Covid, Cotton Mather, and Cultural Cross-Pollination

Cotton Mather, Puritan minister and pioneer of smallpox inoculation

Cotton Mather, Puritan minister and pioneer of smallpox inoculation


Regular followers of this blog will know that as a history geek, I never neglect an opportunity to frame today’s events through an historical lens.

Which is why, upon the occasion of receiving a Covid-19 booster vaccine, my mind wandered back to the 17th century…




Cotton Mather was a Puritan minister in late 17th and early 18th century colonial New England.

He was also a mover behind the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692.

In hindsight, we might be tempted to judge harshly, and call him a superstitious fool.

But Mather was operating largely within the knowledge and understanding of the world available to most Anglo-American Protestants at the time.

I’m less inclined to give him a “pass” as a slaveholder – after all, Quakers and others at the time were loud-spoken in their denunciations of human bondage, so no, slavery wasn’t just considered “normal back then” by everyone.

But even Cotton Mather, believer in witchcraft, was able to set aside at least some of his preconceptions, when faced with new evidence.

You see, a slave who Mather named Onesimus (from Hebrew scripture, of course), was an African with experience in the treatment of smallpox – a disease which was then ravaging European, African, and Native American populations.

The European introduction of smallpox and other European diseases to America is believed to have killed up to 90% of Eastern indigenous Americans, who had virtually zero natural immunity to these new pathogens.

During one particularly severe smallpox outbreak, Onesimus suggested that Mather try using an African method for protection from the disease. That method, improved over time, is what we would later call “inoculation”.

Cotton Mather was wise enough to set aside his sense of cultural and intellectual superiority, and listen to his “servant”.

Mather opened his mind to EVIDENCE.

If only modern anti-vaxxers possessed the humility and wisdom of a witch-hunting preacher from three centuries ago…


#BeforeWeWereWhite #history #CottonMather #Onesimus #smallpox #puritans #SalemWitchTrials

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