Have you ever wondered how your family came to be Catholic or Baptist or Methodist or Lutheran or Muslim or Hindu or whatever faith they may be?
I have been fascinated by this question since learning about the conversion of my ancestor Tellef John Israelsen to the LDS (Mormon) faith in Norway in 1857. His story is a remarkable story of searching for something, asking questions, not finding satisfactory answers in the church he attended, and then having a remarkable experience that led him to be baptized by travelling Mormon missionaries. He was reportedly the 5th person baptized into this faith north of the Arctic circle.
I was in Malmo, Sweden two years ago wishing that I could take a day away from my business trip and go on a pilgrimage to Tromso, Norway, so that I could learn more about my Norwegian ancestor and the place where he came from. Unfortunately, Tromso is so far north it would have taken a full day or two just to get there. (Google Maps shows just how far away Tromso is from Malmo).
I did spend a few hours reading Wikipedia articles about Tromso and other towns that have been mentioned in family histories. I imagined what it must have been like for my ancestors to live through the Midnight Sun every May through July and through a winter that included dark Polar Nights from November to January. I read an article that claimed that about 50% of the people living in areas where there is a Midnight Sun require only 3-4 hours of sleep during the summer, and sometimes you will find people up in the middle of the night doing things such as mowing their lawn. But during the dark winters there is a lot of sleep and depression too.
I found it especially fascinating that my Israelsen ancestors were neighbors to the Sami people, whom I had not heard of before. This small group of reindeer farming natives sounds a lot like the Eskimo population that I also know so little about. (The singer and priest pictured in this Wikipedia article about the Sami people could easily be my cousins–they look a lot like my Israelsen relatives.) The geography and appearance of the Sami people make me wonder if I have any Sami ancestors somewhere in the distant past.
But the change that brought Tellef John Israelsen and his family to the United States in the 1860s to settle in Hyrum, Utah with other Norwegian and Danish immigrants, was his religious conversion. Thousands of his descendants were affected by his decision: it completely changed where the Israelsens lived and how they lived.
As I travelled to more than a dozen countries on genealogy business during since starting FamilyLink in 2006, I have read books about the available civil and church records that are available in each country. In order to understand genealogy in any country, you have to understand when the government started record keeping and which religious groups kept which records over which periods of time. I began to discover religious movements in every country that involved individual conversions from one faith to another. Some of these religious movements have grown and strengthened over the years, while others have faded.
While studying before going to Germany, I learned about an interesting religious group called the Hutterites, founded by Jakob Hutter. This Christian group is pacifist and shares its goods as a community. It was subject to much religious persecution in Europe for centuries, and then, in the 1870s, 400 Hutterites immigrated to Canada. Today, 42,000 Hutterites live there, mostly descended from these original 400. I was on a plane shortly after learning about the Hutterites and sat next to a young woman from Canada who was actually a school teacher working in a Hutterite community in Alberta.
There are countless religious movements which have arisen in various places over the past centuries, and today, billions of people are participants in their specific religious communities because of the decision of their ancestors to convert to that faith. I watched the film Luther on Sunday night and wondered how many Germans converted from Catholicism in the early 1500s because of Martin Luther’s writings, his translation of the Bible into German, and his subsequent excommunication from the Catholic church. I wonder how many subsequent conversions sprang from spiritual awakenings and how many came from political or nationalistic sentiment. The film ended with a note that 540 million Protestants worldwide can trace their faith back to Luther’s life and actions.
With that in mind, I have decided to start doing research for a book on Ancestor Conversions. I will probably limit the book to one conversion story per religious faith, because I really want to cover a broad section of both large and small religious movements. And I want to trace how a few conversions centuries ago has led to substantial populations of various religious groups today.
The religious conversion choices of our ancestors in many instances is the single biggest factor in the kind of lifestyle, values, and social opportunities that we experience in life. And yet it was primarily their choice that shaped us, not ours. (Of course any living person is free to choose to not be religious, to disengage with the faith they inherited from their parents, or to embrace a different faith. But the majority of people living today — nearly 3/4th of adults in the U.S., according to the Pew Forum June 2008 study affiliate with the same faith as their parents.)
If your ancestor decided to join the Old Order Amish, then, you are probably not reading this blog post.
So much of who we are and what we do hinges on the conversions of our own ancestors. Shouldn’t we all know more about how and why they choice the particular religious group that they did?
If you have an ancestor conversion story that has been published that you’d like to share, please comment. If you would like to suggest resources for me as I undertake this book project, please contact me. I look forward to learning from you.