Friday, December 26, 2014

Faiths of Our Fathers

Growing up, my immediate family members were all Southern Baptists. I knew, of course, that there were other kinds of churches, but it wasn't until we took a trip to New Jersey to visit my grandma's side of the family and we visited their church on Sunday that it occurred to me that my own family would attend a truly different kind of church.

Back then, I was mildly scandalized by this. I started asking questions, like, "What is the difference between their church and ours?" The answers I got seemed as perplexing for the adults providing them as they were for me to understand.

"Are they going to hell for going to a different church?" (No, of course not.)
"Then does it matter which kind they go to?" (No, I suppose not.)
"Then why don't we go to that kind of church ourselves?" (Um...look at that, it's your bed time!)
"But what does it all mean!?!"

For a 12-year-old theologian in training, trying to figure out the differences between your family's various religious traditions can be scary and disturbing; but for a 42-year-old family historian, it can be a very useful tool for understanding what ancestors you never met might have been like. By studying the types of churches they belonged to, you can develop some guesses about what they believed and how they behaved.

Here's a quick tour of a few of my family's religious traditions, based on what I've been able to learn so far.

The Scotch-Irish Presbyterians

While I don't know yet precisely where the early Callin folk came from, it is probably safe to assume that my ancestors were part of the migration of Scotch-Irish Protestants to Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s. Because they were in the midst of the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s Rebellion, they were frequently in conflict with the tribes who lived along the frontier - especially in Pennsylvania, whose pacifist Quaker leaders had made no provision for a militia.

Most of these people identified as Presbyterian, and their theology typically emphasized the sovereignty of God, the authority of the Scriptures, and the necessity of grace through faith in Christ - all of which sounds familiar to this former Southern Baptist. However, they tended not to hold to some of the more severe notions of "purity" - like refraining from strong drink, fighting, and behaving bawdily - and I suspect their behavior had as much to do with driving a wedge between them and their puritanical neighbors (the ones running the local colonial governments) as any theological differences.

It is interesting to note that I haven't found any ancestors who identified as Catholic, yet. The only actual Irish ancestors I've identified so far - the Greenlee family - came from Armagh, and identified as Unionists and Protestants. So even though they came to the States in 1846, during the Great Potato Famine, they had more in common with the Scots-Irish Callin families who were already here than with the large numbers of Irish Catholics immigrating at the same time.

The Pennsylvania Dutch

My paternal grandmother's families included the Witter, Shriver and Piper families - all of whom seem to have been early German settlers in Pennsylvania - the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch. The Witter and Piper (from "Pfeiffer") families settled in and around the Amberson Valley for several generations before spreading out to settle in Kansas.

The Frey family (on my maternal grandmother's side of the family) were also from an area near the borders of France, Switzerland, and Germany, and they certainly Lutherans - though they came over 100 years after the true "Pennsylvania Dutch" families arrived.

The Pennsylvania Dutch maintained numerous religious affiliations, with the greatest number being Lutheran or Reformed. Many were Anabaptists as well, but I suspect my ancestors were probably Lutheran, based on the churches mentioned in the documents I have found. Lutheranism advocates a doctrine of justification "by grace alone through faith alone on the basis of Scripture alone" - the doctrine that scripture is the final authority on all matters of faith.

Most Reformed churches denied the belief of the Catholic Church defined at the Council of Trent concerning authority coming from both the Scriptures and Tradition. Needless to say, that denial was why the Catholic nations of Europe drove members of these churches out.


Back on my paternal grandfather's side, the Hales family seems to have been part of the Methodist-Episcopal church; my 4th great grand uncle, John Hales, was received into the ministry in 1820 in Baltimore, and was located with a church mission in Illinois in 1825. My 2nd great-grandmother, Alice Ava Hales (on of My Sixteen), was buried in the First Methodist Church in Fostoria, Ohio one hundred years later, in 1942.

My paternal grandmother's great-grandparents, Aaron and Hannah (Bender) Murray, were charter members of the Methodist church organized in Stark, Kansas, in 1886. The Benders were Swiss Mennonites and Germans, driven from the Pfaltz by Catholics and settling in Pennsylvania in the pre-Revolutionary days. The Murrays arrived from Scotland just after the American Revolution in the 1800s. It seems clear that whatever faith the families brought with them, once in America, they found the Methodist message to be very compelling.

Most Methodists identify with a conception of free will through God's grace, as opposed to the theological determinism of absolute predestination of the Calvinist traditions prevalent in Reformed or Lutheran churches. (Yes, I cribbed that from the Wikipedia article.) If you think about that, the severe character of Calvinist churches must have seemed as oppressive to the second and third generations raised under that philosophy as the Catholic and Anglican churches seemed to the original Calvinists. I imagine that the refreshing notion of free will and grace caught up a number of my ancestors during the many Revival periods that swept the country over the years.


Roger Williams founded the colony of Rhode Island and the first Baptist church in America. He was a questioning theologian who famously ran afoul of the puritan-run colonial government in Boston, and became a champion of the idea of separating church and state. One of the original members of that First Baptist Church that Williams formed in 1638 was an ancestor of my maternal grandmother.

There is a lot of room in 350 years of history for things to change; one of the things that changed was the nature of the Baptist churches - which, partly because of their insistence on not having official, established doctrines, were prone to splits and schisms. One of the most divisive issues in American history was slavery, and in the mid-1800s, many Baptist churches tore themselves apart over the issue of abolition. The Southern Baptist Convention formed in 1845 in Atlanta, Georgia, following a split from northern Baptists over the issue of forbidding Southern slave-owners from becoming ordained missionaries.

In the 1940s, around the time my grandfathers were growing up, the SBC had begun to move away from their historical and regional positions, but change takes time, especially in a theology based on individual conscience.

Modern Times

Both my maternal grandfather and my paternal grandfather were ordained Southern Baptist ministers. In the early 1980s, my parents hosted a little Southern Baptist church in our garage, until they raised money for property and a worship building in our neighborhood.  My sister's husband has even done mission work, taking my nephew with him on trips to build a church in Latin America.

Just in that narrow group of people, all of whom agree to assume the same religious label, you can see wildly different approaches to life and theology. That individuality is the legacy of those original Baptist churches, which insisted on each individual having to find their own path to salvation. That's a tremendously democratic, American idea.

Looking at the religious history of America, it's easy to point to the oppression and conflict that drove the original groups to flee their homes, and even easier to point out the hypocrisy of the groups that showed the same kind of oppression to those who came here after they did. But after they arrived here and attempted to create their own versions of heaven on earth, you can see how most church-based communities either evolved to be more inclusive, thriving ecumenical groups - or retreated into insular, intolerant backwaters. Even today, there are secluded communities of Amish, Mennonites and Pennsylvania Dutch in Pennsylvania, though many (like my ancestors) eventually struck out to mark their own path - both physically and geographically.

That's why I value the notion shared by the original Baptists - and founders like Thomas Jefferson - of separating church and the state. When it came time to create a government designed to represent the will of the people, they wisely left out the usual religious language of God and Divine Will that could be seen in so many other charters and constitutions of the time. They realized that it was far too easy for religion and government to corrupt each other, so instead, they argued to make government a neutral arena where your religion would neither be held against you nor imposed on anyone else.

Because the United States chose to become a place where anyone with an idea could speak publicly about it without fear they would be arrested, it became a place where many did just that. Revivals swept the land during the so-called "Great Awakenings" - times when new ideas, and even whole new religions, sprang up.

Growing up, my elders spoke about those revivals fondly and wistfully, and the churches I grew up in frequently held week-long "revivals" - but if you go read about some of those early versions, there were some pretty wild and radical ideas being spread along with that "old time religion" that the elders recalled. Without the buffer of neutrality between government and some of the established churches, I wonder how far some of those revivals would have gotten before blasphemy laws and notions of "corrupting the youth" shut them down. And without that buffer of neutrality, I wonder whether all of my ancestors - with their different backgrounds, beliefs, and "bawdy" or beatific behaviors - would have been able to get together at all.

I suppose if they hadn't, I wouldn't be here to wonder.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting article on the beliefs of the founders: