Changing Faith Changes Health

August is National Immunization Awareness Month. I’m sure it’s no accident that this observance falls just before a new school year begins. Schools typically ask parents to verify that a child’s immunizations are up-to-date when school starts. As a doctor, I’m glad to see this observance.

Immunizations make the world a healthier place and give kids healthier lives.

But as a pastor, a focus on immunizations also reminds me of the role an early eighteenth century pastor played in introducing inoculation, the forerunner of immunizations, to America.

In the 1700s, the prevailing theological perspective of small pox was that it was God’s judgment on the sins of humanity. Further, trying to prevent small pox was interpreted as interfering with God’s will, which could result in greater judgment. I like to think we have come a long way from that kind of thinking about disease.

Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister and pastor of Boston’s famed North Church, was well aware of the force of an infectious disease to ravage a population. In 1713, his wife, newborn twins, and two-year-old daughter all died from measles. Small pox outbursts plagued Boston from about 1640 on. Mather had lived through several waves of the disease.

Mather had an African slave, given to him by his congregation, who claimed he had undergone a procedure while still in Africa. He described inoculation to Mather and said that among his people, no one died from small pox anymore. We have no other history of African inoculation than a note in Mather’s diary, but this defense against small pox may go as far back as the eighth century in India.

Mather did his homework and then in 1721 used his pulpit and popularity to urge inoculation. Along with Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, who conducted the first inoculations in Boston, Cotton Mather believed that his faith did not require him to do nothing lest he provoke God’s wrath, but that faith and science together could save lives. In 1721 more than half of Boston’s 10,000 residents contracted small pox, and the disease was responsible for three-fourths of all the deaths in the city that year.

Mather and Boylston could not sit by and not try to stop the scourge with what we might call clinical trials today. In the end, 14 percent of people who caught small pox, but were not inoculated, died. Only 2 percent of those inoculated died from the disease. Yet Mather and Boylston drew a lot of fire for their actions, both from people of faith and people of science.

Immunizations have evolved considerably in the last 300 years to be a safe and effective public health tool.

The Centers for Disease Control puts immunization at the top of the list of ten great public health achievements of the twentieth century. The last known case of small pox occurring naturally was in 1977. Immunizations eradicated small pox on a global scale. Because of immunizations polio, measles, mumps and other diseases that used to run rampant are greatly reduced threats.

And it all started with a pastor who was not afraid of science.

The challenge now is to ask ourselves in what ways our faith can grow and expand so that we will hear the call of God? When it comes to changing the health of our cities, what action does God call us to?

Following Mather’s example, are we willing to answer?


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