Cotton Mather in the vaccination debate

Cotton Mather is being put to use in American culture, today, his name invoked as an advocate for vaccinations.

Marvin Olasky, editor of the conservative evangelical newsmagazine World, has recently turned his attention to the subject of vaccinations, encouraging conservative Christian parents to trust the science and get their children inoculated. This is fairly controversial, in some circles, where science is considered a very suspect source of authority. Olasky, however, invokes Cotton Mather:

“Let’s start with modern science, which Christians largely invented, as Nancy Pearcey showed in The Soul of Science. Our Bible-believing forebears from Isaac Newton on saw how God rules nature with regularity that we can discern, without fear that Neptune stirs up the waves whenever he’s mad.

“Christians were strongly pro-science: Cotton Mather 300 years ago pioneered in promoting inoculation. But when scientists overreach by proclaiming, like Carl Sagan, that material existence ‘is all that is or was or ever will be,’ the credibility of science diminishes. Honest laboratory research deserves great respect.”

Mather, for his part, was insistent that inoculation was a divine mercy. As he wrote in 1721, during a smallpox outbreak in Boston and the subsequent debate, “But let us beseech those that have call’d this Method — the Work of the devil, or a going to the devil, no more to allow the cursed thought, or utter the horrid word, les they be found Blasphemous of a most merciful and wonderful Work of GOD.”

Some Bostonians found this less than persuasive.

Olasky isn’t the only one who has brought up Mather in this context, recently. At Jezebel magazine — a feminist site that has little in common to World — Mather has also come up recently. Strassa Edwards, writing about the history of vaccinations, praised Mather for refusing to accept that deadly diseases are “one of the strange works of God.” Paul Greenberg, the opinions page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, name-checked Mather by way of chiding modern Americans for forgetting the lessons of thee “great men” of history. “The lessons (Mather) and his fellow Puritans taught are forgotten with shocking regularity,” Greenberg writes, “among them the wisdom of vaccinating our kids.”

Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Kelly Wisecup recently considered what would happen if the esteemed Puritan of the 18th c. were to go to modern-day Disneyland, where there was an outbreak of measles 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, assured of the rightness of the procedure and of his health.” How his heart would have handled the Magic Kingdom is another matter.

Another writer to raise Mather’s name is Peter Manseau. Mather and the 1721 smallpox inoculations come up in Manseau’s new book, One Nation Under Gods. “The exact same rhetoric that you hear from religious anti-vaxxers today,” he said in a recent promotional interview “are the arguments made against Cotton Mather.”

Of course, Mather’s name has been put to other uses in this cultural conflict as well. There are also some opposed to vaccinations — anti-vaxxers, as they’re sometimes called — who invoke Mather to their own ends. “Rev. Cotton Mather was not a doctor,” writes one, in an example of this rhetoric, “but a vicar and an intensely religious and superstitous man who was heavily involved in the Salem witch trials and who murdered traditional medicine women by burning them at the stake because he suspected them of doing black witchcraft.”

Whether or not anyone is persuaded by these mentions of Mather is unknown. It is clear, though, that Mather’s name is doing some rhetorical work in these very contemporary debates.

— Daniel Silliman

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