Thursday, November 22, 2018

Thanksgiving and the Mayflower Society

Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash
I had the blessing of knowing my great-grandmother, Gertlie Brooks née Edgerton. She was a classy sort of woman. She always had her hair done. She liked nice clothes. Her home was filled with interesting furniture and she always had those strawberry candies I looked forward to. I grew up knowing that there was something special about her side of our family. As it turns out, her family was deeply connected to the history of our country, I just never knew the story.

Then along came my passion for family history. I was bit by the genealogy bug and did what many newbies do when they get access to the Ancestry database - I added all the names other people had in their trees! I just added and added and next thing I knew I had a Mayflower passenger in my tree! Could I really be descended from Pilgrim Elder William Brewster?

In honor of my Mayflower passenger ancestors, Elder William and Mary Brewster, I'd like to share with you the process that I took to join the General Society of Mayflower Descendants. As we are remembering all that we have to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, and as we look back at that first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, here is the path I took to reconnect with my ancestors.

Why I wanted to join the Mayflower Society

As I became more involved in the genealogy community, I realized the importance of proper documentation for relationships listed in my tree. Otherwise, my family tree might be no more than a collection of fables! So I collected evidence, I confirmed relationships, and I polished my tree up. But, I still didn't have access to documentation prior to the 1800s. What was I to do if I wanted to confirm that I was descended from William Brewster?

There are many reasons to join a lineage society, but the most immediate benefit - for me - of joining the Mayflower Society is that they already have documentation and proofs for Mayflower passenger descendants for many generations. So instead of me having to reinvent the wheel, and re-finding all of the original documents, I can connect myself to a community that holds that research.

Besides wanting to access records and research, I also wanted to join the Mayflower Society to preserve my own research. It's a way of backing up my work in a safe place for generations to come. Additionally, it's another way to connect with other genealogists - and distant cousins - with a shared interest in the Mayflower and American history. And then there's the added benefit of being able to say not only with pride but also with surety: my ancestor Mary Brewster helped cook the first Thanksgiving meal! Historians and genealogists - peers and superiors - have reviewed and confirmed my descent. It's no fable, after all!

The application process

I began the application process for the Mayflower Society (GSMD) by first collecting my lineage starting with William Brewster and working down to myself. By looking at the GSMD website, I saw that I'd need to apply through one of the member societies that the GSMD has organized by state. This took me to the Virginia Mayflower Society website where I was able to read about the application process and find the Preliminary Review Form to submit to the state historian. This Preliminary Review Form allows a potential member to know how many generations of their lineage have already been proven by previous applicants.

On the Preliminary Review Form, I listed William Brewster on the first generation line, and I worked down generation to generation until I listed myself on the 16th generation. This means William Brewster is my 13th great-grandfather! I submitted this form on 26 Feb 2017. After hearing back from the state historian, my application was given to one of the assistant historians to work with more directly. By 3 Mar 2017, I knew that the Mayflower Society already had proven the first nine generations! That meant I only needed to prove generation 10 through 16!

I was ready to submit nearly all of the documentation by the end of March. My assistant historian from Virginia allowed me to submit digital files of all documentation. This was not only efficient, but it was faster and creates a solid backup of my files. Over the course of the next month, I had to order a few more documents on my great grandparents and grandparents, but it was a fairly smooth process. The GSMD does require all marriage and divorce documents for the most recent three generations though. For families like mine with a lot of divorce, it does present a bit more work....but it's worth it!

The final review of my complete application was done by 29 Apr 2017 and my the final signed application was sent to the GSMD headquarters in Plymouth on 10 May 2017. I then had to wait a bit for the national historian to approve my application but on 17 Aug 2017 I was given word that my application was approved! My hard work had paid off!

The Religious Context of the Mayflower Voyage

Photo by Stephen Radford on Unsplash
Over the course of American history, our country has produced a narrative that has formed our sense of national identity. We are a people of immigrants, of those seeking religious freedom and of the poor hoping for social advancement. Of course this community story is one that not all have had access to - but thankfully our country is also one of ideals and of hope. And so we press on hoping for those ideals to be experienced by all! Those first European immigrants to the New World came for many reasons too. Some for gold, some for land, and others for the peace that comes by following their conscious in issues of faith.

These first Europeans were (by and large) from England. So we need to look at the religious context of these English immigrants. The 16th century was one of great religious upheaval in England. In 1534, with the Act of Supremacy, the reigning English monarch (Henry VIII at the time) became the supreme head of the Church of England instead of the Pope of Rome. By 1549 (during the reign of Edward VI), the first Book of Common Prayer was published for the Church of England. From 1554 until 1559, the Church of England was again in communion with the Church of Rome under the reign of Mary I. But with the reign of Elizabeth I, the Church of England was reestablished and the reform movement was firmly planted in England.

Context is everything here. During the early years of the Protestant Reformation, there were some who wanted more reform than the established Church of England was doing. These various groups are collectively called dissenters. Most had varied religious beliefs and many went to mainland Europe for religious freedom. In 1560, the Geneva Bible was published in Switzerland. This was a popular translation for dissenters and was the first English Bible to be divided into verses. In 1611, the King James Bible was published and it was in 1620 that the Mayflower landed on the shores of the New World.

Who was William Brewster?

Elder William Brewster
William Brewster was an educated dissenter born about 1566 in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, England. He moved from England to Holland in 1608 where he became the leader and elder of a separatist congregation. More than merely a dissenter, William Brewster was also a separatist rather than a Puritan. You can read more about the distinction between Pilgrims and Puritans here.

The lives of William Brewster and his family always come to my mind during the Thanksgiving season. They left their their families twice - first in England and second in Holland. They left the comfort of a world they knew for the prospect of being in a place where they could worship as their conscience dictated. And for the blessing to be able to do this in the New World, and for their survival - they gave thanks to their God. Of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower, 45 died during the first winter. There were 18 women that came on the Mayflower, but only four were left by that first Thanksgiving. William Brewster's wife Mary was one of those four women.

So often in our national narrative of Thanksgiving, we remember the idealized picture of peace and mutual appreciation. Or, we debate that narrative and talk about the other side of the story - that of conquest and religious subjection. But few discuss the very personal experience of men and women who lost so much for the chance to worship out in the open. Few discuss the strength it must have taken to continue to hope, to continue to have faith in a world so filled with pain and loss. The strength that it takes to give thanks to God in times when we feel the world is so utterly out of our control.

And so today, I give thanks for my ancestors and their example to "rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).


Genealogy is an intensely personal venture. It's a journey that takes us from the comfort of our own family stories into the often challenging truths that we discover. It's personal because it strikes at the very core of our identities but it is also personal in the sense that it's relational. I feel more connected to my ancestors the more I discover who they were, what they fought for, and what they endured.

My journey to join the Mayflower Society has brought the English Reformation to life for me. It has made English history relevant. It has taken a yearly Thursday meal and turned it into a moment of remembrance of brave men and women who endured. 

Have you discovered Mayflower passenger ancestors in your family? Have you joined the Mayflower Society? How do you connect and encounter your ancestors during the Thanksgiving season?

I wish all of you a blessed Thanksgiving and that you too can encounter your ancestors today through family history research and remember the past made present!

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