Sunday, December 15, 2013

On the Genealogy of Morals

Fair warning, this is going to be a bit rambling and inconclusive. Enter at your own risk. 

It seems to me, in my—granted—limited study of the matter, that in genealogy, we tend to focus on genetic lineage: who begat whom, on down through the generations. This genetic transmission can be hard enough to track, but even more interesting to me is the memetic transmission down the generations--the beliefs, ideas, cultural practices of families. It’s amazing to think that the beliefs, the habits, of some of my ancestors may have persisted through the years, in ways that I’m not even aware. Some of it, maybe most of it, has been lost (same thing with genes, though), but it seems reasonable to think that the way my mother raised me was influenced by the way her parents raised her, and they were influenced by their parents, and on and on back through the years. No doubt about it though: beliefs, practices, and ideas are harder to track than names and places, unless one had an ancestor or ancestors who were writers (in one form or another). Maybe a public figure, maybe just private correspondence. But as far as I know, there’s none of that in my family--I mean, I'm sure there were private correspondences, but they haven't been saved and come down to us.

One meme complex that is somewhat easier to track through the ages than others is religious belief, if only because religions are complexes of memes that we put names on and that manage to get recorded in the historical record. As I’ve seen even in my limited research, religious affiliation is  something that gets written down. Casper Sherck, my first ancestor in America, came to this country along with other Anabaptists because they were persecuted in Europe, and obviously a religious belief that is held onto despite persecution must be important. Casper Sherck III was a minister who started the Church of the Brethren--to not only be a minister but also to be part of a new religious movement? That suggests that the ideas were pretty important to him. And I see in a history of the county where I grew up--and where my ancestors lived for over 100 years--that one relative gave money for the building of a church (which I think is actually the church I grew up going to), while another ancestor is noted as "an active member" of that same church.These are elements of a person's intellectual life that got recorded in ways that few other memes did.

We can't assume, of course, that anyone in the past was either necessarily or perfectly orthodox in his or her belief just because he or she went to a particular church. Just look at people today: identifying the church someone attends doesn’t necessarily tell us everything we would want to know about the person--or even about that person's religious beliefs. I think there’s a part of me that would like to assume that people were more homogenous within a particular belief system, either because the religions were better at enforcing orthodoxy back then or because people just weren’t as cross-culturally contaminated as we are today, but to do so would be to ignore the independent-mindedness that human beings so often display. We’re all sheep in some ways, but we’re all bulls or donkeys or some kind of stubborn critter in other ways. 

Still, I do suspect that religious affiliation may tell us more about people in the past than it would today, particularly for those of our ancestors who came to America specifically for religious reasons. These religious beliefs would seem to be central to a family's identity, at least in the first generations.

Even separate from my own ancestors, this got me thinking about the way that religions--and their adherents--must have come into contact with on another back in the 1700s in certain parts of America (of course, we're pretty much talking about different Protestant denominations, back then). There were certain places where a particular religious group was basically able to establish a state religion, like Massachusetts with the Puritans, who basically outlawed groups like the Quakers, and as we move through the American Revolution, I was just hearing yesterday how Massachusetts and at least one of the other original states had what amounted to a state religion at the time (I think it was Congregationalism in both of them, but I could be wrong). But in other places, this wasn't the case. I ran across a book--I couldn't read it, but I saw that it exists--about religious pluralism in Lancaster County, PA in the 1700s--which is basically where my Sherck ancestors were at that time. 

And I think it's easy to see how, in that kind of religious context, my ancestor who was a minister could end up part of the religious upheaval that ended up in a new denomination. In close proximity, you have all of these people who are ultra-serious about their religious beliefs, and none of them can force their beliefs on anyone else, so you'd imagine there's a lot of religious dialog. And sometimes, people who are serious about religion, can change their minds because they're ultimately more interested in seeking the Truth (as they understand it) than in adhering to the tenets of their religion (which, I suppose, both makes my point and undermines it--makes it because it shows the importance of religion in these people's lives, but also suggests that we can't expect doctrinal conformity). 


  1. It is fascinating to contemplate, isn't it?

  2. I think it's worth considering that, especially in more rural areas, the importance of church wasn't only about worship, but also related it being the only way to experience ANY kind of community. When your nearest neighbor is over a mile away, and your fasted mode of travel is horse-powered, church becomes a lot more important than it is when you have neighbors on the other side of a party wall.

    My history is faulty, but I think you're right about Congregationalism, and I think it's also true, though simplistic, to say that the either the Unitarians or the Universalists (I never remember which) and Congregationalists were originally one group, that split into more conservative and more liberal "branches."

  3. (Sorry for typos - wrangling dogs while I write and read and...yeah.)

  4. MissMeliss--sorry it's taken me a while to respond: it's been hard enough to wrangle up regular blog posts to try to catch up to the Holidailies standard! :)

    Your first point is a good one. I've been amazed as I think about this history, or as I looked at a map from over 100 years ago, to think what a different world it must have been, when distance was measured in how far you could walk or how fast your horse would carry you and/or your buggy.

    If I'm remembering correctly, there's a sort of broader movement that we might call "congregationalism" that sort of provided the framework for a number of churches, centered in New England, and I think this includes both the Unitarians and the Universalists, as well as the capital-C Congregationalists who became part of the UCC, and also the churches that became the Evangelical and Reformed Church (which also became part of the UCC)... others too. They're all spiritual cousins, if not brothers. :)