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Politics And Religion: Keeping It In The Family

December 19th, 2009

Growing up I had always assumed that because both of my parents were raised as Roman Catholics that their ancestors were all Roman Catholics without exception. Yet from almost the start of my research into my family history thirty years ago, I learned that there was not only one exception, but that there was a pattern within the history of my ancestors that was in step with the general history of religion in western Europe and North America.

In climbing up through the family tree on my father’s side, which can be traced back on some branches to the 16th century, I do find my father’s ancestors to be predominantly Catholic. This is not statistically significant considering that most of my father’s ancestors came from either the south of Ireland, on his mother’s side (O’Malley), or from Belgium and France, on his father’s side (DeBacker/Gaume). In the case of both the Irish and Belgian (Flemish) ancestors it is probably safe to say that their forbearers became Christians in the early middle ages when Christianity first arrived in those regions sometime between the 4th and 7th centuries and by virtue of the fact that those regions stayed solidly within the Roman Catholic domain that they remained Roman Catholics throughout time. During the Reformation and the subsequent wars that followed, my Flemish ancestors lived literally on the front-lines of what most of Europe calls the Thirty Years War (1618–1648), but what the Dutch and Flemish refer to as the Eighty Years War (1568–1648) – the period of religious strife having started earlier in the Netherlands. My Flemish ancestors were all pretty much settled in the city of Ronse (Renaix) in central Flanders during this period and in a history of Ronse written in the mid-19th century I found the following:

In 1569, the continuing problems caused by the iconoclasts and Calvinists (de Geuzen) and new taxes imposed by the Duke of Alba, many of our weavers and our foulons left the city to go in foreign countries especially in England. The history of these times tells us that the excesses of the iconoclasts were unfortunately only too real and troubles of Flanders caused by their heretical preachers was followed by the plundering of our churches. These fanatics, who were first held hidden in the woods surrounding Ronse invaded the city on 19 August 1566 and destroyed the altars and the statues of saints in the Collegiate Church of Saint Hermès. Yet the magistrates of Ronse defended the city and the sectarians were forced to give up the books, the chalices and ornaments of the canons that they had seized. What little defenses Ronse had were destroyed by troops sent by Alexander Farnese, Prince of Parma after the taking of Oudenaarde in 1582.

The label "de Geuzen" used in the narrative above, meaning "beggars", was a derogatory term used by Catholics in the Southern Netherlands for the Dutch Calvinists from the north. In 1566 when Margaret, Duchess of Parma and then de-jure ruler of the Netherlands agreed to meet with the Dutch rebels to hear their grievances she was alarmed when nearly 300 confederates arrived at the meeting to which one of her councilors exclaimed "What, madam, is your highness afraid of these beggars (ces gueux)?" So as one can see that was not much room for tolerance in those days.

On the French side of my father’s family things were a little different. Although my French and Swiss ancestors were no doubt impacted by the religious wars that culminated in the Thirty Years War, following the Peace of Augsburg (1555) it was decided that each prince would have the right to determine the religion of his own state; the options being Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism. This was known as the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (whose realm, his religion), meaning that whatever religious persuasion was adopted by the ruler of the realm then its subjects were forced to adopt that same persuasion. The result of this was that in some cases people just moved away to whatever principality was in-line within their religious belief or they went with the flow. In some cases a peaceful change in ruler might have triggered the change from one confession to the other as the switch occurred when an heir to the throne went from say the Lutheran confession back to being aligned with the Vatican or visa-versa. In tracing my father’s family in eastern France and Switzerland, I learned that one branch was Lutheran at a time. In an email from a correspondent in France I was told "Encore quelques informations. Les Faivre, Abram sont protestants luthériens (église luthérienne de Montécheroux puis Pierrefontaine les Blamont)", but I never got clarification on who specifically in those families he was referring to (see Jacques Faivre [c 1753 – 1830]and Catherine Abram [1767-1795]).

What I do know is that one ancestor of my Faivre line did wind up in trouble when he adopted a faith that did not agree with the faith of the local ruler. This was Claude Cuvier who lived in the late 16th century and who became a Huguenot (French Calvinist). He was born in Montécheroux and was by profession a tanner. In 1594 he was living in Villars Dampjoux where he was arrested and imprisoned at Dole prison as a Huguenot. He was acquitted at the recommendation of the Duke of Württemberg and sent back to Montécheroux. "Claude Cuvier having abjured Catholicism embraced reform in the year 1600." This I found in a book published in France in the 1870s. This level of detail comes not from my ancestor, Claude Cuvier, having been famous in his own right, but rather because he had a famous descendent. A gggg-grandson was Georges Cuvier, the early 19th century French naturalist and zoologist who was the first to theorize that dinosaurs once ruled the earth and it appears that 19th century French Protestants made much of Baron Cuvier’s religious heritage (see Wikipedia article on Georges Cuvier). As to my relationship with Georges Cuvier, it is quite distant as we would be 4th cousins 8 times removed. As a curious side-note, my 6th great-grandfather, Jacques Favier (1715-?) and his wife, my 6th great-grandmother, Catherine Hugoniot, were 5th cousins as both were descendents of Claude Cuvier. Their son, Jacques Faivre, and his wife Catherine Abram were 6th cousins as she was also a descendent of Claude Cuvier (see The Cuvier Lines). This may very well be what my friend in France was referring to, but I do know that Jacques and Catherine’s granddaughter, my gg-grandmother, Marie Elise Faiver was a Roman Catholic when she lived in Louisville, Ohio in the mid-to-late 19th century.

On my mother’s side, things are little more complicated. On her mother’s side of the family we find a bit of a Romeo & Juliet story. My gg-grandmother, Henrietta Knox Kelsey was born and raised outside of Belfast in Northern Ireland. Her family were Presbyterians and it was long held tradition that her mother, Mary Emily Knox, was a descendant of John Knox the Scottish Reformer. I have since determined that Mary could not have been a descendant of John Knox for a number of reasons that I discussed in a previous post (see John Knox? John Not!). My gg-grandfather, Richard Bannon, was also from Northern Ireland, but his family was Roman Catholic. Richard and his brother Patrick emigrated to America in the 1840′s and first settled in Cincinnati and then later in Louisville, Kentucky. Richard may been married earlier, but by 1860 he was in his early forties, single, and living in a boarding house in Covington, Kentucky across the river from Cincinnati. During the Civil War, Covington was a hot-bed on of anti-Union (Copperhead) activity and in 1864 Richard suddenly went back to Ireland. While back home in Northern Ireland, a cousin of his introduced Richard to Henrietta. Henrietta was this cousin’s sister-in-law. Richard and Henrietta were married in 1865 and nearly a hundred years later their daughter, my mother’s great aunt, recorded the following in letter:

Henrietta Knox Cummins Kelsey was the daughter of Emily Knox and William Kelsey of Belfast Ireland. They lived on a large estate known as "Plantation". Which was close to Belfast. They were strict Presbyterians and a news paper wasn’t allowed in the house on Sunday…She met Richard Bannon, who lived in America, but was on a visit to see a cousin who lived in Belfast, which was his birth place. He told his cousin he wanted to meet a nice Irish girl. Through his cousin Henrietta met him, they fell in love and wanted to get married. But her father wouldn’t give his consent, on account of Richard being a Catholic. She had a brother-in-law in Belfast, Hugh Rea, who took her part. He was a very prominent man in Belfast, was Editor of Belfast Daily News. He said to her father, "Governor if you want consent to Henrietta’s marriage and buy her a nice trousseau I will, and she can be married in my home." Her father gave in and orders for Henrietta to buy what she needed. But her father never spoke to her from that day on. They were married and had left by train, the train made a stop at a station about thirty miles from Belfast, and the first person she saw was her father. He got on the train and said "Henrietta I couldn’t let you go without my blessing." He shook hands with her husband and wished both of them happiness. She never saw him again.

Henrietta converted and was considered to have been more devout than her husband. The level of intolerance exhibited by her father seems mild and almost refined compared to the sectarian violence that occurred in that region during the last thirty years of the 20th century.

Henrietta’s daughter, my great-grandmother, Catherine Bannon, married Erhard Joseph Kollros, a first generation German-American who parents and grandparents came from the Grand Duchy of Baden in south-western Germany. While much of what became modern Germany converted to the Lutheran church during the Reformation, the south-western states of Baden, Wurtemburg, and Bavaria remained mainly Catholic. The Principality of Wurtemburg was one of those exceptions I mentioned earlier where the princes could not seem to make up their minds whether to be Catholic or Lutheran. The Kollros family was devoutly Catholic and my great-grandfather, who was known to his grandchildren as "Jo-jo", lost a good deal money in the crash of ’29 and during the Great Depression was never seen without his rosary either in hand or in pocket. It has, however, been speculated that at least one side of Jo-jo’s family was Jewish. His daughter, my grandmother, told me that her father had told her this and then a number of years later a person researching the family of Jo-jo’s grandmother, Magdalena Ringwald, stated that baptismal records of Magdalena’s father and uncle "appeared" to indicate that they had been forced to convert from Judaism to Catholicism in the 18th century. While this is not unheard of and has occurred at many times throughout history, I have not seen the evidence so I cannot say for certain that the story is true.

Finally we come to the family of my maternal grandfather, James M. "Jimmy" Dobbs, Jr. His paternal ancestors were of Welsh and English stock and were early settlers in America having come over during colonial times in early to mid-18th century. His grandmother’s family (Prothro) were from Wales and were probably Quakers (or Dissenters as they were called in Wales) who later became Baptists when the Society of Friends denounced slavery as a moral evil. The family of Martha Josephine Prothero were slave-holders in South Carolina and hard-shell Baptists. When Martha died in 1928 at the age of 94 her church, the First Baptist Church of Marietta, Georgia recorded the following in a memorial to her:

"On September 25th, 1858, shortly after her coming to this community, she united with the First Baptist Church of Marietta, Georgia, and from that date down to the date of her death, a period of nearly seventy years, she was a faithful member of this Church. She faithfully and constantly attended the services of the Church, always occupying her same pew, and her presence Sunday after Sunday in that place was an inspiration not only to the many Pastors who served the Church during her life-time and membership in it, but to the other members of the Church as well."

Martha’s in-laws, my ggg-grandparents, David Dobbs and Elizabeth McMullan were founding members of this church. Yet, Martha’s son James M. Dobb, Sr., my gg-grandfather, at some point became a member of the Episcopalian Church. My gg-grandfather spent a number of years living in Panama and South America. From 1893 to 1896 he was the U.S. consul general in Valparaiso, Chile. The best I can figure is that during his travels in South America, where is he was more likely to find an Anglican church than a Baptist church, is when he became Episcopalian. What is more curious about this is that James’ second wife, my great-grandmother, Helen D. Spiegel who was a first generation German-American was also, as it turns out, a member of the Episcopalian church. Her father, George C. Spiegel, a cigar maker, emigrated from the Saxony region of Germany at an early age and so I would think that her family would more than likely to have been Lutherans or Baptists. The Spiegels lived in Dallas, Texas having arrived there from Savannah, Georgia in 1871. In a directory of churches in Dallas published in 1901, I found Helen and her sister Catherine listed as "new communicates" at St Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Dallas. This means that she and her sister had either just joined this church from another Episcopal church or were new converts altogether. As an aside, it was in the directory listing that I finally learned what Helen middle-initial "D" stood for. In the directory she is listed as "Helen Dallas Spiegel". Apparently her father named her after the north Texas boom-town that she was born in.

One thing that I have not been able to discover is how James and Helen meet in the first place since James had no prior connection to the Dallas area and spent much of his time after his first wife died in 1896 travelling on government business between the US and South America. The connection may very well be the Episcopal Church as the two were married later in the same year that the directory referred to above was published.

So, looking back through my family tree, I see that just about every major historical denomination of Christianity is represented: Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Baptists, and Episcopalians. The only two that seem to be missing are the Methodists and the Congregationalists (Puritans). The Puritans may be represented by the ancestors of my gg-grandmother, Della Pickering, but that’s an even longer story (see The Mystery of Della Pickering and The Pickering Project for this).

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