Faith of Our Fathers and Mothers
Religion in Our Family History
ost of the people in our family histories were Christian. To my knowledge there are now only a few who are Jewish and no doubt some who are atheist. I am focusing on the spiritual outlook of our first American ancestors not trying to describe us today or to put forward any form of worship as better than another. Even so, the word Christian has different meaning to different people. Most think it means a person who has been baptized into the Christian Church through the baptism of water as described in the Bible. However, some only apply the term to those having been "born again" through the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The meaning used in this essay is the former one.
Furthermore, I am not aiming to do a history of religion. The focus will be even more precisely on the people who came to America to live and what religion had to do with their lives.
By far the largest group would be those who were Protestant of the Calvinist stamp. By this I mean those who followed the theology of John Calvin of Geneva. Space precludes a full discussion of his beliefs, but perhaps the best known is predestination. Or, in his words, "God adopts some to eternal life and adjudges others to eternal death." This was generally taken to mean that some people were chosen and some not and that nothing they could do made any difference. He rejected the Roman Church and retained two sacraments, baptism and the Lord's Supper, although he denied that the bread became the body of Christ. (a full treatment of his theology and life can be found in Wikipedia) Calvinism became the mainstay of Protestantism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Our families that I know about so far who were Calvinist would include the Crossetts, Lyons, Philleys, and Everts. Within the Calvinist camp there were several varieties of believers and they did not always agree. There were differences of theology that produced those that were conservative ( strict observance ) and those less so. The politics of each denomination also divided groups. For example, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony were very fundamentalist while the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony, of whom our ancestor John Everts was a member in 1638, were less so. They were both Calvinist but had little to do with each other until outside pressures (Native American uprisings) pushed them into an alliance. Closer to home, the Scotch Irish Crossetts were Presbyterian of the Scottish type. They too, were Calvinist and strict in their practices. When they first came to America they lived, I believe, with their Hamilton relatives in Worcester, Massachusetts. Worcester was originally settled by English Puritans. Both groups were Calvinist and worshiped together for a time. The S-I sought permission to bring in their own pastor and this was not granted by the Puritans who controlled the church. The Presbyterians then decided to build a church. Halfway through its construction, a gang collected from the more violent of the Puritans burnt their building to the ground and destroyed their building materials. All was believed to have been done, I'm sure, in the name of God. The Scotch - Irish, of course, took this badly. Most left Worcester and went on to settle other villages one of which became Pelham, Massachusetts. That settlement was restricted to Presbyterians of the Scottish Rite only. The early history of Pelham can be read in the chapter Lisburne Proprietary.
The Lyons, Philleys, or Filleys as they were then spelled, and the Everts came to America in the early seventeenth century. They were all considered orthodox English Protestants of the Calvinist variety, not of the Church of England. The Revolution of 1649 put Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan, in power. In fact, some researchers claim that Henry Lyon, our ancestor, and two of his brothers were present at the beheading of Charles I and fled England afterward in fear of Charles' followers seeking revenge. In 1688 when the monarchy was restored, American Puritans feared possible reprisal. In 1688 Henry Lyon and many others went to start Newark ,New Jersey. They called themselves Congregationalists. This denomination differed from the Presbyterians only in matters of government. They rested ultimate power in the individual congregation to choose their leaders and their policy. Of course all the denominations held one thing in common; the Bible. How the Bible was to be interpreted remained a bone of contention.
We were taught in grammar school that our ancestors came to America to escape religious persecution. So they did, but in the early days only the persecution of their religion; their way of interpreting the Scriptures. By and large they were no more religiously tolerant than those who persecuted them. Their differences were largely political; about who controlled the church. Each of the original colonies was established for a particular religious group with the exception of Rhode Island which was openly tolerant of any religion. Later immigrants in the nineteenth century came for different reasons, also related to religion, that I will soon touch upon.
It must also be pointed out that our first ancestors in America had no expectation that the church and state would be separate, quite the opposite. Their belief system held that God should be at the center of everything and therefore, at the center of government. However, if the government enforced a religion not their own, they hastened to escape it. Calvin taught that the state should leave religion strictly alone and simply be subject to it. The Roman Church had also demanded to be superior to the state. What evolved from this was religion dominating the state and demanding to be immune from debate. The dominance in Britain of the Church of England after Henry VIII bolted over the divorce of his wife being refused by Rome, and then the religious rule of the Commonwealth drove our early ancestors to distant shores. One is reminded of the Prayer for the Czar in the musical "Fiddler on the Roof"; "may the Lord bless and keep the Czar..far away from us." The mixture of politics and religion made for just the problems our English and Scottish ancestors sought to escape, but only because they were not in control. In Ulster in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the Church of England was the state religion and others, while allowed to worship, were not allowed any power in the community. This was true of Catholics and Presbyterians alike. Puritans were thought strange all over Europe.
William Filley came to America in 1630, John Evarts in 1635, Henry Lyon in 1650, and William Crossett in 1716. All these families were Calvinist, all were wanting freedom to be Calvinist, and all wanted the best for themselves and their families. This led Henry Lyon, and others, for instance, to separate from their original group and found a new settlement where beliefs were more to their liking. In this case it was Newark in what would become New Jersey. Daniel Everts, a second generation American, helped found three new communities in Vermont. William Crossett's sons, as we have seen, helped found a settlement of Scottish Presbyterians. America provided a perfect stage for personal ambition and, inevitably, as time went on the immigrants and their children experienced a growing sense of freedom. It led to the separation of extended families and the free flow of new and different ideas and creeds. From towns and villages that were restricted to one faith, they moved and began to experience cities and communities where a variety of beliefs existed. Religion stopped being an adjective to describe people (ie.Puritans, Presbyterian Scots ) and became just one denominational name among others. The experience of the Crossett family in Pelham is an example. At first (1737) there was one church and one minister for the community. At the left is the Pelham Church. The first minister's wife was a Crossett granddaughter. Everyone attended that church and breaking its rules would mean public censure or worse, expulsion. By 1770, however, another church appeared and another minister. The new belief was Congregationalist. They believed very much what the Presbyterians did but with more autonomy for the congregation. This found our grandfather, Archibald Crossett, a member of the original church and his wife, Sarah, a member of the new church. That never would have happened in Ulster! As Archibald and Sarah's children moved west they encountered new people and new beliefs. They stayed close to their church but it was no longer the center of everything and the community was not run by the minister. That would never have happened in Pelham!
In the eighteenth century new denominations arose and various revivals occurred. Baptist, Methodist, and Unitarian, Lutheran with the influx of German immigrants, and all sorts of sub-branches of these were mixed together in any given community of size. Farm communities retained their religious unity longer. The second half of the century was occupied in war, first the French and Indian War and then the Revolution. Men were thrown together in groups with others of quite different backgrounds and visited places they had not seen before. This new experience fueled new ideas and the movement of families to occupy land opened up across the Appalachian Mountains when the war was over and the government gave land to veterans. The Everts' settled such lands in the Finger Lakes region of New York. As the nineteenth century opened the United States was virtually exploding in size and the opportunity for people to set up on their own.
So far I have discussed only the families that came early and were Calvinist. But our family is much more varied than that in religious history. There is Simon Barnet who came here in 1754 from Martinique in the West Indies. We can be fairly sure that he was baptized as a Catholic because it was required in the French Colonies for children born of parents of mixed race. However, once in America he seems to have moved to Protestantism when he married Margaret Sidell, a German girl, in the Dutch Reformed Church in Philadelphia. His son, Charles Felix was to become a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church. Patrick Connors came here in 1850, John Harrison in 1854 and the Jordan and Philbin families in the 1850s. All these Irish immigrants were Roman Catholic. The flood of immigration in the nineteenth century of Irish, Italian, Southern German, and Jewish people completely changed the religious balance of the United States. Our Catholic forbears were all Irish. As such their ancestors had endured religious persecution for at least four hundred years, starting with the Norman kings of England who disliked the Irish version of Catholicism. It is a fact that our Scotch-Irish ancestors were the beneficiaries in the 1600s of land in Ulster that had been gained by expelling the native Irish. Catholic Irish were denied any role in life other than work on their small farms or work for a landlord. Poverty was the norm. It is quite indicative of religious fidelity, to say nothing of Irish stubbornness, to realize that a way out of this dilemma was to give up being Catholic and assume the established religion as indeed, some did. The vast majority and our ancestors were not among them.
It was famine that brought the Connors, Harrison, Jordan, and Philbin families to the United States. John Harrison was like many others. He came and worked on the canals in Pennsylvania. His Bible has inscribed in it that he bought it in Tunkhannock Pennsylvania in 1854. He worked, earned money, and sent part of it back to Ireland to bring over others in the family. Two sisters that we know of were here by 1861 working as domestics in New York City. John ultimately bought a farm in Sullivan County, Pennsylvania. Several families who were neighbors in Ireland joined the community on a place called Irish Ridge. The county was predominantly Catholic of both Irish and German ancestry. One of the best websites of its kind can be found for Sullivan County. Sandy and I have been happy to contribute to it. We have visited Irish Ridge several times and much of it is vertical. Not even the slash and cut lumber companies of the past could get wood out of those hills, so they were left to farmers with a lot of energy and desire.The Harrison farm is typical.
Two men , two women, two horses all worked very hard to make this farm a success. But it was not a success as a farm. As a place to raise a great family, however, it was a complete success. James, the man holding the horses and the son of John and Catherine Jordan Harrison, inherited the farm but ultimately moved to Elmira, New York to work on the railroad and support four children. The harsh nature of the land and the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 caused many farmers to try other pursuits. James' son John tried to make the farm work but he, too, was unsuccessful.
As for the Connors side of the family, the story was a bit different. Patrick Connors came here in 1850 as ship passenger lists seem to verify. He was only twelve years old at the time, but also probably fleeing the famine in Ireland. The 1860 census finds him working on another man's farm along with Mary Connors, probably his wife, a Welsh girl originally named Taafee. Religion was apparently not a high priority with the couple although the were Catholic. As far as we know at this time, Mary died after or as a result of having Michael Connors, Sandy's grandfather. Patrick remarried and had more children. 1870 finds him in down state New York as a foreman of blasters. This may indicate he was working on the Brooklyn Bridge then under construction. 1880 has him in Troy, New York working in a stove factory. By then there were six children. Religion enters the family destiny with Patrick's son Michael Connors marrying one of a set of twins, Eva Everts. He is Catholic, she is Episcopalian. Michael is estranged from his family and not practicing his faith but Eva's family makes no bones about their displeasure with the match. Michael and Eva's children are brought up Protestant although not practicing. The wheel of time turns and Michael and Eva's son Raymond, Sandy's father, falls in love with an Irish Catholic girl named Mary Harrison. This union, too, was strongly resisted by Mary's family, but love won. After Eva's death Michael Connors returned to his Catholic faith and came to live with Ray and Mary. On his death bed his son Ray was baptized into the Catholic faith where Mary had steadfastly remained all their married life.
By the time that the Crossetts reached the twentieth century they were by no means strict practicing Protestants. The Philleys were a good solid and normal Episcopal family. My grandfather Frederick and two of his sons were 33rd degree Masons and my grandmother and mother were in the womens auxiliary, the Eastern Star. Again, love stepped in and Eric Crossett and Dorothea Philley joined their lives. Religion was not central to our family by any means. It seemed to have been something the women were interested in but not so the men. In my adult years I came to desire a spiritual base. Sandy had always been a strong Catholic. Before meeting her, however , I joined the Roman Catholic Church (1957). We married in 1965 and in 1978 I was ordained as a Permanent Deacon in the church. Like Sandy's father mine also decided to be baptized in his final days. I had the great honor and blessing to perform that baptism shortly before he died. My mother strengthened her Methodist faith after his death.
This story has been long but seen in its entirety it describes the experience of thousands of other families and our evolution in how we see ourselves in relation to each other and to God. Religion has had a tremendous influence in making all of us, even those who do not believe in a higher power, who we are and I expect it will continue to do so in the future.