One of my favorite shows on television is the show “Who Do You Think You Are?” which (where I live) is aired on Friday evenings at 8PM. As a passionate historian of my own crazy family, I have long studied the fascinating nooks and crannies of my own family history, discovering ancestors whose personality and proclivities mirrors our own. For example, in one episode Tim McGraw found that he and an ancestor of Elvis Pressley traveled together as part of a group of German refugees from the Palatine to the New World.
In tonight’s episode, though, Ashley Judd found out that an ancestor of hers had fought on the Union side of the Civil War (as had at least one ancestor of mine, one Leonard Miller, who built the still-standing family home for my father’s side of the family just outside of Irwin, Pennsylvania), as well as an ancestor named William Brewster who went on the Mayflower in 1620 as one of the leaders of the Pilgrims in the New World. As it happens, I too share a Mayflower story with Ashley Judd, sort of.
In my family line of my mother’s father’s line (which included a fair amount of the New England Yankee ancestry I possess), there is a fellow named John Dunham, who was apparently of Anglo-Basque ancestry according to the research I have done. He too was among the Pilgrims who lived in Leyden, Netherlands for religious freedom, and he was an early settler in Massachusetts, coming before the Puritan “Great Migration” that started in 1630. Nonetheless, despite some legends claiming he was on the Mayflower of 1620, he appears to have arrived by virtue of a different Pilgrim voyage in 1629, though no one knows precisely when he arrived in New England .
What is fascinating about the family history of John Dunham is that his family showed some intriguing tendencies that have carried on. For one, he was a feisty and somewhat radical defender of religious freedom. Some of his family members were feisty in other ways–one son of his was told to leave a girl alone that he had wanted to marry (but never did), and another son was fined for challenging another person to a fight. We can gather that there were definitely some combative tendencies in that Pilgrim family, which isn’t surprising to anyone who knows anything about my family. Some of the family married historians (again, not very surprising). Other family members were more colorful still, being accused of soliciting others for prostitution or highway robbery without conviction, while other members of the family (the majority, we hope) served their congregations faithfully and loyally, if sometimes fiercely.
What I find most interesting about studying my genealogy is the fact that I find (like Ashley Judd) that we are very much like our ancestors, even distant ancestors, without being aware of it. Given that Ashely Judd is a ferociously activist defender of the downtrodden (an identity I share, if for different causes), it is little surprise that we both share ancestors from the same small segment of English radical Separatists who ferociously defended the biblical faith (as they knew it) against the corrupt traditions of vile popery. Needless to say, that anti-traditionalist blood still flows in my veins.
It is perhaps best to realize that I showed my true colors of personality before knowing that part of my family history. Another ancestor of mine, the earliest Koontz in our historical records, was a prisoner of war in an anti-monarchial revolt in Germany (presumably Hanover) where in lieu of being executed as a prisoner he was sent off to Virginia. He later settled in Massachusetts (apparently finding Yankees more congenial–he was a Jew, after all–and his grandson fought on the side of the American revolutionaries and evened the family record against monarchs to 1-1). It’s no surprise, given that ancestry, that I too am ferociously hostile to authoritarian leaders and look with disdain on spurious claims of divine right leadership for any sort of corrupt leaders, be they kings or ministers. Again, this egalitarian political identity and my ferocious defense of God’s laws is unsurprising given my own family history, and these traits were evident before I was aware of the history.
Why does it appear as if the family legacy of personality traits is so important, far beyond the range where mere “nurture” would appear to be in operation? The Bible contains a tantalizing and also terrifying clue as to the continuing legacy family members leave behind them. We can find it in Exodus 20:5b-6: “For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
In reflecting upon this short passage, let us remember that the third and fourth generations subject to the curse for disobedience to God is contrasted with the thousands of generations to whom God shows mercy. Since a generation lasts at least 20 years, thousands of generations would essentially mean an eternal covenant of mercy lasting “until the end of time,” in contrast to the relatively short period of judgment for sin. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
I have long reflected over both the good and the bad sides of this curse. On the one hand I have wondered if the curse that blighted my childhood is over (being the third or forth generation upon whom it was inflicted), not to be passed down to any future generations, but something that may perish with me. On the other hand, though, I have long wondered what family history I have and others have that may have influenced God to show mercy on me and bless me as He has so graciously done. Our lives, after all, are but links in a great chain of human history, and we are intimately bound up with a richly complicated past, an eventful present, and a potentially glorious future. Why not seek to understand and claim the legacy we have been provided by our ancestors? After all, why else do we study genealogy if not to understand where we came from, and how we came to be who and where we are?