Something a little different this week. A bit of personal family history. I call it a meditation on my “theological DNA.”

A reader of my blog suggested that I am probably a “closet Protestant.” Not really. But From the time I was an adolescent, I have been an inquisitive Catholic. It started when I was about thirteen in my 8th grade class in southern Michigan. One day, our parish priest, Fr. Linus, told my class we should avoid contact with Protestants because they belong to a “false religion.” I stood up and in front of the class I told Fr. Linus I did not agree with him. I said that my father was a Protestant and that there was absolutely nothing false about him. Fr. Linus did not react but my teacher practically killed me with her angry-nun stare. 

As I grew older I remained inquisitive but became an even more critical Catholic. I am not anti-Catholic. I am a constructively critical Catholic. I also appreciate my Protestant family roots.

My mother’s family, on her father’s and her mother’s side, came from the Alsace, near Strasbourg. They were well anchored in the Catholic tradition. My paternal grandfather, however, had English Quaker roots, and my paternal grandmother had French Huguenot roots. 

The Huguenots, starting in the mid-16th century, were a religious group of French Protestants who held to the Reformed, or Calvinist, tradition of Protestantism. They argued that the Catholic Church needed a radical cleansing of its impurities and that the pope represented more of a powerful and wealthy kingdom than the Reign of God. Due to strong Catholic anti-Protestant persecution, in the 17th  century, the Huguenots were either forced to leave France or become Catholic. When the French king, Louis XIV (1638 – 1715), revoked all Protestant rights in his 1685 Edict of Fontainebleau, my grandmother’s family left southern France, via Marseille. They escaped first to England and then on to the Province of Pennsylvania in colonial America.

I have always wondered about my Quaker roots. Quakers rejected ornate religious ceremonies and had no official clergy. Quakers also played key roles in abolitionist and women’s rights movements. Quaker missionaries first arrived in North America in the mid-1650s. My Quaker ancestors arrived in Chester, Pennsylvania in 1684. They had come from Chester, England.

The founder of the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers, was George Fox (1624 – 1691) born near Leicester, England. Driven by his “inner voice,” Fox left his home in 1643 and began his spiritual quest. The English Civil War (1642 – 1651) had begun and troops were stationed in many towns through which he passed. The Civil War was actually a series of civil wars and political maneuvers about the form of England’s governance and issues of religious freedom. 

In 1647 Fox began to preach publicly, wherever people would listen to him. Initially he had no desire to found a new religious movement, but he saw a need for Christianity to rediscover its original simplicity. 

There was of course much political and religious turmoil in England in the 17th century. The execution of King Charles I (1600 – 1649) saw Puritanism take hold and the monarchy end. Puritans believed the Church of England was too similar to the Roman Catholic Church and should be purified by eliminating ceremonies and practices not rooted in the Bible. After the King’s execution, a republic was declared, known as the Commonwealth of England. 

After King Charles II’s (1630 – 1685) restoration to the throne in 1660, a new period of religious and political turmoil began. Charles II was Anglican but open to other Christian traditions. Charles’s English parliament, however, enacted laws known as the Clarendon Code, designed to strengthen the position of the re-established Church of England

George Fox travelled throughout Britain as a dissenting preacher, and he was often persecuted by the disapproving English authorities. He was searching for a more direct spiritual experience and came to believe that the presence of God was found more within people than institutional churches. In 1669, he married, Margaret Fell, the widow of a wealthy supporter. She is often called the “mother of Quakerism.” Fox’s ministry expanded and he made tours of North America and the Low Countries. He was arrested and jailed numerous times for his beliefs, as was his wife. 

Fox spent his final decade working in London organizing, with his wife’s strong support, the expanding Quaker movement. Despite disdain from some Anglicans and Puritans, George Fox was viewed with respect by his Quaker convert William Penn. Two days after preaching as usual at the Gracechurch Street Meeting House in London, Fox died on January 13, 1691. He was interred three days later in the Quaker Burying Ground, known today as Quaker Gardens a small public garden in the extreme south of the London Borough of Islington.

The term “Quaker” began as a derisive nickname for Fox and others who shared his belief in the biblical passage that people should “tremble at the Word of the Lord.” In Quaker prayer services people did occasionally tremble or “quake” with religious fervor. The group eventually embraced the term “Quaker” although their official name remained the Religious Society of Friends. Members are still referred to as “Friends” or “Quakers.”

By 1660 there were around 50,000 Quakers. Among them my ancestors who knew Fox quite well. In 1681, King Charles II in England gave William Penn, a wealthy English Quaker, a large land grant in America to pay off a debt he owed to Penn’s father, the admiral and politician Sir William Penn (1621 – 1670). The colony of Pennsylvania was then founded by William Penn junior in 1682, as a safe place for Quakers to live and practice their faith. Within just a few years, several thousand Friends had moved to Pennsylvania, among them my ancestors, who were friends of Penn and purchased from him a parcel of land near Chester, Pennsylvania.

Many Quakers were actively involved in Pennsylvania’s new government and held leadership positions in the first half of the 18th century. They later realized that their political participation forced them to compromise some of their beliefs, including pacifism. Quakers were also early abolitionists. One of my ancestors was a strong abolitionist who spent much of his time promoting abolition from Georgia to New Hampshire. By the 1780s, all Quakers were barred from owning slaves.

Quakers seek religious truth through inner experience. They stress a direct experience of God rather than via rituals and ceremonies. Trying to integrate religion and everyday life, they believe God can be found in the middle of life and human relationships as much as during a gathering for worship. Quakers call their worship events “a meeting for worship” rather than services. At least once a week, the members of a Quaker meeting gather for silent worship. 

In a Quaker meeting for worship people sit in a circle or opposite each other in silence for an hour. From time to time someone may speak briefly, but sometimes the entire hour may pass without a word being spoken. Quaker meetings for worship are open to everyone and they take place in “meeting houses” not churches. These are simple buildings or rooms. Quaker worship is very different from the worship of most Christian churches. It doesn’t follow a set ceremonial ritual. A Quaker service has no structure and no one leads it.

Many of my paternal ancestors, particularly in Pennsylvania, were what today we could call Quaker “pastors.” From what I have found in historical documents they were compassionate ministers in touch with their people. They believed that faith is something that is always developing and not something frozen at a particular moment in history.In their own ways, I would say they were probably very good theological thinkers. 

No. I am not ready to become a Quaker. I am still a Catholic, but I was thinking about my Catholic, Huguenot, and Quaker ancestors this past week. Maybe my religious chromosomes were interacting?  I pictured them sitting around a table, praying and discussing contemporary belief. I could almost hear them speaking: “What does it mean to belong to a church today? What doctrines and institutional structures need to be changed? How do we come to religious truth? How do we listen to contemporary people searching for meaning and purpose in their lives? How do we hand on values to the next generation?”

Yes indeed. We live in a time of widespread uncertainty about the future. Considering the current crises our world faces, we urgently need to find a new way of living together in this world. A way of shared life that bridges differences and embodies the reality of all life as sacred and connected. We need a new way of thinking, a new way of speaking with each other, and friendly and supportive  collaboration. We need honest and good information. But life-giving ministry is more than passing-on good information. Life-giving ministry is a process of traveling with people in their spiritual development wherever they are in their life journey. 

Ok. Enough about my “theological DNA.” 

  • Jack

17 thoughts on “Theological DNA

  1. “Life-giving ministry is a process of traveling with people in their spiritual development wherever they are in their life journey.” Thank you for writing about how the Quakers have practiced this and how we should emulate them – a much needed admonition in these troubled times.

  2. Good morning, Dr. Jack, from where I live, and thank you for reminders about of how real are the hidden herbs and hues of influence from the location and culture (space/time) from which we evolve, individually and nationally. Because I was raised up and rooted in one locale (Saginaw, 1946-1966) where I landed at birth, the place, the very sun and soil, worked on my psyche more than I thought. My back-ground couldn’t contrast more than my wife of 48 years had. Her father was Navy, posted every couple years always elsewhere, all over the country, never rooted.

    Three lines from your “pen” roused deep, almost atavistic reactions that haunt the halls of my early memories, maybe needing exorcism (?). First, “…avoid contact with Protestants because they belong to a “false religion;” second, “a need for Christianity to rediscover its original simplicity;” third, “hand on values to the next generation?”

    Like you, my Dad was first generation-USA from a particular Lutheran Volga German tradition, eventually an RC convert. So he straddled two “religions” that were “false” to each other. Neither his parents nor any of his ten siblings attended his marriage to my RC mother. Her mother was also a convert “from” Evangelical Lutheranism, but her first father was RC way back to Quebec. My Dad told his family that, to marry his Catholic sweetheart, he was “taking instructions” but not “giving up his religion,” only adding to it, a bit of reverse-history. He was shunned by many of his Protestant family, but as their children were born, that part of the family tree softened, bent a little, but did not break. When I entered seminary in 1960, I was a tainted curiosity someday a “Father Meyer,” anathema because “There is only ONE Father.” But for a time we talked and talked, with the Bible as the basis for what is not false, even if the truth is larger than our grasp.

    “Original simplicity” is certainly ideal, as much in religion as it is in national origins rooted in founding documents, testaments, like our Constitution and Bill of Rights. But in practical political dealings and pragmatic operation, not so simple. Archaeology teaches us that. I think the past is lost, but it is not a loss to us, if we dig deep and carefully observe, judge and interpret the strata for how best to act now upon what we learn from then, “ex tunc pro nunc.” Lacking that, whence the future, the next generation?

    Our “values for the next generation”? No, we will be artifacts, a lost past, as it must be, so that our children and grandchildren will live their own space/time with their own discoveries of our past, not an inevitable loss of what was important to us. That is why our deeds and words, spoken and written, are crucial for their interpretation of how to move across the ground we laid down for them, our compost mulching their sprouting, according to Nature in her tender indifference.

    Christianity, as an historical event and project, might have eclipsed natural religions, as we know Nature truly from our senses, but this old world is still our physiological, incarnational place. So it was for Jesus of Nazareth and his mother Mary. Earth is not physically eternal, but Time is, savage and inexorable, and surely outlasts our struggles against the absurdities of the world as we know it sensually in her beauty, goodness and integrity, and as truly as my own composting approaches. That we will all lie in the ground eventually is certain. Atoms are eternal, as far as we know, but that is small comfort. Every “time” I pray those old words, “in saecula saeculorum, Amen,” they come true. So Sisyphos smiles, and says “EUOUAE!” as he gets up to shoulder the boulder back up the mountain.

  3. We share similar theological DNA. I often ponder what my Quaker ancestors might think of my many words and rituals, or why my Methodist great grandma married my fiddle playing great grandpa, and why I stay in the Roman Catholic tradition questioning and cajoling. I think perhaps, like a dog, being mixed contributes to better health and adaptation. The sacred fills my world and I am compelled to reverence this and share it with everyone willing to sit with me and listen.

  4. Very interesting. It provokes me to consider my DNA, which is very complicated – and very ecumenical.
    My father was Protestant. Though he was in at least two Sunday schools as a kid (one Presbyterian and the other Methodist, I think), he was non-practicing. He became Catholic a few years before his death. On his father’s side the family was Northern Irish Protestant (and I vaguely remember some tal about Orangemen’s parades in Philadelphia.)
    My mother was Catholic, but her father was Protestant and, after their first child, would not let my grandmother baptize her kids Catholic. My mother was baptized Catholic as a young adult.
    But what is more important is the environment where they grew up – The Meadows, in west Philadelphia. There, I learned from an aunt on the day of my father’s burial, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, blacks, and whites lived together; this was in the 1920s and 1930s. My aunt told of the basketball games at St. Raphael’s Catholic Church where Protestant and Catholics played together, There was the Pentecostal black church near where she lived.
    That ecumenism and interracial mixing are a part of my heritage.

  5. Fascinating, Jack! I cannot help but think about the contrast between interior personal development, i.e. self-awareness, and public worship expression. I would probably come down on the side of your ancestors as I seek self-awareness and clarify the attitudes I inherited from so many sources, examining them as they relate to how I accept a role in society, what I use to guide me in that direction, and work to understand how that hour of silence translates into something we might identify as prayer, but with a clear understanding that God does not constantly ‘answer prayers’ by intervening in human history, thus obviating the intention/purpose of the Christ.

  6. Dear Jack,
    What a wonderful, positive, and thoughtful review of your personal “faith history.” You and your readers’ comments made me think of how each of us has arrived at this time and place from different routes and stories. I couldn’t help but notice how much of religious history is entangled in messy politics and beliefs can be tainted with xenophobia and nationalism. What your narrative emphasizes is that each variation of Christianity seems to bring a nuance that can enlighten and inspire to what we all need: a personal and intimate relationship with our good and loving God. I wonder, in the safety of this forum, if formalized religions spend too much time in stylized worship and could use some of the quiet time that your Quaker ancestors seemed to have discovered as time to hear/feel the Spirit moving in us. As a lifelong Catholic, I remember as a youngster the warnings not to question, doubt, or debate the edicts from “above” as temptations from the Evil One. As a “mature” Catholic who will die in the faith, I realize that the Spirit can inspire us in many ways and from sources once called heretical. These words of yours succinctly summarize, for me, what our common faith journey is about: “They believed that faith is something that is always developing and not something frozen at a particular moment in history.” Your friend who accused you of being “too Protestant!” seems to be locked into the notion that there is no possibility of growth, enlightenment, and life experience unless you have the right label. I am reminded of the book by an Anglican minister, “Your God is Too Small.” I love how you have shown us that we can’t put God in a box. We all have a history and ours is not necessarily the only one or the correct one. Your words are so refreshing! Thank you.

    1. Many thanks Frank. And I really like your observation that “each variation of Christianity seems to bring a nuance that can enlighten and inspire to what we all need: a personal and intimate relationship with our good and loving God.”

  7. Jack
    The insistence that obedience is the hallmark of the Catholic goes way back in our DNA. Sadly, the disobedient among us as a consequence rarely acted with disobedient love as the expression of their DNA. It is always wonderful to see such loving disobedience in your essays. The people who raised you did a good job. These people have always been the actualizing grace among us. I think that Vatican II tried to say this, but did not quite make it dramatically clear.

  8. Thank youonce again, Dr. Jack, for this venue. The replies to recent postings are tender and precious. I ponder the isolation and rejection that many seem to feel. You make space for those of us who slip and slide in currents and eddies of Christianity– in the historical institution as much as in a particular, “nuanced” way of living, up against this absurdly conflicted world. We are a slippery bunch (no wonder: humans share more than 60% DNA with bananas!), but in sticking together the world around us changes because of the solidarity of even a few. This is not a missionary statement, just a condition of being human in the noosphere for renewing this old world, re-creating it. Two subtexts recur in our commentaries, in my view: sacrifice, and resistance. They are grist for the mills of the late venerable Rene Girard and the tragically short-lived Albert Camus, to name but two thinkers.

    Girard’s well-known published volumes on ritual scapegoating, as useless violent sacrifice contrary to the birth, life, teaching and death of Jesus of Nazareth. are still and must ever be in the wind especially in this post-Vatican II era, so rife with contradictions, excoriations, ejections, and emigrations. I remember Girard’s back-channel influence on Cardinal Montini (Paul VI) which can’t be ignored, however one views the “res gesta” of recent papacies and the revanchism of certain archbishops.

    Camus, not so well-known, didn’t finish publishing his work on living, resisting, and loving in the face of absurd nihilism, before he was killed in 1960. Many of our stories and comments, against which the current COVID plague is backdrop, seem to align with his plans and sketches, cut short, on living and loving for one another in times of plague, war, invasions, incursions and authoritarian oppression. Although some of his sketches and notes have still not been released for publication by his family, enough is available to understand the trajectory of his thinking. Here is a thunderbolt: the opponent is indeed an adversary, but not the enemy to be cut down. Is not an ascetic required, an inner discipline to encounter the absurd, measure it, and impose limits on its extremes, for maintaining balance in rebelling and refusing to accept the absurd, or to ignore it?

    Both of these thinkers suffered opposition and contestation, but their courageous conviction propelled them to risk speaking out, freely, critically, even in the face of being shunned, and at times, to remain silent. Neither made a career of moderation, nor of extremes. They struggled with the historical, spiritual and political reality of Christianity as an “-ism” and how it abrades against the records of the life, teaching and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Somewhere Camus writes that, along the pole of human possibilities, there reside (i.) a happiness scant of hope between consent and refusal, (ii.) an appeal to the sacred, and (iii.) the impossibility to believe in it. A sliding scale of nuance, as Frank Skeltis says, that comprise The Way Forward.

    Perhaps I ponder other possibilities too much, but maybe I hear, in the penultimate words of Jesus on the cross hoisted on the rock of Calvary by the collaboration of civil and religious leaders, that we think about what we are doing, and not merely do what we think. As for that historical rock to which His life led: might it be the boulder once shouldered by the mythical Sisyphus, the Greek hero? It seems that Christianity has “nuanced” the Word
    of the Master in its message by appropriating both the comtemplative world-affirming Greek tradition and the isolationist, exodal Hebrew tradition, to varying degrees on the same pole that promoted the initial post-Constantinian “mission civilizatrice” in the West. But Jesus is not a Greek hero, not smiling about the good work he left behind before his eternal penance, not remote on some Olympus: He is Jewish, there in His fleshy-now, and here for us: lest no individual be isolated and alone.

    So we are not alone, living polarized twixt the tension of the “goo” of democracy and high-flying liberalism. But doesn’t that tension sustain a pluralist democracy, the unity of a shared origin in the individual? Perhaps polarization is also in our DNA, in our blood, genetic matter spiraled around a single pole, along the length of which is a point of fragile balance, of fleeting moderation. Why? Our human hearts beat ever to struggle for just the right moment of balance, the measure of becoming human, an incarnation worth dying for, at times.

  9. Jack,
    You have quite a family of religious action. Your story is fascinating. And I see why you question; it is in your DNA. When I was part of the religion team at the high school where we taught in Michigan, my eyes were open to a new view. From you I learned it was okay to question. As with you, it did not make me renounce Catholicism. For me it was like a rebirth, that it was okay to question and not be a “sheep” accepting all as it was dictated to us. Thanks for sharing, Jack. P.S. I love the portrait.

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