Body, Nature, Ancestors by Carol P. Christ

Some years ago, womanist theologian Karen Baker–Fletcher asked about ancestors following a lecture I gave on the body and nature.  I have since come to realize that ancestors are a missing link between the two:  we cannot speak adequately of embodiment and interdependence in the web of life without recognizing the ancestors whose lives made ours possible.  Our mothers quite literally gave us our bodies.  All of our ancestors gave us their genes.  Care and callousness with origins going back longer than conscious memory was imprinted on the psyches of our parents and grandparents and transmitted to us.  All of our ancestors give us connections to place.  While many black people in America can recite oral histories that begin with slavery in the United States, I come from a family where stories of origin for the most part were not valued or told.  Both of my father’s parents lost their fathers when they were very young, and my father, who was raised Catholic at a time when Catholics were discriminated against, preferred to think of our family as “American now.”  Like the hero of the film Lost in America, most members of my family dreamed of “melting right into that pot.” In the process we lost stories we need to help us to understand ourselves and the complex realities that “becoming American” involved.  

My grandmother’s brother Emery Searing traced the Searings back to the exodus of Huguenot Protestants from France to the Netherlands to England and the marriage of Jan Seroen to Jane Badger at St. Savior’s church in London in 1610.  Their son Simon’s name is found on the deed of purchase of land from the Indians in 1647 in Hempstead, Long Island, to a group of people who were or became Quakers, at a time when New York was under Dutch rule.  I did not remember this connection when I arrived at the Hempstead train station to visit relatives (not part of the Searing lineage) who lived in Hicksville (named after a famous Quaker family) in the 1960s and 1970s.

Samuel and Mary Pearsall Searing moved to Saratoga Springs, New York in 1778, probably because Samuel’s having fought in the Revolutionary War was controversial in the Quaker community in Hempstead.  My great-great-great grandfather Nathaniel was born in Saratoga Springs in 1814.  After his parents died, he hired out as a farm laborer and married Louisa C. Martin who was born in Vermont.  They “came to Michigan in 1840, the journey occupying thirteen days and being made with a team, settling in the woods … and buil[ding] a log cabin”  near Lyons, where they raised short-horn cattle.  Nathaniel’s son James Augustus married Dora Sofia Bahlke, daughter of Anton Bahlke and Mary Hand who [my research shows] emigrated together from Mecklenburg, Germany to Michigan where they also established a farm. Popular culture provides images of the hardships these ancestors must have endured.

Dora and James Augustus were the parents of Emery born in 1880 and my grandmother Lena Marie born in 1891 and a number of other children.  None of the children stayed on the Searing farm, still known by that name when my mother’s sister Mary Helen visited it in the 1970s.  The farm featured in stories told by the family’s only raconteurs–Emery who described how he lost parts of his fingers in a threshing machine, and Lena whose tales of the pony that held its breath when they tried to saddle it, lulled us to sleep.

As I delve into my family history and ancestry, I uncover threads that have been woven into my life and come to understand something about who “my people” were.  Some of these insights are affirming, others troubling.

Uncle Emery traced his fatherline but not his many motherlines.  I have first-hand experience of the widespread patriarchal attitudes that led to this choice.  However, he included most of the family names of the women who married the Searing men.  These included: Badger, Pine, “Elizabeth (family name missing),” Embree, Pearsall, Wright, Martin, and Bahlke.  Though the patrilineal name can be traced to France, the family had most likely–the motherlines are incomplete–become primarily English by the time Dora Bahlke married into it.  In other branches of my family tree as well “ethnicity” is not easily specified, due to movements and changing boundaries within Europe and to intermarriages among groups.

As marriages to Indians were often covered up and the last names of all of the other Searing brides are known, I wonder if “Elizabeth (family name missing)” who married Simon’s grandson Jonathan in the late 1600s or early 1700s was Native American.  Given that the fathers and grandfathers of the women who married into the Searing family had also settled on Indian land, it is unlikely that there are no marriages to Indian woman in our family story.  Could this be a source of my affinity to Native American spirituality?

Records I found confirm that “Indian Wars” were on-going when Simon ‘s group settled in Hempstead, raising questions about how “free” the Indians were when they “sold” the land.  Simon was fined in 1659 for selling wine to Indians, showing that he had some degree of “friendly” contact with them.  Settlements in Saratoga Springs were also on formerly Indian land.  The Michigan territory the Bahlkes and Searings claimed was “opened up” following polices of “pushing” the Indians westward.  No doubt there were some Indians still living in both places, but I have not uncovered what kind of friendly or hostile contact my ancestors may have had with them.  The knowledge that some of my ancestors were the first settlers of Indian lands is unsettling.  Could this be why strong feelings are aroused in me by stories of the many trails of tears walked by the Indians?  Because we live on land taken from the Indians, all Americans have a responsibility to repair the damage that is still being suffered as a result of conquest by living Indians.  I also have a specific history to repair.

The Searing story reveals that I come from a family with longstanding and recent histories of conversion and strongly held religious beliefs.  30,000 Huguenot followers of John Calvin were killed on a single day and 200,000 others were driven out of France in the 1570’s. I did not realize that I had a connection to this history when I studied it.  My family’s Quaker heritage was lost when Dora Bahlke Searing converted to Christian Science.  Like the Huguenots, the Quakers were often persecuted for their beliefs.  At the time of Samuel Searing’s emigration there were 4000 Quakers in English jails; Quakers were banished and even hanged in the colonies.  I also did not remember that some of my ancestors were Quakers when I read of Quaker involvement in the abolitionist and suffrage movements and of Quaker pacifism. Though my own anti-racist, anti-war, and feminist commitments have made me something of a “black” sheep in my immediate family, I am carrying on commitments held by some of my more distant ancestors.  My mother happily gave up Christian Science when she married because it made her “different,” but I am proud that my great-grandmother converted to and my grandmother followed a religion founded by a woman; I affirm the power of mind or faith healing, and I too am suspicious of the medical profession.

My deeply held beliefs created a rift in my family. My rejection of Christianity isolated me among feminists in the study of religion and limited my employment opportunities.  Christian feminists sometimes ask how I can “abandon” women who remain Christian.  When I feel alone, it is comforting to know that I come from a line of women and men who resisted authority, rejected the religions of  their ancestors, and put their own lives and liberties on the line for their beliefs and for the rights of others.

Categories: Family, Foremothers, Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion, Resistance, Women's Agency

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23 replies

  1. Beautiful piece, Carol.

    I grew up with two very different approaches to family. On my mother’s side, there was a strong sense of connection to ancestors, mostly due to my grandfather’s interest in genealogy. If you go back not too many generations, there’s a Mongolian line. It’s through my grandfather that I have the strongest sense of owning a troubling history, though, given that he was a member of the SS. I wonder if he processed the Mongolian strand of his heritage with the ideology of “racial purity” he must have bought into.

    On my father’s side, there was a strong sense of being split off and disconnected from forebears. I knew my paternal grandparents, but even that link felt distant. I sometimes wonder if my draw to Carter Heyward’s thought, with its central focus on relation as a feminist approach, comes from such a stark division of connection and disconnection along gendered lines in my immediate family.


  2. Thank you Carol for this thought provoking post. If we believe in reincarnation, I wonder where do we place ancestors. Are we not then returning ancestors? When you beautifully say, “Though my own anti-racist, anti-war, and feminist commitments have made me something of a “black” sheep in my immediate family, I am carrying on commitments held by some of my more distant ancestors,” I see some ancestor(s) present in you. Reincarnation? For me it is not a matter of believing, it is part of the organic renewal of Nature, after observing the cycles of nature, I feel this truth in the bones. This is only with respect to the physical inheritance, which we shed every so many years like a snake sheds its skin… the psychic component of the presence, or the continuous return, of ancestors is even more intimate, it is very dear, and like you inferred in your post, gives a different meaning to who we are. Your insights enrich my sense of the human family (when the blood family this time finds my ways of thinking so different and unfamiliar). I hope to carry and share the joy of being your student with those who value embodied feminism.


  3. “Christian feminists sometimes ask how I can ‘abandon’ women who remain Christian. ”

    What a fascinating — and ethnocentrically privileged — query they gave you. I confess, my immediate reaction would be something along the lines of: “I have not abandoned christian women, just as I try not to abandon *any* woman. It was the christian women who abandoned *me* — when I refused christianity’s damaging hierarchy.”


  4. Hi Carol,

    Thank-you for such a beautiful piece that gave me time to think about my own family and ancestors. I admit I’ve never thought about my ‘ancestors’ as such because I still don’t really know much about my grandparents. This is due both to their passing also an unwillingness to talk about certain things. I also started to recall photos I’ve seen of my grandfather when he was much younger and thinking that their was some resemblance to Aboriginal Australians. However, I have never mentioned this because it would probably be laughed at or quickly ignored. The fact that he grew up on a farm in an area known for its importance to Aboriginal’s for food and community makes me wonder further about how his family managed to acquire the farm. As a historian, I think many families in Australia have closer connections to Aboriginal culture than they realise, or are willing to admit.

    On a different note, I’m not sure if you or any other readers are aware of the debate occurring at the moment about Mel Tankard-Reist and her identification as a feminist yet objection to abortion. There are many feminists who have been highly critical of her stance and have rejected the possibility that she is a feminist because of her religious beliefs.


  5. Kate, I think there are probably more Native Indian and Native Australian ancestors in “white” lineages than we have been told. Of course, given that both governments treated natives very badly, this is not entirely surprising.


  6. Dirk, I always say I am lucky my German ancestors left Germany before Hitler, otherwise who knows what they might have thought and done in Hitler’s era. Dora Bahlke’s parents came from Mecklenberg and I also have ancestors from Lorraine and Saarland with both French and German names who settled in Pennsylvania Deutchland. My great-grandfather George Christ also came from Germany.

    Your comment reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with Karen Brown who researched Haitain Voudu. At some point she traced an ancestor back to one of the Carribean islands and found that he had held slaves. She said she wanted to write about that.

    I suspect that if we trace our lineages back far enough, all of us have ancestors who did some very nasty things. As I said, most of us who have early American ancestors can be pretty sure they took land from the Indians or took it from those who took it from the Indians and it is likely they also fought the Indians for it or were pleased that others did so.

    The first thing we should all learn from this is to give up our naive belief that any of us are “innocent” if we include our ancestors as part of ourselves.

    Of course it is human nature to admire the bravery and feel for the suffering of our ancestors and to want to “forget” about the sufferings they may have caused others.


  7. Collie, I always told those who said I was abandoning my Christian sisters that I was speaking for formerly Christian women who like me could not in conscience follow the religion of their upbringing and their ancestors. There are a lot of us.

    It is an interesting question to ask what it would mean to stay Christian “for your sisters” even if your conscience told you otherwise. Of course there is a mix of intellectual belief and family history– or what it means to be part of a people–in decisions to stay and to go.


  8. Vrinda I know you share the pain of having chosen a spiritual path that separated you from your family. Being different from a family that cannot accept your difference is a very very difficult thing. So many of us have experienced the pain of that and it never really goes away.


    • Carol, as one who believes in reincarnation, I wanted to stress on how we may even be returning ancestors… With regards to family, my life is too rich in many areas for me to be in pain over family members (or those who chose to bask in race and class privilege and disregard the pain of others). Sorry that you got that impression.


  9. Very interesting! All my life, I’ve been told about my mother’s grandfather who was a draft-dodger in Germany during the Franco-Prussian War (1870). He came to American and settled in Michigan, where my grandmother grew up. I’ve come to wonder if this rebellious great grandfather might have passed down a seed in me. I’ve been something of a rebel all my life. Maybe I learned early on to resist authority.


  10. This is a lovely reflection. As a scholar of African American religions, I often wonder why this piece of spiritual practice often gets left off of our traditions. It seems that we are afraid of the dead. Even reading the biblical literature one is struck with how naming/remembering the ancestors is fundamental in any kind of spiritual practice that requires orientation. You have done a great job here, and I sense how challenging and liberating this kind of narrative/spoken word practice can be. Good thing that there are many many resources for spiritual feminists to draw upon in doing this kind of healing work!


  11. My sister . . . again my ancestral soul is stirred. A part of me feels that some of my body’s remembering includes ancestral memory. Though I have no concept of this, it returns with feminine regularity, and seems to be part of my psyche.

    I also have Huguenot ancestry. You have given me another way to explore my lineage.


  12. A beautifully and insightfully told story, Carol!


  13. Carol, yes it is likely that we all have ancestors who did nasty things, it is just that some of us know about some of the nasty things.

    In the Reclaiming Spiral Dance Halloween ritual they call on the “unquiet dead” among the ancestors. Starhawk told me once that they had always considered this meant those who had suffered. But one year they realised that the unquiet dead were those who had caused suffering, and that when this became part of the ritual it was more powerful than in previous years.


  14. I have not been to a Spiral Dance ritual in many years for obvious reasons–I live in Greece. I am not sure what Star means by the unquiet dead. In my theology the dead are quiet after they have died but the effects of their deeds live on in family traumas and unjust social structures that are passed on. My recommendation would be to adopt the Jewish injunction to repair the world in the names of those ancestors who broke it.

    Recently I have been downloading Who Do You Think You Are and have been amazed at the calmness with which some black Americans featured reacted to the information that their white ancestors raped their black ancestors. In other words they seem to suffer less from the illusion of the innocence of the world than many white people do.


  15. What if I am an ancestor, returning to repair pain inflicted in the past…? What if we are all returning ancestors who come back to repair what was broken by us or by others? Perhaps the narrative of the lamas/buddhas returning out of compassion is our own story, we return our of compassion. Returning to heal the consciously or unconsciously caused harm in the past is not the exclusive patrimony of men, women and embodiments of Goddess return to heal out of a sense of love and responsibility for the beloved children of earth. Perhaps religion here means a certain kind of spirituality which separates the continuum of returning life, and views ancestors spirit force as dead, gone (only their actions keep making waves)… this makes me wonder what do we mean by the death of ancestors in this context, only the end of the physical body? Doesn’t life continue in spirit? Perhaps I am reading from a different epistemology and ontological understanding… I am an ancestor, returning to repair pain inflicted in the past, intent on accepting the misunderstandings, and even move on before inflicting war and conflict… But when we speak from different points of view, and notice the silence around our words, it is time to pass away or move on from a particular time/space intent on creating specific definitions. This is where reality becomes a construct of will, or a work of art… and there is space for many creations. Blessed be


  16. I’m not entirely sure myself of the meaning of “unquiet dead”. I would guess that it referred to those who still had some form of settling their life’s affairs to do, if that is clear enough.

    I do, of course, know of the concept of “tikkun olam”, repairing the world. But I had not known that this should be done in the name of those ancestors who broke it. I think that’s WONDERFUL.

    I had wondered whether to say anything about the idea of “chosen ancestors”, just as many of us have a chosen family in addition (or instead of) our birth family. Decided not to, as Carol’s original post was very much tied to the body and so to ancestors by birth. But I am going to be away much of next week, and probably not able to post; so I just wanted to mention that on February 1st it will be seven years since my dear Asphodel Long died.


  17. My ancestors were Jewish. Many Jewish people whose families immigrated to North America from Europe in the late 19th century or after cannot trace their families back beyond those immigrants for various reasons–sometimes the families simply didn’t discuss the past, often those still in Europe were killed in WWII, so there are no known relatives of a family presently in North America in Europe to contact who might supply information. I came up against this when a nephew’s wife from a Catholic family of Celtic ancestry whose hobby is geneology decided to try to do a family tree for us. She was used to the relative ease of tracing Celtic ancestry and was suprised not to be able to go further than my grandparents’ generation (the immigrants). Because of the problem of tracing Jewish family back, what I call a subgenre of fiction has arisen in which the author invents ancestors, as in Lilian Nattel’s The River Midnight (wonderful book!), or invents stories about known ancestors, such as Joyce Carol Oates’ The Gravedigger’s Daughter, and Michelle Cameron’s The Fruit of Her Hands, which I reviewed in the Vol.7 No. 1 issue of the online journal originating in Canada, Women in Judaism. I would be happy to know about my ancestors from Europe and no doubt elsewhere but I am satisfied to live in the here and now and not get overly obsessive or dependent on the past for identity.


  18. I have recently watched as many episodes of Who Do You Think You Are as I can download. Did you see Lisa Kudrow and June Brown (UK). Lisa was able to find her great-grandmother’s village. June Brown was able to trace her Sephardic ancestors back to the 1600s. I have 2 great-grandfathers who died young and I cannot trace one of them beyond his one appearance on the census 1892 so far. So it is not always easy to trace N European ancestors either. However, I suspect that since the Mormons’ Family Search archives had the original purpose of allowing Mormons to trace their ancestors in order to baptize them, and since most Mormons in the past were of Protestant N Eur. stock, that their archives are skewed towards the N European. As my Mormon brother may baptize me, I sometimes fear waking up someday in Mormon heaven.


  19. I did see the Lisa Kudrow episode. It was a while back, and it seemed more of her relatives were still living than are mine. I know the “village” that most of my relatives lived in the before the Nazis destroyed it/them: Byalistok (3 of my grandparents were from that town or shetls close by.) My grandparents of course all left Europe before WW I, but there were still relatives there during WW II. I remember my maternal grandfather looking at a photograph album in the 1950s, and when I asked who those people in the old photographs were, he just shook his head. There is a Jewish geneology online discussion list, and I joined the Byalistok subgroup but didn’t turn up anything there. Interestingly, my nephew’s wife (I started calling her my niece, but she corrected me, she says it’s neice-in-law) turned up more info from an Italian geneology group on my family (e.g., a marriage certificate probably of my paternal grandparents). Of course the Mormon archives include Jews that they somehow turn into Mormons so they can get into heaven(???? I may not have the reason exactly right.). My neice in law hasn’t investigated that yet. We did manage to find a relative who owns a chain of wine stores in NYC today. I guess that’s progress. Thanks for a provocative post, Carol.


  20. Lisa’s findings were terribly disturbing. Most of her relatives were killed too.



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