Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Puritans and Vaccinations

In light of recent political debates in the United States, this seems worth noting: the Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards died of smallpox on March 22, 1758.  His death was the result of a bad inoculation, which is, of course, tragic.  But it is worth remembering that he received the inoculation to protect himself from the disease, and, apparently, as a way of showing that he thought the science behind it was trustworthy enough to take a risk and set an example for others.  We sometimes think of Puritans as being benighted, ignorant and pathologically anhedonic.  Edwards' active intellect and his attention to the works of John Locke and Isaac Newton suggest that this description of Puritans is facile and false.  (Thanks for nothing, H.L. Mencken.)

Of course, there are other issues at stake here, like the ethical question of whether vaccines should ever be mandated,  and whether the facts about the HPV vaccine are being reported accurately.

But what strikes me about Edwards' death is the possibility that in choosing to receive a vaccine, Edwards risked--and lost--his own life for the sake of others.  I would not require others to follow his example, but I think that Christians (and especially those who revere the memory of the Puritans) might take his example to heart.

Scientia Cordis

"Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts."

-- Charles Peirce, "Some Consequences of Four Incapacities," (1868).