We Are Not Responsible For Our Forefather’s Sins

I am going to say something that may come across as confrontational; we are not responsible for our forefather’s sins.

History is History

After watching several of the genealogy shows it amazes me that the people on them celebrate their ancestors who pushed the limits of the law and ideas of the time, whether it was being an outlaw, running a brothel, or being a smuggler, but mention a relationship to history that offends our current sense of morality, due to the abhorrent nature of the situation, and people immediately want to excommunicate that ancestor from their family.

We find it fascinating that our forefather was an outlaw, but it is reprehensible that he owned slaves.  It is a great topic of discussion that our ancestor served time in prison, or was hanged, for murder, but it is a sin that he served in the Nazi army.

Researching history gives us glimpses into the past; the ideologies, practices, morality, and politics of our forefathers.  By performing objective research we learn more about that single moment in time, that snapshot, of the world around our ancestor, and how that world affected them.  We can understand how the situation can be barbarous in our world, but in their world it was simply accepted as a matter of fact and nature.


A friend of mine finds that anything to do with slavery previous to emancipation is absolutely contemptible.  While helping her work on her family tree I discovered one of her grandfathers fought for the Confederacy, and even though he never owned slaves, she felt ashamed and did not want him mentioned in her family tree.

And what about her grandfather from Delaware that fought for the Union, and also owned three slaves?  “Well he gave them their freedom by fighting for that right.”

Another example, that was fairly well publicized, was Ben Affleck asking PBS to censor his ancestor that owned slaves.  According to Affleck, “The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.”[1]

I had the opportunity to speak to a wonderful lady who had been part of the Hitler Youth as a young girl.  I asked her why she was part of the organization.  “Because if you didn’t, your family was killed.”

This is a pretty stark reality for a young girl of six in Nazi Germany.

We Are Not Responsible For Our Forefather’s Sins

When we research our family trees and history in general, we are simply looking at a snapshot in time.  Things may have been worse before that moment, and sometimes became worse afterward, but it is only a picture of what society was like in the past, not what it is like now.

We learn from history.  We learn what happened, what we should never repeat, and what we should repeat more often.  Our ancestors that took part in aspects of history that we find sinful did so, many times, because it was acceptable at the time, and in that community.  Their blood runs through our veins, but it does not mean we make the same “bad” decisions.

Or does it?

[1] Stuart Oldham, “Ben Affleck Apologizes for PBS Slavery Censorship: ‘I Was Embarrassed’,” 21 April 2015, Variety (https://variety.com/2015/biz/news/ben-affleck-slavery-pbs-censor-ancestors-1201477075/ : accessed 15 October 2017)