Friday, September 9, 2011

Calvinism and Epidemic Disease in the Sussana Cole Letters, by Kate Corbett-Pollack

“I ask again how is it that the fall of Adam involves so many nations with their infant children in eternal death without remedy, unless that it so seemed meet to God? The decree, I admit, is dreadful; and yet it is impossible to deny that God foreknew what the end of man was to be before he made him, and foreknew, because he had so ordained by his decree.”

From John Calvin’s Institutes, Book III chap. 23 para. 7

The Puritan inhabitants of rural western Massachusetts, who were alive during the Federal Period, had tremendous hardship as a part of their daily lives. Epidemic disease carried off whole families and did not discriminate between those who were in the prime of life and the elderly or very young. Bacteria had not yet been discovered, and little was known about hygiene and sanitation. Death was often sudden and unexpected. The years following the American Revolution saw disease such as Typhoid Fever, Cholera, Dysentery, Tuberculosis, and a host of other sicknesses that dealt a fatal blow to its victim.

The American Pomeroy Historic Genealogical Association was recently lent, and allowed to photocopy a collection of letters written by a Western Massachusetts family living through this difficult time period, circa 1801-1840. It is possible to gain insight to the era and to the thoughts, beliefs and experience of this particular New England group from the collection of over 60 letters written by the descendents of Reverend Josiah Spaulding and Mary Williams, residing in the vicinities of Southampton, Buckland, Ashfield, Plainfield and Hawley.

Reverend Spaulding was a noted theological scholar, and his Calvinist beliefs were the unquestioned foundation of the Spaulding and Pomeroy families’ lives. Reverend Spaulding’s particular brand of religion functioned also to explain the epidemic disease that was wiping out the Spaulding and Pomeroy families at this time. It is difficult to imagine a belief system better tailored to the experience of the western Massachusetts families, who believed that the widespread death they were experiencing was the hand of God picking them off-and hopefully afterwards placing them in Heaven where everyone would be happily reunited. God surely would not kill so many, however, unless it were part of a larger plan that was not necessarily meant to be understood by mankind. The letters repeat the themes of death, the belief that it is God’s plan and that they must suffer due to the inherent depravity of human beings, and the hope that they will be part of the group chosen to enjoy eternity in Heaven.

John Calvin, writing in the 16th century, saw death all around him, and what is particularly awful, the death of children. His doctrine reflects his considerable consternation with the world he lives in, and he strives to find an answer for what would otherwise seem like meaningless destruction. Calvin’s experience in 16th century Europe can be compared to the experience of the Spaulding and Pomeroy families in the early 1800s in America, who are faced with one hopeless tragedy after another. The early Federal period of the United States saw a decline in the quality of medical care and medical education. In 1813, only seven medical schools were open in the United States. There was a shortage of teachers and facilities and little in the way of Public Health. Medicine still was based on the medieval “four humours”, and not much was known about how the body worked.

The Spaulding, Coleman and Pomeroy families of the Sussana Cole letters relied on doctors whose methods were at best worthless, and all too often fatally harmful. The family writes to each other of health and sickness, and reports on who has died. It is clear none of them expect to live very long. They speak of questionable medical cures and remedies given to them by doctors:

“You wrote you wished to hear of my health, it is very poor. My blood circulates rather better than it did. There is a doctor Young in town that came into town about seven weeks…he came to see me several times and ordered me to be taken out of my bed early in the morning and have three pails of cold water poured on my head. It seem to give my blood a quicker circulation but my nerves were rather to weak to bear the shock…”
From Ann Tubbs’ letter to her cousin Polly, August 17 (no year)

Several letters reflect the sheer desperation of families so touched by death, disease, crop failure, severe weather, infant mortality and lack of resources or help for any of it. Mary Spaulding Pomeroy (born 1785) in particular experiences her fair share of hardship. After losing her 3 year old daughter, Mary Ann, in 1814 while pregnant with her second child, her husband dies at age 33 on June 30th, 1815. Letters indicate also that she has lost several friends in these years, epidemic years in Massachusetts. By the time of her circa 1816 letter to her parents, Mary has been left alone in Southampton to care for her second daughter who is now ill.

"Dear Parents, I am still alive while the nearest of friends lies buried in the silent grave. I have great reason to mourn and lament his death for I now find how hard it is to live for my little girl has not been well since I came here…I know that I have the hardships to bear for there is nobody in the house but myself and my little girl."

Reverend Josiah Spaulding, Mary Pomeroy’s father, was the pastor at the Congregational Church of Christ in Buckland since 1785. Up until he died in 1823, the Reverend had witnessed widespread death due to epidemic disease, the causes of which were not yet understood, and thought by Spaulding to be the direct result of God’s wrath. Surely Calvinism was a doctrine fitted to his experience.

Reverend Spaulding believed that mankind was “in a state of probation” as a direct result of Christ’s crucifixion. He thought the possibility of damnation was an incentive for people to try to act in accordance to societal and scriptural rules of good conduct. If everyone could be saved and was seen as the same in God’s eyes, where was the motivation to be good and follow Christian doctrine? For Rev. Spaulding, who was in his 50s by the Federal period, Universalism must have been a threat in more than one way. The arrival of Unitarian Universalism was by him met with opposition, as it contradicted his more traditional Puritan-Calvinist beliefs of predestination and condemnation by God. Universalists believed that man was not predestined, and presented a picture of a loving and forgiving God who made salvation open to all human beings. They claimed that scripture supported this, and some went so far as to say there was no proof in the bible of Hell. Traditional (then called Orthodox) ministers were losing their congregations as a result of this new theory.

In a letter dated May 21st, 1808, Spaulding writes to his son, Josiah Jr., who is away at school:

“My dear Son,
The Lord keeps us alive, We are all of us still alive and in a measure of good health, which is thro’ the tender mercies of our God. Mr. Jabezel Brookin[s] wife was buried yesterday; she lived about 4 days after her child was born. There appear to be a calamity upon us, and the hand of God out against us; which ought to be for our humiliation, and prayerful consideration.
I think that you, nor any of us ought to despair, or to doubt the mercy of God; we may be guilty of great sin in this way.”

The reverend’s family felt as he did, and their letters are full of admonitions not to “murmur against God” in the face of constant trouble due to sickness and disease. The idea that God had a plan in place that had been in existence since before time and was being carried out in accordance to his will was the explanation for their hardship, although they do admit it does not make sense at times. Deborah Spaulding Trowbridge, Mary’s sister, wrote to her on May 28th, 1816, and addressed the death of Mary’s young husband, Isaac:

“But I often enquire why was he cut off in the middle age of life surrounded with so flattering prospects of seed time & harvest then am I silenced with a thought he was only lent to us from the Lord…and we ought to be careful not to murmur or complain of Gods dealings with us…”

It could be a momentary question, but never of faith itself, which the family reminds each other to keep in almost every letter. For the members of this religion, questioning it could mean even more death to their loved ones, and also the loss of explanation as to why tragedy was so commonplace for them. Suffering was a part of life, and ordained by God for reasons they should not try to understand. Deborah Trowbridge, writing to Mary Ann and David Pomeroy also to express her sympathies for the death of Mary Ann’s mother, Mary Spaulding, and of Mary Ann’s young son, David Alonzo, tells them in a letter dated May 12th, 1839:

“Man that is born of woman is of few days, and full of trouble, he cometh forth like a flower and is soon cut off and is here no more, this you feel to be a truth-do not murmur at god’s dealings with you.”

In Deborah’s April 17th letter of that year to Mary, she writes:

“All of us…may feel it is good for us to trust in god, tho he should slay us all…”

What happens in the afterlife is an unknown for this family-they are either saved or damned, according to the Calvinist belief in predestination, and it is worked out by God before you are even born. The idea that a life so grim and difficult would result in damnation because of predestination, and not because of behavior or piousness, must have been a particularly difficult thought for this family. Yet despite this belief, they reassure one another that God is truly good and merciful. Rufus Pomeroy writes to Mary Ann and David in 1839, also expressing sympathy for the loss of Mary Spaulding, who as we have seen, led a very short and tragic life:

“The way of God is a great deep, & his judgments past finding out. But amidst all the darkness of his providences, justice, & judgment are the habitation of his throne…You are allowed to indulge hope, that her death was precious in the eyes of the Lord, better than the day of her birth, which introduced her to a world of sin and sorrow & of death.”

It must have been an impossible thought for the Spaulding and Pomeroy families that the horrors of their lives were for nothing. As John Calvin sought to explain it, so they sought to believe him, and to defend him, as Reverend Spaulding did in his 1805 book, “Universalism Confounds and Destroys Itself”. If the family believes they might be going to hell, they do not write about it-but clearly it is part of their belief system. The Reverend devotes ample space to his thoughts on hell and what happens there in his book. Hell, he writes, is the utter loss of all hope. Hope is the one thing the family can cling to, to get them through their trials. Without hope, they do not have much else.
And, ‘When hope is cut off,’ the Reverend writes, ‘the soul dies, and not before’.


Boettner, Loraine. “Calvinism in America,” Studies in Reformed Theology vol 8., no. 16. (1998)

“Changing Medical Practices in Early America,” by Laurie Trask Mann. Updated 12/03/2008.

Everts, Louis H. History of the Connecticut Valley in Massachusetts, (Philadelphia, PA: 1879),

Foster, Reverend Frank H., Ph.D April 4, 2011. “The Eschatology of the New England Divines,” ch. 5. Creation Concept Blog,

“History of Medicine 1800-1850,” Wellness Directory of Minnesota, 2003.

O’Donnell, George T. “Causes of Typhoid Fever in Massachusetts,” American Journal of Public Health 10(6) (1920): 517–520.

“Cholera Epidemics in the 19th Century” Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics. Harvard University Library Open Collections Program,

Spaulding, Rev. Josiah. Universalism Confounds and Destroys Itself. Northampton, Mass, 1805, Google Books edition.

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