Another Perspective

The prevalence of scientific language in the documents of this debate indicates a shift towards the scientific enlightenment, but another factor exists that may be arguably more important in this shift. This debate reveals the beginnings of a separation of roles between ministers in physicians. Several scholars have argued that a major component to the debate was Douglass’ accusations of ministers for meddling in the affairs of physicians and criticism of Boylston because of his lack of sophisticated training. John Williams also uses this argument against inoculation. He makes the comparison of a tailor going to work in cobbler’s shop, unable to work without the proper tools. Williams says, “Now  Ministers work is divine, and for that they are paid for, and for anything else they are not thanked for.”[1]

Rather than defend their right to involvement in medical affairs, several ministers argue that they are only involved in the debate because it is a matter of morals. Consider the following quotes from puritan ministers:

“I think none can censure me for starting out of my line, or meddling with what is none of my Business, since the Thing I am now upon relates to Religion and Conscience”– William Cooper[2]

“…neither will I pretend to examine, how far agreeable and consistent it is with the Rules of Physick” ( he instead argues against inoculation as a moral evil because it harms the neighbor) – Samuel Grainger[3]

“I meddle not in this Matter otherwise than as it seems to me to be Irreligious. If he would be satisfied of the Danger and uncertainty of it in a Physical way, let him consult…Physicians.” – Edmund Massey[4]

“upon the whole I do not think that I at all go out of my Line in the present Essay. The plaine Intent of it is to serve unto the preserving of Life, and to Minister unto the Comfort of Families…I have avoided any Appearance of seeming learned in Physick.” – Benjamin Colman[5]

These quotes show that the ministers were acutely aware of the criticisms against them, yet fought to still have a voice in the debate. In his “Vindication of Ministers”, Mather affirms that the only real accusation against ministers was that they have “gone out of their line,” and he defends them by saying that they are fulfilling their duty to help their neighbor. However, Mather does go on to advise that Smallpox should only be performed by a skillful physician, showing that he too supports a separation of roles. Interestingly, Mather extends this separation to create a skillful argument by calling out the anti-incoulators for “arguing for principles of the divine.”

A close reading of the texts demonstrates that the beginnings of separation between the fields of religion and science can be seen most clearly, not just in the use of religious versus secular language, but in the actual arguments and accusations being made.

Click the links below to read more analysis of the results of the study:

Qualitative Analysis | Critique | Modern connections | Conclusions

[1] John Williams, “Several Arguments, Proving, That Inoculating the Small Pox Is Not Contained in the Law of Physick, Either Natural or Divine, and Therefore Unlawful :together with a Reply to Two Short Pieces, One by the Rev. Dr. Increase Mather, and Another by an Anonymous Author, Entitled, Sentiments on the Small Pox Inoculated : And Also a Short Answer to a Late Letter in the New-England Courant,” 1721, 15

[2] 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,” 3.

[3] Samuel Grainger, “The Imposition of Inoculation as a Duty Religiously Considered in a Leter [sic] to a Gentleman in the Country Inclin’d to Admit It,” 1721

[4] 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.,” 32.

[5] Daniel Neal, Benjamin Colman, and William Cooper, A Narrative of the Method and Success of Inoculating the Small-Pox in New England /  by Mr. Benj. Colman. With A Reply to the Objections Made against It from Principles of Conscience / in a Letter from a Minister at Boston ; to Which Is Now Prefixed an Historical Introduction by Daniel Neal., 1730, 33,


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