Sin, sickness, and salvation, the Puritan venture in New England and the health of children and young adults

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Woods, Roberta I.
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Much of the medical historiography of colonial New England bears the imprint of the whig interpretation of the past. Recourse to whig principles combined with subscription to the notion that emigration to New England meant isolation from the ideas which had previously sustained Puritan thought has left largely unexplored the nature of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century medical thought. Working on the assumption that human sickness is universal but individual societies assign particular meanings derived from prevailing ideas and local circumstances, I have approached references to sickness in the Puritan sources as evidence worthy of evaluation on its own terms. In order to discern the origins of the ideas on which the Puritans relied for their understanding of sickness, I adopted the Puritan practice of looking to the past to inform the present. The sources revealed that the same early Christian and Reformation ideas which structured Puritan theology also gave meaning to sickness; that the Puritans subsumed contemporary medical theories under their religious ideas; that children and young adults took on an important role in the interpretative scheme; and that the Puritan venture in New England lent an experiential dimension to the configuration of the meaning of sickness. Because they understood sickness as an aid to salvation, a witness to election, a signal of God's wrath, and a remedy for backsliding, leading Puritans interpreted sickness as integral to the realization of their quest to establish the true church in New England.