Jonathan Edwards & Smallpox: Lessons from Edwards’s Fatal Experiment

Megan Taylor

You may be familiar with the famous American pastor who loved chocolate and flying spiders, but did you know that Jonathan Edwards died from a smallpox inoculation? Edwards was not only a theologian but a student of natural philosophy who closely followed the scientific advancements of the Enlightenment. His interest led him to undertake a new method of inoculation for smallpox. This technique was also called variolation and was a precursor to the development of the first vaccine. His risk proved fatal. On March 22, 1758, Edwards died from complications related to the inoculation.

As the world weathers the coronavirus and eagerly awaits the development of a vaccine, Christians have a unique opportunity to demonstrate unwavering faith to an upheaved world. Although it may seem like we live in unprecedented times, we may be encouraged to look back through the pages of the church history and know that we are not the first to face such circumstances. Jonathan Edwards’s tragic death provides a timely opportunity to reflect on what it means to live and die faithfully in these troubling times.

Jonathan Edwards lived in the same cursed, disease-ridden world that we do. The Eighteenth-Century disease du jour was smallpox, a highly contagious virus that killed hundreds of thousands each year. This virus not only caused horrific death but significant scarring and blindness on many who happened to survive. Death and suffering were ubiquitous in Edward’s time. In light of the pandemic we face today, we can understand the fear of disease, concern for our families, and the longing for a cure.

If dying well is an art, Edwards was a master. Edwards’s physician, William Shippen, described the pastor’s posture on his deathbed as “cheerful resignation and patient submission to the divine will through every stage of his disease”[1] This attitude towards death was not a last-minute relinquishment, but a life-long resolution. Number nine of Edwards’s famous resolutions says this, "Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.”[2] Puritans have often been criticized by their constant talk of death. This apparent morbidity was fueled by their view of themselves as pilgrims towards a better city. Edwards was no different. He contemplated human frailty often because it reminded him of the preciousness of time and anchored him to the reality of eternity.

It is easy to mask our mortality today with modern conveniences and medical advances, but it only takes a novel virus to remind us we will not live forever. One day we will need to account for how we have spent our time. Christians know that death is not final, so what we do today is of eternal consequence.

When we witness the impact of a pandemic, we are reminded again that this earth is not the way it is supposed to be. But we should not react with hopelessness. Edwards was a firm believer that Christians can have true happiness in the midst of this fallen world. He reminds us of the paradigm-shifting truth: “No worldly evils can do [the Christian] any real hurt.”[3] No matter how difficult or painful the journey, the destination of the believer is glory. The eternal happiness of our heavenly home is such that all the suffering in this world can not diminish. Even when surrounded by death, we can look through tear-stained eyes to our eternal home, where “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4).     

Perhaps in the past few months death has seemed closer to you than usual. Let us take heart in the truth of the gospel. Though pressed by fears and trials in their present circumstances, believers can lift their eyes to the hill of Calvary, where death itself was defeated, and find comfort in Christ as their sustainer.

On May 8, 1980 it was announced that the world was free from the smallpox virus. Such an triumph is something we rightly hope for in light of the present pandemic. But a vaccine is not our ultimate hope. Health is not our security. Death is not final. Edwards’s dying words provide a simple reminder to all believers: “Trust in God and ye need not fear.”[4] Let us, like Edwards, rest in the sovereign care of our Creator as we move towards a better city.

 

Megan K. Taylor earned her MA in Theological Studies from Westminster Theological Seminary. She and her husband, Joel, live in Sanford, Fl where she works for Ligonier Ministries.



[1]Dwight, Sereno Edwards, The Life of President Edwards. (United States: Puritan Reprints, 2007). 578-579

[2]“The Resolutions of Jonathan Edwards.” Desiring God, May 17, 2020. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-resolutions-of-jonathan-edwards.

[3]Edwards, Jonathan, “Christian Happiness,” Sermons and Discourses 1720-1723 (WJE Online Vol. 10), Ed. Wilson H. Kimnach. 298.

[4]William Shippen to Sarah Pierpont Edwards, March 22, 1758.