Every Sunday morning, in the sun-filled foyer of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, Columbia, visitors and church members are warmly welcomed by both a smiling usher and an inspirational message from the religion’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy, in bold block letters on the front wall: “Divine Love always has met and always will meet every human need.”
The congregation is small — about 30 to 50 people attend services at the church’s chocolate-colored building on Broadway — which might make it easier for members to develop loving and familial relationships with each other, churchgoers said.
“The best thing about the church in Columbia is that the people are so dear,” said Eugenia Crain, an usher at the First Church of Christ, Scientist.
The Columbia church follows basic tenets of the faith — “that God’s infinite goodness, in prayer and action, heals and that matter and disease are unreal and can be controlled by a divine mind” — first expressed by Eddy in 1875 when she published “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.”
Eddy first became aware of divine laws of healing — which Christian Scientists believe were first understood, taught and proven by Christ — when her sufferings from illness and injury were cured after she relied on the Bible and the words of Jesus Christ, not medicine, to heal her, according to the Christian Science Sentinel.
Eddy, who founded the church in 1879 and is regarded by Christian Scientists as the most effective healer since Christ, experienced the physical symptoms of disease but felt intuitively that they were brought on by not being spiritually whole with God, according to the American Journal of Law and Medicine.
People from all walks of life were initially captivated by Eddy’s message and found healing and uplift in all aspects of daily life, said Cindy Sheltmire, who co-leads services. Today there are about 2,000 branches of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, worldwide, and 30 Christian Science churches and societies in Missouri, according to the Mother Church Web site. The Mother Church is the Christian Science international headquarters.
Christian Science church services are led by two lay readers instead of ministers because the faith upholds that “every member has equal standing with God,” according to The Christian Science Sentinel magazine. At the Columbia church, Sheltmire, a real estate agent from Columbia, and Deborah Teague, of Mexico, Mo., were elected to serve as lay readers for three-year terms.
Sheltmire, who was raised in a Christian Science home, has been a lay reader off and on since she moved to Columbia from Kentucky 24 years ago. As the first reader, she conducts the service, chooses a Scriptural selection and decides which songs will be sung and which benediction will be read. She also opens the service with greetings and other messages from the church.
“I love it, but it is time-consuming,” Sheltmire said.
During the sermon, which is prepared by the Mother Church in Boston and read in Christian Science churches worldwide, Teague reads from the Scriptures and Sheltmire responds with correlating passages from “Science and Health.”
During most Wednesday night services, Sheltmire reads passages from the Bible and “Science and Health,” and the congregation shares accounts of the healing they have experienced as a result of following Christian Science. “I could fill a book with the healings I have witnessed,” Sheltmire said.
Members of the Columbia congregation try to heal through prayer and divine thinking, said Crain, although larger metropolitan areas, such as St. Louis and Kansas City, have Christian Science practitioners who devote their professional lives to healing others.
Riley Seay of St. Louis, a practitioner and the head of the Christian Science Committee on Publication for Missouri, was first exposed to Christian Science when he tried to enlist in the military during the Vietnam War. He gave this account:
After a routine physical showed that he had active tuberculosis and only six months to live, Seay began to read “Science and Health.” Upon reading the book, Seay found he was feeling better, although he hadn’t taken any medicine. Forty-five days after his original diagnosis, doctors were pleased to find no trace of the disease in his system.
A few years after this healing, Seay had another positive encounter with Christian Science and said he began to get “a better sense of self as God knows (him) and of man as God knows man.” Soon he found himself constantly being “asked by people to pray for things they were confronted with and found that (he) was in practice — a public practice for anyone,” he said.
However, it is not enough for Seay to merely request that God heal a person, he said. “The prayer that reforms the sinner and heals the sick is an absolute faith that all things are possible to God — a spiritual understanding of him, an unselfed love,” according to “Science and Health.”
Christian Scientists often rely on this healing prayer instead of medicine, the use of which is discouraged but not forbidden by doctrine, to cure diseases in his system.
But relying solely on prayer for healing can run afoul of the law when children are involved. In 1994, in the largest legal assault to date on Christian Science, four states prosecuted six Christian Scientist parents on manslaughter, murder or child abuse charges, according to the Christian Research Institute.
Sheltmire said, however, that the Mother Church has on record thousands of documented healings spanning the past 125 years, and Christian Scientists point to them as convincing evidence of God’s willingness and ability to heal.
Healing through prayer is but one aspect of the Christian Science life. Crain, who volunteers in the church’s Reading Room, describes it as “more of a way of life than a religion.”
Sheltmire said she counts on God to meet her needs in aspects of life, such as marriage, friendship, jobs and finances. She recalled that once in high school, she told a date she was praying over the outcome of a test, and he said God should not be bothered with that. Sheltmire did not agree with him because Christian Scientists believe that God, who above all things is supremely loving towards his children, cares about all aspects of their lives.
“God is an integral part of daily living,” she said.