“Between April and December 1721, thousands of Bostonians contracted smallpox, and hundreds died from it. October was the worst month, with 411 deaths. Smallpox caused more than three–quarters of all the deaths in Boston that year. Smallpox was a very old disease, with evidence for its presence going back centuries. In Europe and the United States, bouts of smallpox were considered to be almost inevitable, and the disease was greatly feared. In some populations, the impact was especially severe: After being introduced by 16th-century Europeans, smallpox is said to have killed most of the indigenous (Indian) population of North America.
It was the pandemic of that age.
Cotton Mather did not originate the idea of small pox inoculation in the Massachusetts colony in 1721. Rather, he borrowed the idea from his African servant, a freed slave named Onesimus. Such a practice from his homeland was so successful that he was able to convince Mather this was the best defense against this horrid epidemic now ravaging his community. Convincing others would, however, require all of his skills of persuasion, and then some. Those in his own parish condemned this idea, arguing that epidemic diseases afflicted the people for a divine reason and any attempt to prevent them would certainly oppose God’s will. Others argued that inoculation, with its roots in Africa, was a heathen practice not suitable for Christians. Most Boston physicians, as well as the general public, argued with equal passion against inoculation on the grounds that it could spread the disease rather than prevent it; that it could cause a fatal case of smallpox in the inoculated subject by making that very subject susceptible to other diseases. Unfazed by this public criticism, Mather went ahead with his servant’s old African practice and injected his own son with a small amount of the smallpox virus.
Strange, then, that Cotton Mather would help light the torch for what, commencing in this same decade, would come to be called America’s 1st Great Awakening. He would do so with a long line of frightened countrymen and women tiptoeing behind him. Yet, follow him they did because his work was casting doubt upon fear itself and a new faith in God’s love for the sick. As Mather was himself newly awakened and transformed, he chose to live out of God’s preferred love story for his life, thus abandoning the fear story (Salem witch trials) that had made him famous. As his own faith and doubt switched sides, others in his large sphere of influence were better prepared to follow suit.
Mather was the essential catalyst for America’s first Great Awakening in American religious history, dating back to the 1730s. It was grounded in a period of great fear and great uncertainty associated with the 1720s smallpox epidemic in New England.”
This excerpt from my book “Love’s Resurrection: its power to roll away fear’s heaviest stone,” illustrates the great influence a national figure can have if visibly transformed from great faith in fear / doubt in love to that of great faith in love / doubt in fear. The transformation of Cotton Mather from a leader of one of America’s darkest periods, the tragic killing of 24 persons, 19 by hanging, on charges of practicing witchcraft, was in itself quite remarkable. The young Mather, then minister of Boston’s North Church, became famous for his fear of witchcraft and was a significant catalyst in that sordid chapter of American history back in the late 17th century. Yet, here was this man whose prominent voice of fear was now, some 30 years later, singing the praises of an African medical practice whose perfect love could cast out all fear. As the fearless Rev. Mather took an early dose of smallpox vaccine for himself along with his young son, his followers took steps needed to bring an end to this deadly epidemic here in America.
My question is whether a critical mass of Americans receiving the smallpox vaccine would have done so if not for their faith in Cotton Mather. And his faith in Onesimus. If not for Mather's overcoming of his own prior fear by the transforming power of servant-love from a former African slave, could enough Americans have acted to thwart that viral pandemic?
I share this question and its backstory today because in the face of America’s latest spike in Coronavirus deaths and also gun violence due, in large part, to a coinciding fear of vaccination on one hand and urban racial despair on the other, it may be time to pray for another pastoral leader like Cotton Mather to inspire his frightened followers to reverse course and be vaccinated now. And time for another Onesimus to bring the genius of African life-saving to our city streets.
Who will be our next heroes?