Inoculation and the Evangelical Scientific Method of Cotton Mather | The BioLogos Forum

(system) #1
Portrait of Cotton Mather (1729), after engraving by Peter Pelham, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts

Introduction by Ted Davis

When I wrote my column on Cotton Mather, someone about whom I have not previously written anything, I didn’t realize that Rick Kennedy was about to publish a new biography, The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather (2015). Once I realized this, I invited him to write a sidebar to my current series on Antebellum religion and science, based on the book. The topic he chose, Mather’s involvement with the first smallpox inoculation in America, makes a perfect complement to the theme of my own column. The next words you read are his.

Cotton Mather and the New Science

Scholars no longer write starkly and narrowly about the Enlightenment. Rather, we talk of many different types of enlightenments that shade into each other. Many of these enlightenments are rooted in Christian traditions such as French Roman Catholic Jansenism, Scottish Presbyterian Commonsense, and Saxon Lutheran Pietism. At Harvard in the beginning of the eighteenth century the kind of enlightenment most prominent is best described as a provincial British version of a moderate Protestant enlightenment. Cotton Mather, who was twice denied the presidency of Harvard but remained influential over its intellectual life, practiced a distinct form of that enlightenment that we can call an evangelical form. Cotton Mather promoted a biblical enlightenment that emphasized a social-scientific method, an enlightenment premised on the opportunities for progress in both human and divine communication.

All types of enlightenments share a similarity that gives them their name: their participants believed that they were turning on the lights. Optimism prevailed about knowledge progressing. Cotton Mather encouraged the development of the science program at Harvard and preached that students of nature should steer their barks with hope at the bow.

Mather believed that new methods of scientific enquiry should be embraced, especially experimentation. The old science did not emphasize experiments to the same extent. It did observation, analysis and synthesis, and a few experiments, too, but the new natural philosophers began to see the special value of doing experiments. An experiment, we sometimes forget, is a wildly risky tool. It proposes that an individual controlled experience, if repeatable, can be extrapolated back into the past, out into the universe, and on into the future. It shoots high and far.

Another optimistic method, most famously practiced by Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley and promoted at Harvard by Cotton Mather and Thomas Brattle, involved an expanded use of mathematics, especially geometry and statistics, to create models that are abstracted out of reality but useful for both understanding and prediction. Call the Earth a sphere.. Circumscribe it with degrees and minutes, both sideways for latitude and longwise for longitude. Create a prime meridian

at Greenwich. Do this in one’s mind and amazing feats of geodesic and celestial knowledge can be worked out and even discovered—even if the Earth is really not a sphere. Mather and Brattle were especially impressed with Halley’s way of model making: Gather as much data as possible about such things as baptisms, marriages, deaths, tides, magnetism variations, and comet sightings, then smooth the data out, fudging some while dismissing others, and mold it into predictive models that describe social trends, geodesy, and even a comet’s return.

Mather and Brattle, along with Mather’s father, encouraged the experimental and mathematical aspects of the moderate Protestant enlightenment. The Mathers even pressed for Isaac Greenwood to become, in 1727, the first Hollis Professor of Mathematics—Harvard’s first scientific professorship. Greenwood had grown up the church youth groups led by Cotton Mather, and the Mathers had nurtured his scientific pursuits both as a young man and adult.

Mather, himself, however, although favorable to these new scientific methods, did not do experiments nor did he create abstract models after gathering data or counting things. He is considered one of Colonial America’s most important scientists, but he did not use the newest, coolest, tools. Frankly, he also did very little of the old stalwart method of observation, analysis, and synthesis. He was not one of those pastors that you read about in British novels or watch on PBS who avidly practiced bird-watching or systematic-gardening. He was not even the kind of guy who would stay up all night to watch the stars. He bought books, not scientific equipment. He gathered stories more than countable data. What makes him such an important scientific figure that he gained, during his life, a transatlantic reputation in natural philosophy and medicine? What kind of method was he so good at that historians still today teach Cotton Mather as a stepping stone leading toward modern science in America?

Mather as an “Evangelical” Scientist: The Social Dimension of Scientific Knowledge

Cotton Mather’s scientific method fits the pattern most recently studied by Steven Shapin, the Franklin L. Ford Research Professor of the History of Science at Harvard. One of Shapin’s book titles, A Social History of Truth, describes best Mather’s preferred scientific method. Shapin has written a wide range of studies that focus on the way the scientific revolution in Mather’s era depended upon “social truth” made credible by testimony and the authority of the credible testifiers. The leaders of the new science who were performing experiments and making precise observations were, themselves, testifiers. The spread of their discoveries depended upon their authority of their personal reputations. The leaders of the scientific revolution, such asRobert Boyle and the fellows of the Royal Society of London, were trusted first as trustworthy testifiers then, secondarily, their experiments and calculations were trusted. The scientific revolution began as a network of social trust and still today continues as a network of trust. For Cotton Mather, as with most of us today, science is mostly known socially. Most of us today believe that gravity has an effect on light and that speed has an effect on time because we trust the people and the books that say so. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries this type of epistemology would be replaced by a romantic notion of hero-individual scientists; however, the existence and wisdom of social-scientific methods is being revived today.

Few scholars have emphasized the social dimension of scientific knowledge more than Steven Shapin. Known for uncompromising frankness, he has turned his critical gaze even upon himself. One of his essays opens with a description of a memorial plaque for an eighteenth-century Anglican minister. “The inscription describes him as ‘a scholar, a Christian, and a gentleman.’ Some years ago, I found the plaque noteworthy enough to photograph, and I have been trying ever since to articulate why I found it so interesting. ‘A scholar, a Christian, and a gentleman’—possibly I found it remarkable because of the stranger’s natural curiosity: I have not had the good fortune to be any one of those things, let alone all three.” (Shapin, Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority, p. 142)

Mather excelled as a listener, reader and writer—he long suffered a stutter that made him a slow, careful, talker. Like many scientists today, Mather was more a gatherer, disseminator, and promoter of information than a lab-coat practitioner. What made him evangelical was his deep commitment to believing credible people about such things as miracles and encounters with angels. Mather believed that the Bible was divine communication at its clearest. If God, as reported in the Bible, did miracles and communicated to Mary through an angel, there was no reason not to believe similar stories from credible eyewitnesses. This open-minded, social belief system, encouraged him to not only gather stories of wonders in the manner of his fellow members of the Royal Society of London who gathered curiosities for show and tell, it also encouraged him to expect new and true scientific knowledge to spread in the way the good news of salvation spreads.

Cotton Mather’s evangelical enlightenment showed itself at its best in science’s engagement with small pox epidemics. Thomas Brattle, when wrestling the problem of small pox epidemics, turned to mathematics and statistical modeling. In 1711, working with a young Harvard tutor named Thomas Robie, Brattle searched town records for a mathematical pattern to describe the coming and going of local smallpox epidemics. They wrestled with the data, but they could not construct a working model. There seemed to be no mathematical pattern. Thomas Brattle, New England’s most systematic, sophisticated, and successful promoter of science, a man cited by Newton in the Principia, hit a wall on the small pox problem.

Cotton Mather, on the other hand, had his greatest scientific triumph dealing with small pox. In 1721 during a horrifying epidemic in Boston, Cotton recommended inoculations and even inoculated his children and associates. He inoculated the young Isaac Greenwood. Cotton Mather had read about European experiments with inoculations and his black slave, named Onesimus, told him of inoculations in Africa. The medical experts in Boston insisted that inoculation was a type of suicide, and in the furor of trying to stop Mather from inoculating people a bomb was thrown into Cotton’s study. One of Cotton’s inoculated patients was lying on a cot in the study when the bomb came through the window. The patient watched the bomb roll across the floor and breathed a sigh of relief when the fuse fell out. Tempers were hot in the midst of the epidemic, but Cotton succeeded in saving the lives of people who trusted him because he trusted the hearsay evidence of an academic journal and an African slave.

In short, both Brattle and Mather were exemplary figures of an early American scientific enlightenment, but Mather's enlightenment was of an evangelical sort rooted in his commitment to the Bible as divine encouragement of a testimony-trust social system of spreading true information. Brattle’s method of mathematical-modeling was in many ways more progressive and would flourish as the scientific establishment moved away from biblical authority. But we should not forget Cotton Mather’s evangelical method that conformed to the social-style of science that emphasized trusting experts and the character of credible witnesses. Both were methods that advanced colonial American science.

Steven Shapin encourages the scientific establishment today to recognize and even revive its understanding of the Social History of Truth. The story of Cotton Mather’s success with his evangelical form of scientific method fits Shapin’s recommendation. It is good for us all to keep alive the role of both divine and human communication when engaged in science.

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

For fascinating commentary about Richard Dawkins, doubting Thomas, and the importance of credible testimony for establishing scientific knowledge, see Thomas Dixon’s column in Huffington Post, Science and Religion—Doubting Thomas: A Patron Saint For Scientists? Interestingly, a founder of the Royal Society, William Petty, actually suggested that the Society have an annual festival on St. Thomas’ day—for reasons that are consistent with what Dixon says. As Petty is supposed to have said, Thomas made an appropriate choice, “for he would not believe till he had seen and put his fingers into the holes, according to the motto [of the Royal Society], ‘Nullius in verba’.”

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Scott Jorgenson) #4

To me, Cotton Mather’s endorsement and encouragement of the witch trials in Salem undermines the claim that he was a respectable proto-scientist. It was not just his superstitious and pseudo-scientific belief in “spectral evidence”; it was his whole manner of thinking about the accused, by which nothing they could say or do could possibly clear themselves, as anything they put forward was explained-away as trickery of the devil. The more convincingly the accused protested their innocence, the more it only demonstrated the devil’s confounding powers. This is just bald-faced unfalsifiable thinking, and not self-critical or scientific in the least.

I’m surprised the article here makes no mention whatsoever of these events. For a better assessment, I’m surprised to say it, but see Wikipedia:

(Merv Bitikofer) #5

So Mather must join the dubious likes of Kepler, Newton, and doubtless many others as “discredited” protoscientists who failed against all apparent expectations to extricate themselves from all their surrounding culture and anticipate all our current sensibilities from several centuries later. This is not to justify Mather’s promotion of a morally horrifying practice. It is only to see that our scientific predecessors and even heroes to whom modern science owes irrevocable debt were, in the end, very human.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #6


There is much that can be discussed from this essay. What most strikes me is that modern science breaks with the ancient world by putting experiential knowledge on par and even above theoretical knowledge. Humans learned that the earth moved around the sun, not by the thinking of Copernicus, but when Galileo was able to see through the telescope evidence that confirmed this fact.

Now there are two basic ways to obtain experiential knowledge, 1) though experimentation and 2) observation by reliable observer(s.) The problem with the Salem witch trials is that the key witnesses were not reliable. Also, as brought up, that the standard of evidence was not proper. Certainly we need to as much experiential confirmation as possible before something is determined to be true.

Karl Popper was the thinker who said that for a scientific theory to be accepted as true, there must be positive experiential evidence that it is true, and thus it must be falsible, that is, there must be a way to show that it is not true. For this reason he said the Darwinian Natural Selection was not scientifically proven because as it stood then it was not falsible, and had not been experientially demonstrated to be true.

I would say that Darwinian Natural Selection is falsible, and in fact I have demonstrated it to be false, because it played no role in the extinction of the dinosaurs and rise of the mammals. Therefore it is clear that this aspect of evolutionary theory is false because it does not meet the standards of modern science.

(Scott Jorgenson) #7

I think there are a couple of reasons why Mather ought not receive quite the same “free pass” that Kepler and Newton are due.

First, Mather had numerous contemporary critics who saw through his activities with the witch trials, one going so far as to publish a book against his conduct. Afterward, even some of the participants came to develop misgivings about the whole affair. (As far as I’ve read, there is no evidence that Mather ever did.) It is not an anachronistic projection to criticize Mather for abandoning reason around the witch trials, when his own contemporaries knew, or came to know, better.

Second, however Newton and Kepler may have involved themselves with alchemy and astrology, neither of those interests of theirs ever approached the gross miscarriage of justice (again, even according to the standard of the time) which Mather helped along by involving himself with the witch trials. Nobody died, no hysteria swept the countryside, no lives were upended, when Newton and Kepler did their thing; not so with Mather.

Returning to the article posted here: even if I am wrong in judging Mather this way, at the very least the above article should have tempered its assessment of him by saying something about these very relevant events.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #8

Points well taken.

It was interesting to read the Wikipedia article about Mather that you referenced, and yes, it is maddening to see the gross injustice he perpetrated when at least some of his contemporaries at least had sentiments, if not actions of protest.

I don’t think historical characters [even Newton or Kepler --though I appreciate and agree with the distinctions you made about them] ought to be thought of so much as “getting a free pass” as just seen for humans of their day, warts and all. We sanitize too many heroes, opening ourselves up to wild gyrations between hagiography and scandalous synography when they are knocked from their pedestal. Were we to discover tomorrow that Newton had been a serial killer in his spare time, we would be rightly appalled; but we could not on that fact alone pretend then that his scientific offerings should be spurned or even re-evaluated. In fact, that he dabbled in the occult or in alchemy probably is even more scandalous to modern thinkers since that could be used to question his scientific competence. But we wisely see his massive contributions for what they are despite his related shortcomings.

I certainly don’t insist (on my fledgling knowledge of Mather from this and the wikipedia article) that Mather’s scientific boot print is even close to the same class as Newton’s. But I think it is instructive to see how blurred the boundaries of enlightenment really are when we find laudable scientific sentiments in the same heads as lambastable shortcomings – which is at least related to the point in Rick Kennedy’s first paragraph above.

Thanks for bringing his writing to us, Ted. And thanks for the added balance, Scott.


Interesting article, Ted. I particularly found this sentence interesting…“succeeding in saving the lives of people who trusted him because he trusted the hearsay evidence of an academic journal and an African slave”. The juxtaposition of an academic journal with the plain experience of an unlikely uneducated slave. Possibly the slave had the greater impact, as verification for the journal article.

Which reminds me of the recent find of five fossil fish in Alberta (as also reported in the Washington Post). They were discovered by a YEC who was president of the Big Valley Creation Science museum, and then “dated” (estimated) by a local geologist to be 60 my old. The evidence did not change the mind of the backhoe operator who originally found the fossils, and did not believe the date, although he was polite about it. CBC radio found this find amusing… and I found it amusing that CBC front desk found it amusing.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #10

An update to my previous statement.

I just le4arned of a new book, which is a challenge to Darwinian Natural Selection. It is A New History of Life by Peter Ward. Again it put ecology before genetics in the forming of evolution.

Peter Ward is a paleontologist, which means he studies prehistoric plants and animals. He has first hand experience with the evidence of changes in the environment and plants and animals, as opposed to evolutionary biologists who study the DNA.

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