Distemper in the Family of Sarah Pierpont Edwards

Distemper in the Family of Sarah Pierpont Edwards April 7, 2020

Today we’re happy to welcome back Joey Cochran, who this spring is teaching a seminar at Wheaton College on American personal narratives. Today’s post tells the story of one especially famous 18th century American family, and its numerous encounters with infectious diseases.

The family history of Sarah Pierpont Edwards (1709/10-1758) is well known for its intellectual fortitude. What is not well known is that this precocious and influential British Colonial family was plagued with bodily infirmity and a predisposition to distemper. Not a term commonly used today, distemper in the eighteenth-century was normal parlance for viral and bacterial diseases. Measles, smallpox, and tuberculosis were feverish distempers to which Sarah Edwards’ family were especially susceptible.

A letter bound within her husband’s notebook for a sermon-series on Hebrews 12:22-24 was dated February 18, 1739/40 and addressed to Isaac Chauncy, a ministerial colleague in Hadley.[1] This letter sent regret to Chauncy for not coming to Hadley to assist “in keeping the fast.” The town of Hadley had a breakout of measles and Sarah’s husband was unwilling to expose himself to the detriment of his health and the danger of his family’s health. Sarah was then pregnant with Susannah, her seventh-born child, and, as such, especially vulnerable to disease. Referring to the measles, Sarah’s husband remarked: “And having heard that it is a distemper that is often given in persons’ breath, to great numbers at meeting, before the persons that give it are taken ill themselves, I think myself in prudence and duty, not called to expose myself.” Thus, her husband forewent the opportunity to participate in pious activity that would have expanded his local credibility and reputation as a ministerial associate to Chauncy in order to protect his and other’s well-being.

Furthermore, her husband gave a warning to Isaac Chauncy. By disclosing to Chauncy a primitive understanding of how diseases spread and a principled practice for disease control, he offered a model and a suggestion. Chauncy did not heed this subtle warning concerning the fast-day gathering, and so he put the community of Hadley and its surrounding communities to greater risk.

Indeed, the measles outbreak continued to spread. Sarah Edwards’ family Bible recorded this to be the case. The Bible has entries for her husband’s birth, Sarah’s birth, followed by her first five daughters’, and first son’s births. Then came the entry for Susannah’s birth on Friday, June 20, 1740, followed by the entry: “All the family above named had the measles, at the latter end of the year 1740.”[2] Fortunately, all survived the measles.

Portrait of Sarah Pierpont Edwards from an 1833 collection, Memoirs of Eminently Pious Women of Britain and America – Public domain

Nonetheless, Sarah’s family continued to have frequent bouts with distemper. A letter from Sarah’s husband to her sixth-born son, Timothy, dated April 1, 1753,[3] revealed that Timothy, who had recently embarked to Newark, New Jersey to begin his studies at the College of New Jersey, arrived at the college having come down with a feverish illness. Her husband’s letter shared a considerable concern for Timothy’s spiritual condition. “But whether you are sick or well, like to die or like to live, I hope you are earnestly seeking your salvation.” He indicated that the occasion of Timothy’s fever “was a remarkable warning . . . to make haste and not to delay in the great business of religion.” He goes on to share some best practices concerning disease control, its spread, and implications for spiritual living.

If you now have that distemper, which you have been threatened with, you are separated from your earthly friends; none of them must come to see you; and if you should die of it, you have already taken a final and everlasting leave of them while you are yet alive, not to have the comfort of their presence and immediate care, and never to see them again in the land of the living . . . Young persons are very apt to trust in parents and friends, when they are sick, or when they think of being on a deathbed. But this providence remarkably teaches you the need of a better friend, and a better parent, than earthly parents are; one who is everywhere present, and all-sufficient; that can’t be kept off by infectious distempers; who is able to save from death or to make happy in death; to save from eternal misery and to bestow eternal life.

It is indeed comfortable, when one is in great pain, languishing under sore sickness, to have the presence and kind care of near and dear earthly friends; but this is a very small thing, in comparison of what it is, to have the presence of an heavenly Father and a compassionate and almighty Redeemer.[4]

Sarah’s husband had an acute sense for the risks associated with the healthy caring for those infirm with an infectious disease. The caution that “none of them must come to see you” warned Timothy that he should not permit family and friends to take risks which would endanger them. Vulnerable people are a foil to an invulnerable God, who “can’t be kept off by infectious distempers.” Rather, Timothy’s friends and family should take necessary preventative measures because of their vulnerability.

The history preceding this letter to Timothy might explain the menace of distemper for Sarah’s family. Sarah’s second-born daughter Jerusha had become a close companion to the family’s missionary friend, David Brainerd. During June and July of 1747 Jerusha traveled with David to Boston and returned with him to Northampton where Brainerd remained until he succumbed to tuberculosis on October 9, 1747. Jerusha “chiefly tended to him… having constantly been with him as his nurse, nineteen weeks before his death.” An April 4, 1748 letter to Joseph Bellamy detailed the family’s “sore affliction” of having recently loss Jerusha on February 14, 1748. The letter juxtaposed Jerusha’s nursing Brainerd for nineteen weeks to her illness and death; placing the two side-by-side indicated that the letter writer possibly correlated the two. What is known is that she contracted and succumbed to an infection characterized with a high fever.[5] Sarah’s family Bible indicated that Jerusha was the first daughter she lost.

Sadly, Jerusha would not be the last lost loved one, for the travail of distemper continued for Sarah Pierpont Edwards’ family. Sarah’s third-born daughter, Esther, married the Reverend Aaron Burr on June 29, 1752. At the time, Burr was president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), having been appointed to the post at thirty-two years of age in November 1748.[6] Sarah’s fifth-born, Lucy, lived with the Burr family in Newark and then Princeton as well. In 1757, an outbreak of smallpox took Princeton, and Lucy Edwards contracted this distemper. In her epistolary journal to Sarah Prince, her closest friend and “sister of the heart,” Esther described her fears, disease control practices, and the risks taken to care for Lucy:

This Morn my Sister broke out very full with the small-pox—We removed her to a House of Mr Burrs about a mile off—it has done her no hurt as we have reason to think. I just now hear she was very comfortable—I fear I have taken the infection. Yesterday she took a Vomit and I attended her which is said to be dangerous—O my dear, dear friend pray for us, in petecular that Mr Burr may be preserved—I am almost sunk to the depths of Meloncholy at the possibility of Mr Burrs getting it. [7]

Thankfully, Lucy recovered from smallpox. However, the following autumn Aaron Burr succumbed to “the nervous fever” on September 24, 1757. The details leading up to Burr’s passing are sparse, but there are some interesting points to note. A month before, the Burrs’ daughter Sally was “very sick with the Throat distemper and Worms” for a couple days. Esther noted “Sally better” on August 22. On August 23, Esther reported that from “4 O’Clock Vissited sick people until night.” Lucy, likewise, that evening visited their mutual friend Miss Annis Boudanot, who was also “very sick.” Burr was away at this time but “returned in helth” on Thursday evening, September 1. He had learned of Governor Belch’s recent death and was called upon to write the funeral sermon.[8] In a letter to William Hogg, Esther detailed what “returned in helth” meant.

I here inclose you Sir the last attempt my dear Husband made to serve God in publick and do good to his fellow Creatures, a sermon that he preached at the funeral of our late Excellent Governor—you will not think strange of its imperfections when I tell you that all he wrote on the subject was done one afternoon and eve when he had a fit of the Intermitting Fever on him and the whole night after was irrational.[9]

Though exacting the circumstances of Burr’s malady are impossible, a few observations may be made. (1) Burr failed to isolate himself and continued to travel and work during this outbreak; (2) exposure to his wife, who likely was a silent carrier to those she tended possibly weakened him; and (3) he continued to work rather than rest once he had been weakened with the fever.

Sarah Pierpont Edwards’ husband took their son-in-law’s place as president of the College of New Jersey on February 16, 1758. Ever aware of his vulnerability to distemper, Sarah’s husband concluded that the whole family living in Princeton during the current smallpox outbreak should be inoculated. On February 23, 1758, William Shippen agreed to provide the inoculation and oversee everyone’s recovery. Esther and her children, Sally and Aaron Burr, Jr., seemingly recovered from the inoculation, but President Edwards lapsed. Naturally, the only person fitting to oversee his care was Lucy, who had already survived this distemper. After two weeks of fever, a closed throat, and starvation—Sarah’s husband died on March 22. When he could yet speak, he shared with Lucy his last words, extending his “kindest love to my dear wife . . . ”

Jonathan Edwards (d. 1758) – Wikimedia/Princeton University Art Museum

. . . the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature, as I trust is spiritual, and therefore will continue forever . . . As to my children, you are now like to be fatherless, which I hope will be an inducement to you all to seek a Father, who will never fail you.[10]

Regarding her husband’s death, Sarah addressed a letter to Esther on April 3, 1758:

What shall I say. A holy and Good God heas cover’d us with Dark Cloud. O that we shall kiss the rod and Lay our hands on our mouthes. The Lord heas done it. He heas made me adore his goodness that we had him so Long.[11]

Shippen reported to Sarah that Esther and her children “are Safely over the Disease” and Esther “has had the Small pox the heaviest of all that I have inoculated.” Sadly, Esther died on April 7. The correspondence of Sarah’s first-born, Sarah Edwards Parsons, to fourth-born, Mary Dwight, from Stockbridge on April 18 described Esther’s condition as being similar to Jerusha’s. “She dies of an acute Feavour, by Lucys account was much like the Feavour that Carried my Sister Jerusha out of the world.” According to Sarah Edwards Parsons, Esther had a “violent headache” and was “soon delirious” on Tuesday, remaining so until her death that Friday. Esther’s “Fidelia,” Sarah Prince wrote an eulogy where she said of Esther’s parting “with her went almost the All in which I had sum’d up my Earthly Good! O Painful separation! O Desolate World . . . Can’t see the Love in this dispensation! All seems anger yea Wrath to me!”[12]

These sentiments would have resonated with Sarah Pierpont Edwards had she read Sarah Prince’s eulogy. Sarah traveled to Princeton and then Philadelphia to retrieve Sally and Aaron Burr, Jr.. Unfortunately, she was seized with dysentery and died October 2, 1758. Her epitaph reads: “A sincere friend, A courteous and obliging Neighbour; A judiciously indulgent Mother; An affectionate and prudent Wife, And a very eminent Christian.”[13] Sarah left her nine children equal share of the family estate, but to her three youngest daughters—Susanna, Eunice, and Elizabeth—she left her “Wearing Apparel & Ornaments.” Sarah wished these three youngest both to be ornamented well and to blossom intellectually, so she imparted her “part of my late Husband’s library” to the three youngest.[14] George Marsden says of Sarah Pierpont Edwards: “Sarah Edwards is remembered as an exemplar of how the saints were to cope with their calamities and was a model her daughters and friends found difficult to emulate.”[15] In the span of just over six months a son-in-law, a daughter, a husband, and a matriarch were taken ill and passed.

Epitaph of Sarah Edwards (d. 1758), reproduced at Edwards College at Yale University

What does the struggle of Sarah Pierpont Edwards’ family with distemper teach us in light of COVID-19? Modern medicine has sheltered Americans for some time from the effects of infectious outbreaks. As such, few are prepared to help others die well under these conditions, nor are they prepared to die well themselves. Quite honestly, reaching back to an era that understood the fragility of mortality is a salve for those living today. The scope and intensity of the affects that infectious disease had on families in the eighteenth-century compels a level of sobriety less common in the twenty-first. Sarah’s family took distemper and its spread seriously. Her husband, son, and daughters took precautions to protect themselves and others from the spread of infectious disease. Nonetheless, none of them went untouched by the affects of infectious disease.

This history is a cautionary account that warns us to prepare for the coming weeks and months of American history. We should record our thoughts and feelings and share them with others. We should have tough conversations that warn one another to be cautious for the sake of communities, friends, and families. We should urge one another to be prepared spiritually for the inevitable. We should note symptoms, and respond to them prudently. We should take risks to care for loved ones. We who have developed immunity should care for those vulnerable. We should come to grips that we will suffer loss, and we should learn to speak about that loss honestly and passionately. We should ready ourselves for intense sorrow and unexplainable suffering. We should recover the ars moriendi, the art of dying well.[16]


[1] This nota bene concludes the introduction to letter “24. To the Reverend Isaac Chauncy”: “Beinecke Library, two duodecimo double leaves, in sermons on Heb. 12:22–24 [3] and Titus 2:14” (Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 16, Letters and Personal Writings, ed. by George S. Claghorn [New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1998], 82); hereforward WJE 16. Regarding the circumstances of this piece of correspondence bound into the sermon booklet, Kenneth Minkema informed me: “[Edwards] reused the letter for the sermon booklet. It was either a draft of a letter, or it wasn’t sent, or it somehow was returned” (personal correspondence with Kenneth Minkema, email dated March 26, 2020).

[2] See George Marsden, “Appendix C: Edwards’ Immediate Family from His Family Bible” in Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2003), 511-512.

[3] WJE 16: 578-79.

[4] WJE 16: 579, emphasis added.

[5] On Brainerd’s “good death” see Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 7, The Life of David Brainerd, ed. by Norma Pettit (New Haven/Longdon: Yale University Press, 1985), 461-76; hereforward WJE 7. See WJE 7: 474 for reference to Jerusha tending to Brainerd and the letter to Joseph Bellamy concerning Jerusha’s death and her being Brainerd’s nurse for 19 weeks (WJE 16: 246).

[6] To this date, Burr is the youngest President of Princeton University (then College of New Jersey).

[7] Esther Edwards Burr, “Letter no. 3: entries May 22, 1757 and May 23, 1757” in The Journal of Esther Edwards Burr, 1754-1757, ed. by Carol F. Karlsen and Laurie Crumpaker (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1984), 260-61; hereforward JEEB.

[8] JEEB, 272-73.

[9] JEEB, 299.

[10] C143. William Shippen to Sarah Pierpont Edwards, 3/22/58, ANTS, f. 1756-59C, #1-2, WJEO, Vol. 32, Correspondence by, to, and about Edwards and his Family.

[11] JEEB, 301.

[12] JEEB, 308.

[13] From the reproduction at Edwards College, Yale University.

[14] The Will of Sarah Pierpont Edwards, Oct. 2, 1758, Philadelphia City Hall Records, vol. 1747-63, 1273, L, 101.

[15] Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 497.

[16] On the ars moriendi in the early British Colonial period see David E. Stannard, The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977); Erik R. Seeman, Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492-1800 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010); Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

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