I’m fortunate to have a wealth of information about my ancestry at my fingertips, thanks to my mother and other relatives who have done a tremendous amount of genealogical research. As I look through the pedigree charts and personal histories I’ve inherited, the picture that emerges is remarkably clear: I am a product of the mingling of two waves of religious misfits.
Some of my ancestors were Quakers who came to Pennsylvania from England in the early 1700s to escape religious persecution. The rest were converts to Mormonism who came from the British Isles and Denmark in the 1850s to join the great Mormon migration. In the early years of Mormonism it was widely viewed as a cult, and friction with neighbors led to mass movements of Mormons from Ohio to Missouri, Missouri to Illinois, and finally from Illinois to Utah.
The first Woolley in America seems to have been one Thomas Woolley. It’s not clear how he got here, but since Woolley is an English name, we can surmise that he was from England. Maybe he was an English sailor who jumped ship. Anyhow, he appeared in Philadelphia in time to marry a 17-year old Quaker girl named Sarah Coppock in 1729.
And Thomas Woolley begat John Woolley, and John Woolley begat another John Woolley, and that John Woolley begat Edwin Dilworth Woolley, my great-great-great-grandfather.Edwin D. was a pivotal character. He was born a Quaker in 1807, but converted to Mormonism in 1837, just seven years after its founding. He was already married when he converted, but afterwards he picked up a couple of extra wives (as the Mormons tended to do back then). He became a close associate of church founder Joseph Smith, loaning him money and financing church operations. After Smith was assassinated, Edwin became the business manager of Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, and headed out to Utah with the rest of the Latter Day Saints.
As a polygamist, Edwin was a prolific procreator. Ultimately, he had five wives and twenty six children, born over a span of forty years.
One of Edwin’s grandsons, Spencer Woolley Kimball, eventually made it all the way to the top as president of the church (1973-1985). Another of his grandsons, Lorin C. Woolley, became the key founder of the breakaway Mormon fundamentalist movement which still practices polygamy today.
But I’m not descended from Spencer W. or Lorin C. I’m descended from another of Edwin’s grandsons, Jedediah Foss Woolley. Jed went on a mission to Germany, leaving his wife in charge of the family store in Salt Lake City. But he got pretty annoyed when he returned to find that the other Mormons had been taking advantage of his wife’s soft-heartedness, buying stuff on credit and never paying for it. So Jed dropped out of the church, and took his family with him — including his son (my grandfather) Cloyd.
So it was that my grandfather was a lapsed Mormon. Cloyd married another ex-Mormon from Utah, Florence Tarbet, and together they raised their three sons in Denver without any particular religion. Despite that, all three became strongly religious after they’d grown up. One joined the Episcopal church, one the Presbyterians, and my own father – Joseph Woolley – wouldn’t you know it, rejoined the Mormons.
There were no Quakers on my mother’s side of the family — and for that matter, none of this on-again, off-again business with Mormonism, either. Her English and Danish grandparents had converted to Mormonism and immigrated to the United States to join the Mormons in Utah. So my mom was about as 100% purebred Mormon as they come. Especially since she grew up in a small farming town in northern Utah where literally everyone was Mormon. Out there, Mormonism was in the air, in the water, in the ground. It was totally enveloping, and you just didn’t question it.
My parents-to-be met while my dad was attending Utah State University and my mother was working there. They married in 1951 and moved to Berkeley, California, where my dad finished a PhD in plant physiology. I was born there. About a year later we moved to Champaign, Illinois.
My dad became the bishop of Champaign ward when I was pretty young. Later he moved up the church hierarchy to become the stake president in charge of the central Illinois region. My mom was president of the local Relief Society, the Mormon women’s organization. I myself was ordained into the Mormon priesthood when I was 12 (which is not as dramatic as it may sound; this is standard practice for Mormon boys.)
Despite all this, the whole Mormon thing really did not work out too well for me. To my mother’s great disappointment and heartache, I left the church when I was 17, in time to avoid being sent on a mission.
Much later in life, I began to feel the need for some sort of spiritual practice again. So I became — what else — a Quaker.
My Quaker ancestry actually had nothing whatsoever to do with my choosing to become one. But that’s another story.