John Adams was certain he made a mistake by going to church. Philadelphia’s yellow fever outbreak only ended in November 1793. On Sunday, December 22, Adams attended a Presbyterian service in the morning and an Episcopalian service in the afternoon, “but I am not Sure it is prudent to go to Church or to Meeting for if there . . . can be infection any where it is as likely to be in these Assemblies as in any Place.” Adams, however, felt alone in his apprehension. “All the World . . . says and believes there is no danger.”
John Adams was not the only American who perceived a connection between church attendance and yellow fever mortality. Philadelphia-based publisher Mathew Carey wrote of churchgoing, “To this cause I am bold in ascribing a large proportion of the mortality—And it is remarkable, that those congregations, whose places of worship were most crouded, have suffered the most dreadful.” Carey condemned those “whose mistaken zeal” prompted them “to croud some of our churches,” “during the most dreadful stages of this calamity,” only to “aid this frightful enemy.” Carey asked if people would forgive him for criticizing those “who, fearful lest their prayers and adoration at home would not find acceptance before the Deity, resorted to churches filled with bodies of contagious air, where with every breath they inhaled, they drew in noxious miasmata?”
Like many of his contemporaries, Carey misunderstood the spread of yellow fever. The disease spread by mosquitoes, not by polluted air or person-to-person contact. By reason of their locations, or by the location of church members’ homes, some congregations seemed more vulnerable than others. Newspaper editor John Fenno remarked that “Roman Catholic Congregations have suffered most severely by this visitation—their burying grounds are like ploughed fields.”
In December 1793, a defender of theatergoing pointed to uneven mortality among Philadelphia’s houses of worship. On December 20, 1793, an interdenominational group of Philadelphia clergy petitioned Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives calling for laws against violations of the Sabbath, regulations limiting the number of taverns and “a law to prevent Theatrical exhibitions of every sort.” The clergy perceived the yellow fever outbreak as a hint of divine displeasure. Quakers submitted their own anti-theater petition the same day.
In response, a Philadelphia resident under the pseudonym “Anti-Bigot” opined, “It is a fact worthy of remark that while the opponents of the Theatre enumerate the entertainments of the stage among the heinous offences which brought on the late calamity, those sects who are the most strenuous and unanimous in their opposition to the drama, were the greatest sufferers by the yellow fever.” Anti-Bigot did not believe yellow fever was divine punishment. “But surely, Sir, those who do hold this opinion . . . should consider with how much force this remark might be applied to their condemnation.”
Anti-Bigot probably meant a particular jab at Rev. J. Henry C. Helmuth of the German Lutheran congregation, who signed the anti-theater petition. In his account of the yellow fever, Helmuth carefully accounted for the high number of burials recorded in his church grounds from August 1 through November 9, 1793. Moravians, Baptist, Swedes, and Methodists recorded burials in the dozens. Of Philadelphia’s three Episcopalian congregations, Christ Church recorded the most burials with 173. Of two Catholic congregations, St. Mary’s recorded 251, with an additional 30 burials by the German part of the church. Of five Presbyterian churches, Second Presbyterian recorded the most burials with 128. The Society of Friends recorded 373 interments and the Free Quakers recorded 39. German Calvinists recorded 261 burials. Helmuth’s German Lutherans recorded 641 burials. Only Potter’s Field recorded more, with 1,334.
Helmuth reminded his readers that, even in normal times, his congregation had more births and burials than other Philadelphia churches. Secondly, yellow fever “made a much greater havock among the poor, than among the rich,” and many people in Helmuth’s congregation were “of the poorer class.” By virtue of their poverty, few of his congregation could flee Philadelphia, further increasing their exposure. Among those German Lutherans who fled were members of the church corporation authorized to grant burial licenses. Lutherans left this burden to the funeral-inviter with the understanding “that he should give leave for the interment of the dead to every one gratis and without any particular enquiry.” With the inviter often at funerals, he left a child of eight or nine to dispense tickets to the gravedigger to anyone who asked. The Lutheran inviter and driver put the dead in coffins, providing another incentive. As word spread of the Lutherans’ open policy, Helmuth wrote, “a great many who had never before called themselves members of our congregation, applied to have their dead buried in our grave-yards.”
After making an appeal to the nobility of martyrdom, Helmuth made a case that church services amounted to an essential service. Helmuth’s sermons often included lifesaving information. Lutheran sermons during the outbreak often included information on “necessary and harmless preservatives” and warnings against behavior that increased vulnerability to sickness, like “intemperance” in eating and drinking and “uncleanliness of dress and body.” Furthermore, Helmuth promoted a form of social distancing. “Those who had sick people at home, or did not feel well themselves, were particularly required not to come to our meetings.” Those who did attend “were advised to sit as far apart as the number of the hearers would permit.” Helmuth took such precautions, certain “that the disorder was contagious.”
In his own account of the yellow fever outbreak, Dr. Benjamin Rush defended church attendance. Rush was happy to find “that the means of health, and moral happiness are in no one instance opposed to each other.” Rush based his optimism about church attendance on his observation that many people fell ill after exertion. “It was labor which excited the disease so universally among the lower class of people,” Rush noted. “A long walk often induced it . . . A hard trotting horse brought it on two of my patients.” Recognizing physical stress as a trigger for the onset of yellow fever symptoms, Rush concluded, “I am disposed to believe that fewer people sickened on Sundays, than on any other day of the week; owing to the general rest from labour.”
In retrospect, figures like John Adams and Mathew Carey raised the right concerns about contagious disease, but the wrong questions about yellow fever. The founding generation knew mosquitoes were a bad sign. Rush remarked of 1793, “Moschetoes (the usual attendants of a sickly autumn) were uncommonly numerous.” Rush could only count mosquitoes, like a passing meteor, as another bad omen. Unbeknownst to Rush, mosquitoes were the carriers of the disease. In the case of yellow fever, any debate about the inadvisability of church attendance, or the precautions necessary to venture abroad, had to address mosquito exposure, not person-to-person contagion.
John Adams to Abigail Adams, December 22, 1793, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-09-02-0281.
Mathew Carey, A Short Account of the Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia. . . (Philadelphia: Published by the author, 1793), 93, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Digital Collections, National Institutes of Health, collections.nlm.nih.gov/catalog/nlm:nlmuid-8710344-bk.
John Fenno to Joseph Ward, October 8, 1793, “Letters of John Fenno and John Ward Fenno, 1779-1800, Part 2: 1792-1800,” ed. John B. Hench, Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 90 (1980): 177, www.americanantiquarian.org/proceedings/44517641.pdf.
Postscript, Philadelphia, December 28 , in The Independent Gazetteer (Philadelphia), December 28, 1793, www.newspapers.com/clip/47710698/clergy-against-vice/; [Anti-Bigot] To the Editor of the General Advertiser, December 26, 1793, Aurora General Advertiser (Philadelphia), December 27, 1793, www.newspapers.com/clip/47708622/church-attendance-yellow-fever/(Anti-Bigot); “Pennsylvania Legislature: House of Representatives, December 20,” Aurora General Advertiser, December 24, 1793, www.newspapers.com/clip/48208071/quaker-anti-theater-petition/.
“Yellow Fever: Concise Account of Its Probably Origin and of Its Effects,” Aurora General Advertiser, November 25, 1793, www.newspapers.com/clip/48114472/burial-records-from-careys-book/.
J. Henry C. Helmuth, A Short Account of the Yellow Fever in Philadelphia, for the Reflecting Christian, trans. Charles Erdmann (Philadelphia: Jones, Hoff & Derrick, 1794), 47-49, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Digital Collections, collections.nlm.nih.gov/catalog/nlm:nlmuid-2556048R-bk
Benjamin Rush, An Account of the Bilious Remitting Yellow Fever, as it Appeared in the City of Philadelphia, in the Year 1793 (Philadelphia: Thomas Dobson, 1794), 29, 103, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Digital Collections, collections.nlm.nih.gov/catalog/nlm:nlmuid-2569009R-bk.