Book Review: Christian Science in East Germany: The Church that Came In from the Cold, by Gregory W. Sandford
Can prayer change the world? This book is about the power of persistent prayer, and how it paved the way for the practice of a prayer-driven religion–Christian Science–in Germany, to triumph over the objections of three separate, and mostly hostile, governments.
The story begins when an American, Frances Thurber Seal, visited Germany for the first time, in the late nineteenth century. Having recently been healed of a life-long ailment, she met with Laura Lathrop, a practitioner and teacher of Christian Science in New York City, to learn more about the religion that had healed her. After taking class, she was stunned when Mrs. Lathrop took her aside and suggested she return to Germany and take up the practice of Christian Science.
"I told her that I did not know how to give a treatment, but she said, 'Never mind, you have love, and the qualities of obedience and honesty, and they will carry you through; and God will show you how to do the work.'" "But I don't speak a word of German, and don't have any money," she protested.
However, soon thereafter, she was approached by a woman suffering from rheumatism, whom she healed. She also healed a woman dying of cancer. These two cases encouraged her to go into the full-time healing practice of Christian Science. That, coupled with a loan made by a member of a local Christian Science church, convinced her to book passage on a passenger ship and take up the practice of Christian Science in Germany.
En route, her ship was struck by a violent storm. However, through prayer, she found her peace, so much so that other fearful passengers took notice and turned to her for help. After a night of prayer, the storm subsided, and calm returned to the sea.
Once in Germany, it was her successful healing practice that encouraged a number of Germans to take up the study of Christian Science, and begin holding informal church services in their homes. In time, this led to the formation of a number of Christian Science churches being built, beginning in Dresden and later in Berlin.
The Christian Science Mother Church in Boston, took notice of her success, and in 1903 began publishing the German Herald, and making it available in Germany. In 1912, the Christian Science Publishing Society, introduced the first German-language edition of Science and Health With Key To The Scriptures, by Mary Baker Eddy.
In 1907, confident she had completed her mission, and having repaid the loan with interest, Ms Seal returned to the United States.
This book is about what became of Christian Science in Germany after she left, first under the Nazis, and then under the Communists.
From the start Christian Science met with resistance, from the German state, because the religion was new and not understood, and because it competed with state-sponsored Christian churches. This became more acute under the Nazis, who opposed the healing practice of Christian Science because they said it posed a danger to public health, and because of its association with the United States. They issued a number of restrictions, first by stopping Christian Science books and literature from being imported and distributed in Germany, and by restricting church services, and in some cases actually shutting down a number of churches, and seizing their assets.
Once the Nazis were defeated by the allies in World War Two, a period of normalcy followed, until the occupying Soviet communists took control, and spit the nation in two–into East and West Germany–and establishing the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in East Germany.
Over the following decades, despite persecution by the East German secret police ("Stasi"), small groups of Christian Scientists continued to meet secretly in private homes and apartments, and by way of a sort of cottage industry, importing, copying, and distributing the Christian Science Lesson Sermon, and Journal, among the faithful few still praying and practicing Christian Science.
All the while, the Christian Science Mother Church in Boston was at pains to be as supportive as it could, without urging its German followers to break the law. Early on, it established a metaphysical support committee to pray daily for Christian Scientists throughout Eastern Europe, and particularly in East Germany.
In time, the first generation of Christian Science converts began to be depleted, either by age and dying, or simply by moving out of the country. However, by 1960, a new young generation of Christian Scientist began to appear, one of whom was Inge Wöbke. Until 1961, Ms. Wöbke regularly attended Eleventh Church of Christ Scientist in West Berlin, and had been active in the Youth Forum. However, in August of 1961, when the Berlin Wall went up, everything changed. She was cut off from her friends in East Berlin (whom she missed greatly). Writes the author: "She continued to pray over her situation, and eventually her motive became less of a personal one and more of a determination to do something for Christian Science."
In 1969, Ms Wöbke was offered a job in East Berlin and the opportunity to resettle there, an opportunity that was normally closed to residents of West Berlin. The job was in a government ministry and entailed a strict ban on all Western contacts. Despite this, she began holding church services in her small East Berlin apartment among a small but dedicated group of Christian Science followers. As usual with illegal church meetings of this type, the informal readings and testimonies of healing were accompanied by coffee and cake, and guests were strictly admonished that if anyone asked, they had been to a birthday party.
Over time, the hostile GDR government began to relax its restrictions on Christian Science, especially when they realized Christian Scientists were not radicals, but honest, hardworking, and law-abiding citizens, who posed no threat to Communist rule. They also recognized that Christian Science healing was effective, and thereby saved the socialist state money that otherwise would be spent on citizens in need of doctors and hospital care. That, and an appreciation for the even-handed reporting in the Christian Science Monitor, began to have its effect on a number of Communist leaders in East Germany. Gradually, several shuttered churches were allowed to reopen, and the restrictions on the distribution of Christian Science books and literature were lifted.
In the early 1970s, Ms Wöbke was reunited with an old friend (Anni Ulich) from Sunday School and the Youth Forum. Relaxed travel restrictions had by now made it possible for Ms Ulich to visit regularly from West Berlin. In the autumn of 1976 she brought along a Christian Science lecturer from the United States, Charles Ferris. Years later, Ferris recalled fondly the "very small, timorous group" he had met at Wöbke's apartment.
The following year, Ulich brought with her Otto Bertschi, a Christian Science practitioner and teacher. At the time, he was a guest speaker in West Berlin for a "Healing Goals Meeting", a talk he delivered to Wöbke's group. After that, Ulich made it a regular practice of bringing lecturers to speak with Wöbke's group.
Another encouraging sign was the growing detent between the GDR and the West, and with that of the Mother Church in Boston, especially when Jill Gooding was elected to the Christian Science Board of Directors, in 1988. She undertook to pray for a specific area of the world–Eastern Europe. Writes the author: "She began praying daily for the situation there. When invited to speak at an armed services conference in West Germany in April of the following year, she decided to use the opportunity to visit her 'patient.'"
As more restrictions were lifted, more Christian Science literature was allowed into the country. Eventually, the GDR officially recognized Christian Science as a legitimate religion, and, for the first time in over thirty-five years, officially sanctioned gatherings of Christian Scientists in East Germany. An even bigger change occurred in August of 1989, when the Berlin Wall was taken down.
With the Wall dismantled and steps underway to reunite East and West Germany, in June 2003, the Mother Church held its Annual Meeting in what had been East Berlin. It was the first Annual Meeting ever held outside the United States. Speaking at the meeting, Virginia Harris, Chairman of the Board of Directors, asked rhetorically, "Why Berlin?" Her answer: "Berlin symbolizes walls coming down and the irrepressible power of unity."
By this time the former GDR had been incorporated into a unified German state, Germany was part of an increasingly integrated Europe, and Europe itself was struggling with the myriad challenges of globalization.
In an interview for this book, Gunther Behncke, a former GDR official, said, "As regard the recognition of Christian Science, it was my opinion a success in the final analysis of Christian Science itself."
Can prayer change the world? The author concludes with this answer: "Certainly there were powerful historical forces at work that were leading toward a revolution of some kind in the Soviet empire. That it turned out to be a 'gentle revolution' in East Germany, however, was due in no small measure to the powerful intentions and courtesy of the individuals involved, including many in the Christian Science churches."
I will give the final word to Inge Wöbke, who in 1992, wrote in the Christian Science Journal: "At a time when we are confronted daily with decisions by governments of different types around the world, and at a time when it appears that even well-intentioned government decisions can hurt the citizens, it is important to ask: Which laws are we subject to? Whose laws protect and take care of us? For many years I lived under a communist regime that did not allow freedom of worship or open dissent from official government policies. This, of course, was in conflict with my most conscientious thoughts about God."