Unity School of Christianity

a 2009 issue of <i>Daily Word</i>
a 2009 issue of Daily Word

“Always have a deep sense of connection to the past, a subversive memory that constitutes wind at your back. You are who you are because somebody loved you, somebody cared for you, somebody attended to you. Make sure that love flows through you, that’s what it means to keep love on the one.”

– Cornel West and Bootsy Collins, “Freedumb,” The Funk Capital of the World (2011)

Sometime in 1886 a woman named Myrtle Fillmore attended a lecture by the Christian Science practitioner Eugene B. Weeks. Myrtle suffered from numerous physical infirmities, including tuberculosis and incessant hemorrhoids, and it was in part these maladies that brought her to Weeks’ lecture. Her husband Charles, a Kansas City real estate man, left the event unimpressed, but Myrtle was inspired by this affirmation: “I am a child of God and so I do not inherit illness.” After several months of prayer and repetition of that affirmation, Myrtle believed that she had healed herself of her afflictions. She used a new form of knowledge to recreate her relationship with the divine and, consequentially, to recreate her relationship with her body. Scholars of American religion now usually call that knowledge “New Thought.”

Eventually Myrtle convinced Charles of what she had learned. He would then use the techniques to heal himself of the long-term effects of a childhood hip and leg injury. Together with Myrtle, he would begin a healing practice, treating people in the Kansas City area with their New Thought techniques. By 1890, Charles’ real estate business had begun to decline, and their healing practice had experienced some success. They decided to publish a magazine, first titled Modern Thought but soon becoming Unity Magazine, and with that act of print culture they inaugurated what would soon be known as the Unity School of Christianity. Unity claimed, at least in its early years, that individuals possessed spiritual union with the divine if and when they possessed physical well-being in the material world. It became Myrtle and Charles Fillmore’s mission to create and propagate a community focused on such a union. And their mission worked, as prayer groups begat churches, which begat associations, which begat the denominational structure that Unity operates by today.

The Fillmores were also especially able to align their emerging Protestant community with market forces, and to that end they quickly institutionalized their healing experiences in order to have the widest reach possible. The magazine started as a sort of Reader’s Digest of the New Thought movement. In their thought the Fillmores incorporated many early-twentieth century Protestant practices and norms, including prayer meetings, educational facilities, and a focus on the Bible as a source of religious authority. As the movement continued to develop, other people involved with Unity created a ministers’ association to authorize ministerial licensure and standardize the movement’s teachings. Other early bodily practices, such as vegetarianism and (briefly and obliquely) sexual abstinence, focused practitioners on recreating the material body as a spiritual body. While Unity was not unique in any of its recommendations, its fusion of metaphysical ideas and Protestant practices was. Myrtle and Charles Fillmore were American spiritual seekers who recognized and appreciated their past, their culture, and the role of community in authenticating experience.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James insisted that the individual’s feelings were the root of religion and that the tenets, rituals, and institutions of religion were but later additions that could only echo the true experience. For James, the real religious experience is ineffable, noetic, transient, and passive, all characteristics that could only be verified by the individual claiming the experience. What is fascinating about Unity is the way that it connected individual rituals with community contexts, how it conjoined the priesthood of all believers with a highly individuated metaphysics. In some sense, Unity sought to institutionalize the kinds of experiences so celebrated in James’ diagnosis of the healthy-minded.

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