How long is a forgiving Christian memory?

Any Christian would rather not know about some of the ancestors I’ve discovered doing family history.

My grandfather reportedly gave up on genealogical research because he found “too many black sheep and scalawags.” As far as I can tell, he only encountered one: a guy named John Vann.

Vann lived in the 1700s on a farm named Spring Garden north of what’s now Atlanta, with (as best I can tell) three wives. When you start lining up the marriage dates and dates when kids are born, it all looks very suspiciously as if the first wife (English) didn’t give him an heir fast enough, so he got the second English wife. She also didn’t give him an heir fast enough, so he got the third — a Cherokee — who gave him the heir, who got “assigned” to the first wife for the sake of inheritance. The child, John Oowanee Vann, from whom I’m descended, got to keep a Cherokee name for the sake of his heritage.

My grampie had his own issues, but polygamy wasn’t among them, so I can understand why his penciled notes end with “John Vann??” and he started grumbling about “scalawags.”

This summer, partly in the hope of learning a little more about my Cherokee background, my husband and I went to the opening of a Cherokee art exhibit at the NC Museum of History. After the gallery talk, I introduced myself to the sculptor.

When I told him I was part Cherokee, descended from John Vann, his eyes grew wide and he said, “You understand that your ancestor was an unusual man.” I said I did. He said, “You know he lived on that big farm in Georgia.” By which I understood that my suspicions were correct. I’d lined the dates up accurately and there was a reason that the first child of Vann’s first English wife had a Cherokee name.

So the sculptor says: “Let me tell you just one story about your ancestor. Your ancestor invited people to his home for dinner one night. Understand … He invited people to his home.”

And I understood. Hospitality and generosity are very important values among the Cherokee. They’re important ways to demonstrate and to establish one’s status.

“Apparently your ancestor decided that it was time for his guests to go home,” the man continued. “So he went upstairs to the bedroom.”

At this point, I’m expecting a New Yorker cartoon ending, where Mr. Vann comes downstairs in his dressing gown and starts making himself a nightcap, paying no attention whatever to his guests. 

The sculptor continues:

“And then he starts shooting a pistol through the bedroom floor.

“That’s just one story about your ancestor.”

Oh my. John Vann died in 1781, 230 years ago, and that’s just one of the many stories that are still told about his ill-mannered and disrespectful treatment of others.

I guess there’s one obvious moral to this story: If you’re going to be rude, do it among people with shorter memories.

And then there are a couple of other important take-aways:

  • One of John Vann’s sons got murdered in payment for the family’s continuing bad deeds. God‘s son got murdered in payment for the continuing bad deeds of his family — us. Remember to thank God for that.
  • God’s memory is even longer than the Cherokees‘. So remember to ask for forgiveness. Unlike the Cherokee, who will keep the moral lesson in front of the community by telling an ancestor’s evil story for generations, God will forgive and forget.

God bless you as you face up to your past and live toward the future God intends.

About Carlene Byron

Writer, editor, publicist, communications project manager ... I've written technology and infrastructure; I used to edit New England Church Life and The New England Christian and I've freelanced to publications ranging from Commonweal to Christianity Today. I'm now living in my hometown in Maine and am speaking about global perspectives on suicide prevention.
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2 Responses to How long is a forgiving Christian memory?

  1. Cec Barker says:

    Oh my! People remember the rudeness!

  2. I ve never done anything violent to anyone, says the mild mannered Vann Siegert, Just the minimum that was necessary.

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