The Christian Science Journal. While Whittier never thought of himself as a hymn-writer per se, he couldn’t think of any form more worthy of his words. “A good hymn is the best use to which poetry can be devoted,” he once wrote.27

“Winter Landscape,” by Bradford Sherman, depicts Whittier’s birthplace in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Oil painting, 2017.007.0051, Longyear Museum collection.

Mrs. Eddy also cherished a painting of Whittier’s rural homestead sent to her as a Christmas gift some years later, in 1890, by Chicago Christian Science practitioner and amateur artist Bradford Sherman.

“I look at Whittier’s Birthplace, an oil painting by Bradford Sherman, beautifully framed,” Mrs. Eddy wrote in The Christian Science Journal, “and wonder if ever poet and painter met more warmly with pen and brush in so frigid a scene as this illustration of the inimitable poem ‘Snow Bound.’”28

Mrs. Eddy loved the painting so much that she hung it in the guest room at Pleasant View, her home in New Hampshire, and took it with her when she moved to Chestnut Hill in 1908, where it graced Calvin Frye’s office.29

Whittier’s birthplace, Haverhill, Massachusetts, circa 1900. Photochrom Print Courtesy Library of Congress.


  1. Mary Baker Eddy, n.d., A11063, The Mary Baker Eddy Library, Boston, Massachusetts (hereafter referenced as MBEL). According to the document, Mrs. Eddy dictated this account some years later to Calvin Frye.
  2. Sarah Bagley and Elizabeth Whittier were friends. “Amesbury Once Scene of Mary Baker Eddy’s Work,” The Christian Science Monitor, February 21, 1914. Additionally, Sarah and John Greenleaf Whittier were distantly related. Sarah’s sister Emeline married James Whittier, John’s third cousin two times removed. John and James were both descendants of Thomas Whittier (1619-1696), the first American settler in the Whittier family line, and the one who built John Greenleaf Whittier’s homestead in Haverhill. Charles Collyer Whittier, The Descendants of Thomas Whittier and Ruth Green of Salisbury and Haverhill, Massachusetts (Vermont: The Tuttle Publishing Company, Inc., 1937), 16, 17, 23, 24, 36, 37, 71, 560.
  3. Whittier was known for talking to the locals in town and strolling down the river pathway beside the Merrimac. His literary work was often inspired by the things he observed in historical and picturesque New England. For instance, the subject of one of his poems, “The Captain’s Well” (1889), was located 100 feet from Sarah Bagley’s home. Although not standing today, the well was built by a seaman named Valentine Bagley to commemorate his safe return after a shipwreck in Arabia in 1792.
  4. Whittier grew up on a working family farm. Known today as the John Greenleaf Whittier Homestead, this house in Haverhill is maintained as a historic site, and is open to the public. The same is true for Whittier’s residence in Amesbury, where he lived for 56 years. John Greenleaf Whittier lived and worked in Amesbury until his passing in 1892.
  5. Sibyl Wilbur, The Life of Mary Baker Eddy (Boston: The Christian Science Publishing Society, 1976), 169.
  6. Robert Peel, Mary Baker Eddy: The Years of Discovery (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), 220.
  7. Mrs. Eddy had recovered from a severe fall on the ice after reading passages from the New Testament, a healing that revealed to her that “all causation was Mind, and every effect a mental phenomenon.” Retrospection and Introspection, 24.
  8. The Christian Science Monitor, February 21, 1914.
  9. “Amesbury and Mary Baker Eddy,” Longyear Quarterly News, Winter 1968-1969.
  10. Science and Health, ix.
  11. Science and Health, ix, 109. See also Retrospection and Introspection, 24, and The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany, 114.
  12. During these years, Mrs. Eddy was writing notes and essays on the spiritual interpretation of the Scriptures, which were in circulation among her earliest pupils. These notes eventually formedThe Science of Man, a teaching manual filled with questions and answers. This book in turn laid the foundation for the chapter Recapitulation, which first appeared in the third edition of Science and Health in 1881. (See Science and Health, ix-x, and Retrospection and Introspection, 27).
  13. Mrs. Eddy healed a friend of the Websters’ who was on her deathbed with pneumonia, for instance. (See Peel, Discovery, 222.) Sarah Bagley would go on to take classes from Mrs. Eddy in 1868 and 1870.
  14. Mary Baker Eddy, n.d., A11063, MBEL. Whittier was healed of incipient pulmonary consumption. See Pulpit and Press, 54. This was not the sole meeting between the two authors, as Whittier and Mrs. Eddy ran in similar literary circles, but it is the only meeting that is recorded in great detail.
  15. The Christian Science Monitor, February 21, 1914. Whittier’s great-grand-nephew, John Pickard, wrote: “In his years in Amesbury, Whittier was secure and content, enjoying a close association with his neighbors. He could often be found talking shop with Amesbury residents at a local store and spent many hours in the back room of John Hume’s tailor shop talking about literature and politics.” Pamela Johnson Fenner, Celebrating Whittier: New England’s Quaker Poet and Abolitionist, America’s 1907 Centennial  (Amesbury: Michaelmas Press, 2007), 2.
  16. Collecting over $10,000 from the book’s sales ($163,000 in 2018), John Greenleaf Whittier finally became a financially settled author. This came as a great surprise to the poet. “The poem for a winter storm: ‘Snow-Bound’ by John Greenleaf Whittier,” Library of America, December 27, 2010, https://www.loa.org/news-and-views/960-_the_-poem-for-a-winter-storm-sno…. ; Fenner, Celebrating Whittier, 2.
  17. Gathering around the fireside for storytelling and conversation was especially common during the winter months in frosty New England. This was such a common occurrence  that the term “Fireside Poets” was used to describe a group of 19th-century American poets — of which Whittier was one — whose literary work was often read by families gathered around the fire.
  18. The dedication page reads: “To the memory of the household it describes, this poem is dedicated by the author.”
  19. John Greenleaf Whittier, Snow-bound: A Winter Idyl (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1866), 20.
  20. The first and second editions of Science and Health were printed by W.F. Brown and Company and Rand, Avery & Company, respectively, two firms in Boston. Mrs. Eddy finally found an adequate printer in John Wilson from the University Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts, whom she started using beginning with the third edition of Science and Health in 1881. “I Never Doubted”: Mary Baker Eddy and Her Printers, MBEL, https://www.marybakereddylibrary.org/research/i-never-doubted-mary-baker….
  21. Mary Baker Eddy, n.d., A10035, MBEL. This poem was written sometime before 1877. Reading Whittier’s Snowbound may very well have reminded Mrs. Eddy of her own childhood in Bow, as she and Whittier had very similar upbringings. In addition to being raised on working farms, with many family members living under one roof, both suffered from precarious health and physical frailty during early life. Whittier, too, was an avid reader, loved Abraham Lincoln, attended temperance meetings, worked for a time as a teacher, and later became the editor of several literary journals. Fenner, Celebrating Whittier, 21.
  22. The manuscript given to Whittier in 1872 was a precursor to the chapter “Recapitulation” in Science and Health.
  23. Mary Baker Eddy to Sarah Bagley, January 31, 1872, L08301, MBEL.
  24. Although Whittier wrote an earlier version of this poem in 1869, titled “The Healer: To a Young Physician with Dore’s picture of Christ Healing the Sick,” he added these two stanzas to the second version of the poem, which was published in 1875. Samuel Rogal, Congregational Hymns from the Poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier: A Comparative Study of the Sources and Final Works, with a Bibliographic Catalog of the Hymns  (London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010), 94-95. Mrs. Eddy pasted this poem into her scrapbook. SB025.02, MBEL. Today, Whittier’s poem appears as hymn 96 in the Christian Science Hymnal. It was published in The Christian Science Journal 11 (June 1893): 115, and the Christian Science Sentinel  2 (January 18, 1900): 316.
  25. Pulpit and Press, 53.
  26. Although the Christian Science Hymnal in use today includes nine of Whittier’s poems, the hymnal published in Mrs. Eddy’s day only included eight. (Hymn number 547 in the most recent hymnal, Christian Science Hymnal: Hymns 430-603, offers another musical arrangement to Whittier’s “O, Sometimes Gleams upon Our Sight,” hymn number 239 in the Christian Science Hymnal.)
  27. John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology  (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1892), 1278. At another time, Whittier had asked a friend, “Do you know what I would like above all things on earth?” To which he answered, “It is to write my verses so they could be sung.” “Old Home Week,” Concord Evening Monitor, September 1, 1899.
  28. Mary Baker Eddy, “Christmas Offerings,” The Christian Science Journal 7 (February 1890): 547.
  29. James Gilman, Pleasant View Home Surroundings of Rev. Mary Baker Eddy (Concord: J.F. Gilman and H.E. Carlton, 1896). Photographs P05864 and P05871, MBEL.

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