The Pox and the Covenant: Mather, Franklin, and the Epidemic That Changed America's Destiny

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Release Date: 
March 31, 2010
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In The Pox and the Covenant, Tony Williams challenges readers to reevaluate everything they thought they knew about colonial America, the Puritans, and science.

This account of the 1721 Boston smallpox epidemic presents a very different view of two of the era’s most prominent men: Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin. As the city becomes embroiled in a controversy over inoculation, readers may be surprised to find out which man was on which side of the debate. Williams paints a picture of intellectual life in Puritan Boston that is far more nuanced than most popular portrayals.

The Pox and the Covenant focuses on the outbreak of smallpox in Boston in 1721. The virus arrives via a trading ship from the West Indies, and quickly spreads through the city. Hundreds die, and panic grips the citizenry.

Williams does a first-class job describing everyday life in colonial-era Boston, including the conditions that allowed for pestilence to spread so easily and so quickly among the inhabitants. This portrait of daily life is set against the backdrop of the intellectual and religious climate of the mid-18th century, in which disease was the instrument of an angry God and prayer the primary (if not only) defense. Williams strikes an excellent balance between portraying the role of religion in Puritan theories of illness without making his subjects appear to be ignorant zealots. Readers will truly feel for a populace that is gripped by fear of sickness and death and looking for away to atone for the sins in order to bring the epidemic to an end.

Within this cultural context, however, another model of illness was emerging. Williams examines the ways in which germ theory was making its way into the intellectual life of both Europe and colonial America. Readers may be surprised to learn that Cotton Mather—better known for his fiery sermons and part in the Salem witchcraft craze—was one of the major proponents of the new science in colonial Boston, and that he did not see a fundamental conflict between science and religion. Contrary to many portrayals, Williams’s account demonstrates that science had a place in Puritan intellectual life and that many Puritans did not see science as counter to their religious convictions.

Mather becomes embroiled in scientific and theological debate when he begins advocating inoculation, rather than simply prayer, as a method of stemming the tide of disease. He learns of the technique from an African slave in his household. Inoculation had, in fact, been practiced for centuries among African tribes as a way of preventing smallpox. Mather’s servant describes the technique, and Mather, with the help of Dr. Zabdiel Boyston, begins to advocate for the procedure. Boylston undertakes a series of inoculation experiments, with excellent results, while the disease continues to ravage the city.

The reaction to this potentially life-saving procedure is anything but what Mather and Boylston expect. Bostonians, convinced that the method will only purposefully spread the disease through the city and kill those inoculated, vilify the two men in the press and the court of public opinion. Among those leading the charge is a young printer’s apprentice who will ultimately become one of America’s leading men of science: Benjamin Franklin.

Williams’s account of the conflict between the two men—and the larger societal conflict it reflects—is an entertaining and informative read. It provides valuable insights into colonial American life and into the larger ways in which scientific knowledge is received, rejected, interpreted, or assimilated.

The Pox and the Covenant is in many ways Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolution in action, especially given Franklin’s ultimate conversion to the inoculation theory specifically and to the life of man of science more generally. Williams attempts to put this conflict, this scientific revolution, within a larger cultural and historical context, which adds depth to the discussion and makes what could have been a very dry read something of a page-turner.

Williams also attempts to incorporate the roles, voices, and experiences of members of Boston’s population who have been largely absent from other account of the epidemic of 1721 and of the period more generally: African Americans, Native Americans, and women. The inclusion of these groups adds dimension to the story, but the way in which they are incorporated into the narrative is perhaps less skillful than it might have been. They sometimes feel tacked on, as though an editor recommended adding them late in the publication process. The information itself is well-researched and interesting, and readers interested in the role of underrepresented groups in American history will find some food for thought.

The foeshadowing in The Pox and the Covenant is also a bit heavy-handed. Readers know that the book is about an epidemic when they pick it up, and presumably they realize that means there will be death and tragedy. Williams tends to overuse foreshadowing and ominous-sounding phrases to remind readers of impending tragedy. This may be an attempt to keep the reader interested in the core story during sections that deal with earlier history or other issues that framed the epidemic, but it seems overdone and unnecessary. The story itself is gripping, and Williams’s use of “cliffhangers” seems a bit hackneyed.

The Pox and the Covenant is a well-written, informative read. Readers interested in colonial American history or the history of science more generally will find much to enjoy. It is also readable and approachable enough to make an excellent choice for upper-level high school or college history classes. It will serve as a launching place for those interested in exploring the nature of illness and medical science in the period, but also stands on its own as an engaging treatment of this chapter in American history.