The Puritans Were America's First Anti-Vaxxers

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tags: medicine, Puritans, Vaccination, Vaccine



Peter Manseau is the author most recently of "One Nation Under Gods: A New American History," from which this essay is adapted. On Twitter he's @petermanseau.

A plague is a busy time for a man of the cloth.

Cotton Mather was the most prominent clergyman in colonial Boston, the last in a line of preachers who had provided spiritual solace to the city from the beginning. Yet when he looked down from his pulpit in the fall of 1702 he saw his congregation dwindling by the day.

With funerals “daily celebrated and multiplied,” as he noted in his journal, the usual Puritan terrors of devils and Indians were replaced in public consciousness with fears of the “fevers and fluxes” that spread by the sad magic of human touch and breath.

Though best known for lighting the fuse of the Salem Witch Trials, Mather faced his greatest challenge not in the imagined spiritual malady of a few girls claiming to be hexed, but in the very real epidemic of small pox. His efforts to fight it, and his willingness to skirt theological orthodoxy in doing so, might stand today as a model for religious leaders to speak out against an anti-vaccine movement that represents a dangerous intersection of medical ignorance and misplaced spiritual confidence that Mather knew well.

By the reckoning of historians of the day, small pox made an appearance in Boston roughly every twenty years, always with disastrous effect....




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