Babcock Humor

"Mother loved me, but she died."

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The Importance of Humor

All of us inherit a certain set of characteristics and another set of characteristics is passed on by our parents and community. If I had to bless my parents for just one trait that I possess, it probably would be the Babcock sense of humor. Life, as is its wont, has not always been easy for me. I truly don’t think I would have made it this far without that rather quirky, undefined humor that apparently was my birthright.

Historical Background

I can’t claim to speak for all Babcocks everywhere. Our particular lineage here in America goes back to Andrew Babcock, an Englishman, who reached our shores just in time for the American Revolution. Rumor has it that he was kicked out of England and arrived in Pennsylvania in 1773. There were already a few Babcocks on the continent — a James Babcock, born in Essex England in 1580, arrived in Connecticut in the early 1600s and died in 1680.

It was one of Andrew’s sons that was to inflict a greater influence through the succeeding generations. For James, or, I should say, Brother James, was a Baptist minister. This was largely courtesy of his mother, Susannah White Babcock, who went to a Baptist prayer meeting where she found "her salvation and deliverance from error" (she was an Episcopalian before, as was her husband — these are James’s words, by the way).

Now Susannah Babcock must have been quite a woman. When her husband died in 1801 some shady dealings lost her most of her land, so she up and moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio with her 4 children and started a new life in what was still the wilderness. James was 6 at the time and writing in his autobiography he recalls his fear of the howling wolves that sounded so close at night. I can barely imagine what it must have been like to survive with 4 children under those circumstances.

His mother inculcated James with a healthy fear of God. He was taught that he was a sinner and taken quite often to "houses of mourning" where someone had just died. He tells of praying on his knees while still a child, being terrified of going to Hell, and recounts a horrific nightmare at age 9 involving the devil.

His autobiography makes for some heavy slogging. Brother James was much conflicted about his gift of preaching and was very fearful that it came from his pride and was a temptation of the devil. He got over it and became a minister, eventually giving up his practice of medicine to devote himself full time to the doing of God’s work, as he interpreted it. I am guessing he was unable to give up farming. In 1818 he had moved to Indiana where he claimed the last white man before the Pacific ocean was found only 2 miles west.

I particularly liked the way he selected a wife: it didn’t matter if she had accepted the true belief yet. James would get her there, he was completely confident of that. All he required of her was that she have "good common sense," be "neat in care of her person" and be industrious. He married an orphan, Jane Ragans in 1815.

One of my biggest impressions from reading James was just what a dry, humorless stick of a man he was. He seemed to experience little joy or pleasure and the modicum that he did experience came from his religion. He has that peculiar mixture of grandiosity (from doing the Lord’s work) combined with a deep-sense of worthlessness that seems to accompany certain evangelical Christian religions that teach children that they are wicked sinners.

His was a narrow, evangelical religion that was certainly passed on to his offspring. Andrew Edward, his eldest son, also became a preacher. In finishing up James’s autobiography he noted that "Probably few men exhibited more of religion and the fear of God in the government of his family."

To be fair, his congregation did accept a black man who was treated just like the white folks in the congregation. This would probably have been a bit unusual in the 1820’s and 1830’s.

These are my family roots. They are very American — pioneers who moved to the wilderness to settle the land by felling trees and chasing away Indians. The evangelical fervor survived overtly up to my grandparent’s generation. My father tells of how he and his father (Otto) needed to slip out to the barn for a drink as his mother, Sophie, didn’t allow alcohol in the house. No playing cards either.

The Essence of Babcock Humor

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Copyright © 2003 Michael Babcock