Why So Surprised?

I’m going to take a small diversion from regular medieval programming to make a few comments on all the fuss over the recent PEW report on religion in America. I must confess that I am surprised at all the surprise. One of my other hobbies is genealogy, and as any genealogist can tell you, Americans have always changed denominations frequently. Ministers may expect their flock to remain true for generation after generation, but it rarely actually happened.

If you don’t believe me, ask the genealogist in your family about the family history. Don’t just go by one name, like your surname, either thinking ‘well, the Smith’s have always been…’. There’s a good chance that you are wrong about the Smiths. Most people don’t know their family history beyond the ancestors they can remember (and they remember them as old folks). Also, remember you have 8 great grandparents — who all had different birth surnames. The Smith’s may well have been predominantly ____ but what about your other 7 great grandparents? You just might get the shock of your life. I’ll give you a few examples…

I have been able to trace my straight matriline back nine generations (including me) to Mary Booth Whiteside who was married in the about 1770 in the Colony of North Carolina. She was Baptist. Her daughter became Methodist during the Great Awakening in southern Illinois as an adult. When John and Elizabeth Moore rebuilt their home after the 1812 New Madrid earthquake (ironically, replacing their earthquake resilient log cabin with brick home) they built space for a Methodist chapel into their home which became a hub for the Methodist circuit riders on the then Illinois frontier. Then follow three generations of Methodists until my grandmother, who was born Methodist, raised Lutheran by a step-mother and converted to Roman Catholicism as an adult. In some ways my coming to the Episcopal church is returning home for my matriline (since Mary Booth’s line probably goes back to the Church of England) but its been a long and winding road that starts with a schism to the Baptists.

Now don’t be thinking that they all joined the faiths of their husbands either because they didn’t. My grandmother’s conversion to Catholicism was fueled by wartime anxiety. She and my grandfather had been married by a justice of the peace for over 5 years and had two kids when he got drafted for WWII. They decided maybe it was time to get married in church and so she converted so they could get married in the Catholic church. If he had never got drafted there is probably a good chance she would have never converted. Her Irish Catholic mother-in-law’s husband didn’t convert until this deathbed. My grandmother’s father and maternal grandfather neither one were ever known to go to church. My grandmother’s paternal grandmother joined a church in her old age and it was the the Presbyterians. Her husband’s obit says that he didn’t have a church but the Presbyterians did his funeral for her sake. I should add that there have been many religious men in my family, including ministers and cousins who became Catholic priests. John Moore (from above) had a brother who became a Methodist minster and two daughters who married Methodist ministers! A matriline is a very small sliver of all ancestors.

If I look across all my ancestors there are : Roman Catholics (Irish, Sicilian, and Franco-German lines), Lutherans, Dutch Reformed, Methodists,Church of England/Episcopalians, German Evangelicals, Baptists, and Presbyterians. As they are all my ancestors (and I was born to two Catholic parents), it is fair to say that there was a lot of denomination switching going on in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. If I extend my view to my living cousins then you can add non-denominational Evangelicals, Mormons, and a recent marriage in a Unitarian church. Its also been not that uncommon for people to not have a church at all. There were plenty of unchurched in the 19th and early 20th centuries too.

My whole point here is that Americans have always had very fluid denominational allegiances. It is an urban myth or family myth that ‘we have always been _______’. The only families for which that is really true are those who haven’t been in America for very long.


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