(RNS) — In April 1721, Boston endured one of its worst epidemics when a ship arrived in its harbor carrying smallpox. As the disease ravaged Boston, it was one of its leading ministers, Cotton Mather, who, despite fierce opposition culminating in an attempted bombing of his house, became the leading voice of inoculations.
Years later, when a smallpox outbreak hit New England, Jonathan Edwards modeled similar leadership in recognizing that the personal risks of a vaccine were far outweighed by the common good. Believing his example would spur on others, Edwards — though not in good health — received the vaccine. The inoculation ultimately took his life — even as it saved many others. He gave his life, in a pandemic, for the good of his neighbors.
As historian Douglas Sweeney observes, “before the rise of modern medicine, ministers usually had to take the lead in showing support for doctors (who were often fellow pastors).”