Interview with Anne Stiles, Ph.D., on Christian Science, ‘Mind Cure,’ and Children’s Literature 

Anne Stiles, Ph.D., is a professor in the English department and coordinator of the medical humanities interdisciplinary minor program at St. Louis University, Missouri. Professor Stiles is an editor of Literature, Neurology, and Neuroscience: Historical and Literary Connections and Literature, Neurology, and Neuroscience: Neurological and Psychiatric Disorders, and the author of Popular Fiction and Brain Science in the Late Nineteenth Century. Her most recent book, Children’s Literature and the Rise of “Mind Cure”: Positive Thinking and Pseudoscience at the Fin de Siècle, is the subject of the following interview. This fascinating book examines the confluence of religion and health within the context of children’s fiction. Our exchange occurred via email in December 2022.

1) As readers may be unfamiliar with Christian Science and the New Thought movement, briefly summarize your book’s central argument. What do you hope readers will gain from your research?

Americans tend to assume that optimism and positive thinking are good for you, like eating your vegetables. As a natural pessimist, I was skeptical of this assumption and started to explore its history. This took me back to an eclectic nineteenth-century religious movement known as New Thought, which touts prayer and positive thinking as a means to health, prosperity, and power. The movement was also known as “mind cure” and is related to Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science, which was founded in Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1879. I discovered that many American, British, and Canadian children’s fictions written around 1900 teach young people New Thought ideas, such as the belief that positive thoughts have the power to bring about desired changes in one’s life, whereas negative thinking can cause sickness, poverty, and other catastrophic outcomes. In other words, thoughts alone can change the world. Some of these books, especially Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911) and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908), are still widely read today.

I hope that readers of this book will learn to identify New Thought concepts and practices when they see them and realize the extent to which they pervade modern life, starting with children’s fiction most English speakers encounter at a young age. That said, I don’t want readers to automatically reject New Thought ideas, just to examine them more critically than they might have before. Certainly, a life of unremitting negative thinking would not be sensible any more than a relentlessly positive outlook.

2) The contemporary relevance of your research is striking as you note how these movements’ ideologies have permeated current-day health fads and mindfulness practices, which have met some enthusiasm from the medical establishment. For example, you observe: “Even medical doctors have jumped on the New Thought bandwagon, despite its historical rift between medical practitioners and Christian Scientists. Physician authors like Andrew Weil, Deepak Chopra, and Bernie Siegel have endorsed New Thought practices such as positive thinking, daily affirmations, and creative visualization” (4). Why are physicians today perhaps more inclined to recognize the legitimacy of health movements derived from New Thought than they were in the early twentieth century?

I suspect that most physicians today (and most people, for that matter) are unaware of the history of New Thought and its previously antagonistic relationship with mainstream medicine. Many healthcare practitioners simply accept that positive thinking, mindfulness, and creative visualization are healthy because that’s what they’ve heard. Alternatively, they might realize that these activities could trigger the placebo effect and make the patient feel better. In the early twentieth century, some physicians recognized that borrowing techniques from Christian Science and New Thought might improve patient outcomes, as scholars such as L. Ashley Squires and Anne Harrington have discussed. There were even medical studies on this topic that contributed to our understanding of the placebo effect.

3) Your book addresses significant gaps in the literary and cultural histories of Christian Science and the New Thought movement. You explain, for instance, that “[w]hile historians gesture toward New Thought fiction, this topic is tangential rather than central to their arguments. Literary critics, meanwhile, have unjustly neglected New Thought, while writing voluminously on contemporaneous new religious movements such as Mormonism, Spiritualism, and Theosophy on both sides of the Atlantic” (5). What might account for this slow scholarly response to Christian Science and New Thought fiction? 

Historians have written a great deal on Christian Science and New Thought and the inroads they have made into various aspects of modern life. Why haven’t literary critics followed suit? I’m not entirely sure, but I can hazard some guesses. I suspect that Christian Science hasn’t received much attention from literary critics because of its diminished size and influence in the twenty-first century, especially compared to its peak in the early twentieth century, when Mary Baker Eddy was arguably the most famous woman in America. There’s also the negative publicity from court cases involving children of Christian Scientists whose parents denied them medical care. New Thought, meanwhile, flies under the radar because it consists of a loose network of related faiths (Divine Science, Religious Science, Unity Church, etc.) and because it permeates so many secular aspects of life that we no longer recognize it as religion. New Thought is hidden in plain sight. Spiritualism and Theosophy get more attention because ghosts, telepathy, and karma make for interesting reading and surface so frequently in nineteenth-century fiction. Who can resist a good horror story?

4) You examine how these related religious and pseudo-scientific doctrines shaped children’s literature. Considering the far-reaching cultural influences of these movements, what led you to study their impact on children’s literature in particular? From a critical perspective, what makes the cultural register of children’s literature different from, say, adult fiction?

Most of us encounter children’s literature when we’re young and less able to think critically. That’s why it is important that New Thought surfaces so often in fiction for children and young adults (and occasionally, novels written for grown men and women). The most successful New Thought fictions were those whose religious ideology was implicit rather than explicit. So, children could easily absorb ideas about New Thought without realizing they were doing so or considering where these ideas came from. I argue that popular children’s fictions like The Secret Garden, Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), and Anne of Green Gables paved the way for English speakers worldwide to accept New Thought ideas in secular areas of life, such as entertainment, corporate culture, psychotherapy, and so forth.

5) The book’s compelling close readings resituate well-known and widely cherished children’s literature—including Little Lord Fauntleroy, Anne of Green Gables, and The Secret Garden—within their original Christian Science and New Thought contexts. Do you think the continued popularity of these titles would be less today if ordinary readers, particularly parents, knew of their ideological and religious origins? After all, these fringe movements were (and, to a degree, remain) controversial, even reviled by mainstream society. Does the recontextualization of these stories risk unsettling today’s readers?

Once, when I gave a talk on New Thought and Christian Science in The Secret Garden, a listener with two young daughters asked, “So you mean we’re indoctrinating our kids with Christian Science when we read them this book?” Yes and no. I still think we should read our children The Secret Garden or Anne of Green Gables because they are terrific books that have stood the test of time. We should simply be aware of the faith-based messages these novels contain and where they come from, and perhaps also communicate that information to our kids.

6) As noted in the introduction, “[b]y 1906 . . . Christian Science alone boasted 86,000 followers, 72.4 percent of whom were female, while the broader New Thought movement reached larger and more diverse audiences” (2). Understandably, your readings focus mainly on the works of women writers, with the exception of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, but his story decidedly sneers at New Thought. During your research, however, did you encounter men who wrote similar children’s stories? If not, why was Christian Science and New Thought children’s literature the domain of women writers?

I did find male writers of New Thought fiction when I wrote this study, such as Arnold Munk, who used the pen name, Watty Piper. He published the children’s classic, The Little Engine that Could in 1930, about a talking train engine who repeats the optimistic mantra, “I think I can.” But earlier versions of this story written by women had circulated for decades (interestingly, the train in Munk’s rendition is gendered female). I also found male New Thought pioneers who wrote fiction, such as Henry Wood, who penned two New Thought novels for adults. But women were among the earliest and most enthusiastic advocates of New Thought and readily adapted New Thought messages for children (Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy being one early and extremely popular example). This makes sense, as women’s traditional domain was the domestic sphere and the nursery. Children’s fiction was therefore a socially acceptable and financially profitable outlet for women writers, including those interested in New Thought and Christian Science.

7) Your study magnifies the relationships among literature, religion, culture, and the medical humanities (6). How do you envision this field of literary studies evolving? Why should scholars further explore this line of research?

My book examines a group of people (primarily women) who rejected mainstream medicine in favor of faith-based alternatives. They had valid reasons for doing so. In the late nineteenth century as now, women were underserved by allopathic physicians, who tended to prescribe oppressive rest cures and gynecological remedies of dubious value. They also patronizingly described women as “the weaker sex.” Given the limitations of mainstream medicine, it made sense for women to seek alternatives that granted them greater autonomy and that were less invasive and dangerous than allopathic remedies of that time.

No matter what you think of New Thought, the history of the movement can educate us about why certain groups feel alienated by modern medicine and seek less scientifically valid alternatives. Extreme examples include Christian Scientists, anti-vaxxers, Covid deniers, etc. But many more people seek treatment from alternative practitioners like homeopaths, herbalists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, Reiki workers and so forth, in addition to or instead of mainstream remedies. Looking at alternative therapies and why people use them can illuminate the shortfalls of mainstream medicine and what needs it leaves unmet.

8) What are a few of your ongoing research projects?

Since my book came out, I co-edited a special issue of the journal Literature and Medicine on “Alternative Approaches to Health and Wellness in the Nineteenth Century” (Spring 2021). More recently, I finished an article that was originally intended to be a chapter of Children’s Literature and the Rise of “Mind Cure, but didn’t make it in for reasons of space. This essay examines children’s fiction written by Christian Scientists between 1900–1910 and explains why Eddy took an ambivalent stance toward such fiction. Next up is a project tentatively titled Tiny Particles in British Popular Fiction, 1890–1925. In it, I examine novels by Oscar Wilde, Marie Corelli, and H.G. Wells that engage with emergent developments in physics and biosciences in the first decades of the twentieth century. During these years, tiny particles and the spaces between them—atoms, radiation, neurons, and synapses—were believed to exist theoretically, but their nature was poorly understood. So, novelists took creative liberties, combining theoretical knowledge about these particles with their own aesthetic or religious views. I hope this project shows how misunderstandings of science can sometimes be just as interesting and educational as scientific facts!

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