It shouldn’t be surprising that our ancestors were not universally loved, even the most virtuous of them. Therefore, when we are writing a biography of an ancestor, how do we include their bad press? Watching the political race this season is a reminder that just because someone says something about the other candidate doesn’t make it true, but it very well might have an element of truth and we must address it. We need to be thorough reporters to make sure we get our facts correct and write a fair and objective summary of the event. We need to track every lead to ferret out the truth so that anyone fact checking us later won’t find something to contradict our description.
In my “exhaustive” search for documents related to Rev. John McNair, I found the diary of Matthias Zahm who lived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania during the same time period. It is obvious from his description of Rev. McNair, that he did not like him at all. Zahm mentions a temperance event in March 1846 where the Daughters of Temperance presented a Bible to the Sons of Temperance at the Lutheran Church of Lancaster. He goes on to say:
“It came off to the satisfaction of both Societies, although great efforts were made by some sectarian snakes in the grass, The mind of the Rev’d John McNair was warped to such a degree, that, although a Member of the Division, he positively refused to take any part in the matter, the Revd George Glessner took offence, because the Lutheran Church was taken, in preference of the German Reformed, where he officiates as Pastor and he took no part in it; the Revd – Thomas said that he has only been a looker on in Venice, and therefore, he refused to even offer up a prayer during the ceremony of presentation of the (Bible) thus deserted by the whole of the Clergy, except the Revd George F. Bahnson……………so unexpected they seen the Revd John McNair make his appearance in the church; for what purpose is best known to God, and the Revd Gentleman himself, certain it is that while there, No part of the ceremony was allotted to him.”[i]
Wow! I was a little startled by the language Zahm used in reference to Rev. McNair; it was the first negative description I have seen of him so far. I have to see what caused this reaction and determine if it indicates something more pervasive about Rev. McNair’s character.
- There was a Temperance event where both the Sons and Daughters of Temperance were in attendance.
- Supporters of both organizations were also members of different religious denominations in the community.
- Rev. McNair (Presbyterian) and ministers from other denominations declined to participate and/or speak at the event.
- One minister did agree to speak, Rev. George F. Bahnson (a Moravian minister).
- Though Rev. McNair had declined to participate in the ceremony, he attended the meeting.
What questions should we be asking? Where should we be looking for the answers?
- What church denomination was Mattias Zahm from? (diary, biography etc.)
- What were Zahm’s background and prejudices? (diary, biography etc.)
- What was the history of the different denominations getting along when fighting for the same cause? (Newspapers, history of society, church histories)
- What would be the reason that Rev. McNair and the other ministers would decline to participate? (Newspapers, history of society, church histories)
- Are there other examples of Rev. McNair not getting along with others? (continue searching all resources in the locations he lived in)
- Why did Rev. McNair choose to attend the meeting? (Newspapers, history of society, church histories)
- Who was Rev. George F. Bahnson and why did he agree to participate? (Newspapers, history of society, church histories, biography and/or personal papers)
What else should I research? Where else should I check? Of course, I might never be able to find additional information about this particular event, but I have to try. Remember not to ignore the negative observations about your ancestors, it might even make a richer story to include them.
[i] Robert H. Goodell, “Matthias Zahm’s Diary,” Lancaster County Historical Society 48 (1943): 61-92, specifically 85.