With intellectual property law being such a big deal these days you would think that nobody’d be plagiarizing. But just the opposite. On June 29 the New York Times reported that “Trump Institute Offered Get-Rich Schemes with Plagiarized Lessons.” Just this week one of the opening speeches at the Republican National Convention had several sentences lifted from—irony of ironies—a speech of Michelle Obama’s eight years ago. And then there are ‘borrowings’ that Biden and Obama didn’t apologize for either.
We might just shrug it off as being the antics of modern politicians. Surely we’d find a higher standard of ethics among 19th century religious leaders—or would we?
Take, for example, the case of a middle-aged woman in 1860s New England named Mary Baker Glover. She suffered from myriad physical and nervous disorders and visited any number of healers seeking relief. Finally the treatments of mesmerist Phineas Parkhurst Quimby helped. In fact she felt so much better that she wrote long and effusive letters to the local papers praising Quimby’s genius and near-miraculous healing abilities, through a form of laying on of hands and see the person as healthy.
Glover became Quimby’s most ardent student, sitting in on patient sessions and laboriously copying by hand all that the “doctor” had written of his theory and approach. Then suddenly Quimby died in 1866 at the age of 64 (having more luck with his patients than with himself). Glover tried to convince another healer to take over Quimby’s practice, but he refused. So she took up the task herself. Her intentions were honorable.
But it wasn’t long before the tables were turned—now it was Quimby who had studied under Glover and the manuscripts were from her pen, as indeed they were because she had made the copies. She read and re-wrote for a few years, and then launched her own version, adding religion to the more secular healing practices. Soon, this combination would be called Christian Science.
Glover seems never to have really set up her own healing practice, though. Instead, she figured out pretty quickly that there was more money to be made in teaching, and a lot less liability. So she opened a school. Oh, there were spoilsports who claimed that she had plagiarized Quimby’s writings, but she managed to outwit nearly all of them. Eventually his son George published everything he could, but by then Glover was Mary Baker Eddy (having remarried), and had established her version of the writings as coming directly from God. (Devoted defenders today still explain how it is that Eddy’s methods and her main publication, Science and Health, have no connection whatsoever to Quimby’s work.)
Eddy then established her Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston. Through her take-no-prisoners approach—for example, no one was allowed to quote so much as a sentence from her works without bracketing it with “by Mary Baker Eddy, discoverer and founder of Christian Science”–over the years she attracted a sizeable following and built a major edifice. She claimed that what she wrote and copyrighted was not hers, but God’s, despite her invariable insistence that she be cited as the author.
Eddy wrote sternly about the unethical practice of plagiarizing, as a warning to former students who took her materials and set up shop on their own. Any debt owed Quimby was lost in the mists. In fact, when Eddy published her autobiography, called Retrospection and Introspection, in 1891, she stated specifically that the details of a personal life (hers) mattered not at all; it was the spiritual interpretation that was everything. Funny how there are facts and then there are facts.
Eddy died in 1910, leaving behind a hefty organization managing her stringently copyrighted materials. Her followers remained as circumspect about her as ever. People devoted their entire lives to Christian Science, practicing it, well, religiously. While the church officially denounced any worship of Eddy, it seems to have been a common practice. She herself, while sometimes sharply rebuking her devoteés for putting her on par with Jesus, wrote that in the course of Christianity Jesus had his own unique role to play, Mary had hers, and so did the discoverer and founder of Christian Science. This was heady stuff for those who bought into the belief.
And so Annie C. Bill, a fully vested Christian Scientist from London, was shocked when a researcher who was formerly part of the church’s inside circle revealed that several articles authored by Eddy in Christian Science publications were, in fact, plagiarized, some in toto. A sermon from the 1890s, a poem from a schoolbook in the 1820s, other paragraphs from here and there. Bill was so discouraged that she quite the church and set up her own version of Christian Science in the 1920s; her long-held belief that she was called to be the new leader of the church could only have helped her make this decision.
The liberal borrowing of material by Eddy didn’t seem to bother the regular believers too much. The church administrators sort of ignored the accusations as if they didn’t matter. The rather soggy explanation (one that was being used earlier this week by a certain campaign staff) given out was that of course over the years Mary Baker Eddy had read widely, had assimilated many ideas, and it was only natural that they would appear in her writings without her recalling where they had come from.
But one very devout family, the Gilbert Carpenters, Sr. and Jr., wanted a more final elucidation. While to mortal mind it did indeed look as though Eddy had lifted from other writers, they said, in fact it was the other way around! Something published in, say, 1823, and then written up in, say, 1890, was actually cribbed by the 1823 author. How? The Carpenters reminded Scientists that Eddy never claimed that anything she wrote was from her own mind; rather that it was always given her by God. Therefore God was the real author. Now, the 1823 author had not ascribed the essay or poem to God, but claimed authorship for himself. So that would be plagiarism. Since, then, as Eddy had ascribed ownership of her writings to the rightful author, God (except for the copyright….), obviously it was the earlier writer in the wrong; Eddy was just setting the record straight.
This did not go down well. The church administrators quickly disavowed the Carpenter’s explanations and quashed the publication as quickly as possible, and removed them from church membership. So there’s one way of covering your tracks when lifting someone else’s words—blaming the original writer for stealing from you—but maybe not terribly effective. You can always just speak your own words and hope for the best.
Copyright Barbara Geiger 2016. All rights reserved.
Images retrieved from online public domain sources.