by Tim Gilmore, 6/14/2019
1. “The Pen is Mightier”
She believed not in ghosts, but in Spirit. The founder of Christian Science wrote that all the dead were but one fabric. I imagine the correspondence of that idea in the coalescence, in this old First Church of Christ Scientist, of everything ever herein performed. Call it “spiritual acoustics.”
“If walls could talk,” people say. This 50 foot ceiling, all this lovely hardwood, these tall windows forever stained with the impressionism of clouds—what sound and light has touched them, bounced off them, all these years? What have they witnessed?
Item One. When St. Petersburg’s Elizabeth Baker played here. It wasn’t the time she placed dildos on piano strings to record deep earth vibrations. She’d planned to perform compositions for toy piano. Instead she played soaring electronic John Cage music with two other musicians. They hadn’t advertised and hadn’t made accommodations, so they slept in the building where strange lights synesthetized percussive minimalist electronica earlier in the night.
Richard Minor has managed the Jacksonville’s branch of the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in the city’s former First Church of Christ, Scientist sanctuary since Thanksgiving 2005, 84 years to the day from the first Christian Science services held here. He loves the work and loves the building—together they’re a second home, his first home being just around the corner on Hubbard Street.
When book and manuscript collector David Karpeles bought the 1921 building to showcase his revolving collection in 1992, it became his fourth. From Santa Barbara to Duluth and Shreveport to Buffalo, Karpeles has collected 15 such buildings across the country. He likes the neoclassical style of former Christian Science churches. Unlike Karpeles’s museum in Buffalo, the Jacksonville building wasn’t designed by Christian Science architect Solon Spencer Beman, but by Jacksonville’s Marsh and Saxlebye. It still features the neoclassical design elements Beman advocated, however, as reflecting the “rational approach to spirituality” the new American religion sought to formulate.
Item Two. Lincoln’s original manuscript of the Emancipation Proclamation spent a single day on display here, though reproductions have shown on other occasions. When David Karpeles purchased the document in 1978, it cost him only $40,000. Today it would fetch millions.
It was the early 1970s when Karpeles first dreamt of collecting pieces of paper that have moved American history. At the Huntington Museum in Los Angeles, he saw a pass Abraham Lincoln gave his personal bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, sending him to Richmond. The date was April 11, 1865. Clearly the dashing of ink on paper could change the orbit of the world. But for that otherwise ephemerum, the president might not have been assassinated three nights later as revenge for the death of the Confederate States of America.
2. Science and Spirit and Mind
Mary Baker Eddy founded Christian Science in 1879 and a decade later, Jacksonville had its own Christian Science congregation. In the late 1890s, the Jacksonville church obtained a charter and became recognized as a branch of “The Mother Church” in Boston.
Christian Science followed directly from Eddy’s experience of Spiritualism, the religious belief that the dead survive in spirit form around us and that it’s possible for the living to communicate with them. The church was also a direct response to the rise of science and its effects on religion.
Those two facts might look like contradictions, but they’re not. Both science and religion dealt with things unseen, so people debated how, when and if they related. Few people in the 1800s understood how electricity worked. When F.B. Morse lobbied Congress for money to build an experimental electric telegraph line from D.C. to Baltimore in 1842, Representatives heckled him. Cities didn’t have electric street lighting until the 1870s. James Clerk Maxwell mathematically “predicted” radio waves in the 1870s and Heinrich Hertz demonstrated them in 1886.
Ironically, Spiritualism, with its circles of the bereaved gathered about a medium in séance, now the perfect picture of Victorian quackery, had become popular by making the spiritual “scientific.” In a new scientific era, faith alone could not sustain religion. The Apostle Paul called faith “the evidence of things not seen,” but Spiritualism would provide evidence of afterlife, and mediums “experimented” with “test conditions” for spiritual “investigations.”
Mary Baker Eddy had participated in séances, even acted as a medium herself, but came to see Spiritualism as a misconception that her own new American religion would correct. In her 1875 book Science and Health, the founding text, along with the Bible, of Christian Science, she called Spiritualists “gross materialists” for depicting the spiritual as physical and basing their faith in an afterlife on people’s physical characteristics surviving death. The spirits of the dead could not appear to or speak to or through the living, Eddy believed, because “There is only one Spirit.”
Eddy titled Chapter IV of Science and Health “Christian Science vs. Spiritualism.” The distinction was seminal. She wrote of spirit and mind, of her religion as the new science, saying, “Spirit is not made manifest through matter, the anti-pode of Spirit. Error is not a convenient sieve through which truth can be strained.” Nor, therefore, could spiritual energy be exteriorized as the ectoplasm that spirit mediums vomited.
The difference between Spiritualism and Christian Science led to the characteristic Christian Science is best known, and criticized, for today: its insistence on faith as medical care and the assertion that the existence of God precludes the existence of evil. Physical illness is a matter of belief and can only truly be battled as such.
Eddy argued that “God, good, being ever present, it follows in divine logic that evil, the suppositional opposite of good, is never present. In Science, individual good derived from God, the infinite All-in-all, may flow from the departed to mortals; but evil is neither communicable nor scientific.”
So evil does not exist, just the idea of it, though the idea of evil could kill you. Eddy believed her last husband, Asa Gilbert Eddy, had been “mentally assassinated,” murdered through “malicious animal magnetism.” Whatever the difference between evil and the idea of evil, millions of Americans rejected medical science in favor of Christian Science.
In 1939, Mollie LeNoir, secretary of the Woman’s Club of Jacksonville, told Rose Shepherd of the Federal Writers’ Project how Christian Science had saved her life. A local physician had predicted she would die the way her brothers did, from tuberculosis. She left all use of professional medical care behind and “took up Christian Science.” That was three decades ago, she said, “and I have never had a symptom.”
3. Spiritual Acoustics and Refracted Mosaics
Richard Minor stands over a bust of Charles Darwin. Darwin wears his long beard and bushy eyebrows. Richard wears his plaid flat cap and blue Converse sneakers. In nearby display cases rest Darwin’s personal letters and drafts of On the Origin of Species, dashes of pen on paper that rerouted history.
If no other spirits haunt this place, Richard should bequeath his own. He’s always loved museums. When he was a kid, he spent whole summers at the Museum of Science and History. His mother would drop him off in the morning.
Darwin reminds me how people have misunderstood evolutionary theory for nearly two centuries. The Spiritualists believed their focus on “scientific investigations” into the spirit world would lead humankind to a new level of evolution, that “spiritual evolution” was scientific. Millions of Americans still misunderstand the word “theory” as meaning “speculation,” instead of a coherent system of principles based on continually tested propositions.
If I may admittedly and knowingly use terms loosely, with no intention of being scientific, hearing the echoes of my conversation with Richard on these tall ceilings brings me back to “spiritual acoustics.” I’d like to believe that time is not a passing, but an accumulation. It is if you measure it with cities and landscapes. What if you could measure the acoustic accumulation on these walls? What have they heard? Richard knows 15 years’ worth.
When he was new on the job, he agreed to let the museum host an LGBT Halloween dance party and haunted house. David Karpeles saw a Folio Weekly ad the party throwers had posted for a “fetish show,” which worried him. He knew Jacksonville was a conservative town and didn’t want a public relations nightmare. Richard convinced him not to cancel, arguing that to do so would create a bigger “hullabaloo” than the party itself. At least no one from First Baptist Church has thus far protested the Darwin exhibit.
Richard has hosted avant-garde and experimental jazz concerts where New York musicians get as big a crowd, 15 or 20, as they do back home. Countless couples have married here. For six years, the old building and Klutho Park outside hosted the China Cat Sunflower Festival, which for the past 25 years has celebrated the Grateful Dead with live music and psychedelic art. When the yogi Bhagavan Das sang and chanted kirtan music, the call-and-response of Sanskrit chanting filled the old sanctuary. Behind the latticework above the stage, the great pipes of the old church’s organ once thundered.
Professional ghost hunters have recorded questionable sounds and sights late at night. Richard is skeptical of ghost stories, but enjoys them. On two separate occasions a year apart, he says, completely unrelated people told him they saw the spirit of a black man wearing a bow tie downstairs by the women’s bathroom.
Whether or not spirits linger here, songs and sermons and stories and paintings and the ink on paper that changed history and the lives of everyone within it have made this old sanctuary home for a century.
I stare into the beautiful mirrored mosaics of old windows and doorways and clocks by Jax artist Leilani Leo and look for refractions of 1927 or the ecstasies of 1953 or 1985’s sudden soul-consuming illuminations. They’re there. I’m sure. Leilani’s bent light captures everything. So do spiritual acoustics.
4. Cornerstone, No Steeple
Outside there’s no steeple. There’s no cross. The three stained glass windows that rise most of either side of the 50 foot tall auditorium contain no Crucifixion scenes. No iron bell tolls over Hogans Creek and the neighborhood of Springfield.
Instead, the neoclassical building centers on four massive Doric columns that rise the structure’s full height. A wide balustrade crowns its perfect symmetry. The First Church of Christ Scientist, Jacksonville looks more like the Lincoln Memorial than it does First Baptist Church.
A century ago, more than anyone else, one architect, Chicago’s Solon Spencer Beman, influenced the style of Christian Science churches as they rose across the North American landscape and around the world. As Paul Ivey writes in Prayers in Stone: Christian Science Architecture in the United States: 1894-1930, Beman, who designed several Christian Science churches, became the “chief theorist” for the new religion’s architecture. The neoclassical influence associated with the Enlightenment and with civic architecture represented the “rational approach to spirituality” that Eddy had sought to codify.
When Solon Spencer Beman died in 1914, his son, Spencer Solon Beman, continued designing neoclassical Christian Science churches. In 1921, 30 years after the Jacksonville congregation first formed, Marsh and Saxlebye’s Christian Science parthenon rose on West First Street just over Hogans Creek, which still floods the basement in heavy rains.
The church had used at least three previous sanctuaries, including a former Presbyterian church and a former synagogue. It held its first services here in the basement of the unfinished building on Thanksgiving day, 1921.
On June 23, 1921, church members set the cornerstone. Inside it, they placed a Bible, the Christian Science Hymnal, a biography of Mary Baker Eddy, Eddy’s complete published writings, including Science and Health and the Manual of the Mother Church, and Joseph Armstrong’s 1911 book The Mother Church: A History of the Building of the Original Edifice of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, Massachusetts.
So grows the earth verbose. The foundations fan out across the city from underneath. David Karpeles understands what Mary Baker Eddy knew. Nations are made from words. So too civilizations, religions, whole ways of seeing. You could write this paragraph out by hand, plant it, and grow from it a new world.