Christian Science Church Seeks Truce on Medicine

Historians in the News

Since the founding of their church 131 years ago, Christian Scientists have been taught to avoid doctors at all cost. It is a conviction rooted so deeply in church dogma that dozens of members have gone to jail rather than surrender an ailing person to what they see as the quackery of medical science.

But faced with dwindling membership and blows to their church’s reputation caused by its intransigence concerning medical treatment, even for children with grave illnesses, Christian Science leaders have recently found a new tolerance for medical care. For more than a year, leaders say, they have been encouraging members to see a physician if they feel it is necessary....

Religious scholars say the church’s past reticence, even secrecy, in the face of what its leaders have considered persecution, makes it difficult to know how widely the new message is being embraced among members, or how long it will last.

Publicly, the church has always said that its members were free to choose medical care. But some former Christian Scientists say those who consult doctors risk ostracism.

The truth may lie somewhere in between, said Rennie B. Schoepflin, a professor of religious history at California State University in Los Angeles and author of “Christian Science on Trial: Religious Healing in America.”

“There has never been a monolithic ‘Church of Christian Science,’ ” he said. “There has always been a tension between those in the church who were more zealous and those who were less so.”

The source of deepest tension between the two groups, said Gary Dorrien, the Reinhold Niebuhr professor of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, “is the fact that Christian Scientists are best known right now for denying medical care to people,” especially children, who subsequently die....

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