How to write your family history, part 5: what’s God got to do with it?

We just completed a family history investigation in Shropshire, England, and Powys, Wales, where we sought answers to difficult questions about ancestors’ emigration to America in the 1600s.  Since documentation is limited for that time period, the family historian has to use some real creativity to piece together answers.

As we wrote in part 2 of this series, understanding the historical context of our ancestors’ lives is critically important to ferreting out new generational links and lateral inferences.  Understanding the religious context of our ancestors’ lives is probably one of the most important aspects of this work.  Religious trends – especially before the 19th century – had an enormous impact on Western Europeans, often guiding even their most pragmatic decisions.

Our investigation led us to this 15th-century font, in which Edward Maddox baptized his children, in St. Michael’s Church, Munslow Parish, Shropshire, England.

In the case of our subject, Dr. Edward Maddox (d. 1694), religion was the paramount issue of his time and place.  As a Protestant in rural England, he was directly affected by the Protestant Reformation, the English Civil War, and the Restoration – all of which were premised on a violent debate of the legitimacy of certain religious beliefs.  Understanding his allegiances during those events could shed light on his family’s motivations to leave England – and would be interesting in itself.

Edward Maddox emigrated from England to the American Colonies sometime between 1656 and 1668.  He was among the very first Englishmen to live in the area.  Court records document Edward’s rough frontier medicine, land speculation, wolf hunts and conflict with the Native Americans.

In his early adulthood in England, Edward would have endured the 1642-1651 English Civil War, during which 6 percent – or 300,000 – of his countrymen died.  It was a fight between “roundheads” and “cavaliers” – parliamentarians and royalists.  The parliamentarians won in 1651.  It was England’s experiment with republicanism, and for a decade it functioned roughly as intended, with Oliver Cromwell’s cronies keeping order over a rowdy parliament until 1659.

But beneath Cromwell’s anti-monarchism there was a darker religious fervor… against Catholics.  The English establishment could not stand the implications of a Catholic king – the economic upheaval it would risk – and rumors of English kings’ Papal alliances were truly incendiary.

Everything in Edward’s records indicates he was a fervent anti-Catholic.  We see him in Stafford County, Virginia, in the late 1680s befriending the notorious Parson Waugh, whose claim to infamy was his 1681 incitement of an anti-Catholic riot in Virginia.  Waugh falsely claimed that Maryland Catholics were crossing the Potomac River with Seneca Indians to murder Virginians in their sleep. Waugh and Edward Maddox’s other friend George Mason (grandfather of the Founding Father) would be punished for the subterfuge.

But where Edward’s Colonial records reveal his strong anti-Catholic sentiments, the records do not reveal any strong favor for the king.  In England, he was married by a Parliamentarian magistrate instead of a parish priest.  His departure from England around 1660 – as the parliamentarians lost power and King Charles II restored the monarchy – could mean fear of royalist retribution.  If Edward left England at the time of Charles’ crowning in 1660, it could mean he was fleeing the royalists’ wrath, or rejecting the king’s rumored Papism in favor of more puritanical Protestantism in America like many others did.  He would have been among friends in Maryland, where he resided until 1684 –  a year before King Charles II’s death.

Edward’s later life also raises some questions about his competing allegiances to God and King.  Although Edward rose in social prominence in Maryland and Virginia through the 1680s by marrying into the prominent Stone and Mason families, he did not attain a public position as a Justice of the Peace in Stafford County, Virginia, until 1691.  His very late Justice appointment – when he was probably 80, and just after the king’s death – may indicate that Edward had been a political outsider during the king’s reign, but that he was finally brought into the fold after allegiances changed.  It’s fodder for deeper investigation.

Edward and his family would have viewed this stained glass window as they attended church in Shropshire, England.

Similar to Edward Maddox’s story, your ancestor almost certainly was affected by the religious trends of his or her time.   But digging into the complexities of historical religious trends can be daunting.  Not everyone is interested in reading multiple 800-page books on the arcane subject of the Reformation, for instance.  And they shouldn’t be.  Happily, the basics of religious trends can be accessed by simple wikipedia searches or through other online searches, and these searches will invariably lead to deeper resources.  As you continue to build documentary evidence of an ancestor’s life, you can read those papers in the context of religious trends.  This little exercise will open a very useful lens.

There are, of course, innumerable resources for historical religious information on the internet.  A few places to start are’s Religious Resources page; offers basic info; and the National Genealogical Society offers a great introduction to religious records.

As always, Narratio Vitae is standing by to help.


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