Solomon was correct when he made that statement in Ecclesiastes 1:9. He's better known for the last sentence in that verse ... So nothing is new under the sun ... and I found that out as I did some personal research into the history of my family's faith. I hope you will indulge me as I share my discoveries, because I was surprised at how much I recognized in their experiences. What I found out in the life of the Church in my great-great-great grandfather's time is being mirrored in today's Body of Christ.
I have long been interested in trying to figure out my family's disparate modes of faith. Unlike many families who can look back on a long line of ancestors whose love of the Lord was passed down through the generations, there was no unified profession of faith in my childhood home. My mother was a Believer and from an early age, I knew about Jesus, as she somehow found a way to introduce Him to me and then send me and my siblings to Vacation Bible School programs. She was a stay-at-home mom with no car and five young children to care for, so I'm not sure how we were transported, but she got us there. My father was not a Believer, although he supported our exposure to Church, and, as the oldest of the five, he instructed me to watch out for my brother and sister as he dropped us off at Sunday School. My Mom stayed home with the babies... not exactly a "family experience".
You see, my father loved searching our family's genealogy, and before his death, he sent me a copy of a microfiched 1870 article on my four times great-grandfather and his six sons. The patriarch of the family was a man named John Dodgson, whom the article said "came over in a ship from England with a gang of boys in 1821" to settle on a farm in Illinois. The article also said "If there is anything peculiar to the Dodgson family than another, it was their uniform piety and strong adherence to churches". It was John's first son Thomas who would be my direct ancestor; Thomas's daughter Mary would marry a man from whom I received my maiden last name. But it seems that Mary Dodgson's faith in God did not translate to her new husband's family, nor down the generations to my father.
So I read, with fascination, about the consistency of faith in John Dodgson's family, and I marveled at the level of their devotion to God. John was quoted as saying [regarding his conversion experience], "If the house in Old England were yet standing, he could still go and point within six inches of where the Lord, for Christ's sake, pardoned his sins!" And it was "his great care and prayer" that all six of his sons would come to know and love the Lord as he had. He lived to see those prayers answered. But, it makes me sad that down through the generations, that family devoutness was diminished, and my father, John's great-great-great-grandson, was neither schooled nor encouraged to know Jesus.
But what was as equally fascinating as my ancestors' piety, was the description of their faith. Throughout the article there were references to "warm times in Wesleyan Methodism", and after some investigation, I discovered that warm referred to dramatic experiences of conversion, including what today is referred to as "being slain in the Spirit", or instances of fainting as the Holy Spirit comes upon a person. And not surprisingly, there developed a schism within the Methodist Church, between those who believed this reaction was Biblical and those who accused them of being led astray.
As I read further in the article that chronicled the faith of the Dodgson family, it was revealed that the religious differences within the local community resulted in a debate between Church leaders, the Rev. J.M. Peck and the Rev. Peter Hobson. Peck took a stance that "a little learning is a dangerous thing" and referred to the Believers who agreed with Hobson as infidels, and he feared that "a great many would be shaken in their faith and never find their way back".
By the way, my ancestors concurred with Rev. Hobson, whom the article went on to call "a Boston Investigator" man in religion. What did that mean? Here's what I found out ... "In religion, it [a Boston Investigator[ is the fearless advocate of open and fair investigation, opposed to every species of coercion for the dissemination of opinions, and rejecting all theories as erroneous, that will not bear the test of reasonable examination, however strongly they may have entrenched themselves under the barriers of antiquated formulas, tributary customs, or a pretended divine revelation . . . . Our object is to call the attention of the public from the visionary dreams of superstition and fanaticism, which has too long infested the moral world, to things of known realities, or facts that may be known, which tend to promote the happiness of man in his present state of being, the only state of which we have any knowledge. We wish to not interfere with religion by any coercive means, or any legal enactments: but to leave it entirely to support itself, and to stand or fall upon its own foundation. Its kingdom is professedly not of this world then it should have nothing to do with worldly affairs; but let it be supported wholly by spiritual means, by argument, by persuasion, and not by law".
Maybe, I'm misunderstanding what this is telling me, but it seems as if we are seeing the same old struggle in the Church here ... on one side is the group who oppose Believers seeking a greater knowledge of God and who prefer to hold to man's traditions and doctrines over any new revealed understanding of God through His Word -- and on the other side is the group who support the freedom to reasonably examine Scripture by being a good Berean (rejecting anything not backed up by Scripture); and seeking spiritual guidance from the Holy Spirit as to God's revealed Truth.
Furthermore, my research revealed there was another major division between these two groups: Peck took a stance in favor of strict predestination doctrine, while Hobson believed in God's gift of free will to accept or reject Him. And it looks like for the better part of a century, my family fully and enthusiastically sought and accepted God. And within the next century, that faith had deteriorated to a rejection based on apathy.
I don't know what all contributed to the lack of faith in the next three generations of my family. But I think it is clear that one of satan's favorite schemes is to get the Church involved in endless debates over man's traditions and doctrines instead of truly seeking God. He gets Christians to focus on each other, rather than our Savior, and encourages us to find fault; each thinking they have found the true path to Heaven's gates. None of that persuades the Unsaved to seek out the Church or to find hope in Jesus.
I am just thankful and grateful that God never stopped pursuing me. And it shows me that God can overcome generations of indifference and denial; that there exists in the heart of every man or woman the desire to know our Creator. My great-great-great grandfather, Thomas Dodgson, didn't accept Jesus until he was 40 years old in 1837, and exactly 150 years later, my faith was established as an adult, too. What is ironic is that the schisms that were occurring in the Church prior to the Civil War are the same ones that the Church is experiencing today. Satan's playbook never changes. But he also has not achieved the complete victory he is seeking. There will always be those in every generation who reject the devil's temptations and answer Jesus's knock at the door.
But as Solomon expressed in his wisdom, the generations don't seem to remember what has occurred before them, and so are destined to repeat the futility of their struggles. I thank God that He is patient and compassionate, and willing to wait on those of us who come to Him late. I am also grateful to have this history of my family's faith because it shows me that God truly desires to lose no one ... I am the evidence of that.
Psalm 71:18 "So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim Your might to another generation, Your power to all those to come".