Shedding Light on the Family Tree: A Quiet Faith

The tenth in a series of posts about my family tree.
Inspired by Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Prompt: Worship

Worship is an insanely personal thing. My grandfather Stanley McDonall, an irascible yet wise man in his own way, used to say, “No one needs to know your religion, your politics, or how much money you make.” Of course these days everybody seems to want to share everything about themselves, privacy being as foreign a concept to this generation as it was protected by our ancestors. It’s as if sharing even the most intimate details of our lives somehow validates our existence. With this in mind, as I share my thoughts on family and worship, I do it with the deepest respect for the subject matter and for the people whose stories I share.

“If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.”

Matthew 17:30, New Testament, King James Bible

It’s the thought that counts

My focus turns to the subject of faith for without it worship is a hollow shell indeed. Faith requires that we suspend the need for proof; that we trust in the process of life and its many challenges and keep forging ahead with as much courage as we can muster. During many a family storm a belief in something greater has proven an important anchor. It’s the kind of faith that moves metaphorical mountains, not necessarily attends church every week. Faith based on personal devotions, beliefs and philosophies which support independence of thought and self-expression through music, art and the written word.

Labels can be bothersome, however it’s true to say that our ancestry is steeped in Christian tradition. Of course, this covers a multitude of dogmas and practices all of which offer unique interpretations of scripture and often compete to be the one and only truth. The fact is there are as many truths as there are people on the planet. We all view life through our own filters. Finding the belief system that most closely matches our personal truth is an important part of the journey, as is respecting the right of others to do the same. The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” applies in spades.

Our family’s belief system is influenced by Anglican, Presbyterian, Protestant, Latter-day Saint, Quaker, Christian Science, Salvation Army, Catholic and, way back when, Jewish thought. Indeed, my own personal explorations of Buddhist and Yogic teachings as well as Evolutionary Astrology have broadened my scope of thought on matters of faith and spirituality even more.

“Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He will direct they path.”

Proverbs 3: 5, 6 ~ Old Testament, King James Bible

Church attendance

Church attendance has had its place in our family story. Of the Scottish experience my maternal grandmother, Alice (Gordon) McDonall, shares the following in her memoir:

“On Sundays we always went to church. Officially we were Anglicans but we also went in winter to the Salvation Army which was closer or to the Baptist for the same reason, and sometimes to the Presbyterian, which was supposed to be Dad’s church. He gave them a donation each year, but never went. The donations to these various churches were given so that we children could go there and be welcome.”

Source: Memoir of Alice (Gordon) McDonall, Family Archives

The family’s experience later, in rural Alberta, was quite different:

“Religion was often discussed. There were no churches around the country. Once in a while a brave soul would walk into the country carrying a Bible, looking for a place to sleep and hoping to get the use of the school house to hold a meeting or two. Someone would warm up the school house. The news was passed around that there would be a church meeting on a certain Sunday. Few people ever turned up for the meeting. These “preachers” were usually of the evangelical type. They usually walked into the country through the terrible cold. They were poor. They were hungry, but they had this Word that they were on fire over and wanted to spread it. I am sure that our dear Lord noticed them and loved them. Steve McDonall fed more than one of them. People sometimes laughed at them. I am glad I did not. I liked going to their meetings. We met other people there and had visits as well as we found out how this stranger preached. They got no money out of it. No collections were taken. The preachers usually arrived broke flat and they left broke flat and their coming and leaving scarcely noticed.”

Source: Memoir of Alice (Gordon) McDonall, Family Archives

Sacred music has always been a form of worship. Singing hymns around the piano or participating in a church choir is a worshipful pastime. My mother recalls playing her grandparents’ piano and singing the hymn Nearer My God to Thee while her grandmother Mary harmonized with her lovely alto voice. Everyone sang; everyone played an instrument; everyone worshipped through music. God-given talents were to be developed and gifted back to God. Sacred music provided an important healing balm.

The Good Book and Others

Faith was supported by Scripture, and as a primary source of comfort and inspiration the large family Bible was displayed prominently for all to reference. It was also the repository for important family dates, including births, deaths and marriages. As well, each family member owned a personal set of Scriptures from which they could study, highlighting passages that fuelled faith, offered solace and provided hope.

Psalm 23 was popular among the family:

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
3 He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For Thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
Thou anointest my head with oil;
My cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord

from the Old Testament, King James Version

Source: Dorothy Chiotti, Aimwell CreativeWorks

However, achieving personal enlightenment was not restricted to the study of religious text. Great grandpa Steve McDonall was known for his collection of philosophical, religious and spiritual books. Conflicted by his beliefs, he desperately sought confirmation of God’s existence. He had faith, yet doubted it. He was kind to strangers, yet hard on his family. From granny Alice’s memoir:

“Steve’s hobbies were first reading. He read an awful lot. And it always was informative books. French, agnostics and atheists. Voltaire a favourite. The American, Ingersoll. He had a chair beside the living room table and on the table were books and books and more books. Two or three dictionaries. Grandma would get so fed up of all these books on the table, but [knew] she had to leave them there. I can see them yet and his two or three pair of glasses beside them and sometimes his pad and pen for making notes. There were nearly all either pro religion or no religion. He, I think, wanted God to be real very badly. But Steve had to have proof of everything. He told people he was an atheist. But I know he was not.

Memoir of Alice (Gordon) McDonall

Until recently the writings of Robert Ingersoll (1833 – 1899), an American lawyer, writer, and orator during the Golden Age of Free Thought, known for campaigning in defence of agnosticism and nicknamed “The Great Agnostic,” were unfamiliar to me. With a desire to understand how his writings might have influenced my great grandpa’s thoughts, especially since he professed himself an agnostic, I did an online search.

Ingersoll wrote the following:

“Religion can never reform mankind because religion is slavery. It is far better to be free, to leave the forts and barricades of fear, to stand erect and face the future with a smile. It is far better to give yourself sometimes to negligence, to drift with wave and tide, with the blind force of the world, to think and dream, to forget the chains and limitations of the breathing life, to forget purpose and object, to lounge in the picture gallery of the brain, to feel once more the clasps and kisses of the past, to bring life’s morning back, to see again the forms and faces of the dead, to paint fair pictures for the coming years, to forget all Gods, their promises and threats, to feel within your veins life’s joyous stream and hear the martial music, the rhythmic beating of your fearless heart. And then to rouse yourself to do all useful things, to reach with thought and deed the ideal in your brain, to give your fancies wing, that they, like chemist bees, may find art’s nectar in the weeds of common things, to look with trained and steady eyes for facts, to find the subtle threads that join the distant with the now, to increase knowledge, to take burdens from the weak, to develop the brain, to defend the right, to make a palace for the soul. This is real religion. This is real worship.”

Robert Green Ingersoll, The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, Vol. IV

Ingersoll was an independent thinker whose thoughts resonated with my great grandfather’s continuous search for proof of God’s existence. Raised with religion I have, over time, adopted a faith that more accurately reflects several influences and a heaping dose of my own wisdom gained from a lifetime of personal experience and years of personal work. While there is much to celebrate about organized religion, perhaps the greatest is the exercising of our free will to self-determine our spiritual destiny.

Climbing the tree

While researching this article I climbed the tree in search of an ancestor who demonstrated some independence of thought and stood up for what he believed, and found Zaccheus Gould through the Sumner line. Born in Bovington in 1589, in the parish of Hemel Hempsted, County of Hertford, England, he emigrated with his wife, Phebe Deacon, and five children to New England in 1638. He was well known within the Topsfield, Massachusetts community, but not always for what some would consider the right reasons. We are descended through his daughter, Priscilla.

“In 1660 Zaccheus Gould was fined for entertaining Quakers, but “on account of his loss by fire,” the fine was remitted. It is written of him that he was a man of strong personality, decided convictions zealous in maintaining his rights, with a strong sense of justice, and liberal in his religious views, the latter a trait of character the Puritans could never tolerate. He had an altercation with Governor Winthrop in regard to the naming of Topsfield, and a suit-at-law with Governor Endicott respecting the boundaries of their adjoining estates. He maintained friendly relations with the Quakers and Baptists, though both were proscribed, and more than once was severely fined for entertaining Quakers. Incensed by such persecutions, he thereafter refused to attend church services, and was subjected to additional fines for this misdemeanor.”

(Heroes of the Revolution, Whittemore, 176-182.)

Quite by coincidence (or was it?) I was further led to a family chart in Zaccheus’ file which identified his son, John, Priscilla’s brother, as a 3rd great grandfather of Joseph Smith, another independent thinker, who founded the Mormon church in April 1830 in Palmyra, New York. This makes us 3rd cousins 12 times removed.


I feel like I’m all over the map with this one. How, what and where we worship is so personal and not really open to outside interpretation. Even in exploring my family’s faith I might draw conclusions which are, well, wrong. Still, I’m not judging. By observation, and through conversation with my mother about her parents and grandparents, I have a sense that worship was simply woven into the fabric of their lives, whether through daily Bible study; the playing of music or through their interactions with the community-at-large. Of course, some family members were better at it than others. We are humans with frailties, after all. Still to the best of my knowledge the family, individually and collectively, did their best to uphold the Golden Rule which is, in my humble opinion, the sincerest form of worship. ❦

4 thoughts on “Shedding Light on the Family Tree: A Quiet Faith

  1. Very interesting, I enjoy so much the reading. We could learn and understand so much from our ancestors it’s very fascinating. I’m intrigued to know the history of my family. But by your writing s I started to think, we all are one big family. Thank you

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Tamara. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. We are all connected. I hope you will investigate your heritage. It’s so enriching and healing to know who came before us and how their experiences impact our own. I’m enjoying the journey very much. 🙏✨😊

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