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In November, my sister Sue and I went on a genealogical expedition to New London, Connecticut, where our great-great-great-great grandparents, David and Mary Rogers, had lived. We’d tried for years to trace the Rogers line beyond David and Mary but were unsuccessful. We hoped an on-site search of local records would be productive.

For three days, David continued to elude us, but we found many colorful stories about a religious sect called the Rogerenes. (See Part I.) At one point, Sue said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we found out we’re descended from them?”

Reverend John Rogers started his church in 1674. Among the Rogerenes’ unconventional beliefs was faith healing. They believed it was a sin to use medicine or doctors because the New Testament taught, “The Almighty had the willingness and power to cure diseases in a less bungling and dangerous way than physicians.” Prayer and the laying on of hands were the only righteous remedies for illness. Considering the level of medical knowledge in those days, they were probably right. At least prayer and laying of hands usually did no harm.

Usually. The Rogerenes had a crisis of faith when a skin malady called the Itch plagued the congregation. Laying on of hands not only failed to cure the condition, but actually spread it. After months of suffering, they held a meeting to decide what to do. The conclusion was that the Itch was not a sickness, but a species of vermin which they might destroy as they would rats or other noxious animals. Thus, they were able to use the customary remedies, “brimstone and lard,” with a clear conscience, and everyone was cured.

John Rogers wrote several books, but most of them were burned. This survives

John Rogers wrote several books, but most of them were burned. This survives in the Connecticut College Library. Photo by Jennifer Geoghan

In another case, their methods didn’t do so well. Ebenezer Bolles was cutting brush and vines (poison ivy?) and developed a painful condition that, since he refused medical treatment, led to his death.

Inside the book

Despite their objection to conventional medicine, the Rogerenes willingly took care of the sick and were said to be skillful nurses. In fact, when John Rogers wasn’t being a thorn in the side of the Congregationalists, he spent his life ministering to the sick. He believed his faith would save him from any contagion. It did, for over forty years, until the smallpox epidemic of 1721.

You don’t see these on younger people, but if you look at the upper arm of a person of a certain generation, you might see a circular scar less than ½ inch in diameter. These are from smallpox inoculations. When I was a child, everyone was vaccinated against smallpox. Although I was inoculated three or four times, I don’t have one of these scars because it never “took.” It turned out I inherited a natural immunity to smallpox from my father, who also had no scar.

 

Smallpox is caused by a virus and had been a dreaded disease for thousands of years. It had a 30% mortality rate and those who survived were seriously scarred for life. A worldwide campaign of immunization eradicated the disease in the late 20th century, the last cases occurring in the 1970’s. When my children were vaccinated, smallpox was no longer part of the protocol. These days, no one is likely to contract the disease, unless some evil mad scientist has squirreled away a sample of the virus with intentions to unleash it on an unsuspecting world. If that happens, I hope my children inherited my natural immunity.

But smallpox was a big problem in 18th century New England. There was no cure, only prevention and palliative treatment. Physicians could do little, but nurses could keep patients comfortable, prevent their sores from becoming infected, and keep them hydrated. There were experiments with vaccinations, which involved taking pus from an infected person and applying it to a scratch on the skin of a healthy one, but this was controversial. In fact, someone threatened the life of the famous Reverend Cotton Mather because he promoted smallpox inoculation.

In 1721, smallpox came to Boston and afflicted the city for over a year. Out of a population of 11,000, over 6000 cases were reported and 850 people died.

Smallpox ward, Boston, 1721

John Rogers, believing himself to be under God’s protection, went to Boston to care for the sick. His critics claimed he went out of arrogance. His apologists argued he had tended to smallpox victims before and seemed to be naturally immune. It turns out he wasn’t. After he returned home, he succumbed to the disease. Two of his family members caught it from him and also died. Thus ended a chapter in the history of the Rogerenes.

Resting place of John Rogers

Even without their leader, the sect continued to practice their unusual style of Christianity for another 300 years. Their good deeds were often overlooked and they failed to earn the respect of established religion. In fact, stubborn adherence to their beliefs brought them ridicule from the larger community. After World War I, they faded into history. It was inevitable. The Rogerenes were ahead of their time. The Hippie movement of the 1960’s shared many of their concepts: pacifism, social and political reform, and free thinking.

On our last day in Connecticut, Sue and I visited the Otis Library in Norwich. The genealogy librarian was very helpful and provided enough material to keep us busy for a week, but we had only a few hours. Sue and I divided the stack of documents. I sifted through A Genealogy of the Descendants of Joseph Bolles, which listed several Rogers in the index.

There I found him: David Rogers, born August 31, 1776. He married Mary Stone circa 1800. Could this be my ancestor? His parents were Elizabeth Bolles and John Rogers, great-grandson of the infamous founder of the Rogerenes. Could we actually be descended from that notorious group?

Sue and I had planes to catch. We couldn’t dig any further. After I got home, I tried to find more information on the internet, but David continued to elude me.

Then my little brother, a recent convert to genealogy, somehow traced a possible great-great-great-great grandmother, Polly Story Wheeler, who was listed in the History of Montville, Connecticut. This good woman was married to a David Rogers, born circa 1774, son of John and Elizabeth Bolles Rogers!

When you look at old records, you find all sorts of inaccuracies. In the days before computers, indeed before typewriters, everything was written by hand, and not everyone’s handwriting was legible. A David born in 1776 can be the same David as one whose birthdate is recorded elsewhere as 1774. Polly is a nickname for Mary. Middle names were often family names. Stone and Story could be different interpretations of someone’s penmanship, especially if the writer used flourishes, which they often did in those days.

We have finally tracked down our ancestor David, and Reverend John Rogers was his ancestor. Considering the personalities of my modern Rogers relatives, it makes sense—we inherited our quirky genes from the founder of the Rogerenes. However, my immunity to smallpox must have come from someone else.

An interesting side note: among John’s thousands of descendants are Mormons who had him baptized and his marriages sealed. Considering his beliefs about baptism and marriage, I’d love to be a butterfly on the wall when St. Peter gives him the news!

Another thing, if that insane evil scientist unleashes smallpox on our already suffering world, I will not refuse a vaccination, just in case.

 

 

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Last November, when my sister Sue and I were doing genealogical research in New London, Connecticut, we stumbled across a curious religious group known as the Rogerenes. John Rogers, son of Connecticut founder James Rogers, organized the Seventh Day Baptist Church of New London in 1674. The sect survived into the early twentieth century.

The Rogerenes were sometimes referred to as Singing Quakers, Rogerene Baptists, and Quaker Baptists, although they were neither Quakers nor Baptists. Like Quakers, they believed in peaceful non-resistance. Like Seventh Day Adventists, they observed the Sabbath on the seventh, not the first, day of the week. Much like Christian Scientists, they believed in healing by prayer.

Sue and I were trying to track down our great-great-great-great grandfather, David Rogers who was born around the time of the Revolutionary War. All we knew about him was that his wife was named Mary and they had four children die in March of 1823. We don’t know why they died. In those days, diseases such as Yellow Fever would periodically ravage communities and take out families, but we haven’t found any evidence of an epidemic that year. The children ranged in age from eight to fifteen. Son David G., from whom we’re descended, was six at the time and, of course, survived.

Rogers Cemetery #5

The children were buried in Rogers Cemetery #5 near Montville, Connecticut. We knew that because their graves were recorded on Find a Grave. Finding the cemetery would have been nearly impossible without the help of the local historian, Jon Chase, because there are a good half-dozen Rogers Cemeteries in the county.

Children’s Graves

Other than approximate birth and death dates, we knew little else about David and nothing about Mary. Family lore held that David had been an English captain on a whaling ship and had sailed around the world three times, but family lore can be more fictional than factual. My great-great Uncle Will had our family history traced to the Mayflower, but that document has been lost. Neither Sue nor I have found a connection between the Mayflower Rogers and ours. We spent four days combing through records in Connecticut libraries and city halls. At one time, Connecticut must have had more Rogers than roaches, and many were named David. We kept finding references to the Rogerenes.

Many colorful stories surround the Rogerenes. John Rogers married Elizabeth Griswold four years before he started his church. She not only failed to join his congregation, she felt humiliated by his conduct and sought to divorce him. She described him as a “queer creature who behaved not as other men.” He “entertained strange religious beliefs.” He worked on the Sabbath, refused to pray aloud, and “would not take the noxious medicines prescribed for the ills of Puritan flesh.” The divorce was granted.

The Rogerenes were devoutly Christian but rabidly anti-clerical. The Congregational Church was tax supported. John believed that ministers should not be paid—and certainly not supported by taxes. When they refused to pay taxes, the Rogerenes were heavily fined, and thus had to pay twice.

John Rogers’ House

John Rogers believed one should worship God in a scriptural manner, not by ecclesiastical dictum. “All unscriptural parts of worship are idols and all good Christians should exert themselves against idols.” The Rogerenes didn’t believe in the sanctity of the Puritan Sabbath, holding that since the death of Christ, all days were holy. After church services, they would go about their day like any other. On Sundays, they’d intentionally work where church-goers would see them. If that didn’t get enough attention, they’d march through New London, noisily proclaiming that they were working on the Sabbath.

They’d enter churches of other denominations with their hats on. Sometimes they’d burst in, shouting and disrupting the proceedings, and argue theology with the minister. The women would bring their sewing and knitting to church. Their peculiarities of belief and conduct provoked persecution which “left them neither liberty or property or a whole skin,” according to one chronicler. They were frequently fined, imprisoned, tarred, whipped, and thrown into the icy river for their impudence, but that didn’t change their ways.

The Rogerenes never violated civil laws, only ecclesiastical laws that they believed infringed on their rights of conscience. They fought for religious liberty, against the tyranny and bigotry of the Congregational Church.

John Rogers clashed for years with Reverend (later Governor) Gurdon Saltonstall, who was intolerant of divergent Christian sects. One time, John placed his hand on his heart and stated, “This is the humane body of Christ.” Blasphemy! His sentence was to stand on a gallows with a noose around his neck for 15 minutes and pay a 5 pound fine. Further, he had to post bond of 50 pounds to guarantee his future good behavior. It did no good. John spent nearly four years in prison.

Governor Saltonstall

After Saltonstall was elevated to governor, he had John declared insane. As a result, the windows of his jail cell were blacked out (common treatment for insanity at the time). But John’s friends rioted and had the boards removed. In another incident, John was punished for helping a young man escape from prison. When another Rogerene was imprisoned for failing to keep the Sabbath, her supporters removed the doors from the New London jail.

There are several versions of a story about a Rogerene couple who paid a visit to Rev. (or Governor) Saltonstall. He was either dining or relaxing with his cigar when they arrived. They boasted that they were married in the Rogerene tradition, outside the church and the control of civil authorities. They demanded to know what he was going to do about it.

The good Reverend (or Governor) said to the man, “You mean you are cohabiting with this woman?”

“That’s right,” the man said.

“Madam, you are living with this man as his wife?”

“Yes,” she said, just as proudly.

“Then, by the powers vested in me by the Colony of Connecticut, I pronounce you man and wife.” Then he went back to eating (or smoking his cigar).

Rogerenes wouldn’t say grace at meals. They believed all prayers should be said mentally unless the “spirit of prayer” compelled the use of voice. They believed infant baptism was wrong and practiced adult baptism by immersion. Many of their beliefs sprang from a literal interpretation of Bible passages. The Rogerenes believed that Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, should be celebrated only in the evening.

A few years after Governor Saltonstall departed Connecticut to join his Maker, Reverend Mather Byles, being only in his twenties and no match for the Rogerenes, became their target. It got to the point that if he saw them, he wouldn’t leave home to walk to church. If they came to his services with their hats on or asked him questions, he’d discontinue the service. As soon as he could, he left for a church in Boston where he enjoyed an illustrious career.

Rev. Mather Byles

Our ancestor David continued to elude us, but hardly a source we looked at failed to mention the Rogerenes and their antics.

At one point, Sue said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we found out we’re descended from them?”

Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, check out my book Trials by Fire, available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

 

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