- Historic Sites
When Cotton Mather Fought The Smallpox
In Boston, where one in six was dying of the plague, the great divine battled for a new and radical idea
August 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 5
The two men had much in common, and there was much that separated them. Well educated and literate, with wide and varied interests, they were both imbued with a sense of the importance of their callings. Mather, aging, deeply conservative, was well established; Douglass, young, liberal, if not radical, was a newcomer to the colony, an interloper. Mather was in the eyes of Douglass a bigoted, pompous, vain old man; Douglass was to Mather presumptuous. The bitterness with which they fought one another contributed greatly to the discomfiture of the stricken town.
The news of Boylston’s inoculations was received with such indignation that the doctor felt compelled to justify his actions in an advertisement in the Boston Gazette . The “new Practice,” Boylston averred, had come well recommended by “Gentlemen of Figure and Learning” and had been embarked on by him for the good of the public. And, “for Encouragement,” he assured the reader that if he were inoculated he need not fear having pockmarks and scars on the lace or ever having smallpox again. Such worries had been “fully cleared up” by the aforementioned “Gentlemen,” Boylston noted uncritically.
On the twenty-first of July the selectmen and His Majesty’s justices of the peace called a meeting at the Town House at which Boylston was confronted by other physicians. The practitioners were overwhelmingly opposed to inoculations and in a strongly worded statement declared it to be fraught with peril for the patient and likely to prove of “most dangerous Consequence” to the welfare of the community since it tended to spread and perpetuate the infection. Boylston was ordered by the authorities to desist from further inoculations. Backed by Mather and other members of the clergy, he defied the interdiction. He inoculated still other persons, some openly, some clandestinely. That he should have dared to carry on in contempt of the magistrates seems to indicate that other influential members of the ruling clique had lent him their support. Inoculation was becoming a partisan issue, with the leaders of the Puritan oligarchy standing to Boylston and the new practice and the town’s liberal elements rallying around Douglass and the physicians in opposition to it.
The majority of the population feared and condemned inoculation. Even many of those who were in favor of it were torn by doubts and religious scruples. Was inoculation a “lawful” practice? Was smallpox not a “judgement of God,” sent to punish and humble the people for their sins? Was being inoculated not like “taking God’s Work out of His Hand”? Douglass played upon such popular scruples to the apparent discomfiture of his clerical opponents. Turning to the ministers he challenged them to determine, as a “Case ol Conscience,” how placing more trust in human measures than in God was consistent with the devotion and subjection owed to the all-wise providence of the Lord. That he had not raised this issue in good faith becomes evident from a passage contained in a private letter suggesting jeeringly that his correspondent might perhaps admire how the clergy reconciled inoculation with their doctrine of predestination.
The opposing factions now carried their fend into the newspapers, in whose columns they ridiculed and abused one another. The opening blast came from Douglass. In a letter Io the Boston News-Letter signed “W. Philanthropos,” he called Boylston ignorant and illiterate and accused him of rashness, negligence, and lack of consideration. Promptly Boylston’s clerical friends came to his defense. Cotton Mather, his father, Increase Mather, and four other ministers—the “Inoculation Ministers,” as they came to be known—repudiated the charges against their protégé and called upon the people of Boston to “treat one another with decency and charity, meekness and humility.” But not a word was said about Boylston’s, and their, persistence in the prohibited practice of inoculation.
At the beginning of August a new weekly newspaper, the New-England Courant , printed and published by James Franklin, Ben Franklin’s older brother, made its debut. Boston held its breath. It had never seen such a newspaper before. Lively, irreverent, and saucy, the new publication plunged headlong into the battle. An article attacking the “Inoculation Ministers,” whom it called “Six (,einlernen of Piety and Learning, profoundly ignorant of the Matter,” was quickly followed by a sarcastic “Project for reducing the Eastern Indians by Inoculation” and other pieces against inoculation and its proponents.
The Mather group fumed. In the Boston News-Letter over the signature “Your Friends and Well-Wishers to our Country and all Good-Men,” the Reverend Thomas Walter, Cotton Mather’s nephew, anonymously directed a torrent of abuse against the Courant , that “Notorious, Scandalous Paper … fullfreighted with Nonsense, Unmannerliness, Railery, Prophaneness, Immorality, Arrogancy, Calumnies, Lyes.” This was polemic in the accepted EighteenthCentury manner. But when the letter writer stooped to accuse the Boston physicians of having banded together and clandestinely formed a “Hell-Fire Club … like to that … scandalous Club … set up in London to insult the most sacred Principles of the Christian Religion,” he went beyond even then acceptable invective.