One of the weapons religious folks will throw out at those who leave is the ole,
“You are betraying and disgracing your family heritage!”
That’s never stung too much with me because part of my reason for leaving was this universal sense that almost every generation of humanity, no, every generation of LIFE on this earth has been betrayed by religion.
The story of Adam and Eve 6,000 years ago is a disgrace to our common ancestors wandering the earth 25,000 years ago. A Mormon’s conversion testimony betrays the family and the religion left behind. And so on…
Our entire human family story is one long flip-flopping conversion story. Who gets to pinpoint the one point in time by which all others are judged?
I recently came upon a more elaborate life story of one of my ancestors, Evelyn Nessie Eleanor Rudd, my maternal great-grandmother. She was the one who first converted to Mormonism in my family and the one I’m most likely seen as betraying. This newly discovered and more detailed life story, however, reveals a very different perspective. As a divorced, gay, ex-Mormon father I believe I have a lot more in common with her than those in my family who are the rule-bent, letter of the law Pharisaical clingers to the faith.
It starts with a 13 year old orphan in Victorian England,.only this isn’t a classic novel. It is a true story. Nessie Eleanor, a thirteen year old girl in Danby Wiske, Yorkshire to be exact.
She had already been living with distant relatives for 3 years. But receiving word of her beloved father’s death her hopeful soul was replaced with emptiness and fear. It echoed all around her. Her father had been a butler, a middle class designation in Victorian England. Still, middle class meant long working hours. Middle class working men had no resources to survive as single fathers, so Nessie had been left with her paternal grandparents to raise since she was born. It’s not hard to imagine why her father took responsibility for the infant at that time, since men suffered none of the social stigma of parenting out of wedlock like a woman did. It was said that Nessie’s mother was also “in service” as a cook, but had she kept the baby she would have lost social standing and her job.
At ten years old, Nessie’s Grandparents died and she was sent even father away to live with a great aunt and uncle. As generous as they were to keep her, it was never her home.
Now, with her father dead and no longer able to contribute supportive funds for her room and board, her future was questionable and unstable.
As if her mental anguish weren’t enough already, her Anglican minister had also declared her father lost to hell for never having been baptized.
Nessie’s guardian great aunt and uncle let her stay, but not without costs, steep costs. In her teens, Nessie would repeatedly suffer molestation by her great uncle and bear two children in that home. Like her own mother, Nessie faced the daunting task of single parenthood at a time and a place where animals fared better than unwed mothers.
Shame and elaborate cover-up stories help Nessie and her guardian family live under the same roof for a time, an option far preferable to the destitute state of unwed mothers and their bastard children at the time.
There’s a ray of light in almost any story of abuse and loss. Nessie’s pillar of light came in the form of young love. She met and fell in love with a young war veteran, Henry (her father’s name and so it seemed sealed by fate). Love had long seemed impossible to young Nessie so when the opportunity came she jumped at it. In order to leave, Nessie adopted her 2 children to her great aunt and uncle and moved out together with Henry where they soon welcomed two children of their own before Henry proposed marriage to Nessie. The exciting proposal pricked Nessie’s conscience, however, and not wanting to start out her married life on a foundation of deceit, she determined that she had to reveal all the facts of her former life, something she had refrained from doing initially for not wanting to spoil their budding love. She had two children Henry knew nothing about.
The decision to come clean and reveal herself, warts and all, proved fatal to her fiance’s love, so in a fit of rage he threw Nessie and his own daughters out to the streets.The irony that he was an unwed father living with his girlfriend and their two children was obviously lost on this Victorian man’s sensibilities. One could father bastard children, but to mother them was unforgivable. Lack of redemption for her unbaptized dead father and now for her own unwed maternal soul would later be very pivotal in later decision-making.
Henry had left Nessie homeless & jobless but even worse with a scarred reputation and two young girls to feed and clothe. What little self-esteem and self-preservation instinct remained prevented her from returning to the home where her oldest children were being raised.
In the same town, a similar perfectly dark storm of life’s challenges had hit a man named John Rudd. Like Nessie’s parents, John worked “in service” on an estate caring for hedges and birds. At about the same time that Henry had thrown Nessie out to the streets, John’s wife had died in childbirth leaving him four young children to care for. Both in desperate circumstances, John and Nessie found each other and struck a scandalous bargain for the time; John would provide a home for Nessie and her two children while Nessie would be a nanny and housekeeper for John’s family so that John could keep his job at the estate.
The town rumor mill thrust into overtime as John, a former Methodist minister and Nessie, a woman of questionable reputation, invented their own rather progressive and non-traditional living arrangement. For them it was a matter of practicality and survival. The arrangement was a success, for not long after entering into it the couple married. Their marriage did little to stem the tide of outrage in the community. Even John’s brothers and sisters would have nothing to do with Nessie at first.
But life for the newlyweds was still a step up from what they had previously known and what lay in store for each without the other.
Those who have known intense hardship rarely feel at ease in success and peace, however, and the old damned and unworthy demons came to the surface when the Mormon missionaries found the Rudd family. Abandonment, abuse and repeated tellings of her unworthiness and her father’s damnation provided very fertile ground for the Mormon’s message of universal redemption and saving ordinances for the dead. Nessie converted after nine months of meeting the missionaries, while John hesitated for himself but acquiesced to her decision.
Becoming Mormon wasn’t a step up in turn of the century English society. The Rudds only gained another mark of shame and disdain in their community. The disrespect worsened to the point that when Nessie became ill there wasn’t a neighbor who would come her aid. When the Vicar of the local Parish came to check on the family, John expressed his disappointment that neighbors refused to come help take care of Nessie while he held down his job. The Vicar answered, “No self-respecting woman would come when a woman has stooped so low as to join the Mormons as your wife has done.” John angrily replied that he made no apologies for his wife joining the Mormons and that he was seriously considering joining as well since his wife was a happier and better woman since joining it. He probably wasn’t really planning to join, but it is admirable that John chose to stand strong with his wife. It was the Vicar’s and parishioner’s derision that pushed John towards the Mormons rather than from it. He studied and joined. Not long after his baptism, the family chose to seek a more peaceful life elsewhere. The family eventually settled in Skelton-in-Cleveland, Yorkshire, England where John had found employment in service with Squire Wharton of Skelton Castle.
Life had taught Nessie the valuable lesson of standing tall and determined despite the thoughts and judgments of others. But the sting of reality hadn’t embittered or hardened Nessie and John to their fellow man.Their own challenges motivated them to open their hearts and home to others even less fortunate than they were. At one point, family members remember a young pregnant girl coming to live with them after being discarded by her parents. How familiar the worry, shame and confusion of a young unwed mother in her home must have been. But it’s hardly a stretch of the imagination to also see how rewarding, natural and easy this would have been for Nessie to provide shelter and guidance to a young girl in dire circumstances.
As the years passed, the Rudd home became known as a refuge for the sick and the unwelcome. John and Nessie went on to have 4 more children of their own who each remember frequently giving up beds for a night as the family welcomed a needy stranger into their home. Hardship begets compassion.
Speaking of strangers to their home, my grandmother re-enters the picture at about this time. She was Nessie’s first-born, one of the bastard children left and adopted by the great aunt and uncle (who was also her father). Eventually, John was able to get her and so at 16, Gertie, my grandmother joined her birth mother and her large family. Gertie would soon convert to their new Mormon faith and eventually be the first to travel to America. In 1922 she traveled to Salt Lake City as the guest of Apostle George Albert Smith to eventually stay in the home of Heber J Grant as their live-in Nanny and housemaid. Over the years by saving her money, she sponsored the immigration of most of her half-siblings to Salt Lake City, where the extended English family grew and where I was eventually born.
What I connect to when I think of Nessie’s story is her position as an outcast among a staunchly traditional society who wasn’t afraid to dig deep and live her own truth. I feel connected to her willingness to form a family that matched her unchangeable station in life even though it opposed societal norms. Most importantly, I admire how she allowed compassion to rule her actions later in life rather than bitterness and revenge. When I think of the Mormons I know and love who have unfriended me or dismissed me because I don’t fit their preconceived notions of propriety, I am certain Great-Grandma Nessie would disapprove of their behavior and open her heart and home to me.
I respect Nessie’s choice to join Mormonism given what she knew at the time. I understand the refuge and peace Mormonism must have offered her. Something tells me she’d likewise understand my need to later leave it for my own peace and refuge given my station in life. Making that choice honors my heritage.
*Details pulled from 3 separate family histories:
- Evelyn Nessie Eleanor Rudd’s Life Story by Susan Rudd Baxter Marzec
- A Brief History of My Father by Thomas Rudd
- Life Story of Gertrude Eleanor Alcock Newbold by same
**In #1 page 4 is missing which would include the time that Nessie goes to live with her great-aunt and uncle until the time that she meets “Henry” the man who eventually throws her to the street. I filled in the details based on family folklore and embellished inconsequential parts including his name. But the main facts are solid… that she was molested by her uncle and bore 2 children during this time.