by Jim Killam | 4-minute read
When King Solomon had finished praying to dedicate the temple in Jerusalem, he stood and turned toward the people of Israel.
“May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our ancestors; may he never leave us nor forsake us,” he shouted.
That’s 1 Kings 8:57. The whole dedication ceremony was a beautiful picture of reverent worship, but even that single line speaks volumes. Being able to tell the story of your family’s origin, and how it intersects with God’s story, is a powerful thing. Pastor Luke is going to talk Sunday about Mary’s Magnificat, her praise-filled response to God’s promise to her. Mary also found her place in God’s larger story, the story of his people that she now could trace from the Old Testament directly to her.
That theme has rung true for me lately. In doing some genealogical research as a Christmas gift to my family (shhh … don’t say anything), I found my own place in a story bigger than I ever knew.
Austin and Alice Kilham (as our name was spelled in England) came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637. The Kilhams were Puritans, English Protestants dissatisfied with the reformation of the state-sponsored Church of England. Puritans believed in a personal salvation experience. They also placed greater emphasis on sermons and biblical teaching and less on ornate churches and ritual. Unlike the Separatists (later called the Pilgrims), the Puritans remained part of the Church of England and tried to reform it from within. But as those efforts soured, and persecution grew, many packed what they could, boarded ships and sailed for the New World.
It’s stirring to know this. It leaves me with questions I’d like to research more: How desperate does a family have to become before they’re willing to leave their whole world behind in order to worship God freely? What kind of faith does that take?
Austin and Alice lived out their lives near Salem, Mass. About 1680, their son, Lot Killam, in search of better farmland, became one of the first settlers of Enfield, Connecticut. Lot and his wife, Hannah, joined several other Salem families in moving to what was then the new frontier. My family would stay there for five generations.
The Great Awakening
Their migration to Enfield placed my family at another historic crossroads of faith. Lot’s adult great-grandchildren were almost certainly present in the meeting house of the First Church of Christ on Sunday morning, July 8, 1741. That day, a visiting preacher named Jonathan Edwards gave the sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” He described the eternal fate of people who don’t follow Christ’s urgent call to receive forgiveness.
Edwards had preached the sermon once before, in his home church at Northhampton, and no great result was reported. And, up until that day, Enfield had been known as a place that resisted the work of God as it played out in other parts of New England. Now, people were overwhelmed.
“Such was the impact of his preaching that the people listening shrieked and cried out, and the crying and weeping became so loud that Edwards was forced to discontinue the sermon,” wrote Wheaton pastor and scholar Josh Moody. “Instead, the pastors went down among the people and prayed with them in groups. Many came to a saving knowledge of Christ that day.”
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” became one of the most famous sermons ever delivered. When printed, it became a central part of the Great Awakening revival that swept New England in the mid-18th century and spread throughout Western civilization.
I’m not here to critique Edwards’ sermon. Some today will say the title and tone were too hellfire and brimstone … where’s the part about God’s overwhelming love? Others will complain that today’s American church needs more hellfire and brimstone. What I do know is, in colonial New England, the Holy Spirit used this sermon to bring multitudes to salvation in Christ.
And my ancestors were there.
Drawing a connection
What does any of this mean, centuries later, to a guy typing at a computer in Rockford, Illinois? My ancestors, a century apart, were part of two movements of God in colonial America. In less than a decade, the Great Awakening birthed hundreds of new churches and more denominations. It inspired people about Jesus’ Great Commission. Mission societies were founded and missionaries sent to the ends of the earth. Wycliffe Bible Translators, the global ministry Lauren and I are part of today, descended from some of those mission societies.
Along the way, we’ve learned about the steady faith of other generations. Of my great-great-great grandfather, who helped settle Iowa in the 19th century, it was written that he “lived a life of Christian virtue and kindness that all about him felt and recognized as real goodness.”
I feel just as honored to be connected to his story. And that’s the beautiful thing—I’m connected to a story bigger than I ever imagined. It’s not a matter of pride; I had no control over any of this. If I were descended from ax murderers, I’m not sure it would affect how I live my life today (other than legally changing my last name, perhaps). But it’s amazing and humbling thing to learn the story of my family’s origin, and to see God’s hand in a grand narrative that’s still playing out.