Wings of the Morning
By Rev. Alicia Randolph Rapking
His name was Johan Conrad Goldtman, born in Gundheim, Germany in 1653 he died in Canada in 1711 and he was my 8th great grandfather. Over 360 years is a long time ago and it surprises me, still, that I have been able to trace my ancestry back to this man. I am surprised that records are still available to tell me that he once lived. I am surprised that records are available to tell me when and where he died. I have made discoveries about this man because he was part of an event of history, not only in Europe, but also in the Colonies that was well documented, even though his life and the lives of his family members did not seem to offer much to the people that encountered them. But their lives matter to me.
Conrad Goldtman was a baptized Lutheran from a Jewish background. I cannot discover the origin of his roots; it is a mystery that I ponder often. However, I do know that when he was two years old, his parents had him baptized in a Lutheran church in their hometown of Gundheim. Something or someone made an impression on someone in his background and the family converted to Christianity. How I wish I knew the story!
Even in the mid 1600’s Gundheim was an old town, dating back at least to the 700’s, but like other towns and villages, the people of this area suffered greatly as a result of the Thirty Years War and the aftermath of it. People lived in poverty, extreme poverty. By the early 1700’s the people of the area began to learn about the Colonies and about the desire for people to settle there. So my family along with many other families of the area, left everything they knew and began to make their way to the Colonies.
It was not an easy trip. Money was scarce. Supplies were scarce. They had faith and determination and hope that life would be better.
Conrad Goldtman, his wife and 5 children made their way to Rotterdam, Holland at first. They were the 6th party of “German Palatine” refugees to reach Holland. From there, they were sent to England, literally the Isle of Man in June of 1709, an island in the middle of the Irish Sea between England and Ireland. It was scarcely populated at the time and could handle some of the refugees that eventually numbered nearly 2300. Years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a weekend on the Isle of Man. I wish I had known then that my ancestors had been there hundreds of years before. Many more of the refugees lived in, what we would now call tent cities, in London.
Not really knowing what to do with these refugees, Queen Anne sent them to the British Colonies, basically as indentured servants. They were to settle in New York and harvest sap from the local pine trees in order to make tar. The seas were rough on the voyage to the Colonies. Two of Conrad’s children died on he crossing. Food was scarce; their health was poor. And one of the ships shipwrecked just as they reached the coast of New York. Worst of all, the pine sap that was native to the area did not make good tar and so they had no livelihood to make money to repay Queen Anne.
The solution to the problem was that Queen Anne required all able bodied men of the “German Palatine” refugees to fight the French in Canada. And so in 1711, after having left his home and everything that he knew in Germany in 1709, making his way across Europe, settling for a time in England, sailing across an unknown sea for a land he knew nothing about, Conrad was killed fighting the enemy of a country that he did not belong to.
Was the struggle worth it?
Not quite a decade later, his family was settled on land they owned, contributing to the community where they ended up in North Carolina. They were part of a very active faith community, the second oldest Lutheran congregation in NC, Freiden’s Lutheran Church. They could care for themselves. They were safe.
Since last September, I have been compelled by God to pray for the refugees of this world. Not only the Syrians entering Europe or the Mexicans entering our own country, but all people, anywhere, who feel that the conditions of their homes make it impossible to stay any longer. I have been compelled by God to pray for their safety, for their necessities, for their pain and anguish, for their fear, and for hope for their futures. I have been compelled to pray for the countries that they travel through and the countries where they end up. I have been compelled to pray for solutions. I have been compelled to pray for peace and for a time to come quickly when all people will feel safe in their homelands.
For me it is about praying for all of God’s children, whether they look like me or sound like me or think like me or understand God in the same way I do or not. And as I have spent the last several months praying for all the refugees of this world, I have thought more and more about my own background and the Goldtman family whose terrible story of leaving home and losing so much is part of my story.
I have spent many moments wondering how Conrad and his family felt as they left home. What did they fear? Did they feel the presence of God with them as they traveled across Europe? Did they feel the presence of God with them as they sailed across the ocean? Did they feel the presence of God with them as his children died at sea and he had to drop their bodies over the side of the ship for their burials? Did they feel the presence of God with them as they landed and settled and wondered what was next? Did they feel the presence of God with them as Conrad went off to Canada to be a soldier and left his family behind in a strange place, in a strange new land? Did Conrad feel the presence of God with him as he lay dying on the battlefield?
Because Conrad’s descendants passed a strong faith down through the generations to me, I have to believe that they did indeed feel the presence of God with them all through this terrible time as refugees.
Last year, during a time of traveling in the United Kingdom and knowing that I do not fly well, a friend reminded me of two verses of Psalm 139,my favorite psalm. The 9th and 10th verses proclaim:
“If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.”
As I think about and learn about my own refugee ancestors, I feel certain that they knew these verses well and prayed them over and over as they endured the ordeal of leaving everything they knew and starting a life in a new place. I imagine Conrad standing on the beach on the Isle of Man and those words coming to him. I imagine him getting off the ship in New York and those words returning to him. Surely right there on that beach, he was settling at the farthest limits of the sea. Surely right there he was aware of the hand of God holding him fast.
As I am faithful to the prayer task that I feel God has set before me to pray for the refugees, these words come to me over and over and they become my prayer for all people everywhere who do not feel safe and who are searching for a home.
Our world is crazy right now. But you know, I am pretty sure that Conrad Goldtman felt the same way in the early 1700’s as he was searching for a place to call home. There is so much hatred and bitterness and fear that seems to rule our world. God does not call all of us to leave our homes, but God does call all of us to pray for the people of our world and the peace of our world. Maybe the best words to use, especially when we feel that we do not have words at all, are the words of Psalm 139:9-10 and to believe in our hearts that God is holding us fast and leading us.
More importantly, maybe we will discover that to others, our love and our actions are the visible reminders that God is holding fast and leading them!
To God alone be glory!