cropped-a_south-east_view_of_the_city_of_boston_in_north_america.jpgWelcome! This website is part of a research project exploring how digital text analysis can help uncover the relationship between religion and science during the first inoculation debate in America. This work is funded and supported by the Hope College Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Scholars Program in the Arts and Humanities, which promotes original student research in the Digital Humanities.

More about the project:

Vaccination may be a topic of heated debate today, but it’s certainly not a new one. This debate actually started in America over 250 years ago when a Puritan minister learned of inoculation from his African slave and promoted the practice during an outbreak of smallpox in Boston. By the end of the epidemic, inoculation saved almost 300 people, but it also ignited fierce protests from Puritans who viewed inoculation as a distrust in God, colonists frightened by the spread of disease, and doctors outraged at the “meddling” of ministers in the affairs of “learned men.”

This debate  provides an interesting perspective on the influence of religious beliefs on public views of inoculation before the development of modern medicine and the scientific enlightenment.With the tools of digital humanities, the digitized documents from this debate can be analyzed in new, quantitative ways. In this project, an online tool called Voyant was used to perform a distant reading of a subset of the documents, quantifying the word frequencies of religious and scientific language. Graphs of the data from this analysis visually reveal the mixture of scientific and religious thought during this time while indicating the beginnings of separation between the two fields.

This project also critically examines the use of quantitative text analysis in historical research by examining limitations of the process and comparing results to a traditional qualitative analysis of the texts. Future research can employ the text analysis methods developed in this project to further research the extent of cultural influence on the vaccination debate throughout history.

The focus of this project is to examine this debate using the new methodology of quantitative analysis. Nevertheless, the analysis of the graphs is best framed by the traditional research on this topic. This debate has been considered from several angles. A common theme in the secondary literature is a view of the inoculation debate as a period of transition, or secularization, from traditional puritan rhetoric towards the scientific enlightenment. Some assert that Mather’s work represents an important reconciliation of these ideas.Others have argued that his works reveal a shift from cold doctrine towards a calling to do humanitarian good.2 Another common theme is that the real debate was over medical authority among clergy and physicians.3,4 These ideas of growing secularization and separation between the fields of science and religion provide focus of the quantitative analysis and help inform the interpretation of the results.

Although the patterns of language used during this debate are subtle, in the end, quantitative analysis by word frequencies reveals interesting patterns that confirm some separation between ministers and physicians in a way that is not possible by close reading. Qualitative analysis on the other hand reveals reconciliation between religion and science, separation by genre, and a deeper debate about roles in society. When either analysis is viewed in light of the other, the interpretation becomes more complete. Thus this project demonstrates  that the best conclusions come not from just relying on traditional methods or using the new, but embracing the complete analysis provided by both tools used together.

Start exploring the inoculation debate by clicking the links below:

Background | Methodology | Graphs | Analysis


1. Robert Tindol, “Getting the Pox off All Their Houses: Cotton Mather and the Rhetoric of Puritan Science,” Early American Literature 46, no. 1 (March 2011): 1–23.

2. Maxine Van de Wetering, “A Reconsideration of the Inoculation Controversy,” New England Quarterly 58, no. 1 (March 1985): 46–67.

3. Amalie M. Kass, “Boston’s Historic Smallpox Epidemic,” Massachusetts Historical Review 14 (January 2012): 1–52.

4. Matthew Wynn Sivils, “Dissecting the Pamphlet Literature of the Boston Smallpox Inoculation Controversy,” Literature and Medicine 29, no. 1 (2011): 39–57

If you have any questions or want to discuss this project further, please contact Elizabeth Ensink at

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