Friday, October 7, 2022

Family History: An Brief Ethnography


Tracking family history can be tricky. Most of it is oral and the familiar parts get told so often that they become more than familiar, they become rote. That sense of over-familiarity can cause those stories to seem less important, less remarkable. At the same time, the character of these stories are connected to their story-tellers. The moments around the dinner table or standing around the kitchen after cleaning up from a birthday party or Christmas dinner when some moment triggers a story. These are rarely recorded but these stories are, for better or worse, fundamental to the way we consider and remember our family histories.

For example, when my kids ask “what am I”, meaning what nationality I tell them we’re Scottish but with an Irish last name. No one is quite sure how that happened. There are vague stories of horse traders or maybe even horse thieves but nothing for certain. The one thing I do know for certain is that I’ve seen my last name is carved into the wall at Ellis Island, the result of my paternal great-grandfather passing through on his way to New Jersey.  My paternal grandmother, Jemima, was born in the US but traveled back and forth to Ireland in the 1940s, not the best time for transatlantic boat voyages. According to family lore, she was on the Lusitania’s penultimate voyage on one of these trips. My grandfather, Frank, would meet my grandmother some time in their late teens as they were both living in Cliffwood Beach, NJ. They would get married, raise three boys, and my grandfather would work for UPS until retirement. Nominally Catholic they would take my father’s conversion to evangelical Christianity quite hard.

On the other hand, my wife’s paternal grandmother, Gladys, was raised on a farm in Alberta, Canada. She rode a horse to school, shipped gophers on hand-made boats down the creek, and smoked a corncob pipe. One of our favorite family photos of Gram is a black and white shot of her leaning against a rail fence, smartly dressed, with a rifle in her right hand and the corn cob pipe in the other. She made it through eighth grade before leaving school to help with the family farm. Gram left Canada at 17 as the tour nanny to the children of a country and western singer named Wilf Carter, who is best known as the “father of Canadian country music.” It was on one of Carter’s tours of the states that Gram met Bob, a 18 year New Jersey boy with a 10th grade education. Bob would work for years in the telecom industry starting as a linemen for New York Telephone, staying with the company as it was acquired by Bell Telephone and later again by AT&T. However Grandad, in family history, was best known for his love of farming. For many years he maintained 30 acres of corn, regularly sowing, planting, and reaping well into his 70s. To the distinct chagrin of my father-in-law who went gray very early on, Grandad retained a full head of black hair for years. This caused people to ask, when they were out together, if the two men were brothers.

I possess significantly more stories about my wife’s paternal grandparents, Gladys and Bob, known as Grammie and Grandad, for several reasons. First, they both invested time in their kids and grandkids. For many years, they hosted birthday parties, Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Halloween. They were generous with their time, food, attention and even money. They were both people of deep Christian faith who passed that on to my father-in-law. I had privilege of knowing Glady and Bob for about eighteen years and spent, frankly, more time with them than my own grandparents because of their investment in their family. My kids got to spend quality time with their great grandparents. We also walked together through Grandad’s brain cancer in 2017. The week before Gram died in 2020 we spent an hour together, talking, telling stories, and telling her we loved her. Her favorite thing was to have grandkids on her lap so of course the last pictures of us together was with our youngest on her lap.

These are not historical moments. However they are deeply impactful to the lives and practices of how we understand and practice family. The example of my paternal grandparents in their investment into the lives of their children, their grand kids and great-grand kids, is an important historical touchstone to the way the family sees itself and holds itself together.

After Gram died in 2020, one of the deepest senses of loss was selling their house because that was the site of family gatherings. However my sister-in-law, Kelly, and her husband Chris, moved into a manse, close by to my in-laws that featured a wide grassy expanse with plenty of room for everyone. While we live in multiple states, we still regularly gather together to write the next chapters of our family’s history.


Friday, September 9, 2022

Calvin Colton

 America, as an experiment in democracy and religious liberty has grappled from its inception as to the degree that liberty, religious liberty, and slavery were connected. This discussion was particularly heightened around the topics of slavery and abolition in the early to mid-1800s. While abolitionists would argue that there was certainly connection between these three in favor of abolition, a contrasting body of argument was also constructed during this time. These were arguments against abolition, that slavery was natural, was protected by liberty, and as such, was expected and normal in the regular everyday state of affairs.[1] Not a few of the arguments came from those who claimed Protestantism as their religious practice.  

One such example can be found in the writing of Calvin Colton. It’s very likely you have never heard of Calvin Colton whom one author summarizes as “…an anglophobic, ex-evangelical Whig; an Episcopalian, millenarian conservative; a gradualist utopian deeply troubled by the market where he made his living…”[2] Colton managed to live in remarkable and historical times in ways that were markedly unremarkable. Colton came of age in a fraught period of time in American history, graduating Yale College in 1812 and from Andover Theological Seminary in 1814. Following his ordination in 1816, Colton would pastor for the next decade in western New York’s Burned-Over District, a region profoundly affected by Second Great Awakening. Following his wife’s Abbey Raymond’s unexpected death in 1826 as well as being troubled by a persistent throat infection, Colton left the pulpit and traveled for several years in frontier regions of the Midwest. He would then live in England  from 1831-1835 where he worked as a freelance writer and a part-time newspaper correspondent. He would return to the US in 1836 writing and teaching until the end of his life in 1850. Colton was also Henry Clay’s biographer and published his papers, though Colton’s biography of Clay was panned as “uncritical and unreliable.”[3]

In his 1839 book, Abolition, a Sedition Colton argues that “slavery…is a corporate part of the American political fabric, established by Constitution law, and interwoven with the frame of the Federal Government.” [4] Colton reprises the old argument that “it is better to be a slave in America than a free man in Africa…that the best conditions of African barbarism could never be envied by the worst of American slavery.” He further argues that slavery offers the opportunity to “…learn, that God, in his high and inscrutable provide, can bring good out of evil… by the lights of American civilization, and the blessing of American Christianity….”[5] These bear out two points. First that Colton is not terribly original in his thinking. The argument for slavery as beneficial dated at least from the 1700s as did the argument that removing slavery would disrupt society. Secondly, while Colton is correct that God can bring good out of evil, one should not blame God for evils perpetuated by mankind. However it is in the “lights of American civilization” that Colton also saw God’s role in American society.  In what would prove to be his last address in 1850 to Congress calling for a transcontinental railroad, Colton argues “God, in his providence, by the operation of the stupendous machinery of man’s collective power…has precipitated these great and startling events…”[6] “These great and startling events” referring to addition of states to the Union as well as the technological improvements that would allow for a transcontinental railroad to be built. Colton marks an argument throughout this

A prolific writer, Colton was neither an original thinker nor much of a stylist, but he was influential in his day.”[7] Colton’s writings stand in as prime examples of someone who embraced technological advancement and progress as signs of God’s favor on America. At the same Colton held, as many others did, that slavery was an essential piece of American life and could not be removed without doing significant damage to the fabric of America. Thus, Colton’s writings can be read as standing in for many other Americans at this time who argued for a “American Christianity” that promised technological advancement, commercial success and inevitable progress but was not meant to be extended to enslaved people.


[1] America’s robust religious print culture not only supported these discussions through a wide variety of printing presses and fairly high literacy rates but also provides a rich archive of primary source materials for historians to engage. On this see Religion and the Culture of Print in Modern America edited by Charles L. Cohen and Paul S. Boyer.

[3] Cave, Alfred A. "Colton, Calvin (1789-1857), clergyman and author." American National Biography. 1 Feb. 2000

[4] Colton, Calvin. Abolition a sedition. G.W. Donohue, 1839. Sabin Americana: History of the Americas, 1500-1926, 13.

[5] Colton, Calvin. Abolition. 97

[6] Colton, Calvin, United States. Congress, and Smithsonian Institution. A lecture on the railroad to the Pacific : delivered August 12, 1850, at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, at the request of numerous members of both Houses of Congress. New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1850. Sabin Americana: History of the Americas, 1500-1926, 5.

[7] Cave, Alfred A. "Colton, Calvin (1789-1857), clergyman and author." In his article, Bratt references Cave's entry on Colton as being one of the prime sources of biography on Colton. The most recent book-length treatment of Colton's life was published in 1969.