J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, January 03, 2013

Reviewing the Review

The Massachusetts Historical Review is the Massachusetts Historical Society’s annual journal. It usually contains about four scholarly papers and some book reviews. Copies go to members and subscribers, and people with access to J-STOR can see the articles individually.

Volume 14, published at the end of last year, has three articles on eighteenth-century New England history, which made it particularly interesting for me. (Some issues focus on the U.S. Civil War, industrialization, and other minor topics.) There’s also a review by Chernoh M. Sesay of both Vincent Carretta’s biography Phillis Wheatley (discussed back here) and the essay collection Venture Smith and the Business of Slavery and Freedom.

The issue’s first paper is “Boston’s Historic Smallpox Epidemic,” by Amalie M. Kass. It recounts the dispute over the new smallpox inoculation in 1721-22. The Rev. Cotton Mather and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston favored the new technique. Dr. William Douglass and the young printer James Franklin were the loudest voices against it. In the end, the numbers showed its value—one of the earliest uses of epidemiological statistics to settle a scientific question.

There have been many studies of that event over the years because the principal figures helpfully wrote a lot about it. This webpage from Harvard offers links to their original back-and-forth pamphlets and a bibliography of later studies. Here’s a PDF download of one more article from John Hopkins, another from Illinois Wesleyan, and a recent undergraduate thesis at William & Mary.

I found Kass’s article to be a solid and thorough narration of events without many surprises. One thing that did intrigue me was that Mather had stumbled onto the germ theory of disease:
The Animals that are much more than Thousands of times Less than the finest Grain of Sand, have their Motions; and so, their Muscles, their Tendons, their Fibres, their Blood, and the Eggs wherein their Propagation is carried on. The Eggs of these Insects (and why not the living Insects too!) may insinuate themselves by the Air, and with our Ailments, yea, thro’ the Pores of our skin; and soon gett into the Juices of our Bodies.
The minister’s microscopes weren’t good enough to really see germs, much less the smallpox virus, and this passage from his book The Angel of Bethesda wasn’t published until the 20th century. So he was very lucky to hit on the right idea without strong evidence and quite unlucky not to be able to publish his work and get credit for it.

The next paper is Douglas L. Winiarski’s “The Newbury Prayer Bill Hoax: Devotion and Deception in New England’s Era of Great Awakenings.” Winiarski is writing a study of changing New England Congregationalism in the 1700s, to be titled Darkness Falls on the Land of Light. As I reconstruct events, that research included cataloguing “prayer bills,” or short handwritten notes seeking prayer that congregants handed to ministers or left at meetinghouses to be read during services. And that led Winiarski to one such prayer bill, preserved at the Historical Society of Old Newbury and published in Joshua Coffin’s 1845 local history (with modernized spelling and capitalization).

That handwritten document purports to be a prayer by the Rev. Christopher Toppan of Newbury himself, worried about the devil causing his horse to throw him. Winiarski examines it against scores of other prayer bills, finding it unusually long and detailed, as well as oddly spelled and not from Toppan’s own hand. (It’s also inconsistent in its use of the long S, a detail not noted in the paper.)

Winiarski describes the furor of what was later called the “First Great Awakening,” in which Toppan first welcomed and then opposed the preaching of the Rev. George Whitefield. The paper concludes that this document was written and posted to lampoon Toppan and not, as first published, a sincere (if “deranged”) prayer by him. There’s no clue pointing to the real culprit, however. The great value of Winiarski’s paper is its look at New England religious practices in the 1740s. That one curious document can be a peephole into the New Light/Old Light debate.

TOMORROW: A study of one runaway slave, or many.

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