DNA, family memory, and how we tell our stories

We’re home and processing so much from the trip: memories, photos, laundry.

We’re also continuing to work through some ongoing family history investigations. Before we left, we connected with a few family members, looking for family history documents and records, some of which we’re continuing to work through.

One of the most interesting is a record, written and annotated by my Grandpa Weaver, of his family line. Grandpa was quite an historian. He and David would have gotten along very well. My earliest and most enduring memories of him involve long and detailed stories about Anabaptist forebears, told in a distinct Pennsylvania Dutch accent that didn’t seem to have faded much after decades of life in the American South. During one family Christmas he insisted that all of the cousins watch The Radicals, a dramatized retelling, produced in 1989, of the story of early Anabaptists Michael and Margaretha Sattler. This was quite an endeavor since I have a lot of cousins, and I don’t think many of us were particularly interested, at that point, in watching a movie about religious persecution. I know I wasn’t. But decades later, I still remember it. Well played, Grandpa.

Here’s what Grandpa Weaver recounted remembered about one of the oldest family connections to the Anabaptist movement (special thanks to Aunt Lois for sending this my way just before we left):

“Our Weber ancestors were involved in the early Anabaptist movement which began in 1525. The earliest record we have now of a direct ancestor is Georg Weber who was arrested and sentenced to prison in the dungeon Otenbach, in Zurich, Switzerland for being an Anabaptist preacher in the 1630s. He already was an old man when he was arrested and was in prison for 72 weeks and nearly died because he was confined in a dark cell. A fellow prisoner who apparently helped serve in prison felt so sorry for him that he told Georg that he would leave his cell door unlocked. Georg escaped that night and returned to his family. This account is given in the Martyr’s Mirror (a later account states he was beheaded). . . . . . . At different times when the persecution raged severe, they would flee to Schaffenhausen, a city on the border with Germany where they were more lenient.

Apparently they eventually decided it was time to get out of dodge. The family made their way to Germantown, Pennsylvania, where they leased farmland from a wealthy English landowner and later purchased land of their own near Blue Ball where my grandmother was born.

Ben in Zurich where this, and a lot of other Anabaptist drama, went down

David also ordered a DNA test just before we left. Initially he planned to take it himself, but Jon stepped in and pointed out that we could get both sides of the family from his sample. That logic won out and we sent his little vial of spit away before flying to Amsterdam.

At the very end of our trip, we got an email saying his results are in!

Given the records we have from all of our families, we expected Jon’s results to be heavily Swiss, with a strong thread of German (my mom did some digging after my Switzerland post and found another family line that definitely has Bavarian roots).

So we were a little surprised when, along with the Germanic heritage we expected, the largest portion of Jon’s results (from both maternal and paternal sides) indicated British ancestry. After a little digging, we realized that this is likely indicating what we’re thinking of as Swiss roots–because the DNA points back farther in time than we were. The Swiss, in other words, must be more closely connected genetically to the British than to their German neighbors.

As amazing as DNA testing is, it’s still a developing science. I hope we’ll learn more in the future, both from family documents and from the science of human genetics, but in the end what matters the most is the stories we construct out of these data points. What parts of early Christian history will we choose to highlight when we tell friends about our travels? Which of our ancestors’ choices will we reference in conversation about what it means to be Anabaptist in 2022? Which photos will end up as canvases on our walls and which will be discarded in the editing process?

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories as I get ready to release my book in the fall. One of its most important arguments is that we don’t pay enough attention to the stories that surround us. Not everyone has the extensive web of family stories that we’ve explored during our pilgrimage trip, of course, but we are all products of stories. Religious stories shape our faith, political stories drive our understandings of citizenship and social responsibility, and cultural stories determine how we think about food, beauty, and even ethics.

As I continue to contemplate these things, our pilgrimage trip has been a humbling reminder that real stories are never simple.

On one hand, I marvel at the amount of detail we have access to (one branch of my family goes back to the 1500s! My DNA is 2% Swedish!). On the other hand, there’s so much that we don’t know. There’s no way for any of us to fully understand the motivations, actions, and contexts of others. And there’s a lot to understand. People are complicated, and so is the history that their lives weave. Recognizing this is important reminder to resist both uncritical celebration and uncharitable criticism in the stories that I contribute to.

So our travels leave us with much to think about.

More to come as the book launch nears, but for now we’re going to lean into summer in Kentucky for awhile.

waiting to view his DNA results

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