An increasing number of people in the global community rely more on of the advice given by the medical and scientific communities about dealing with COVID-19 than they do in what comes from religious leaders, government officials, and even family and friends. This is not surprising, but it hasn’t always been true.
The 1721 outbreak of small pox in Boston (one of six over many years) was deadly. Before it was over, the disease had infected half the population of the city and killed nearly 850. It was a Puritan minister by the name of Cotton Mather (of the Salem Witch Trials fame) who led the fight for inoculation and was opposed by members of the medical profession and by journalist James Franklin (Ben’s brother), who argued that the procedure was not safe and interfered with the Providence of God. Isn’t that interesting that the media would say that? What they meant was that the disease was sent by God as a judgment on a sinful nation and thus trying to find a cure short-circuited God’s purpose of eliciting repentance and moral reformation.
It wasn’t so much that Mather disagreed with the concept of God’s judgment (after all he was a Puritan), but that he also believed God was merciful in giving gifts to his children so they might also escape from his wrath. He looked upon the advances in science and knowledge as divine gifts. He wrote, “Almighty God, in his great mercy to mankind, has taught us a remedy to be used, when the dangers of the smallpox distress us.”(Christian History, issue 135, p. 34)
Mather was given a slave by this congregation whom Mather named Onesimus and was most likely from Ghana. One day during the epidemic, Onesimus shared with Mather that he had undergone an operation in Africa where he was cut and given the small pox from the pus of an infected person in order to build a resistance against the disease. He also said that people who had this done tended to survive small pox in greater numbers than those who didn’t. It was called inoculation by variolation and was practiced in Africa, China, India, and the Ottoman Empire. The procedure was not unknown in the Western world.* Unfortunately, slavers in North America would look for scars of this procedure on prospective slaves knowing it would be a mark that they were resistant to the small pox.
Mather began to tout this procedure as an antidote to the disease, but the medical profession and newspapers vilified him. Much of the criticism was racially motivated believing that such a procedure was part of an African attempt to destroy the white race. As word spread of the new medicine, the people of Boston were terrified and angry. According to Mather, they “raised an horrid Clamour.” Their rage came from many sources; fear that inoculation might spread smallpox further; knowledge that the bubonic plague was on the rise in France; and a righteous fury that it was immoral to tamper with God’s judgment in this way. There was a racial tone to their response as well, as they rebelled against an idea that was not only foreign, but African (one critic, an eminent doctor, attacked Mather for his “Negroish” thinking). Some of Mather’s opponents compared inoculation to what we would now call terrorism—as if “a man should willfully throw a Bomb into a Town.” Indeed, one local terrorist did exactly that, throwing a bomb through Mather’s window, with a note that read, “COTTON MATHER, You Dog, Dam You; I’l inoculate you with this, with a Pox to you. (www.historyof vaccines.org…smallpox-boston-cotton-mather) Fortunately the bomb did not detonate.
One Boston physician, Zabdiel Boylston, did inoculate his 6 yr old son and 2 household servants. He was threatened with lynching which never materialized. Mather and Boylston supervised the intentional inoculation of hundreds of Bostonians. Only 6 of the 287 people (2%) who developed small pox through inoculation died compared to 844 deaths among the 5700 (15%) who contracted the the natural way.
I think this shows us that belief in science and trust in God are not mutually exclusive. We can be thankful for medical science without worshiping it, viewing it as a gift of God and evidence of his common grace and providential care over all of humanity. At the same time we can also believe that God is sovereign and working out his higher purposes through these pandemics—calling the nations to repentance before the Day of Judgment and purifying his church so as to prepare it for the return of Christ.
*Jonathan Edwards was not only a theologian but a student of natural philosophy who closely followed the scientific advancements of the Enlightenment. This newly inaugurated President of Princeton chose to be inoculated by variolation for smallpox as an example to his students. His risk proved fatal. On March 22, 1758, Edwards died from complications related to the inoculation.