Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Religion and Genealogy

Etiquette tells us to avoid discussion of Politics and Religion. However, a family historian's role is to research and tell the life stories of ancestors, and their collateral kin. Religion and Politics often play a central role in those life stories. Defenestration of the core beliefs our ancestors held goes against the entire purpose of our pursuit.

[Defenestration is the act of throwing someone or something out of a window. The term was coined around the time of two incidents in Prague Castle in the years 1419 and 1618. The first was politically-motivated, and the second was religiously motivated. So the word is appropriate for several reasons.]

I'll leave Politics for a different day. Today, I'd like to discuss religion, as today is Shavuot on the Jewish calendar - the holiday commemorating the handing down of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

It's possible one or two readers, who know me and my family only through this blog, may have been slightly confused by combinations of blog posts which have hinted at an obvious diversity present in my ancestry that isn't present in every family. My paternal ancestry is Jewish as far back as anyone knows. My mother's paternal ancestry is Jewish as far back as anyone knows. My mother's maternal ancestry, however, contains Puritans, Mennonites, Methodists, Lutherans, Choctaws and Cherokee. [The last two are unproven, though I have no doubts from the testimony provided in front of The Dawes Commission, that my Hartley ancestors believed they had fairly recent Native American blood.]

If I talk about my ancestry, I could say it is 75% Jewish, and 25% a mixture of Christian and Native American religions. However, that is my ancestry. I, personally, am 100% Jewish. Just as I am 100% American, even though my non-Native American ancestry comes from all over Eastern and Western Europe. I had a small problem with the title of the genealogy series NBC recently imported from England (Who Do You Think You Are). I know who I am. I am interested in finding out more concerning my ancestors, but that won't change my identity.

How do I handle my diverse ancestry in my research?

How should I handle it?  I am equally interested in the tombstones of my second great grandfather, Moshe Leyb Cruvant (1857-1911), and my more distant ancestor, Barnabas Horton (1600-1680), despite their disparate beliefs.

Many of my ancestors of various religious faiths arrived in America, fleeing from religious persecution. Brothers Myndert (1636-1706) and Carsten Frederickse (1638-1688) helped found the first Lutheran church in Albany, New Netherland. Israel Swayze (1753-1844) hosted Methodist church meetings in his Beaverdams, Ontario home. Rev. Henry Rosenberger (1725-1809) was a Mennonite minister in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. While all of different religious faiths, religion played a central role in each of their lives.  Just as it does mine, though perhaps to a slightly less degree. 

In my Jewish family history research I wasn't too surprised when I uncovered a handful of variations on Sholom Aleichem's heartbreaking story of Tevye and his daughter, Chava - intermarriages that led to a severing of family ties. These occurred primarily among children of those who immigrated between 1880-1900. Later intermarriages didn't lead to the same result. What did surprise me was the discovery of a hint of something in the distant past of one branch of my maternal grandmother's tree.

At the end of his introduction to A Genealogical Record of the Descendants of Henry Rosenberger of Franconia, Montgomery Co. Pa; Together with Historical and Biographical Sketches (1906) author, Rev. Abraham James Fretz, writes,
"Note. — There is no doubt that Henry Rosenberger, Sr., of Franconia. was the pioneer emigrant, and that he in common with other Mennonites fled from Germany on account of religious persecution. Of the earlier history of the family...we know nothing. We have seen Rosenbergers direct from Austria and Germany and one Rosenberg from Prussia. One of the former from Austria claimed to be of an old Austrian Rosenberger stock, and were Jews. The last mentioned Rosenberg, from Prussia, was also a Jew."
Fretz appears to have conducted a 'surname study' and interviewed anybody he could find with the Rosenberger name, doing his best to connect anyone he could. He may have been unable to connect these Jewish branches, but felt obliged to indicate they existed, and let the family draw their own conclusions. Any historical 'tribal ties', though, may be too far in the past for research to uncover.

Religion in general has long fascinated me.  In college I took several courses studying Eastern religions, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Native American theology.  Since I am confident nothing I find in my research will change my own beliefs, there is no reason for me to fear researching the beliefs of my ancestors.  On the contrary, learning 'what made them tick' helps me to better understand who they were.  In short, when I research my ancestors, I throw nothing out of the window.


kinfolknews said...

Enjoyed this post, John. Looking forward to the "politics" discussion as well.

Martin said...

I did something similar in Jan. for my family at

I'm sure we are all gemischt at some point with the various religions. I always think that I couldn't have a family reunion of my own ancestors since they wouldn't speak to one another.

Schelly Talalay Dardashti said...

Very good, John.


Susan Clark said...

Could not agree more - and beautifully stated. I'm amazed at how often religion is ignored in genealogies.

Mavis said...

Very well written and agree with you.