by John

The term for today is “filial piety,” also known as filiopiety. The dictionary defines it as “relating to an excessive veneration of ancestors or tradition.” As genealogists who spend a lot of time researching our forebears, it is very easy for us to fall into the trap of filial piety – in our thinking, in our writing, and in the way we evaluate evidence. Venerating one’s ancestors has many gratifying aspects. It is, after all, biblically sanctioned, since the Old Testament is full of references to Abraham and the patriarchs. Moreover, our nineteenth and twentieth century forebears were fond of boasting when they compiled genealogies and obituaries or drafted sketches for inclusion in county histories.

Beware! One of our tasks as genealogists is to evaluate the evidence we find from many different sources and viewpoints. We can sometimes spot filiopietistic writing in a genealogy or county history when an ancestor’s deeds appear too “golden,” his or her character is “beyond reproach,” or his or her accomplishments are touted too reverently. If we are reading a county history about an ancestor who was deceased at the time, the information was derivative and likely provided by a child, grandchild, or descendant, in order to give the family an air of status. Even people submitting autobiographical information tended to put the “facts” in the best possible light. When we encounter such stories, we, as genealogists, can avoid getting burned by keeping on our guard. By comparing the information from published sources with other sources – preferably direct sources of information in original records – we can often expose the hyperbole for what it is.

I can find filiopietistic writing in accounts of my own family. In the 1893 Biographical and Historical Memoir of Elkhart and St. Joseph Counties, Indiana, one of my third-great uncles provided information about his father, my third-great grandfather, Dempster Beatty.  Dempster, he said, had settled near Niles, Michigan, and entered “300 acres of land.” He was “a man of excellent education and great strength and integrity of character.” After settling in Indiana, he “was an early justice of the peace and was one of the judges of the county of Kosciusko.” He “lived to the age of 75 years.”

Do these stories square with reality? A search of the deed records of Cass County, Michigan, for example, shows that Dempster only owned 120 acres, far less than the 300 boasted of in the history. False tradition, exposed! He did become a justice of the peace for a short time, but was never elected judge. Another falsehood exposed. His tombstone shows his death in 1852 at the age of 71, not 75. The account is filiopietistic, since the writer wanted the family to appear more elite than the historical record suggests. It was only natural for him to boast – everyone else was doing it.

When we go to write our own family histories, we need to be careful in several ways. First, we should not accept uncritically the information provided in a county history or obituary. We need to constantly evaluate each piece of evidence we uncover and compare it against other sources of information. And when we go to write, we have to be carefully that filial piety doesn’t creep into our own writing. Our ancestors were people, just like us, with many of the same foibles and faults. The best genealogists don’t try to hide behind such writing, but present all of the evidence, evaluating each source and judging its origin and quality.

The best genealogies are those that are fully documented and in which the evidence is carefully evaluated using the genealogical proof standard.  When we find an article that is filiopietistic, the fact that it was written in such a manner is historically important. By all means cite and quote the source. But then deconstruct it, if possible, into smaller components and compare each boastful statement with other sources, especially those recorded at the time your ancestor lived. If we do this, we can keep filial piety in check. Our historical and genealogical writing will be all the better for doing so.