Faith of My Fathers

The thing about researching your genealogy (besides the expensive part of buying/finding rare records to get you into the DAR), is that, in truth, people have way more relatives then they realize. Your grandparents had two sets of grandparents and they each had two sets and so on and so on. It expands pretty quickly.

And, my guess, is that if you are in the US, your genealogy, like mine, can reach all over the country and world. And so too, then, can the religions of your ancestors.

I’ve always had this concern about religion and family tradition. Based on the fact that religion is acutely a construct of your current family and place of origin. You are born into a religion. Therefore, if you had happened to be born elsewhere, your religion would fit the other place you were born. Proving that religion isn’t a divine passing down of faith from your ancestors, but mere happenstance of time and place.

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An 80s Lutheran Baptism with my very, very, very young looking parents. Guys…were you seriously that young looking? You look like kids!

If you ever get into the depth of your ancestry, you will find that the Faith of Your Fathers (cue Lutheran hymn in the background) is more diverse than you realize. As a way to connect to my ancestors, I decided to research and do my best to try and “experience” the different religions my ancestors practiced and why, see how they compare, and if I feel any connection to any of them. I really wanted to briefly walk through these faiths and see what the deal was, how did it fit in the time of my ancestors, and does it fit now? What does the story of my ancestors’ faiths mean for my concept of faith? What is my concept of faith? Yep, digging deep on this one folks. Enter at your own risk. It’s a lot of words.

This is not a judgement call on any faith or it’s beliefs; it is only my personal experience. It’s also not a total expression of any of the religions that follow. Just the bits I feel comfortable sharing about online.

So let’s start with my family in the present day.

Catholicism

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A Mother’s Day gift from my grandmother to her mother, Thelma, in the form of a “Spiritual Bouquet.”

I grew up Catholic. If there is one religion I am very comfortable with, it’s Catholicism. While the Irish and Scottish sides of my family are Catholics back many, many generations; the English side is not and a mere twist of fate and love of food is the reason I was even born. (More on that later).

What I love about Catholicism is the ritual and the mystery and the focus on Mary, mother of Jesus. The churches of my youth were beautiful, covered in stained glass, slightly gaudy even. Red, white, pink and purple candles had different significance and were lit around the sanctuary and different times of year. The music was often minor, sad, slightly chant-like. The doctrine influences many traditions to mark the passage of time during the year and the special rituals of a child growing up. From baptism, to first communion, to first reconciliations, to confirmation; there is always something a student is working towards. There is a lot of structure in the Catholic Church, which makes it very comforting to me.

Some may say that the Catholic Church is incredibly strict and rigid and insular. But I guess I never felt that way. The church I was a part of had church leaders (both women and priests) who welcomed my doubts about the faith and my disagreement with the dogma. Women in my church community were highly respected…you might say they actually ran the church. Knowledge and study was encouraged.

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My English grandmother (who’s family had converted to Catholicism) marrying my Irish Grandfather (a Catholic).

I have no doubt that in some churches and in some times, people have had different experiences with Catholicism. But I was never discouraged from seeking, or even blatantly disagreeing with doctrine. I don’t know what was so special with my home church in Sioux Falls, but close-minded or intolerable was not my experience. I have fond memories of church. So much so, that in fifth grade I contemplated joining the sisterhood and spent a lot of time trying to figure out if I was being “called” to become a nun. Uh….spoiler alert-I was not.

Lutheranism

On the other side of my family, are a long line of Lutherans. This side of my family is Scandinavian. You know the ones….the Nelsons, the Olsens, the Oles and Lenas.

As a child, I was baptized Lutheran before starting kindergarten at a Catholic school. And, after I was married, I worked for three years in an ELCA Lutheran Church. I can’t even remember how many Lutheran funerals and weddings I have attended.

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My Father’s Confirmation. He is on the far right in the back row. He was raised Lutheran.

The Lutheran Church isn’t all that different than the Catholic Church. It feels like a reformed Catholic. Mary is pretty non-existent, and the focus in definitely on Jesus. But there are still liturgical seasons and candles (mostly white), and a few different rites of passage. Though, it feels like there is less mystery. Lutheranism feels more down to earth.

And the music? I’m sorry y’all. The classic four part hymns are not exciting. They feel very traditional, very major keys, very not syncopated rhythms and very organ-based. In some churches they still follow the music-based parts of the Mass and in others, the churches follow more modern Christian Rock music (the bane of most musicians).

Education feels less historical. (In Catholicism you are memorizing biblical stories and facts and timelines and prayers and the evolution of the Catholic Church). It feels more….umm…about feelings. About accepting Jesus and love and the idea of being loved by Jesus. The Lutherans are very into Jesus (as He is separate from God, unlike in the Catholic Faith).

My parents were married in a Lutheran church, because, unlike my Catholic experience, my mom had a priest who didn’t believe in inter-religious marriages (meaning my Lutheran father). He [the priest] was also, and I knew him in my youth and teenage years, kind of a jerk face.

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A family photo (prior to my little brother coming into the picture) from the Church Registrar of families…when my parents were Lutheran.

The problem with blanketing information about Lutherans is that there are many different Lutheran sects, which is very Martin Luther of the Lutherans. There are extremely conservative Lutherans (the kind where you can’t kiss the bride at a wedding ceremony, let alone have same-sex couples) and more socially open Lutherans. My experience has been with the more socially accepting Lutherans. And, all in all, they have been the most progressive people of faith I have met.

Methodists

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My great uncle Bert, Thelma’s brother, who died when he was quite young. Bert would have been Methodist first. I do not know if he converted to Catholicism.

My English side was Methodist (uh….the more recent relatives anyway). I don’t think I can adequately compare the Methodists of the 1800s with those today. The faith was very conservative. No drinking, no gambling (including children’s card games), very little music and very long services.

Simplicity was sacred to the Methodists of my ancestors. They were at odds with the frivolity of other religions. No fancy adornments in the church and long sermons, where the minister spoke of fire and brimstone. God was foremost. Satan was also at the forefront of the messages of the minister. You were in a battle for your soul with the devil and that devil was around every corner looking for a way in.

I have never experienced a church like this. There just isn’t one like this near me.

But, as a middle schooler and high schooler, I did attend several church services with friends. The closest I came to a church service like the Methodist service of my ancestors, was a modern day Christian Protestant Church where, in a youth education meeting, a youth pastor told me to my face that I would burn in hell if I didn’t denounce my Catholic Faith.

Worry not, readers. My parents raised a skeptical and very, very tough young woman. I laughed at him and told him he was a joke of religious leader. Then I walked out of the room and waited for my friend in the entryway of the church until her “education” was over. Before that moment, she said she hadn’t really listened to the messages being spread in her church. She said she hadn’t realized the leaders were so hateful. I suspect this is a common occurrence for people raised in faiths that denounce other religions outright.

*sigh* The stories I could tell about religious leaders I have met in churches where I was not a member would make most congregation member’s skin crawl. Protestant religions that are not ELCA Lutheran are….not what they appear.

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My great-great grandmother (Mary-Ellen) and great-great grandfather (Thomas), who were Methodist and converted to Catholicism after their daughter Thelma did to make Sunday family dinners longer and avoid excessive Sunday worship.

Oh, but back to being a Methodist. The story of how I was born! Methodists were also known for very long services. Like…Sunday church lasted all day.

My great-grandmother, Thelma, had met and married a tenor in the choir (Lee) from the Methodist Church. But soon, the family struggled with a whole day of church. It left not enough time to prepare a Sunday dinner. So, do you know what they did? They found a church service that wasn’t so long and would allow them to have a big family, Sunday dinner.

Why yes, folks, they converted to Catholicism! And, ironically, that conversion changed the course of how the family was viewed in the community. My grandmother was viewed as a poor white Catholic girl with weird beliefs who lived in the heart of Waterloo, IA, and who had a few friends, many of whom were black and also felt like outcasts.

All because my English great-grandmother wanted time to prepare a big Sunday meal. Faith….it’s tricky business.

Quakers

If you go back before the Methodists, you actually find that I have a variety of ancestors who have variations on Protestant religions while the rest are solidly Catholic.

But there is this one very large group of my English ancestors that were Quakers.

Quakerism is fascinating. It began in England in the 1600s and some of my ancestors were the very first families to join. In fact, several fled religious persecution in England to the United States.

Quakerism feels like the antithesis of all religious movements. There isn’t a central doctrine and there are no clergy members or leaders in the faith. It’s built on the principle that God or light or love (whatever you’d like to call it), live within all living things (if you are familiar with Islam, I see a similarity here between the two faiths) and that all people are equal.

I was able to attend an unprogrammed Quaker Meeting (meeting is the name for worship service) in the summer of 2018. In a meeting, you enter a very plain space and sit in silence. Perhaps in meditation, perhaps just sitting. For about an hour. If the spirit moves you, you speak. There are no candles. No colorful liturgical cloths. No fancy stained glass. Just a building with seats. Children are equal in Quakerism and take place in the meeting….they aren’t relegated to a separate children’s service.

Quakerism is the most different and most fascinating of the faiths I researched. Being able to witness a meeting and sit in on one was amazing and a great gift. I feel most people who have felt left out of traditional organized religion would feel at home in an unprogrammed Quaker meeting.

Quakers are pacifists, earth conscious, political active, and very kind. Historically, Quakers have often been in the right side of history. Women have been considered equal in Quakerism since the start of the faith. Quakers did not believe in slavery and played a large role in helping with public opinion in the North about the abolishment of slavery.

I was invited to a potluck and education after the Quaker Meeting and was so delighted. The fresh produce and meal was unlike any I had ever had at a potluck church event. The people….goodness…I felt so very welcomed.

So why did my ancestors give up Quakerism? Ah, yes, how history can change your faith!

The Revolutionary War. Because Quakers are pacifists, they didn’t condone fighting against the British. And, I don’t know if anger or stubbornness or zeal is a genetic trait, but many of my ancestors either joined up to fight or gave money and supplies to help fight the British.

I have documentation of several groups of families being “thrown out” of meeting due to their activism. In fact in modern-times, pacifism goes so hand in hand with the faith, that during the Vietnam War, men in the US could be deferred from the draft if they proved they were a Quaker.

It’s a really beautiful religion, and one I wish was more well-known.

Paganism

The farthest back I can go in my faith research is to the Pagan cultures of the Celts and Northern Europeans. Much like Quakers, I was very interested in learning about a religion I knew so little about.

Little did I realize, I already knew everything about paganism.

Paganism is a faith of worshipping multiple gods instead of one all powerful deity. It is bathed in ritual. There are colorful candles and feasts every month that correspond with the seasons (as one might expect in a Northern European country).

Modern day paganism focuses on two main gods. The Goddess and the God. Red candles and white candles symbolize the God and goddess. The Goddess is actually impregnated by the God and when she gives birth, it is actually the God she births. It’s a strange concept, but as a Catholic, very similar to the concept of God and Jesus being the same person and an immaculate conception for Mary.

Modern day paganism doesn’t actually worship gods so much as it uses the gods to personify nature. Pagans follow the wheel of the year through ritual to mark the passage of time and find ways to celebrate the seasons. Modern day pagans also are very environmentally conscious and believe in using your own logic, power and reasoning to create the change in your life you are seeking. They have a sort of prayer that is described like meditation. But unlike some forms of meditation, traditional sitting poses or forms of focusing your mind aren’t necessary. Meditation was, described to me, as finding that moment before you feel like you could fall asleep and trying to hold onto it. And if something pops into your head, go with it. See where it leads. Don’t banish your thoughts.

Pagans celebrate all the major holidays (and were the basis for the Catholic holidays to help with conversion). They have their own feasts on modern day Easter, Christmas and Halloween and each solstice is also celebrated. Paganism does not have leaders (much like Quakerism does not) and is usually practiced in solitude, not with a faith group.

Pagans generally do not believe in a Hell or Satan or Evil. In fact, the Catholic Church helped to create the idea of Hell to have a repercussion for those pagans who would not convert and scare them into submission.

I think the most interesting thing about Paganism is that I will never be able to fully understand what that faith practice was like for my ancestors. It is so old and was around to help explain so many natural concepts now explained by science, that I could never experience the faith fully.

And now what….?

I tried following the practices of all these religions. What did I learn? I learned that ritual and silence are very important to me. The two I connect the most with are Paganism and Catholicism. And I totally see why. I’m not convinced Catholicism is much different than Paganism. They feel exactly the same….with the difference being one is practiced publicly and one privately. They have ritual and candles and prayer and a god (God) and goddess (Mary). They have mystery and awe and wonder and celebrate milestones and passages of time.

I wish I had more of a connection with Quakerism. I loved the idea and practice of Quakerism. But without the ritual, without the mystery of faith and the universe and nature…it was too practical.

Will I continue to practice any of these faiths? I don’t know. But what I do know is that my ancestors changed their religion as they needed to fit their life, morals, attitudes, politics and even because of how they wanted to spent their Sunday afternoons. And I am proud to be another link the chain that bends as needed with the wind, to keep from breaking.

One Reply to “Faith of My Fathers”

  1. I found this to be a very interesting blog post. I have often looked back at my own family and the role religion has played in it. Something everyone who does family history should look at.

    Like

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