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Story: Simpson, Mary Elizabeth

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Simpson, Mary Elizabeth


Religious teacher, healer and writer

This biography, written by Margaret Lovell-Smith, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Mary Simpson was a religious healer and teacher who was largely responsible for establishing the Christian Science church in New Zealand. A strong – some would say autocratic – spiritual leader, she later founded and led a breakaway group known as the Divine Science Fellowship.

She was born Mary Elizabeth Gething at Christchurch, New Zealand, on 10 June 1865, the daughter of Hannah Gething and Joseph Brunt, a hotel-keeper. Little is known of Mary's early life. She is said to have worked as a night nurse in the men's surgical ward at Christchurch Hospital before her marriage on 23 April 1884, at Christchurch, to William Simpson, a wood turner.

In the early years of her married life Mary Simpson obtained a copy of the Christian Science textbook, Science and health, by Mary Baker Eddy. Simpson later recalled that she had been fascinated by 'The thought that the healing power of Christ Jesus was here, now, to be used as in His day'. Her initial contact with Christian Science teaching was, however, followed by a period of spiritual doubt and she threw herself into social and political work. She joined the Canterbury Women's Institute in 1895 and was sent as a delegate to the second meeting of the National Council of Women of New Zealand, held in Christchurch in 1897.

Becoming disillusioned with the effectiveness of political work, Mary Simpson went through another period of doubt when she decided 'there was no God for me'. Further reading of Christian Science literature reawakened her interest and in the early 1900s she began to hold Christian Science meetings in her home. A letter from Mary Simpson published in the Christian Science Sentinel in February 1905 describes how 'Some friends meet at my home every week for the study of the Lesson-Sermon, and we are now getting a good deal of Christian Science literature'.

Public hostility to the faith caused Mary Simpson to move slowly in establishing the church in New Zealand. Many people were simply suspicious of Christian Science teachings, and others associated the church with the discredited sect set up in the early 1890s by one-time Christian Scientist Mary Plunkett and the confidence trickster Arthur Worthington. Mary Simpson had, in fact, purchased Science and health from Mary Plunkett.

Meetings held in 1906 were later disbanded because of disagreements between members of the group. However, in January 1907 Mary Simpson began holding afternoon sessions 'for the study of Christian Science healing'. These developed into evening meetings and in October 1907 a Christian Science Society was formed. The first Sunday service was held on 13 October with approximately 30 people present. At this stage the Christchurch group had no formal connection with the mother church, founded by Mary Baker Eddy and based in Boston, because no members had received formal training. Mary Simpson filled this gap, travelling to Sydney in May 1910 to train as an accredited Christian Science practitioner. In July 1911 she became the first Christian Science practitioner from New Zealand to be listed in the Christian Science Journal, and in August the mother church recognised the local society as the First Church of Christ, Scientist, Christchurch. In 1913 Mary Simpson went to Boston to train as an authorised Christian Science teacher. On her return to Christchurch in 1914 the church bought its first property, a sign that it was now firmly established.

For many years Mary Simpson devoted all her time to healing and lecturing. In 1925 she resigned from the Christian Science church after a rift developed between those members who were faithful to her teaching and those who believed she had strayed from the true Christian Science philosophy. There was also concern about her undemocratic leadership. Mary Simpson then founded the Divine Science Fellowship with herself as leader. She made two further trips to the United States, lecturing and conducting a class in Los Angeles on the second occasion. She published a magazine called the New Zealand Bellbird to promulgate her views, and wrote several books that set out her religious beliefs. Daily doses of mental tonic (1940) was a book of 'daily self treatments'; other publications presented her teaching in story form. The Sunray series of 15 booklets expounded her basic teaching.

In her later years Mary Simpson left the running of the Divine Science Fellowship to her followers, while she devoted herself to 'giving private instruction, healing, writing, and spiritual contemplation'. Highly regarded by her followers as an inspirational teacher and healer, as well as a writer and lecturer, Mary Simpson continued to lead the Divine Science Fellowship until her death at Christchurch on 19 September 1948, five years after the death of her husband. She was survived by two daughters and a son.

How to cite this page:

Margaret Lovell-Smith. 'Simpson, Mary Elizabeth', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3s19/simpson-mary-elizabeth (accessed 20 July 2024)