Churches can be excellent sources of ancestral records, but determining an ancestor’s religious affiliation is not always straightforward—and, in some cases, an ancestor may not have been affiliated with a church all.
In the 1895 Iowa census, it was recorded that Hiram Hammond, an eighty-two year old retired farmer residing in Allamakee County, had no “religious belief.” This initially surprised me—wouldn’t it have been terribly unusual, even shameful, to openly declare a lack of religious belief at this time, particularly in a small Midwestern town? A quick scan of the neighbors recorded on the same page of the census, however, suggests that this may not have been the case. Out of thirty-one individuals recorded on a single page of this particular census, four others were noted to have no religious belief while one other was left blank. Those who did claim religious belief were either Lutheran, Methodist Episcopalian, or Congregational.
Hiram’s wife Eva Margaretha (née Stoehr) was recorded in the same census as being affiliated with the Lutheran church. As she was a German immigrant, this was not unexpected; decades earlier, she and Hiram had been married by a Lutheran minister. However, three of the couple’s four surviving adult children also appeared in the 1895 Iowa census, in separate households, and their affiliations differed from one another: their eldest son John was, like his father, recorded with no religious belief, while their daughter Mathilda was Lutheran and their daughter Louisa was Congregational. All three of their children’s spouses were Lutheran.
Twenty years later—nineteen years after Hiram’s death, and nine years after Eva Margaretha’s—the same three adult children appeared in the 1915 Iowa census. This time, the space for John’s church affiliation was left blank, Mathilda was recorded as having no church affiliation, and Louisa was now Lutheran. It seems that Hiram’s apparent lack of interest in religion may have been shared by at least two of his children, if not three; son George lived out of state and was again not included in the Iowa census, so his affiliation is unknown.
Much of Hiram’s early life remains a mystery, and it is unknown whether he may have been affiliated with a church during the first thirty-odd years of his life before he wound up in Iowa Territory in 1845. After his death in 1896, the local newspaper printed an obituary that made no mention of any church affiliation, past or present, nor even a passing reference to Christianity in general. It did note positively Hiram’s success as a farmer and called him “a kindly neighbor and friend,” which leads me to believe that he was well-regarded in his community in any case. Hiram spent more than fifty years in northeastern Iowa, and his life as a farmer and father seems to have been a quiet one. It is believed that he was illiterate—his will was signed with a mark—and his name did not appear in local politics nor in a contemporary collection of local biographies.
Hiram’s funeral service, held at home, was led by Reverend Bargelt of the Methodist Episcopalian Church of Postville; this was the small town in which Hiram had retired several years prior. Perhaps Hiram did attend services at this church prior to his death—or what was perhaps more likely was that the reverend was a family friend simply performing a favor and following local custom. In contrast, his wife’s funeral services in 1906 were led by Reverend Puhl of the St. Paul Lutheran Church of Postville; Eva Margaretha’s affiliation with the Lutheran church had apparently remained constant throughout her adult life. If Hiram had not, perhaps, remained loyal to a hypothetical church of his boyhood, which lacked a presence in northeastern Iowa, then it seems plausible that he truly was a nineteenth-century “religious none.”
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