In 18th century Boston, physicians and regular folks were opposed to taking a vaccine to fight a small pox ripping through the community. Cotton Mather—yeah, that Cotton Mather—was a leading advocate for inoculations.
Mather and his backers persevered, and as the debate deepened, medical fault lines paralleled religious and political divisions. Anglicans led the fight against inoculation, arguing that the practice was medically unsafe and theologically unsound since it challenged God’s sovereignty over human life. Eager to win support, the anti-inoculation camp started The New England Courant, a newspaper dedicated to attacking Mather, his allies and their campaign for preventive medicine. Supporters of both the British episcopacy and crown, the Courant’s writers opposed the Puritan majority’s religious independence and feared its nascent bent for political autonomy.
In the guise of refuting Mather’s experiment, the Courant valorized divine authority and an acceptance of human limits. But other papers trumpeted the cleric’s call: God gave human beings the ability to reason in order to better their situation. Over the next several months, an all-out newspaper war used the disagreement over vaccination as a proxy for debating societal divisions over political power, individual autonomy and the role of God in everyday life.
Mather’s camp won the day when facts bore out his speculation: the fatality rate for those who were inoculated was much lower than for those who had not received shots. But even after the epidemic ended, the New England Courant kept up the fight—until its backers were finally worn down. The argument, however, remains salient today. Some believers still prefer to put their trust in God rather than in doctors and their medicine.