Commentary: A last name can reveal a family’s spiritual roots


 I was recently asked about Lottie Moon’s last name, because it’s not a very common name for people of European ancestry. As a researcher and writer, I typically include genealogical research on the people featured in my columns, paying special attention to a family’s spiritual roots. Religious beliefs were the driving force for many early immigrants’ journey to America. It shaped their family’s views of government and religious freedom for generations. People are often surprised to discover the role of faith in their own family’s story.

Religious refugees arriving from Europe usually came in groups, often on ships chartered for that purpose. Religious persecution was also a motivating force for migration from one colony to another. Any family who has deep roots in the southeast, are likely to trace one or more family lines to one of these immigrations/migrations rooted in faith.

Before focusing on the surname Moon, here are some general principles to keep in mind while doing genealogical research on families. The use of surnames (last names) emerged in Medieval Europe. They will often help identify the national origin and in some cases a town or region from which a family came.

It is important to remember that the spelling of names, over time, were often Anglicized. It’s common to see various spellings of the same family name over several generations. This may make it difficult at first to determine the nationality of origin. The following are some of the nationalities which provide insight to the religious immigration/migration of families to Georgia and other southeastern states:

English ~ Anglican or Church of England were initially the founders of the southern colonies. Early Georgia was divided into “parishes” not counties. The primary goals of the English were economic and military. Georgia, founded in 1733, was created to provide a buffer with Spanish (Catholic) Florida to the south and the English colonies to the north. Anglicans persecuted other faiths within the colonies, although the early Georgia colony was desperate for settlers and generally more tolerant of other faiths. Following the Revolution remaining Anglican congregations organized the Episcopal Church in America. Some Anglicans organized Methodist the denomination. Methodist had been a “society” within the larger Anglican Church before the Revolution only organizing as a denomination after the deaths of the Wesley brothers.

Congregationalist, most came from South Carolina to Georgia, typically with English surnames. They established the Midway community in Liberty County. The need for new farmlands was the primary driver for migration to Georgia. Although the Congregationalist trace their roots to the Puritans who had come to New England a century before seeking religious freedom.

Baptists, many who also bore English surnames, began migrating to Georgia before the Revolution. One wave arrived in 1771-1772 after experiencing persecution following the Battle of Alamance in North Carolina. After the Revolution many Baptists migrated from Virginia and the Carolinas because of land offered to veterans through the Georgia land lotteries. Baptists in those states had grown rapidly during the First Great Awakening. Many like Silas Mercer, father of Jesse Mercer, having come from an Anglican background. Some Baptists, including several ministers who had been imprisoned, had experienced persecution. Daniel Marshall, considered the father of Georgia Baptists, was persecuted after he arrived.

Quakers migrated to Georgia from other colonies. Many came to the south from the northeast following a route along the Appalachian Mountains called the “Augusta Road.” A group of Quakers arrived in Georgia from North Carolina because of persecution in 1771-1772 following the battle of Alamance. They established the town of Wrightsboro.

Scottish ~ Presbyterians began arriving in Georgia in 1733. They settled the town of Darion in what is now MacIntosh County, as a military outpost. They brought their families and a Presbyterian minister with the intention of settling in Georgia. Other Presbyterians migrated from other colonies especially after the Revolution, some of whom had experienced persecution in Virginia.

 French ~ Huguenots were Calvinistic Protestant refugees who immigrated to America. They were forced to flee France after laws were passed outlawing all religions but Catholicism in 1685. They arrived in large numbers to Virginia and South Carolina and their descendants spread across the south. They had often assimilated into other protestant denominations by the time of the Revolution during the First Great Awakening.

 Portuguese ~ Jewish families immigrated to Savannah from Portugal by way of London in 1733. All had left their native homeland because of religious persecution under the inquisition. They established the third oldest synagogue in America and the first in the south.

German ~ Jewish refugees from Germany first arrived in 1733. They did not settle in the same community as the Portuguese Jews. Language was one barrier, and they were from a different sect of Judaism. Some of them lived near the German Lutheran community at Ebenezer. The German Jews were refugees, seeking a new home and a community in which they could worship.

Lutheran refugees, also called “Salzburgers,” began arriving in Georgia in 1734. They suffered persecution in Austria, being forced to flee after religions other than Catholicism were outlawed in the region (state) around Salsburg, Austria in 1731. Over 20,000 fled, many given only a week’s notice to leave. Land was offered in the new Georgia colony to those willing to settle and provide military support as needed against attacks from Indians or the Spanish. They established the Ebenezer community about 20 miles west of Savannah.

Moravians immigrated directly from Germany to Georgia in 1733. Their purpose was missionary work among the Cherokee, Creeks, and slaves. Some were missionaries while others worked on farms or in cottage industries to support the mission. Moravians were at the forefront of the modern missionary movement.

Irish ~ Catholics did not arrive in large numbers in Georgia until the 19th century. Catholicism was outlawed in Georgia before the Revolution. This was because of the fear of the threat of excommunication by the Pope if Catholics did not cooperate with Spanish from Florida should a war erupt. Many of those arriving in the 19th century were fleeing the Irish potato famine and most came as laborers to build railroads.

 How does this apply to the surname Moon?

Internet searches provide the most likely origins of the name. Originally, the family was from France, from the area around the town of “Moyon.”  Unlike the Huguenots, their migration to England was much earlier and did not involve religion. William de Mohun arrived during the Norman Conquest in 1066 with William the Conqueror. The pronunciation of the name Mohun sounds like “moon” in English. The spelling of the name was eventually Anglicized to “Moon.” Centuries later, members of the family immigrated to Virginia. Lottie Moon’s move to Georgia from Virginia had been preceded by other members of her extended family.

Religious faith played a role in the immigration/migration of eight of the nine early ethnic groups who settled Georgia before the Revolution. Those persecuted included Lutherans, Jews, Quakers and Baptists. Congregationalist in this era had not suffered persecution but they had a history dating back to their Puritan ancestors who had fled England a century before.  In the same manner the Huguenots were driven by religious persecution to America. Presbyterians who migrated from other southern colonies, especially Virginian, may have suffered persecution under the Anglican Church. In addition, the missionary and evangelistic efforts of the Moravians were driven by faith. Indeed, there is much about a family’s spiritual roots that can be gleaned from a family name.

Today, when the historical role of faith is diminished, often by those who are projecting contemporary values and views of religion onto the past. History speaks to the contrary, that those who left their homelands driven by the desire to worship as dictated by their conscience, Biblical views, or tradition present a different reality. Their faith was personal and compelling, so much so that they held onto their faith, becoming religious refugees, leaving their possessions, national allegiances and homelands behind.

Charles Jones is a newspaper columnist, Baptist historian, and retired pastor.