Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Continuing Celebration of Christmas

Even before our written languages, man has been keeping a record of life.  We see this in cave art and in ancient traditions passed down from generation to generation.  Archaeologists continually uncover ancient artifacts that tell stories of the ancients that created them.  As Christians we know that historically, genealogies have been important through our study of the scriptures.  Exactly why is it so important to know who begat who back in those days?  Or even now for that matter? 

This is something I have been pondering for a long time and I have learned some things that are significant to our family in researching and discovering who we truly are.  If we pay attention to the history of who we come from, we learn valuable life lessons and get a grander perspective of life and spiritual matters. We understand who we are in deeper ways and it fortifies our gratitude as we learn of the lives of our forbearers.

If we think of our lives as just our own existence and the family members we actually know while they are alive our view is quite myopic.  It is a bit like living in one place all our lives and never seeing what goes on outside of that little triangle of home, school and work in that tiny community. Traveling outside of our tiny village and seeing life in a bigger wayspatially is very broadening and educational.  In the same way, looking beyond our living generations is too.  Both time and space are great teachers when it comes to a more comprehensive perspective of who we really are.

Our family has a heritage of being Christians that spans a period of nearly 500 years that I know of so far.  Not just our American ancestors but our Italians, our Swedes and our English and our Welsh born family members as well.  It includes our pioneers, our soldiers, our statesmen and our farmers. There are also our teachers, doctors and nurses and adventurers and our parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  This Christian Heritage is as much a part of who we are as a family as our DNA. 

If we knew more of our ancestors and their descendants we would know that every major war has affected our family personally.  We have ancestors and family members that fought, were maimed or killed in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, WW I and II and every conflict since.  We have lots of family that crossed that terrifying sea in the hopes and faith of a better life in America. Imagine for a moment the courage that took and the hardships endured which lead to blessings in our own lives.  That type of bravery can only be developed through faith in God and the hope of a good outcome.

As we come to know them we recognize that they had serious trials and they overcame them often with sheer grit and fervent prayers.  Their faith in God sustained them and brought them peace along the way.  Faith eased their fears as they moved forward in their struggles.  Because they chose faith in God they benefited from it.  God does not insist we believe, He invites us to develop a desire to come unto Christ and find rest in him.

Imagine how the Mayflower passengers felt when their companion ship, the Speedwell, sprung some leaks just out of the harbor and had to turn back! Had they not had that enduring faith in their God they would have truly been alone on the voyage at that point. Our ancestor was the only passenger to have made this voyage before, and his faith was important to them when times and waters got rough.

Many of our ancestors accepted that invitation to have faith in Christ.  Many found Him in their own time and in their own way.  We have found evidence of members of many sects in our family, Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostals, and Mormons.

The compelling component in all of these religions 
is Jesus Christ born in that humble stable in Bethlehem of Judea.  

Their testimonies are reminders to us in times of trials and they have reassured us of who we are. People who have chosen faith.  Christians.  The sense of gratitude our ancestors had over the smallest things is humbling and a constant reminder of the Giver of every good thing. 

So it is uplifting and edifying to know we are a family that over centuries has chosen to believe.  Of course not everyone, as we all have our agency to choose, but many have had faith in Christ.  An understanding of that brings hope into our lives everyday.  We are a part of something bigger than a little nuclear family.  Our faith is something that is steadfast and not caught up in every wind of current affairs or doctrine, pop culture or politics sculpted by the media.  Holding fast to the iron rod of God's word has blessed us richly.

The earliest known baptism in our family was into The Church of England indicating faith in Jesus Christ.  It occurred in England on 30 April 1581 at Upper Clatford, Hampshire, England.  Stephen Hopkins was the infant son of John Hopkins and Elizabeth Williams.  I would suppose this indicates also that his parents were believers since it was an infant baptism.  That same Stephen Hopkins, one day found his way to the Mayflower.

Stephen Hopkins was a strong and faithful Christian.  He relied on his faith in God through a frightening shipwreck on his first journey to America, he suffered persecution for his thoughts of breaking from the rule of the Crown on that first trip to America while being marooned for months in Barbados.  On his return to America on the Mayflower, he was instrumental in resolving Native American conflicts, and turning them into an enduring friendship with the Wampagnog people on the shores of America.  He endured extreme poverty, deprivation and near starvation and the loss of his little son, Oceanus, the only child born on the Mayflower voyage, when he was but seven years of age.  Life was painfully hard in the early years of the colonization.  Through his faith Stephen prevailed.

That one thing is more significant to me than any notoriety regarding being on the Mayflower.  The greatest thing about all of that is that much is known and written about these early pilgrims.  That is the gem in finding them in our family tree. 

The significant thing here is that Christ and Christmas were important to our ancestors for many many generations.  And that it is central to our lives still today.  The message of faith and hope in Christ and the agency to chose for ourselves, is one of God's greatest gifts to us.  No one is forced, only invited.

Another of our ancestor's with a beautiful faith was, Lillie Briggs,  my paternal great-grandmother.

Lillie Briggs and Martin Allen Godfrey her husband.

Lillie came across the plains in a cover wagon with her parents, siblings and two other families when she was 13 years old; our own Julia's age.   They stopped each Sabbath Day to honor it, on their journey to North Dakota and to study and talk about the Gospel and to give thanks.  Sometimes they would pull up to a church building and listen to the sermons though the open windows from their wagons.  She wrote to her children shortly before she died and she bore testimony to them that she had prayed for them daily since she had come to know Christ and that they should do the same. 

Lillie left her testimony in this Bible 
she gave to her son Martin Willie Godfrey.

My Maternal Great Grandmother, Mary Davies, left her testimony in a little Welsh Bible that I have: She wrote on the covers the following in 1866:

The Translation of the little poem that is written
 on both the front and back covers of this Bible
is transcribed below. 
There is one missing page so I'm filling in contextually.

Mary Davies is my name
Troedywrair, Cilycum is my nation.
Penrhuviar is my dwelling place.
 Jesus Christ is my Salvation.
When I'm gone and in my grave
And all my bones be wroten (rotten)
In this Bible you'll find my name
So I'll not be quite forgotten.

**Place names spellings yet to be verified.

Here in St. Matthew, Mary learned of the mission of Jesus Christ in this tiny Welsh Bible.  It is such a blessing to have this one thing that testifies of who she really was. 

Obituary after obituary of our ancestors state what upstanding Christian people they were.  I know they were flowery back then when it came to obituaries, but they didn't have to say anything about a person's religion.  The description of their character was enough.  No matter how humble their lives were, they served others and lived good lives based on Christian principles. 

This Cape Cod church is a place we visited on our trip east this year.  This is the first church on the Cape and my ninth Great-Grandfather, Thomas Newcomb, was the minister here in Truro, Massachusetts.  He baptized six of his children in 1717 here in the original building built on this exact footprint.  The replica built in the early 1800s now stands on this place. Many ancestors are buried just to the viewer's right.  The spirit was very strong here for us when we visited.

Our Swedish ancestors were baptized and confirmed a member of their Lutheran churches on all of our lines and kept that faith long after they came to America.  Because of them my brothers and I were raised as Lutherans by our parents. 

Jim's Italian family brought their Catholic heritage from the old country to the new.  Some of them remained Catholic while others deferred to other sects like the Episcopalian faith and The Church of Christ.

 Some of our ancestors from England cared enough about their Christian faith and worshipping according to the dictates of their own hearts, to leave England and come to America where they could worship as they chose. 

The important thing to us is that they chose faith in Christ and it was central to them.  That gives us comfort to know they were blessed because of their faith as we have been.  It is wonderful to know Christianity has long been a life-changing tradition in our family.

So this season we celebrate Christmas with different cultural traditions than our forefathers did, but with the same intent.  We celebrate the Savior's birth in that stable in Bethlehem, but more importantly His life, teachings and example and above all, His Atonement for all of us.  If there cannot be peace on earth just yet, we can still find it in our faith in Christ.

After working with lots of people on their family history these past four years I would venture a guess your story is not that different than ours in many respects.  Your heritage, no matter what it may be, is a big part of who you have become.  May you find joy in who you are because of who they were.  Merry Christmas!


Sister Susie Says said...

I have a cousin who has traced our family. I told him, "Jim, I know I am from father Noah and father Adam. I just don't know all of those in between." ha! Merry Christmas to you and yours, Susan