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. 

About historicalhorizons

The blog of the Calvin College History Department
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