Prayer in the Old Cemetery

When you do a little tracing back, you glimpse the stories behind your own story.

by - Posted on Aug 12, 2014

The headstone of James Hamlin who died in 1718.

I found this gravestone of my eight-times-great-grandfather James Hamlin, 1636-1718, in an old cemetery on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. I like to think we got connected through prayer.

I would not have known that I had such an ancestor or that his gravestone could be located if it hadn’t been for a kindly Guideposts reader, Harold Hamlin. He saw my name on the masthead, read my book, 10 Prayers You Can’t Live Without, and sent me a note, asking, “Do you think we are cousins?”

Harold is a retired educator living in Kansas and something of a genealogist. Quite frankly I’m pretty clueless when it comes to the branches of my family tree. “I can only trace my Hamlin roots back four generations,” I wrote Harold, “but I like to think we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ.” I gave him the name of my great-grandfather and left it there.

Rick Hamlin with his ancestor James Hamlin's headstone in Martha's Vineyard.The next email came signed from “Cousin Harold.” Indeed, we are sixth cousins. The first Hamlin immigrated here in 1635 from England, escaping religious persecution. His son, James, was born in Barnstable, Mass, the following year, and the Hamlins blossomed and bloomed in the New World, branches spreading all over the country. 

Cousin Harold sent me a notebook tracking those various ancestors–preachers, farmers, coopers, craftsmen, schoolteachers, moving from place to place. Even on a sunny August day, sitting in an old cemetery, I could imagine what a rough life James Hamlin had.

All the stone said was, “Here lieth the body of Mr James Hamlin, late of Barnstable, who died at Tisbury May the 3rd 1718 in the 82 year of his age.” But I could guess at the hardships he faced in that distant era: disease, famine, terrible weather, the struggles of making a living in a new land. And yet, he’d lived to a ripe old age.

His faith was more than hinted at in the skull adorned with angel wings at the top of the stone and the two symbolic sunflowers–flowers which always follow the sun like men and women gazing up at their maker all day long.

I’ve often wondered why the Bible offers up so many genealogical lists, especially right there at the beginning of the New Testament in the book of Matthew, the “begats.” If Jesus was the son of God, why did we need to know his earthly ancestry?

Maybe it’s because when you do a little tracing back, you glimpse the stories behind your own story. In that biblical list, there are Jewish patriarchs like Abraham, kings like David, and even a humble woman who wasn’t even born into the Jewish faith, the devoted Ruth. Their stories were ones of perseverance, trust, prayer and faith.

On that sunny August day, I said a prayer of thanks for Cousin Harold and then one for great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaddy James. After all, if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be here.     

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