Early history of Christian Science in Atlanta

Humble beginnings

First Church of Christ, Scientist, Atlanta, has a rich history which began with the pioneering work of Sue Harper Mims.

The original church edifice was dedicated in 1899, while the current edifice was built in 1914.

Mrs Mims was introduced to Christian Science in 1886 when a Christian Science lecture was held in Atlanta. The below articles about her life are reprinted here with permission from the Longyear Museum.

Sue Harper Mims was a student of Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer and founder of Christian Science. To learn more about Eddy’s life, ideas, and achievements:

Sue Harper Mims: from Southern belle to Southern pioneer, Part I

An article prepared by Longyear Museum

April 02, 2012

On the occasion of the dedication of First Church of Christ, Scientist, Atlanta, in April 1899, Mary Baker Eddy wrote a warm benediction to the fledgling church:
In spirit I enter your inner sanctuary, your heart’s heart, breathing a benediction for God’s largess. He surely will not shut me out from your presence, and the ponderous walls of your grand cathedral cannot prevent me from entering where the heart of a Southron has welcomed me. The Christian Science Journal, May 1899, p. 82, and The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany, p. 188)

Sue Harper Mims, C.S.D., portrait and signature. Longyear Museum collection

This church in the deep South had begun modestly when a group of individuals met for Christian Science services in the home of a prominent Atlantan and convert to Christian Science, Sue Harper Mims. Mrs. Mims would soon become not only a central force in the upbuilding of the Atlanta Church, but a successful practitioner and teacher of Christian Science, and an eminent spokeswoman for this cause in the South. As one of the first two women to be appointed to the Christian Science Board of Lectureship, she lectured over a period of fifteen years to thousands all across the United States.

For fifteen years a sufferer from weakness and pain with no relief through traditional medical treatment, Sue Harper Mims was introduced to Christian Science in 1886, when Julia Bartlett, a devoted Christian Science practitioner and teacher from New England, came to Atlanta to give a talk at the home of Mr. and Mrs. H. I. Kimball. Wife of Major Livingston Mims and popular leader of Atlanta society, Mrs. Mims was invited to this small gathering. “At that time I could not walk two blocks — often not one — without great pain and exhaustion,” Mrs. Mims wrote in her diary. But upon hearing Miss Bartlett speak on Christian Science, she was immediately captivated by its teachings, and she promptly engaged in the serious study of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, by Mrs. Eddy. Through the prayerful work of Miss Bartlett, her health quickly improved and in three weeks she was “walking a mile without fatigue.”

It was not merely the healing, however, that impressed Mrs. Mims, but the spiritual illuminations that came to her through Christian Science:

…While I think I am improving decidedly in my physical condition, I am more entranced and enthralled with its beautiful spiritual influence than with anything else about it. It seems to me a brilliant, illuminating light thrown on the meaning and mission of Christ; and the method of healing claims, through its discoverer, Mrs. Eddy, to be really the method of Christ, whose healings were really not miracles, but in accordance with the spiritual laws that He came to demonstrate.
Mims diary, March 1886

After this healing, Mrs. Mims wholeheartedly embraced her newfound religion and devoted her life to sharing it with others.

Born in 1842, Sue Harper grew up in Brandon, Mississippi, a picturesque country town with streets bordered by large shade trees, and rustic bridges over creeks winding their way between banks adorned by wild shrubs and flowers. Surrounded by vast cotton plantations, it was an important center of the cotton industry, as well as a political hub, from which sprang a number of state governors. She was the daughter of Mary Caroline and William Harper, a lawyer, whose forebears had moved gradually westward from Virginia. It was a large family, in which she was one of seven children, of whom four were from her mother’s previous marriage. Her uncle, Andrew Harper, was the founder and editor of The Brandon Republican, a journal well known in its day.

According to the Southern customs of that time, Sue was educated by a private tutor — the beloved Miss Frank (sic) Johnson, who eventually became head of a well-known school for girls. She later attended Dr. Savage’s Episcopal College at Pass Christian, Mississippi, followed by several years of studying and traveling abroad.

The atmosphere in the Harper home was one of openness to ministers of every religion and inspired a sense of religious freedom. Her father, who was descended from Scottish and Irish Covenanters, had educated himself as a Presbyterian minister, but later repudiated this teaching. Likewise, his daughter Sue experienced a deep longing for a more spiritual religion than conventional Christianity:

The church greatly disappointed my hopes that it would bring me to realize the peace and satisfaction for which my deepest nature was hungering, for unlike most young persons, my taste in reading, which my father constantly stimulated, included in it a great deal that was deeply spiritual, and I often think that it became somewhat morbid. Failing to find all that I had longed for, I gradually drifted into a kind of worldly intellectual life, but I did not myself realize how like a strong and ever forcing undercurrent was my instinctive longing for the spiritual until in later years.

The year 1866 was a turning point in the life of Sue Harper, then twenty-three and a beautiful brunette with a “shell-like complexion and violet eyes.” A business man and Civil War veteran named Livingston Mims from Jackson, Mississippi, came to Brandon, where he met and fell in love with the young beauty. Soon they were married—a marriage that turned out to be both happy and enduring.

Livingston Mims had held many positions of responsibility. Before the Civil War he had served as a member of the Mississippi Legislature. During the war he was a major in the Confederate Army, serving on the staff of General Joseph E. Johnston, who afterward became his business partner.

The couple lived in Brandon briefly, then moved to Jackson, and later, in 1876, to Savannah, Georgia. There, as elsewhere, they entered into the social life of the city. At this time Major Mims was head of the Southern Department of the New York Life Insurance Company. After a visit to Atlanta, Mrs. Mims was so taken with the city that she persuaded her husband to transfer his insurance business to Atlanta. There, in 1879, they established a residence at the corner of Peachtree Street and Ponce de Leon Avenue, naming their new Queen Anne-style house “Heartsease.” The house was ideal for entertaining: situated on ample grounds, it was surrounded by colorful gardens, and had a large drawing room measuring twenty by sixty feet. From the small tower on the house the couple enjoyed watching the sun set, or seeing the moon rise over Stone Mountain.

The Mimses soon became leaders in the social and public life of Atlanta, where Major Mims was made president of the Capital City Club, and in 1901 became mayor. They entertained frequently and on a grand scale, receiving in their home a wide variety of prominent citizens. The names of generals, colonels, captains, governors, senators, congressmen, mayors, judges (including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia and at least one United States Supreme Court Justice), scholars, editors, and bankers dot the pages of Mrs. Mims’s diary.

President Grover Cleveland was twice a guest at Heartsease, and on President and Mrs. Cleveland’s first visit to Atlanta, a ball was given in their honor. During his second visit, as a guest of the Atlanta Exposition, the president ended a short acknowledgment speech with the words, “I congratulate Atlanta on her great exposition, her beautiful women, the Capital City Club and her Major Mims.” Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy and a good friend of the Mimses, enjoyed hospitality at their home, as did General Joe Wheeler of Civil War fame, and President William McKinley.

Photograph of Sue Harper Mims in her Atlanta home. Longyear Museum collection

Apart from her role as wife of the major, Sue Harper Mims had many intellectual and social interests of her own. During the many hours of leisure that were forced upon her by the pain and weakness she endured before her healing, she read and studied the works of great authors, such as Shakespeare, Tennyson, Dickens, and George Eliot. She put her love of literature into action when she founded the first Shakespeare Club in Atlanta, and the Browning Society.

Her compassionate concern for deserted and unhappy children led her to become the first president of the Home for the Friendless, which developed into one of the foremost charities of Atlanta. The civic-minded Mrs. Mims also served as Georgia’s representative on a commission that raised funds to erect a monument in France in appreciation of General Lafayette’s services to the United States during the American Revolution.

The Mimses often befriended artists and writers. One of these was Sidney Lanier, considered one of America’s greatest poets, whose poems express the social concerns of that day. A monument to Lanier was eventually erected in Piedmont Park, Atlanta, paid for with money obtained from the sale of Mrs. Mims’s jewels after her passing, bequeathed for that purpose in her will. This handsome monument still graces Piedmont Park.

Sue Harper Mims kept a diary from 1875 to 1886, in which she recorded her busy social life and acquaintance with many prominent people. (An edited version of this journal was published in the Atlanta Constitution in 1914.) But after she met Miss Bartlett and experienced her marvelous healing, Mrs. Mims turned away from the worldly life she had been leading and focused her attention on the study of Christian Science. “I had tasted of all the pleasures of life and found them meaningless,” she wrote, and as she no longer felt inclined to keep a record “chronicling the events of mortal life,” she discontinued the diary, too. After years of listening to sermons delivered in “the tedious, droning style of some of our ministers,” she had at last found a theology that satisfied her inner spiritual yearnings.

From that time on, Mrs. Mims’s writing would no longer be about human comings and goings, but on spiritual, divine subjects. A great change had occurred in her thinking as she lifted her sights to a higher purpose in life: she wanted to practice Christian Science healing, and to tell the world about it. “Sometimes I realize almost in an ecstasy my freedom from the thralldom of mortal illusions,” she noted in her diary on May 14, 1886. “I feel almost as if my raised spirit was bathed in the glory of the infinite, as if my faith were more safely anchored on the ‘rock of ages.’”

Although she continued to fulfill her social duties with her prominent and wealthy husband, her life had begun to move in deeper channels that would take her far away from the glittering diamonds of the ballroom and the mundane conversations of high society.

Sue Harper Mims: from Southern belle to Southern pioneer, Part II

An article prepared by Longyear Museum

June 04, 2012

Part I of this article (above) was posted on the Longyear Museum website in early April 2012. It offers a glimpse of Sue Harper’s upbringing in Mississippi, her prominent role as the wife of Major Livingston Mims in Atlanta, Georgia, and the encounter with Christian Science that brought her gracious deliverance from fifteen years of suffering to robust health. Part II describes her indomitable faith and defiance of convention as she went on to become a “formidable exponent” of Christian Science in the South and other parts of the country, and an important pioneer in the early Christian Science movement.

Hand-colored photograph of Sue Harper Mims, C.S.D. – Longyear Museum Collection

Mrs. Mims’s gratitude for her healing through Christian Science treatment led to the desire to be of service to that cause — no matter what the cost. “It meant opposition from family, friends and church,” Mrs. Mims said, “and for a while it almost sundered long time social ties, and I was known as a heretic and a sower of seditions.”

This statement is recorded in a short biography by John B. Willis, titled “Mrs. Sue Harper Mims: An Appreciation” (p. 43). Willis, who served as President of The Mother Church and was for fourteen years Second Editor of the Christian Science periodicals (1902-1916), commented that her wholehearted embracing of this radically new religion “utterly astounded many of those who for years had known and thought of Mrs. Mims as a lady of superior intelligence and attainments, and of distinctly conservative conformity to all that belonged to ‘good form’ and the ‘best society life.’ ” Willis continued:

The “new man” in Christ was appearing and henceforth all her energies and capacities, all her activities and plans were to be consecrated to the honoring of God, and the liberating of suffering, sense-enslaved humanity. Willis, pp. 49, 50

Soon after her healing, a small number of people who were interested in this new religion began meeting in the Mimses’ commodious home on Peachtree Street. As their numbers increased, the group started holding regular services in rented halls, with Mrs. Mims as pastor; in 1896 the expanding congregation moved to the sixth floor of Atlanta’s Grand Opera building.

A building fund was started in 1897, and in 1899 a new church edifice was dedicated on West Baker Street. At the dedication Mrs. Mims, who was now First Reader, delivered an address of welcome, and the Second Reader, Mr. Edward H. Carmen, gave a brief history of the Atlanta Church. (By this time, new Church Manual bylaws were in effect, ordaining the Bible and Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy as Pastor for all Churches of Christ, Scientist, to be read by First and Second Readers.)

The highlight of the dedicatory service was Mrs. Mims’s reading of the message from Mrs. Eddy quoted in Part I of this article, which message was published afterward in The First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Miscellany (pp. 187-191). (Some years later, when the congregation outgrew the building on West Baker Street, that building was sold, and a lot at Peachtree and Fifteenth Streets was purchased for a new edifice — the present First Church of Christ, Scientist, Atlanta, built in 1914.)

Listed in The Christian Science Journal since March 1891, Mrs. Mims was now busy in the public practice of Christian Science healing. This tireless worker was also occupied with writing to the newspapers about activities related to Christian Science. One such occasion was the dedication of First Church of Christ, Scientist, Chicago, in 1897, at which she reported on Edward A. Kimball’s reading of Mrs. Eddy’s dedicatory message. In the columns of the local Atlanta newspaper she answered attacks on and cleared up misunderstandings about Christian Science.

The year 1898 proved to be a momentous one for Sue Harper Mims: she attended Mrs. Eddy’s Normal class, which, because it was the last one Mrs. Eddy would ever teach, came to be known as the “last class.”

In her account of this inspiring two-day session, Mrs. Mims wrote that on a Wednesday she received a letter from Mrs. Eddy, requesting her to meet with her the following Sunday afternoon at Christian Science Hall in Concord, New Hampshire — one thousand miles from Atlanta! Although she did not know it at the time, she was one of seventy students specially selected to receive this message.

Miniature watercolor portrait of Sue Harper Mims, C.S.D. – Longyear Museum collection

On Friday morning Mrs. Mims was on the train from Chattanooga to Boston, arriving Saturday evening at nine o’clock. Eager to get to Concord, she left Boston on a paper train at two in the morning and, three hours later, pulled into Concord early Sunday morning. After a rest at the hotel, she attended a “beautiful” church service at Christian Science Hall. That afternoon, after the students had gathered at the hall, Mrs. Eddy appeared promptly at four o’clock and the class began. It was an exceptional group of students, many of whom, like Mrs. Mims, were destined to give outstanding service to the Christian Science movement. (Mrs. Mims’s account of the class of 1898 was later published in We Knew Mary Baker Eddy, 1979 ed., pp. 127-138.) Now prepared for this higher calling, she began teaching Christian Science in Atlanta in 1899 — one of the first to do so in the Southeast.

The year 1898 was momentous for Mrs. Mims in yet another way, and included another “first”: she and Annie M. Knott were appointed to The Christian Science Board of Lectureship — the first women ever to serve as lecturers on Christian Science. Mrs. Mims lectured to thousands over much of the United States during a term of service that spanned fifteen years. After a lecture in Detroit before several thousand people, a reporter asked her how a woman of her age could make her voice carry to the rear of the upper gallery of the large auditorium, to which she replied, “The voice of Truth knows no bounds.” She so impressed her hearers that, after a lecture in Atlanta, the Atlanta Constitution stated, “With the direct, straightforwardness of the practical and successful lawyer she…combines the beautiful sentiment… of a gentlewoman.” Quoting a local Birmingham paper, it continued: “ ‘Mrs. Mims is one of the brightest minds of the entire South without regard to sex, and Christian Science won its most formidable exponent in this section when she became an advocate of its doctrines’ ” (see biographical sketch of Mrs. Mims by Carolyn Cobb, C.S.B., Atlanta Historical Bulletin, April 1939, p. 86).

In addition to her lecturing, teaching, and healing work, Mrs. Mims also found time to write for the church periodicals, The Christian Science Journal and the Christian Science Sentinel, in which appeared nearly thirty of her articles between 1893 and 1912.

For a long period Major Mims resisted his wife’s involvement in this work, but as time went on, he became more sympathetic to it and served as her secretary, answering letters and arranging lecture tours. Eventually won over by his wife’s religion, he, too, became an earnest student of Christian Science.

When the Original Edifice of The Mother Church was being built in 1894, Mrs. Eddy called upon a number of her students, including Mrs. Mims, to donate one thousand dollars. When she read Mrs. Eddy’s letter to her husband, he promptly replied that she should go ahead and make this contribution. But his wife not having the thousand dollars in her personal account, he gave it to her out of his own and urged her to send it to Boston. Touched by this gesture from the Major, who was not a member of the church, she wrote Mrs. Eddy to ask if she could be listed as “Mrs. Livingston Mims” when her name was placed in the cornerstone of the new edifice. Mrs. Eddy replied in the affirmative, and, as one who loved a good pun, added that she liked the thought of a “living stone” being placed in the cornerstone of the Mother Church.

Sue Harper Mims rose up from a worldly life of social duties, luxury, and ease, and from a debilitating illness, to become the preeminent force on behalf of Christian Science in the American South during the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. This intelligent, gifted, kind-hearted Southern belle, who was loved and admired by so many, embraced the cause that had freed her from her infirmities, and thereafter wholeheartedly and unselfishly devoted her life to sharing the blessings of Christian Science with the American South and beyond. Willis wrote of her, “Mrs. Mims’ utter consecration to her work in Christian Science was the most marked of any I have ever known. She thought of and lived for nothing else; this with her wonderful sense of obedience made her what she was for the cause” (Willis, p. 59).

In her biographical sketch of Mrs. Mims, Carolyn Cobb aptly summarizes the accomplishments of this pioneer worker (p. 89):

She will stand always as having organized and established Christian Science in Atlanta and the South, which work she achieved through humility, consecration, and unerring, intelligent and inspired loyalty to and recognition of the place which the history of this planet must accord to Christian Science and its Revelator, Mary Baker Eddy.

Articles prepared and shared by Longyear Museum

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