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History Time: The two Cotton Mathers

Posted by Amanda Stonely  August 24, 2011 10:00 AM

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Title page from "Boylston, Zabdiel. An historical account of the small-pox inoculated in New England, upon all sorts of persons, whites, blacks, and of all ages and constitutions …. [1730]." At EC7 B6988 B730e. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass."

It might be difficult to see Mather as both the Puritan minister who betrayed his own awareness of the witch trials’ realities and the progressive scientist who risked his reputation and family–even bomb threats–to fight for a smallpox inoculation. But he was indeed both men.

When it comes to how we 21st century Americans remember and engage with a seminal and long-hyped figure like Cotton Mather, there are two very distinct kinds of revisionist history possible.

Which one we choose makes a significant difference in how we imagine our national community and identity.

The first seeks simply to overturn our prior ideals and narratives, to tear down the myths built up around dead white guys like Mather, and would likely focus exclusively on last week’s topic: Mather’s shameful public responses to the witch trials.

To do so, however, would be to leave out other, much more inspiring elements to Mather’s life and legacy. For Mather can help us see about the best that our nation has been and can be.

At the top of that list would have to be Mather’s efforts to bring the practice of inoculation to America. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, smallpox ravaged Boston (like most other large cities) on a regular basis, with each outbreak taking hundreds of lives.

It so happened that an African slave of Mather’s had survived smallpox in his home country with the aid of an inoculation, and when Mather heard the story in 1706, he set about researching such inoculations around the world, writing to physicians in London and elsewhere to learn about this practice.

He had enough confidence in what he learned to perform a primitive and successful treatment on his young son Sam when the boy was afflicted with the disease.

When the next major outbreak hit Boston in 1721, Mather took action, both by preaching a sermon in which he urged Bostonians to give the procedure a chance and by encouraging a local doctor, Zabdiel Boylston, to try it on a few patients, including two slaves and Boylston’s own young son Thomas.

It’s important to note just how revolutionary and controversial Mather’s (and Boylston’s) efforts and public stance were. Puritan theology, like most of the era’s Christian beliefs, considered inoculations an affront to God’s providential plan, and Mather’s peers in the local ministry and government criticized him sharply.

His fellow citizens responded even more angrily, with one going so far as throw a primitive bomb through his window with an attached note that read “you dog, damn you, I’ll inoculate you with this.”

Mather’s diary from the period reflects his doubts and anguish at these responses, and at the risks to which he was once again exposing Sam (who was on a break from his university studies at Harvard).

But unlike his response to the witch trials, here Mather publicly and steadfastly maintained the courage of his convictions, and Dr. Boylston’s efforts moved America far down the road toward regular inoculations against smallpox and other deadly diseases.

The second, more complex yet stronger kind of revisionist history asks us to continually reexamine historical figures and events, remembering both the worst and the best of who and what they were.

Just as the witch trial failure can remind us of the evil that can come when good men do nothing, so too can the legacy of the smallpox battle reflect some of the best of American values: ingenuity, perseverance, and a willingness to seek the communal good at significant risk.

Ben Railton is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University. He is the author of "Redefining American Identity: From Cabeza de Vaca to Barack Obama," (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) and "Contesting the Past, Reconstructing the Nation: American Literature and Culture in the Gilded Age, 1876-1893" (University of Alabama, 2007). He maintains a daily American Studies blog at

For further reading:
 "Slaves and Smallpox":

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