by Doug Ward

Healing the sick was an important part of the earthly ministry of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew reports, "Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them" (Matt 15:30, NIV).


Jesus' wondrous healings indicated the arrival of the initial stages of the Kingdom of God. They pointed ahead to a time when "the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. ... the lame [man] leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing...." (Isa 35:5-6, KJV). When asked by disciples of John the Baptist whether he was really the Messiah, Jesus specifically mentioned such healings as evidence that he was indeed (Luke 7:20-23).


After reading the Gospel accounts of the healings of Jesus, we may then be puzzled by a striking assertion that Jesus made to his disciples:


"I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father" (John 14:12, NIV).


How could we possibly do greater things than Jesus? Christian writer Tim Stafford observes that one reason we are perplexed by John 14:12 is our modern, post-Enlightenment distinction between "natural" and "supernatural". We think of Jesus' healings as miracles, which we define as supernatural events, things that cannot be explained by the laws of nature. There is no such distinction, however, in the thought world of the Bible. The Bible pictures God actively in control of every aspect of existence.1


The natural versus supernatural dichotomy can lead to erroneous thinking. For example, it is common today to consider God as absent from the natural-the realm of science-and to relegate God to the supernatural, defined as the areas that science has not yet explained. As science comes to understand more and more, this has the effect of shrinking God's perceived role and relevance.


In connection with healing, the natural versus supernatural dichotomy has led some Christians to mistakenly consider "miraculous" healing to be superior to medical care, and even to deem it sinful for Christians to seek medical care. To the contrary, Stafford suggests that medical advances are among the "greater things" that Jesus promised his disciples would do. Stafford writes, "Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, has healed a hundred thousand times the number that Jesus healed. Any doctor today can heal more people than Jesus did." He adds, "When penicillin was discovered, that brought gladness to God's heart. Everything good is part of God's kingdom, and we must take joy in it."2


I agree with Stafford, and I believe there are a number of medical breakthroughs that likewise have "brought gladness to God's heart." One is the eradication of smallpox, a deadly disease that killed multiple hundreds of millions of people and disfigured many times more who survived its ravages. Smallpox was defeated by 1980 as the result of a concerted international immunization campaign.3


One important early step in the defeat of smallpox was the discovery that lifelong immunity to the disease could be conferred by injecting scabs or pus from a smallpox sufferer into an incision in the skin of a healthy person. This practice, known as variolation (after variola, the name of the smallpox virus), resulted in death only about one per cent of the time, a vast improvement over the usual thirty per cent death rate of the disease.


Variolation began in India sometime before 1000 B.C., reached China by 1000 A.D., and then traveled to the Middle East and North Africa in the seventeenth century.4 In Britain's North American colonies the practice was first tried during a 1721 smallpox epidemic in Boston, thanks to the efforts of the Reverend Cotton Mather. This episode in American history is vividly described by historian Tony Williams in his book The Pox and the Covenant (Sourcebooks, 2010).


Cotton Mather (1663-1728) is best known to us as a Puritan religious leader, a popular preacher at Boston's North Church. But as Williams explains, Mather was also an avid student of science. A graduate of Harvard at age 15, Mather exemplified the Puritans' love of learning, which was fueled by the conviction that God should be glorified in all areas of life, and that God is glorified in all areas of knowledge. Mather was elected to the British Royal Society in 1713, the eighth American colonist to achieve that distinction. His enthusiasm for science is displayed in his science text The Christian Philosopher, published in 1721.


Mather first learned about variolation in 1716 from Onesimus, an African slave whom some of his parishioners had purchased for him ten years earlier.5 Onesimus and other Africans in Boston had been immunized as children. Mather, who himself was a smallpox survivor from a 1678 epidemic, went on to read more about the practice in reports carried in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions. Seeing the lifesaving potential of variolation, he determined to promote its use the next time that smallpox hit Boston.


Mather's opportunity came in 1721 when the H.M.S. Seahorse, a ship sailing from Barbados, arrived at the port of Boston carrying some infected sailors. As smallpox began to spread through the city, Mather wrote to local doctors, urging them to try variolation. He was able to line up only one brave recruit: Zabdiel Boylston, proprietor of Boston's largest apothecary shop. Boylston, who remembered his own ordeal with smallpox in the epidemic of 1702-03, was a man who was willing to take risks for the sake of saving lives. He began his variolation efforts with members of his own household, reporting on the (apparently successful) results in two Boston newspapers, the Gazette and the News-Letter, on July 15, 1721.


The Mather/Boylston variolation project set off a heated debate in the Boston press. Many Bostonians were worried that variolation would only serve to accelerate the epidemic. One vocal opponent of Mather and Boylston was a prominent physician, William Douglass, whose main motivation seems to have been professional jealousy. Douglass was proud of the fact that he was the only doctor in Boston with a medical degree, and he considered Boylston to be an unqualified amateur. He also claimed that variolation was contrary to God's will. (Apparently he saw no problem with trespassing on Mather's turf.)


Several of Mather's fellow clergymen rallied to his support, asserting in a July 27 Gazette article that God had given humans reason and knowledge for their own benefit. If variolation contravened God's will, couldn't the same be said of any medical procedure? On the contrary, people should use all of the life-saving tools granted by God and be thankful for them.


The pronouncements of the clergy did nothing to quell the debate, however. As Williams observes, Boston by 1721 was no theocracy. The depth of the anti-authoritarian sentiment in Boston was evident in the pages of the Courant, a new newspaper launched in 1721 by printer James Franklin. Assisted by an apprentice, his fifteen-year-old brother Benjamin, Franklin specialized in poking fun at the clergy and other authority figures. Much popular opposition to variolation was voiced in the Courant.


Occasionally the controversy advanced beyond the printed page. In one incident, comical in retrospect, someone launched a homemade bomb through a window of Mather's home at about 3 AM on November 14. Attached to the device was a note reading, "Cotton Mather, you dog, damn you! I'll inoculate you with this, with a pox to you!" Fortunately, the bomb was a dud.


Despite virulent opposition, Mather and Boylston carried on and were ultimately vindicated. All together there were 5889 cases of smallpox in the Boston epidemic, 844 (about fourteen per cent) of which were fatal. In contrast, 280 people (including Mather's son Samuel) were variolated by Boylston, with only six deaths-a fatality rate of two per cent. Variolation soon became an accepted practice in the American colonies, endorsed and applied by William Douglass and Benjamin Franklin, among others. Boylston was rewarded with election to the Royal Society in 1726.


The social fabric of Boston was strained by the epidemic, but the city ultimately passed the test. The strong social welfare system put in place by the Puritans played a key role in helping Boston get through the epidemic. It could also be argued that Mather himself was one of the major forces holding Boston together. Williams documents in detail Mather's heroic efforts on behalf of the people of Boston. Throughout 1721 Mather worked tirelessly, serving the poor, comforting the bereaved, and encouraging his parishioners with sermons and lectures. His example shows that love and knowledge, applied in combination, can be a very powerful force for good, illustrating John 14:12. Perhaps this is the biggest lesson to be gained from the events chronicled in The Pox and the Covenant.


1Stafford gives an excellent discussion of this point in Chapter 9 of his book Surprised by Jesus: His Agenda for Changing Everything in A.D. 30 and Today, InterVarsity Press, Downer's Grove, Illinois, 2006.


2Surprised by Jesus, p. 134.


3For the story of this campaign, see the book Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox by Jonathan B. Tucker (Grove Press, New York, 2001).


4Scourge, pp. 15-16.


5There were about two thousand slaves in Massachusetts in those days, but to the credit of the Puritans, these slaves were generally not treated as mere property. Mather's conviction that slaves should be educated and presented with the Gospel is reflected in the name of his slave-see Col 4:9,18; Phil 10.

Issue 26


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
On 28 Dec 2010, 16:42.