Plagiarism in 19th Century American Religion

The formation of many of the world surviving religions are, unfortunately, shrouded in the past; a time before modern concerns about historical accuracy were even considered. But, watching the development of religious movements in our day, can, perhaps, give us a bit of insight as to how these movement begin. Most often, there are claims of new divine revelations by the founders, either replacing or amending current accepted belief systems.

But, what happens when the claims of revelation are challenged? Will it even make a difference to the followers of the faiths?

In 19th century America, there were moments of intense religious fervor, often referred to as the Great Awakenings, that spawned several sects that still exist to the day. And, a few of them, may have gotten their inspiration from anything but the great muse in the sky.

Seventh Day Adventist Church

In hist book, “Prophetess of Health“, historian and ex-7th Day Adventist Ronald Numbers makes the claim that Ellen G White copied modern day health beliefs, including the work of John Harvey Kellogg, claiming to her followers that they were inspired directly from God.

Christian Science

There is evidence to suggest that Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science church, got her inspiration for a rather earthly source, the work of “mesmeric” and “healer” Phineas Parkhurst Quimby. Eddy had been a patient of Quimby’s and, while in his care, became acquainted with his view that disease was psychosomatic (similar to the beliefs of today’s Scientologists). Take Quimby’s germ denying approach and mix in a good dose of Jesus, and out pops a Christian Science bun cake; disease, in this case, being a result of “sin” instead of mental affliction.

Church of Christ (Latter Day Saints) (Mormonism)

Some have suggested that the Book of Mormon, a work Joseph Smith claimed to have found already written on golden plates in upstate New York, was, in fact, copied in large part not only from the King James Bible, but from a work of fiction by Congregationalist preacher Solomon Spalding. The work was titled Manuscript Story and it told of a race of ancient mound builders inhabiting prehistoric North America. To make matters more complicated, though, the same author re-worked that story, giving it the similar title Manuscript Found. When clams of plagiarism eventually occurred, the Mormon church would often point them to the second story (Manuscript Found) and simply show the skeptic that it may have similarities, but not enough to call it plagiarism. Of course, the simple fact that it was a common belief in the19th century that the burial mounds settlers were finding were attributed to anyone and everyone except the Native Americans that actually built them is a pretty good indication that Mormonism was a product of it’s time. In 1834, a E.D. Howe published a book on the suspicious origins of the Book of Mormon called Mormonism Unvailed, and it’s available in it’s entirety here at Archive.org. Excerpts from the Spalding story can be found at the Mormon Curtain, here.

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15 Comments on “Plagiarism in 19th Century American Religion”


  1. You don’t want to overlook the Millerites. They are due the same ridicule and dismissal as half baked theist douchebags as the other groups you mentioned during this period.

    also..the JWs got their start in the 1870’s albeit not under that name. I don’t know if that is part of the 2nd Great Awakening, or considered “post” 2nd Great Awakening.

  2. Victor Says:

    Yeah, I think both the 7th Day Adventists and the JWs evolved out of the Millerites after a failed doomsday prophesy (if I remember right). Interesting movement. They all thought they were adopting the “original” ways of the Christian church, same as Mormons.

  3. Anne Says:

    When someone is accused of plagiarism, it’s a good idea to go to the source. Regarding Mary Baker Eddy’s discovery of Christian Science, which has been linked with P.P. Quimby, here is what she said in her own words:

    The attack upon Eddy was that “she has stolen the contents of her book ‘Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,’ from one P.P. Quimby, and that he is the founder of Christian Science.”

    When taken to court over this accusation, there was no evidence to support that Quimby was the author of her writings. The opposing counsel stated in substance, “There is no evidence to present.”

    Eddy wrote, “The false report that I have appropriated other people’s manuscripts in my works, has been met and answered legally.”

    She did visit Quimby in 1862 and said that his treatment seemed to relieve her at first, but ultimately failed in healing her case. And she also said this: “He certainly had advanced views of his own, but they commingled error with truth, and were not Science. On his rare humanity and sympathy one could write a sonnet.”


  4. “… discovery of Chrsitian Science..”? “Discovery”? That’s an interesting use of the word.

    Discovery is a term applied to some basis in reality previously unknown i.e. to discover a cure for a disease; to discover America; to discover a new star; to discover fosil bones; etc.

    When it comes to founding new religious beliefs/supernaturally inspired foolishness one would be more accurate in using terms like “inventing”, “creating”, “foistering”

  5. Victor Says:

    Yes, you’re right that we need to be keen on our sources, though I really don’t think that quoting the accused about her own state of guilt/innocence makes much of an impression.

    The “source” in a case of plagiarism would be a comparison of the two (or more) works in question, wouldn’t it? Luckily, Marin Gardner has taken the time to do that. Check out “The Healing Revelations of Mary Baker Eddy: The Rise and Fall of Christian Science”. Gardner lays out texts side by side. Check it out and let me know what you think.

  6. Kathy Says:

    Although Mary Baker Eddy visited Quimby and did find some physical relief, she has written that he could never really explain how he helped people, and did not give God the credit. Eddy even healed one of his patients through prayer alone.
    Eddy’s discovery was that there is a spiritual law that man has access to and that enabled Christ Jesus to effect the healing works that he did, time after time. He never used any material means or methods other than turning to God and acknowledging His power and presence. Quimby never did this.
    Eddy was a devoted Bible student, and studied and prayed to know what that scientific law was and how it could be made practical today, as Jesus did say that we could do “greater works”. Jesus never used any other means than turning to God in prayer.
    Mary Baker Eddy was grateful to Quimby for the temporary relief that she obtained, but they had nothing in common with their approach to healing. One was based on the human mind and manipulating it – Quimby – and the other on God as the power that healed – Eddy.


  7. “Eddy’s discovery was that there is a spiritual law that man has access to and that enabled Christ Jesus…”

    Well, so all we need now is some evidence of this “discovery” that will hold up under investigation and analysis via the scientific method.
    Until then her “discovery” is as much a “discovery” as the “discovery” of Noahs Ark; Jesus’ foreskin; Sasquache; and Scientology’s auditing machine.

    Of course, I’m beginning to get the sense this will be totally lost on Eddy’s deluded advocates.

  8. Victor Says:

    Yes, has this ‘discovery’ been verified by independent laboratories? If not, then it’s not a discovery, it’s a claim.

  9. Victor Says:

    “Jesus never used any other means than turning to God in prayer.”

    Actually, in Mark 7, he spits on a guy to heal him. In Mark 6, it says some where healed by touching his cloak (did the clothe have access to god?). In Mark 5, he brings a little girl back from the dead by commanding her to raise (“Talitha kum!”). In Mark 2, he heals a paraplegic by telling him to pick up his shit and go home, after rabies where unsuccessfully attempting to use prayer. Jesus isn’t really shown using prayer, until he finds out he’s going to die.

  10. radcs Says:

    Although Mary Baker Eddy was associated with Mr. Quimby early in her quest for a healing method to address her longstanding health problems, her ultimate discovery of Christian Science was a radical departure from what she had learned from Quimby. This distinction is acknowleged both by Christian Scientists and by followers of Quimby.

    Here’s is excerpt on this topic from the online bio of Mary Baker Eddy (from http://www.christianscience.com):

    “In 1862, as the Civil War raged, Mary Patterson sought help from Phineas Quimby, a popular healer in Portland, Maine. Her health initially improved radically under his treatment, which included a combination of mental suggestion and what might now be called therapeutic touch, but she soon suffered a relapse. She returned to Quimby not only for treatment but also to learn more about his approach. Thinking that he had rediscovered Jesus’ healing method, she spent hours discussing and exchanging ideas with him. In time, she concluded that Quimby’s technique depended largely on his vigorous personality and his training in hypnosis rather than on some divine principle, which she sensed lay behind Jesus’ healing work.

    “A turning point occurred in 1866 when a severe fall on an icy sidewalk left her in bed in critical condition. Quimby had died just one month earlier so she could not turn to him for help. She asked for her Bible and, while reading an account of Jesus’ healing, found herself suddenly well. Eventually, she referred to this as the moment she discovered Christian Science.”

    And from Wikipedia:

    Quimby’s son, George, wrote, “Don’t confuse his method of healing with Mrs. Eddy’s Christian Science, so far as her religious teachings go…. The religion which she teaches certainly is hers, for which I cannot be too thankful.” (Gottschalk, Rolling Away the Stone, p. 72)

  11. Victor Says:

    What, did you guys all go to the same school? I don’t think anybody would claim Eddy’s practices had no differences from Quimby’s. That would be a straw man argument. The claim is that plagiarism occurred in her written work.

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