If Cotton Mather Went to Disneyland

One thing is for certain: he would not have caught the measles. This is the case because in 1721, in the midst of a smallpox epidemic that would kill over eight hundred Bostonians within the year, Mather, having learned of inoculation from his African slave Onesimus, began a public campaign to urge Bostonians to be inoculated. Unlike vaccination (which Edward Jenner introduced in 1796 with his discovery that people infected with cowpox were immune to smallpox), inoculation was a risky procedure that involved inserting live smallpox virus into an incision, in the hopes that the patient would obtain a mild case of the disease, thus making him or her immune to smallpox. (By contrast, vaccinations now employ weakened microbes so that their injection does not cause disease.) Never one to doubt his own positions, Mather proclaimed the values of inoculation from his pulpit in one of Boston’s most prestigious churches and in the pages of the Boston News-Letter, insisting that inoculation had been providentially revealed to save New England from the latest scourge of smallpox. If Mather went to Disneyland, then, he would undoubtedly have already been vaccinated, assured of the rightness of the procedure and of his health.

Yet, in the eighteenth century, inoculation was even more controversial than vaccination has recently (and surprisingly) become, and for oddly similar reasons. Then as now, the debate swirled around questions of what are now called belief and science, and views of the body as an entity in risk of penetration by toxins were key to peoples’ understanding not only of inoculation but also of illnesses like smallpox.

smallpoxbillThough he embraced the process of inoculation, Mather would have found quite familiar the idea promoted by the anti-vaccine movement today that the body could be infiltrated by toxins, often to deadly or devastating affect.[1] When Mather promoted inoculation, the body had long been conceptualized as a porous entity, an object whose qualities, proclivities, and behaviors were shaped not only by the kinds of food and drink that entered it but also by the air and environment in which it existed. Health, for Mather and his contemporaries, was a matter of attempting to maintain a balanced relationship between the qualities within the body and the conditions without, a task that was considered especially difficult for people of English descent living in the Americas, where the environment was considered less than ideal for maintaining temperate, healthy bodies.

Similarly, today’s vaccine skeptics conceptualize their children’s bodies as open to and in need of protection from the toxins they say are present in vaccines (such as the ingredients in preservatives), and they present the refusal to vaccinate their children as a means of preserving the purity of those bodies. (The claim, made in the scientific journal The Lancet in 1998, that vaccines could cause autism, has been debunked and retracted.) How, then, did Mather presume that introducing the pussy matter of disease into one’s body would improve one’s health? Mather, by seeing the body as always potentially invaded by dangerous entities—from too much rich food to dangerous air to smallpox—perceived medicine as the practice of maintaining a balance of those dangers, not of eradicating them altogether. If Mather didn’t think about his world as invaded by the chemicals, toxins, pollutants, and plastics present in ours, his view of health did aim at moderating his body’s exposure to environmental dangers, not eradicating them altogether. Such a proposition would have seemed impossible.

Mather also shares with vaccine skeptics a regard for belief. For Mather, this meant religious belief in the divine creation and maintenance of the natural world and a belief that phenomena like disease and health could be attributed to divine intent. As a member of one of New England’s oldest and most prestigious religious families, Mather was a powerful religious, political, and cultural force in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, a position that attests to colonists’ sense that spiritual matters were not separate from worldly or physical ones but integral to them. Indeed, Mather is probably better known for his connection to the Salem witch trials than his advocacy for inoculation, and his support for the trials derived from his sense that witches were real manifestations of devilish attacks on God’s chosen people. Vaccine skeptics conceptualize belief slightly differently, presenting it as an individual sense of rightness that counters and outweighs scientific research, a personal choice one is entitled to make. Mather would have found such arguments laughable—inoculation was very controversial in 1721, but he viewed his role as that of a shepherd instructing his flock in the ways of God, and deviation from those ways was not only a rebellion against Mather but also against the divine being who had granted knowledge of inoculation to his people.

But Mather did not see his belief as separate from or counter to science, or, as he would have called it, natural philosophy or medicine. Indeed, for Mather, as for many others in the eighteenth century, religion and science went hand in hand. Mather had the best medical library in the colonies, having trained as a minister at Harvard when he thought a stutter would prevent him from preaching, and ministers were frequently called upon to attend to patients on their deathbeds with both spiritual and medical care. Mather’s advocacy of inoculation does mark a turning point in this tradition, for his primary opponent was a physician, William Douglass, who argued vehemently against inoculation on the grounds that it was unproven and potentially dangerous. And, to some degree, Douglass was right. Inoculation carried the risk that the patient would develop a full case of smallpox and die, and few experiments had been conducted (physicians in London carried one out on prisoners in London’s Newgate prison). Moreover, Douglass argued that, as a minister, Mather was poorly equipped to evaluate medical procedures and lacked medical authority. Ironically then, the minister who supported the witch trials argued for a procedure now accepted by the medical community and most Americans as a safe, effective, and responsible way of containing the spread of the disease, while the European-educated physician opposed the same procedure on grounds we would now consider scientific.   The inoculation controversy, as the debate came to be called, marked a turning point in the increasingly distant relationship between religion and science, and in the history of modern medicine, even though the representatives of religion and science took positions opposite to the ones they hold in today’s vaccination controversies.

The relation between science and belief is an old one, sometimes, but not always contentious, and the recent arguments against vaccination are one more manifestation of these tensions. For example, in 2013, leaders at Eagle Mountain International Church near Fort Worth, TX urged their parishioners to avoid vaccinations. One of the pastors preached to her congregation, “I’m going to tell you what the facts are and the facts are the facts but then we know the truth, that always overcomes facts.”[2] Mather might have framed the point slightly differently—the facts and the truth would line up because divine truth would be revealed in what natural philosophers defined as facts—but the logic is the same. Except: Mather would have used the argument to make the case for inoculation. These historical continuities, of course, don’t make arguments against vaccination medically authoritative or socially useful. For here’s what Mather and Douglass agreed upon: that smallpox was a terrible disease and that, if it was proven effective and safe, inoculation should be used to protect communities against it.

Kelly Wisecup is the author of Medical Encounters: Knowledge and Identity in Early American Literatures (U of Massachusetts Press, 2013).


[1] On arguments that vaccines contain toxins, see






  1. March 8, 2015 @ 10:24 am Jonathan Edwards Center Germany » Cotton Mather in the vaccination debate

    […] attributed to unvaccinated children. “He would not have caught the measles,” Wisecup writes. “If Mather went to Disneyland . . . he would undoubtedly have already been vaccinated, […]



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