There is a long history of popular opposition to public health measures. Given the old-timey Latin-sounding names in the title, you shouldn’t be surprised that I will reach back 350 years to start this story. During the time surrounding the English Civil War, there was a medical debate between the schools of Paracelsus and the older tradition of Galen. Followers of Paracelsus put forward notions that excrement of various types could heal a range of diseases: followers of Galen were much more restricted in their application of excrement. The conservatives who held to Galen found common cause with the conservatives that supported the king, the Royalists while those who wanted to upend the medical establishment found their allies in those who wanted to upend the monarchy, the Parliamentarians.
After the Parliamentarian victory, Paracelsus was required learning for all English doctors and pharmacists. This included the recipe for “Sheep Nanny Tea”, also known as just “Nanny Tea.” The two key ingredients were fresh sheep manure and wine. Nanny Tea was identified as a cure for smallpox. That’s important, remember that. When the monarchy was restored, however, the Galen school of medicine came back to the fore and the Paracelsians were relegated to the country healers who still resisted royal authority over their beliefs.
Let’s remember that the English Civil War included a religious element – the Puritan faction of the Parliamentarians wanted to remove Catholic influences in The Church of England. The Independent faction of the Parliamentarians wanted permission to practice their faith as they saw fit, even outside The Church of England, which put them in conflict with the Puritans. The Puritans also had a radical sect among their numbers, the Fifth Monarchists, who were preparing England for the return of Christ as King on or about the year 1666. All of these groups were in conflict with the established, traditional Church of England that held itself to be the one and only church for all of England. Even though the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 returned the Church of England to authority in religious matters, disgruntled Puritans and Independents still clung to views that the government should not be so intrusive in people’s lives as to dictate a person’s creed or belief.
This resentment of government influence probably strikes a chord with nearly every American, in one way or another. But, running deeper, is the association of what were disparagingly referred to as “folk remedies” with that anti-establishment view of government, with the rural people being at odds with the urban, royalist establishment.
And before anyone jumps up and shouts, “Oh my gosh! That’s so much like what we’re facing in 2021!”, I will say that we’re not yet ready for 2021. We first need to go to around 1900 in the US state of Utah.
I picked Utah because I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and want to better understand how there’s a current split between members of my church along a number of fault lines. Other denominations may also be experiencing similar breaks – maybe the lessons learned from history can help us all. Onward.
In 1900, a smallpox outbreak had occurred in Utah, likely caused by a person who fled a quarantine in Butte, Montana who arrived in Sanpete County. As the smallpox spread, it brought out sharp divisions in Church membership over how best to respond to it.
The smallpox outbreak was not variola major, with a 20-40% fatality rate, but a strain that had emerged in the USA after the Civil War, variola minor, with a 1-2% fatality rate. It was still a rough disease to deal with, but the lower fatality rate had made many people question if quarantine measures that were developed to address the higher-fatality strain were really appropriate for the lower-fatality strain.
Cue concerned debate about the role of government in public health: it should not be surprising that predominantly rural Utahns took up opposition to government involvement and the urban Utahns mostly favored intervention for the sake of public health. It should also not be surprising that the rural groups took government involvement as an affront to their faith and folk remedies and that urban groups took resistance to government involvement as people clinging to unenlightened thinking.
With the Mormon population, there was an added dynamic surrounding declarations of current and former leaders of the Church. The official title of the head of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And even though members are now advised to avoid the short-hand notation of “Mormon” when denoting the church or its members, we sill all engage in a short-hand reference to our leader as “the Prophet.” Just as calling church members “Mormons” causes people to forget or not realize that the faith is centered around Jesus Christ, calling the leader “the Prophet” causes people to forget or not realize that he serves primarily in an administrative capacity and that prophetic revelation is not part of his day-to-day duties.
I say that because whenever there is a split in the Church, it’s up to The President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to work to end the contention and to keep the membership unified as an ecclesiastical body. If there’s revelation for the Prophet, so be it. But most of church history is full of discussion, compromise, changing views, outside pressures, internal rifts, and long, sleepless nights for those at the top as they juggle all these influences as they do their level best to keep things going forward.
It seems as though Presidents of the Church make decisions that either cause a small number of members to leave the faith, or they make decisions that cause a large bloc of members to leave the faith. So it was from the beginning, with Joseph Smith himself constantly faced with attrition of membership over his choices and statements. In a movement striving to bring in all people as one, any loss has a pain associated with it, and the Presidents have striven to bring back anyone who has left or chosen not to associate with the general membership.
So, in 1900, the Church is faced with a smallpox outbreak and one group of members insisting that the state must be vaccinating one and all and the other group insisting that they will reach for their shotguns before some intrusive statist “injects Babylon into their arms.” The pro-state, pro-vaccine group pointed to current leadership statements in favor of vaccinations. The anti-state, anti-vaccine group in turn pointed to statements by Brigham Young that were hostile to the medical profession and insisted that folk cures and faith-based cures were superior to vaccines. Enter a steamin’ hot cup of Nanny Tea at this point, because that was one of the folk cures being touted to help deal with smallpox instead of a vaccination.
This is not to say that the anti-vaccine faction was a bunch of bumpkin throwbacks to the 17th Century: the editor of The Deseret News was one of the leaders of the anti-vaccine faction, along with other prominent Church leaders, physicians, and educators. There were also those who were very much in favor of vaccinations, just not mandatory ones at the hands of the state. Here, a Libertarian argument for personal freedom joins with those who generally distrust vaccines. Utah had only recently come out from under Federal control that had disenfranchised Mormons wholesale and had disincorporated the Church and seized its assets – is this the same government to be trusted with public health measures? Would it use a vaccination campaign as the thin end of a wedge to reassert itself in persecuting Mormons?
In the cities, Catholics, Episcopalians, and Jews mostly supported state-mandated vaccinations with an option for those who did not want to be vaccinated to ride things out at home. When schools opened in Salt Lake City in January 1900, about 62% of the student population – mostly Mormons – stayed home, their parents in staunch opposition to either vaccinations or to the school forcing their children to be vaccinated in order to attend.
When the President of the Church spoke publicly in favor of vaccinations, members of the anti-vaccine faction responded with an outcry and pled with him to seriously reconsider what he was saying and how that was an affront to their faith.
At the same time, the Church was also going through a gradual strengthening of The Word of Wisdom from a set of recommendations to actual commandment-level requirements. Part of this gradual strengthening was from influence of the larger Prohibition movement in the USA. If we look at the Mormons of the day, we would find those who generally felt that the state should be totally uninvolved both in vaccination and in prohibition, those who wanted state-run vaccinations but no prohibition, those who refused state-run vaccination programs but insisted upon state intervention in prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol, and those who felt that a comprehensive state public health system meant both vaccination and prohibition programs. And the President had to do his level best to keep them all united in faith.
And though each group would want to call out the other as having a stance that was inconsistent with the core beliefs of the Church, the fact of the matter was that those who cited a current prophet’s support for their views would find themselves in contention with those who either brought up the views of a former prophet or who questioned if the prophet was himself articulating a formal policy or merely speaking ex cathedra.
As for the non-Mormon faiths that predominantly supported vaccination, it was only the Evangelical Protestants that found common cause with Mormon efforts to tighten up the Word of Wisdom – Episcopalians, Catholics, and Jews did not have strong prohibitionist support in their memberships. On a side note, the state of Utah was considered “one of the wettest states in the nation” in 1907 and was also the state that provided the final ratification needed of the amendment to repeal Prohibition in the USA.
Getting back on track, and I know that this has been a big ramble, and there is more ramble ahead, the same dynamics that colored the factions in the English Civil War provided near-equivalent coloration to the vaccination debate in the smallpox outbreak of 1900. Paracelsians and Libertarians in the country; Galens and Statists in the city, more or less. Out in the mission fields, there were mission presidents who required all missionaries to have smallpox vaccines and those who refused them. Where Mormon missionaries were unvaccinated, local governments often enforced quarantines – vaccination came to be seen as a requirement for sharing the gospel. Even so, there was an Apostle serving as a mission president in Mexico who refused to be vaccinated on principle that it went against the idea of faith healing who then later died of smallpox. Vaccination in the mission field was by no means a uniform decision.
The vaccination debate also broke along political faction lines in Utah. Rather than go into details, let it suffice to say that one party was mostly in favor of requiring vaccinations and another was mostly against that sort of thing. Imagine the tension resulting from a debate that involves both hardline political AND religious stances.
By the early 1920s, however, the man who was a strongly anti-vaccine editor of The Deseret News in 1900 was now a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who officially signed off on a declaration from the President of the Church in support of vaccines. In case we forgot and need reminding, people are capable of change over time. I’m sure the loss of an Apostle to smallpox helped to color that decision. However, the Church statement did not go into areas of public health – that debate remained.
Even in recent official Church statements supporting vaccination programs and the idea of vaccination itself, the statements stop shy of advocating government involvement in such program. In fact, strongly pro-vaccination statements from 1978 and 1985 and 2000 have been watered down with the inclusion of a personal judgment option in the March 2021 update to the General Handbook. That’s not to say that one prophet was better or worse than another: that is to say that one President of the Church faced different pressures and concerns than another had to deal with.
When I look at the decisions made around The Word of Wisdom over time, I see more of the concerns in the top leadership regarding taking something from a strong recommendation or sincere urging to the level of an out-and-out commandment. More often than not, this is a matter of debate in the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. It is a gradual move in one direction or another, frequently because of outside pressures manifesting themselves in factions among the membership. A too-sudden move risks a major rift in the membership. Even a change accompanied with revelation, such as the 1978 Official Declaration on the Priesthood, is an example of work in progress, not a sudden direction change.
So now I come to the promise of the title: the current COVID-19 pandemic. The divisions of old have been preserved through the centuries. We saw them again in the smallpox epidemic, we will see them again in the next epidemic. So it shall be. I may side with one or the other, but it does not mean that I have a right to force my view on anyone else. I can strongly encourage, I can urge, but if I become combative with another, am I able to encourage or urge? No, I am not. Nonviolent principles, in my view, have to extend to language as much as they do for physical actions. I am going to be in church services with people who disagree or agree with me, but not in a binary sense. There will be degrees of agreement and disagreement, and when we add another issue, we add another dimension to the tracking of said agreements and disagreements. Rather than complicate things and track all the issues I have a strong view on, maybe it is better for me to look instead for a way to sit next to my brothers and sisters in faith and allow time and positive spiritual influences to improve us all in the long run. It is a difficult choice to accept, but it is the one chosen by The President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
For further reading, I strongly recommend “The Religious Politics of Smallpox Vaccination, 1899-1901” from the Utah Historical Quarterly. https://issuu.com/utah10/docs/uhq_volume84_2016_number1/s/166487
I also recommend “Mormons and Compulsory Vaccination” from MormonPress. https://www.mormonpress.com/mormon_vaccination
Both of these articles were written pre-COVID-19 and, as such, exist outside the charged atmosphere that emerged as a consequence of the latest pandemic.
If you are interested in the history of the Word of Wisdom, “The Word of Wisdom from Principle to Requirement” offers an interesting read. https://www.jstor.org/stable/45224999?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents