Qualitative Analysis

The quantitative results demonstrate two overall patterns that confirm the ideas of other scholarly work on this debate. First, all authors of documents during the debate used some religious language, confirming the prevalence of a belief in a sovereign God before the scientific enlightenment. Secondly, there are also differences in the use of religious language among the different authors and types of documents which reveal an increased use of secular, empirical evidence by physicians. A traditional close reading (a qualitative analysis) demonstrates more nuanced evidence to support and refine these conclusions.

Belief in a Sovereign God

As indicated by the graphs, all authors use some religious language. This is understandable for Puritan ministers, but even Dr. Boylston and Dr. Douglass refer to God as the source of salvation from the epidemic. Although a single reference to God looks weak on a graph in comparison to the frequent use in some ministers’ texts, a single reference can change the tone of an entire piece when reading qualitatively. Several of the authors also quote or reference passages from the Bible. John Williams, a tobacconist and apothecary against inoculation, bases the majority of his arguments on scripture passages. Others often refer indirectly to principles taught in scripture such as doing good for your neighbor.

Yet when they discuss inoculation in a religious context, the anti-inoculators and pro-inoculators often interpret the same bible text or principle differently. For example, Mather, Cooper, and Douglass refer to Matthew 9:12 which reads, “They that be whole need not a physician.” The anti-inoculators argue that this proves that inoculation is a sin because inoculation involves making a healthy, “whole” person ill. Cotton Mather and William Cooper, however, refute this argument, saying that the potential for infection and fear of smallpox makes patients not “whole.” They also point out that physicians already use vomits, blistering, and salivations which also violates this text by the anti-inoculators’ interpretation. This shows that although both sides deferred to scripture as authoritative, they were not completely unified in their beliefs.

Use of Empirical Evidence

In addition to the explicit religious references found in all of the texts, there are also significant references to empirical evidence and scientific thought. In arguing for inoculation, the authors frequently employ logic in their rhetoric such as comparisons to other similar medical practices that have been accepted.  Both sides also rely on specific accounts of inoculation that have succeeded or led to worse illness or death. Boylston’s Historical Account is based entirely on such accounts and includes charts of data and specific observations, a relatively unique type of document for the time. In his dissertation, William Douglass does include some subjective remarks, but his introduction states that this document is intended as a statement of facts “without passion or prejudice”.[1] His major argument is not religious but a concern that inoculation was carried out improperly and poses a risk of spreading infection. He actually confesses the potential for it to be effective, but he only comes to this conclusion after repeated “tryals,” showing a reliance on the scientific method.[2] Benjamin Colman, another Puritan minister, includes in his account of the smallpox inoculation speculation on the cause of disease, referring to the current scientific theory of animalcules. Finally, Cotton Mather entreats his readers to “Judge calmly, and like reasonable men.[3] Mather even defers to the word of scientists at one point saying, “A few empericks here, are worth all our Dogmatists.”[4]

A Blurry Line

The line between religion and science remains blurred throughout the documents. Just after stating that accounts of its success may support inoculation, Douglass argues against it by noting that “God permitted Pharaoh’s magicians to imitate his own Judgements,” using a biblical reference to discredit any empirical evidence the inoculators might have.[5] Increase Mather, Cotton Mather’s father, defends smallpox by referring to the accounts of “learned men”, but also says that inoculation is given by God’s providence and to not use it would be a sin against the sixth commandment (Thou shalt not kill).[6]

When discussing inoculation, it is clear that the ministers are not ready to rely on only religion or empirical evidence, but find their best arguments in the reconciliation of the two. William Cooper calls God “the great Physician, and says, “If any, like Asa, look to the Physician, and not to the Lord, they are very irreligious and profane therein. But if any do principally and in the first Place seek to God, may they not then innocently and lawfully make use of the best human Help the Providence of God affords them?”[7]  He supports science in the context of God’s providence.  Edmund Massey, an anti-inoculator, seems to agree. He states that a Physician is “an Instrument in the Hand of Providence, to restore health, and to prolong Life: This he does by Virtue of a wonderful Insight into the Nature of the Mineral and Vegetable World.”[8] He supports scientific understanding, but points it back to God. His opposition comes when he perceives science (inoculation) overstepping into God’s control over affliction.

Reading these texts closely demonstrates a more complex use of scientific and religious language than word frequencies alone provide.

Click the links below to read more analysis of the results

Another Perspective Critique | Modern connections | Conclusions

[1] William Douglass, A Dissertation Concerning Inoculation of the Small-Pox. Giving Some Account of the Rise, Progress, Success, Advantages and Disadvantages of Receiving the Small Pox by Incisions Illustrated by Sundry Cases of the Inoculated., 1730, http://name.umdl.umich.edu/N02749.0001.001.

[2] Ibid.13

[3] Cotton Mather, “Some Account of What Is Said of Inoculating or Transplanting the Small Pox /  by the Learned Dr. Emanuel Timonius, and Jacobus Pylarinus ; with Some Remarks Thereon ; to Which Are Added, a Few Quaeries in Answer to the Scruples of Many about the Lawfulness of This Method ; Published by Dr. Zabdiel Boylstone,” 1721, 10.

[4] Cotton Mather, “An Account of the Method and Success of Inoculating the Small-Pox, in Boston in New-England /  In a Letter from a Gentleman There, to His Friend in London,” 1722, 8.

[5] William Douglass, “Inoculation of the Small Pox as Practised in Boston :  Consider’d in a Letter to A- S- M.D. & F.R.S. in London,” January 1722, 11.

[6] Cotton Mather and Increase Mather, Several Reasons Proving That Inoculation or Transplanting the Small Pox, Is a Lawful Practice, and That It Has Been Blessed by God for the Saving of Many a Life AND Sentiments on the Small Pox Inoculated, 1721,

[7] William Cooper, “A Reply to the Objections Made against Taking the Small Pox in the Way of Inoculation from Principles of Conscience :  In a Letter to a Friend in the Country,” 1730, 6,13.

[8] Edmund Massey, “A Sermon against the Dangerous and Sinful Practice of Inoculation. Preach’d at St. Andrew’s Holborn, on Sunday, July the 8th, 1722. / By Edmund Massey, M.A. Lecturer of St. Alban Woodstreet.,” July 8, 1722, 24,


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