Friday, 25 July 2014


'Lion of the Lord' Brigham Young (1801-1877)
A few months ago (Feb 2014) there was a press release that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be given free subscriptions to the, FindMyPast and the MyHeritage websites in the near future. This is the result of a deal where these commercial websites will be able to use LDS Church’s records on their sites. Mormons will get free access to them from home.
I hear people often ask: do the Mormons own The answer is no. It was originally started by two students of Brigham Young University in 1984. It currently has its headquarters is in Provo, Utah, a city with a 98% Mormon population which is home to the Mormon Missionary Training Centre, Brigham Young University and the Osmond brothers. But it is, after a few changes of ownership, now a publicly listed NASDAQ company owned by a number of companies and equity firms. None of which are specifically Mormon. The Mormons do own which is a free non-profit website.
I thought I would do some research to see if I had any Mormon ancestors. Not knowing how to approach this I thought my ancestors from Utah would be a good place to start. Abigail Armstrong Lees was born in Ogden, Utah in 1857. She was my Great Great Grandmother. Her parents emigrated from Britain in the 1850’s. When they arrived they decided to head westward, to what was one of the frontiers of settlement back then. They ended up in Ogden, Utah not far from Salt Lake City. Her father Samuel was a locksmith.

                                                           Abigail Armstrong Lees (1857-1894)
Abigail married Pierre McDonald Bleecker in 1881 in Ogden. He was an Episcopalian (Anglican) minister and had come to Utah as a missionary from Scarsdale, New York. I assume he was there to convert ‘Indians’ not Mormons. Abigail’s sister Fannie also married an Episcopalian minister named William F Bulkley. A friend of Pierre’s no doubt. Another sister, Lucy, married Pierre’s brother Charles. Most of the other Lees siblings never married or had few children. Abigail and Rev Pierre after 6 years moved back east to New Jersey. He preferred the weather over there. In 1894 Abigail died while in childbirth having only one surviving child, my Great Grandmother.
None of the Lees family seemed to be Mormons then. But I should ask are they Mormons now? The reason that Mormons have always had such an interest in collecting and preserving genealogical records is because they believe they can convert their ancestors to Mormonism. This they do through a process called Baptism for the Dead.
The prophet Joseph Smith in August 1840 first introduced this practice in a funeral sermon for one of his followers quoting Corinthians 15:29 "Else what shall they do which are baptised for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptised for the dead?" This is the only biblical passage that says this and there has been a lot of debate as to what St Paul meant by it. Nevertheless it is thought that this was a practice of some persecuted early Christian groups who were afraid they, or their family members, might be killed before they were baptised. The Mormons, at the time Joseph Smith jr, made this Church doctrine were also being severely persecuted and must have had similar fears.

Joseph Smith jr (1805-1844)
Founder of The Church of the Latter Day Saints
I was really looking in the wrong place to see if I have any Mormon ancestors. I thought about it and remembered once meeting a distant relative (5th cousin) of mine who was a Mormon. This was in the 1980s. If he was baptising his ancestors then he was baptising a lot of mine as well! If I had other living cousins who were Mormon then a lot more of my ancestors are Mormons. I then realized that all of my ancestors could be Mormons and I would have no idea of it.
I looked at the Mormon website, Alonzo A Hinckley was an Apostle of the LDS Church. Most of the Hinckley's in the US come from Samuel Hinckley (1589-1662) a Massachusetts puritan. It's also my mother's maiden name. He is a distant cousin of mine, no doubt.
Alonzo A Hinckley (1870-1936) Twelfth Apostle of the LDS Church
I wonder how this all works?  if you were a Mormon who was really bad at genealogy would you end up baptizing other people’s ancestors? I often see on a lot of bodgie family trees that people have uploaded.  They are the ones with 150 year old ancestors or ancestors getting married when they were 9 years old etc etc. Is this a problem? Also if you only had fragmentary information about an ancestor eg all you knew was that her name was Mary or his first initial was J is that enough for a baptism? If you have no information about an ancestor you know they must have had a mother and a father. Can you baptise them? If you did accidently baptise someone else’s ancestors what would happen then? Is that a problem? If not, why not just baptise every dead person who ever existed?
Looking on the Wikipedia website about Baptism for the Dead it names a few people that have been baptised posthumously including Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, All of the US presidents, Genghis Khan, Pope John Paul II and Gautama Buddha, (Liberace isn’t mentioned). What is going on here? I always imagined that Hitler and Stalin were rotting somewhere in the pits of fiery Hell. Who was the bright person who thought this was a good idea?
I imagine now all these baptised ancestors must be up in Mormon heaven sitting at a large table having a lovely dinner with Brigham Young and his wives (all 55 of them). They would all be chewing on their steaks, except for Hitler of course who would be having something vegetarian. They would be wistfully reminiscing about their lives. Hitler would be explaining how his last days in Berlin were not spent organizing a flight to South America but was spent packaging and posting a copy of Das Buch Mormon to his distant relatives in New York.

Adolf Hitler (1898-1945) not my ancestor

This practice has seriously upset some religious groups including the Catholic Church (who are still coming to terms with their last Pope becoming a Mormon) but mostly from Jewish groups. Holocaust survivors find this incredibly insensitive and have asked the LDS Church to remove Holocaust names from their genealogical databases. In 1995 responding to pressure 300,000 names were removed. However in 2012 a news story revealed that Anne Frank had been posthumously baptised. This was for the ninth time.
Baptism has always been a fundamental practice for almost all denominations of the Christian Church. It has a symbolic spiritual meaning for individuals but it is also an initiation rite for the Church. As adults we can choose to follow the doctrine of a church or we can leave and find another Church if we don’t like it. Not every Church member has that choice. Babies and young children don’t. Nor do the dead. 
By baptising ‘dead ancestors’ what you are really doing is taking away choice from the living. Why follow the doctrine of any Church when you’re going to end up in Mormon heaven someday anyway. 
The Book of Morman (musical) 

NIHIL OBSTAT: I have concluded that the materials
presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors.
Bernadeane O'Brien, STL, Censor Librorum   JULY, 2014
IMPRIMATUR: In accord with 1983 CIC 942
permission to publish this work is hereby granted.

Saturday, 12 July 2014


Countries, like people, have creation stories. They are what we choose to believe are our origins. For us as individuals we have personal stories that we create.  They might be part of a family story that we were told and have amended to fit our lives. They give us meaning and an identity. If you think you don’t have a story, well, that’s a story too. There is always a story whether we are aware of it or not. Countries have stories that their inhabitants collectively create. But what is a country? It only really exists in the collective heads of its inhabitants. As do its creation stories.
People in the United States have all heard the story of the Mayflower and the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’. It is one of the primary creation myths of that country. A ship carrying 102 English Puritans fleeing from religious persecution sailed from Plymouth, England in 1620 and landed in what is now the state of Massachusetts.

 They were pious hard working people looking for religious freedom and a better life. Their survival of the first winter they experienced in North America is still celebrated every year in November on Thanksgiving Day.
There are many Americans who can count an ancestor who was a passenger on that ship. I have read estimates that there are between 20 and 30 million living Americans who can do that. This is all the more amazing when you think there were only 102 Pilgrims on the Mayflower and only 48 of them had children.
One of the Mayflower passengers was Stephen Hopkins (1581-1644) who was my G G G G G G G G G Grandfather. Stephen Hopkins was a bit different from the other Puritans fathers in that he wasn’t a puritan and he wasn’t particularly religious at all. He was a shopkeeper and clerk and was looking for a better life. Historians now believe he had been to North America before.
In 1607 three ships chartered by the Virginia Company sailed up Chesapeake Bay, landed in present day Virginia and founded the first permanent English colony in North America. This was 13 years before the Mayflower. Stephen Hopkins, it is now believed, arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1610 on the ship Sea Venture having left his wife and children behind in England.

 The Jamestown Virginia settlement was completely different from the Massachusetts settlement. It was started by a chartered company who sent out colonists to make money for them. The colonists themselves were there to get rich. They weren’t interested in farming, they wanted to find gold or some other precious commodity. As a result the early years of the colony were marked by fights with the ‘Indians’, fights between themselves and starvation. Excavations have found human teeth marks on some of the colonist’s bones.

There was no Thanksgiving Day in Jamestown, at least not in the early years, It would be more appropriate to have a Cannibalism Day or Greed Day. Not a great creation story for a nation.

Stephen Hopkins arrived in 1610 and returned to England in 1614 when he received news that his wife had died. He remarried and returned to the new world on the Mayflower with his new wife, one of his sons two daughters and a servant. Stephen would have been an invaluable companion for the Pilgrims as he had experience of America and its native people. He would have thought he was going back to Virginia as this was the Pilgrims intention. Once the Mayflower had arrived in Massachusetts circumstances prevented it going further. I wonder what we would be eating on Thanksgiving Day if they had made it to Virginia.
Stephen Hopkins initial journey to Virginia in 1609 was an interesting one. The ship he was on (‘Sea Venture’) was sunk in a storm and he ended up a castaway on the island of Bermuda along with 150 other passengers and crew. An account of this shipwreck was written by William Strachey, True Reportory of the Wrack, and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight, and is thought to be one of the primary sources that William Shakespeare used when writing his play ‘The Tempest’ which was first presented in November 1610.
There is a character in ‘The Tempest’ who is said to be based on Stephen Hopkins. As I understand it, this is because the play is about a quarrelsome group of castaways and Stephen was the most quarrelsome of them all. In fact he was such a complainer that at one point he was charged with mutiny and narrowly avoided being executed. I don’t know how much of his character would have been used in Shakespeare’s play other than this.
 The survivors on Bermuda eventually managed to put aside their differences enough to build a couple of ships and set sail for Jamestown, Virginia in May 1610.
Interestingly, on Stephen Hopkins return journey to North America on the Mayflower he came with his second wife Elizabeth, his son Giles Hopkins and with a servant Edward Doty (abt 1599-1655). Edward Doty is also an ancestor of mine although on my father’s side of my tree. I also have 3 other ancestors who were on the Mayflower and one of them appears twice in my tree (my parents are cousins). If you count the other 7 children of the 6 ancestors I have who were on the Mayflower, there hasn’t been another such large group of people from my family tree on one boat ever. (unless you count a trip we did with Uncle Joe to Monhegan Island in the summer of 1972). But this is true for a lot of Americans.

Stephen Hopkins owned a tavern in Plymouth and often was in conflict with the Pilgrim elders. He let “men drink in his house upon the Lords day” and was fined “for suffering servants and others to sit drinking in his house” (contrary to Court orders) and “for selling wine, beere, strong waters, and nutmeggs at excessiue rates”, among other things. He died in 1644.

The Jamestown settlement, after shipping back to England a load of iron pyrite (Fools Gold), was only saved economically by a settler named John Rolfe who tried planting some tobacco seeds he had found on the island of Bermuda. This started Virginia’s most profitable agricultural industry.  We’re all still living with the consequences of that. 

So which story do we choose for our origins, a story of rapacious wastrels who are trying to increase their material wealth or a story of people looking for toleration and spiritual freedom? In a sense they are both stories of people looking for a better life. They are both part of our human story. In a sense they are both stories that we can find within our individual selves.
As adults we see through the gilded stories we were told as children and understand the gritty/ dirty reality of life and human motivation. We think it ‘realistic’ but aren’t we just creating another story? A story more detailed perhaps, more ‘realistic’ but nonetheless just another story. Could we also say this is just as true of our personal life story?

Which creation myth have you chosen?