Did you know that Jonathan Edwards died from a small pox inoculation?

by Bob Schoone-Jongen.
portrait of Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards.

The great 18th century New England preacher and theologian passed on March 22, 1758. Today he is most remembered for his fire and brimstone sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The high school history books link him to the Great Awakening, the revival that swept the Thirteen Colonies during the 1740s. Unfortunately, his sermon did not end with fire, but that part is rarely assigned reading for students. And Edwards was more than a theologian plumbing the murky depths of divine mysteries. Edwards embraced the new science of his day, especially new techniques being used to combat diseases. When small pox swept into Princeton, New Jersey during the winter of 1757-58, Edwards, the local college’s newly minted president, got a shot from a reputable doctor. Thirty-seven days later Jonathan Edwards was dead from the shot.

Actually it was not a shot. The accepted procedure involved rubbing matter removed from a pustule into a small incision made between the thumb and index finger. If all went well, the patient endured a mild case of the pox and lived a normal life without fear of catching the full blown disease. In Edwards’ case something went terribly wrong. At first all was normal. He came down with a mild case and appeared to be on the mend. Then the pox spread into his mouth and throat, making swallowing very difficult.

Small pox was one of that era’s great scourges. Epidemics recurred at fairly regular intervals. One of six patients would die from the pestilence. As Edwards well knew, the mortality rate dropped drastically among those who received inoculations. This procedure had appeared in the English-speaking world when the wife of England’s ambassador to Turkey reported how the procedure saved their son’s life during an outbreak in 1716. Some experts, both theologians and medical doctors, denounced the practice as either of the devil or quackery, or both. Cotton Mather, another great Puritan divine, was among the first to champion the cause for inoculation in the Colonies.

George Washington was among the notable survivors of the disease. He, like most others, lived with scars (pock marks) that remained when sores the size of “…a great Green Pea…” (to quote Abigail Adams) subsided. One medical book of the period advised that the best way to ward off infection was to avoid close contact with swamps and strange women, especially Ethiopians. A tea brewed with sumac root and scrapings from both pine and Spanish oak bark was a recommended remedy, plus pills containing two active ingredients: deer dung and turpentine. The understandably volcanic stomach reaction to these ministrations promoted recovery by purging offending biles and restoring the proper balance to the body’s humours.

Edwards’ infection came from neither a swamp (it was winter, after all) nor an encounter with an Ethiopian (he was strictly monogamous). Princeton was simply the wrong place at the wrong time. Edwards most likely succumbed as his immune system failed from another infection contracted during the inoculation and general fatigue. A relentless worker, Edwards had spent the decades since his ordination in 1727 constantly preaching, lecturing, researching, and writing. When the college’s trustees called him in September 1757, Edwards responded that he should not accept. He pleaded financial needs and his ongoing writing project: a history of salvation from beginning to end, a synthesis of ideas from scripture, theologians, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Augustine’s City of God. Most tellingly Edwards complained of a general tiredness and sense that at fifty-five his mental faculties were starting to slip. The church council of Stockbridge, Massachusetts concluded that their minister must hear God’s voice in the letter from Princeton. Edwards, the devout Calvinist, bowed to the council’s instructions, tearfully it was said.

grave of Jonathan Edwards and family members

The grave of Jonathan Edwards in Princeton Cemetery.

Sadly, Edwards had been called to Princeton to replace his own son-in-law, Rev. Aaron Burr, Sr. Now, after only two months, the college lost a second president in less than one year’s time. But the deaths among the Edwards family would not end with Jonathan. Esther Edwards Burr, the widow of one college president, daughter of Jonathan Edwards, and mother of the future infamous Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr, Jr., also died of the pox only three weeks after she had served as her father’s nurse. During the following September, Edwards’ wife, Sarah, who arrived in Princeton soon after her husband’s death, contracted dysentery while retrieving Esther’s orphaned children from Dr. William Shippen, the physician and college trustee who had inoculated Edwards. Sarah died in Philadelphia on October 2, 1758.

Jonathan Edwards, Sarah Pierpont Edwards, and Esther Edwards Burr are buried in row in Princeton Cemetery, a few blocks north of the university’s campus. Esther’s son, Aaron Burr, was interred in the same cemetery in 1836–at a distance.

This post was originally published in the Calvin Courier, the newsletter of the Calvin CRC in Grand Rapids, MI.

Robert Schoone-Jongen is in his eleventh year at Calvin College, working with student teachers who hope to become high school and middle school social studies teachers. His historical interests are immigration, American social history, and the presidency. 

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Student voices: Why take a history survey class?

by Coryn Mulder.

This entry comes from Coryn Mulder, a senior nursing student in Professor Karin Maag’s spring online History 151 class, responding to a final exam question about the value of taking a core history class. Her response is featured here with her permission. History 151 covers human history from the Paleolithic era up until the late Middle Ages. The prompt asked students to imagine a conversation with an aunt and uncle who questioned why taking a history survey class had any value at all:

I would tell my uncle or anyone else with that mindset that when I signed up for History 151 I thought very similarly to them. I didn’t have a spectacular distain for studying History, like many others I know, but I wasn’t exactly elated either. I thought the past was full of mostly really boring facts and stories broken up by an occasional interesting event along the way. However, studying history from the beginning of time to the 1500s has opened my eyes and surprised me in many ways.

I have learned much about specific events, people groups, and empires throughout the first 1500 years of history. Yet more than that, I have learned how to engage with the past and its overall themes. I can identify what causes empires to rise and fall, the effects of religion on society, the ways societies throughout time interact with one another and respond to threats and how they shape one another.

Medieval manuscript image showing crusaders attacking a castle.

A 14th-century depiction of the crusaders’ capture of Antioch from a manuscript in the care of the National Library of the Netherlands.

However, nothing has interested me more than learning about the development of Christianity and the negative impacts it has had on other people groups and societies. I was fascinated by the similarity of Christianity to Zoroastrianism. I was moved by the persecution Christians experienced at the hands of Rome. Though nothing has affected me more than learning about the ways in which Christianity has contributed to the suffering of others. While I had heard of the Crusades before, I didn’t understand them to the extent I do now. I see our culpability now, and how this long ago event influences relations between Christians and Muslims to this day. I was unfamiliar with the persecution of Jews in Medieval Europe by their Christian neighbors until a few weeks ago. It saddens me to know that the people claiming to know the goodness and grace of Jesus have caused some of the greatest harm. It is important, however, to have knowledge of the past and development of one’s religion. Having this more comprehensive understanding of Christianity will enable me to go deeper in my faith and shape my own worldview. As a nurse and future seminary student, I feel better equipped to engage with people of other religious backgrounds.

Stone carving depicting Persian warriors in the Greco-Persian war.

Persian warriors. Image from Wikipedia.

Nearly all that I learned in history was infinitely more interesting than I thought it would be. However, I admit that in ten years I probably won’t remember that Temujin was the leader of the Mongols, the similarities between Hammurabi’s Code and the Hittite and Biblical laws, or exactly what transpired during the Greco-Persian Wars, among other things.  I will, however, remember that every culture, every nation and every people group shapes one another.  The world is a much more connected place than it was centuries ago. I can hop on a plane and be anywhere in the world in a few days. We have a responsibility to our neighbors everywhere on this globe to love each other well and look to their best interests. Nations still go to war, religions still clash, catastrophic events still occur, and cultures still thrive and collapse. So for everything and all the circumstances that stay the same, I want to change the outcomes and the way future generations will read about us in History books. I’m not studying History to prevent the past from repeating itself, but to learn how to engage with it and shape the future.

Professor Karin Maag is offering her online History 151 class again this fall – there are still some open spaces for students to register for the course. The course is open to Calvin students as well as guests from other colleges, universities, or high schools. Contact the Registrar’s office at Calvin College or go to http://www.calvin.edu/academic/online/ to find out more.


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The Christian Historian and the Use of Evidence

Part 2 of the Integration of Faith & History in the Classroom series

by Dan Miller.

The discipline of history that is placed at the service of my Christian heart and mind is an attempt to situate ourselves in time and place and community. Who do I mean when I use the word “we”? Who are “they” and what is their relationship to “us”? How did we come to occupy the place (geographical, social, economic, etc.) where we are,  and do we regard our situation as a reward for our virtue or proof that the world is unjust? How does our current situation compare with what we experienced in the past, and are we facing a promising or a menacing future? Silhouettes of group of people made up of textEven if people don’t think about such questions very often, they assume answers to them that provide direction for a vast number of the decisions they make and the actions they take throughout their lives.

Answers to these questions have been offered by origin myths and religion, family lore and government sponsored propaganda. Historians try to answer such questions using rules of logic and evidence that have come to be accepted by other historians throughout the world as marks and guarantors of honest reflection about the past. Such rules include the convention that assertions of fact must be founded upon testimony or material remains that are identified in the text and accessible to the readers. Failure to offer such supporting evidence is enough to raise questions about the historical usefulness of an account. Assertions by other historians that the material remains or testimony alluded to do not corroborate the account or do not even exist can cause an account to lose all claim to historical value and cost the author his reputation for reliability. (Notable examples from my own area of study include Rigoberta Menchu, whose accuracy was called into question by David Stoll in Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans [2007], and Ramón Gutiérrez, whose evidence in When Jesus Came the Corn Mothers Went Away [1991] was challenged by descendants of the Native Americans his book describes.) In a similar fashion, failure to observe basic rules of historical reasoning – such as attributing an event to circumstances that did not arise until after the event occurred – is enough to invalidate a historical explanation in the eyes of other historians. Hence, I would argue that the work of historians is at least potentially self-correcting. This is something that Christians in particular see as a needed element in truth seeking, given the finiteness and fallen-ness of all human striving.

Illustration of human head with brain divided into a number of different scenes for each "character attribute"Having said that historians use rules of logic and evidence, it must also be said that historians use these tools in the context of a very personal creative act. Anyone who has ever taken an oath to tell the truth about the circumstances of an event will immediately see the problem that confronts every historian. Memory is fallible at best and all too prone to shape narratives about the past to serve the self in the present. Moreover, what gets left out of an account can be just as crucial to the proper interpretation of events as what gets included. The use of narrative itself conflates and sequences events that might in reality have had little to do with each other. And the larger pattern of meaning in which the historian operates, her loyalties and presumptions, and the particularity of her own experience, exert a powerful shaping influence on her work of explanation. The very creation of historical meaning is an imposition on the past of something that is alien to it, something that comes from the mind of the historian rather than the desideratum of time. Given such considerations, it is not surprising that some observers despair of deriving any meaning from history, calling the entire enterprise self-deluding or self-aggrandizing.

I do not despair of the enterprise of history, in part because Christians are taught to hope and not give in to despair, and in part because I see the problems of historical work as no different in principle from the problems that afflict other necessary human undertakings in a finite and fallen world. Courts of law determine the guilt or innocence of criminal suspects and weigh the merits of complaints in civil suits using rules of evidence and logic similar to those which historians have developed. No one would maintain that the courts do their work infallibly. We know that judges can be corrupted by bribes, juries can be swayed by fast-talking lawyers, and circumstantial evidence can lead to improper conclusions. New types of evidence such as DNA testing have demonstrated beyond doubt the falsity of earlier verdicts that once appeared incontrovertible. I do not know how often the innocent have suffered not only punishment but the condemnation of history, nor how often the guilty have escaped both, but I can only assume that it is a frequent occurrence. Yet I do not despair of the judicial system. Instead, I hope for improvements in criminal detection and legal procedures that will reduce the likelihood of miscarriages of justice. And however trite it may sound, I wait for the day of God’s judgment when the secrets of every heart will be revealed and truth itself, history as God understands it, will supplant all of our partial and mistaken stories. It is in that spirit that I try to do my work as a historian.


  • A number of examples of logical fallacies in historical writing are described by David Hackett Fischer in Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, 104-130 (Harper and Row, 1970).
  • Nancy F Partner, “Historicity in an Age of Reality-Fictions,” in A New Philosophy of History, ed. Frank Ankersmit and Hans Kellner, 21-39, (University of Chicago Press, 1995).
  • My comments reflect the description of “postmodernism” that is offered in “Post Modernism and the Crisis of Modernity,” by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob in Telling the Truth about History, 198-237, (New York: Norton, 1994).

This post is the second in a six-part series based on a statement essay entitled “What Does History Mean to Me as a Christian? On the Integration of Faith and History in the Classroom” by Daniel Miller. This essay was originally written as a faith and teaching statement, which is required of all Calvin faculty but is rarely seen outside the boardroom. On Historical Horizons, we would like to share excerpts from some of our statements as a way of connecting with folks off campus who would like to get to know us better or are thinking about these issues as well. Additional posts will explore Professor Miller’s approach as a Christian historian, including the use of evidence, the role of the Bible and Christians in history, thoughts on a “secular” approach to history, and what our common humanity means to us as historians and Christians.

Professor Daniel Miller has been a member of the Calvin History Department since 1983. He regularly teaches a survey of Latin American history and has taken students there on several January Interim trips. His research interests include the history of Protestantism in Latin America and U.S.-Mexican relations.

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