Wheaton Students Discover Their Theological Roots by Researching their Theological Family Tree

May 20, 2021

This past semester during her Historical Theology course, Dr. Emily McGowin put a new spin on family tree research when she assigned a project titled “My Theological Heritage,” a chance for her students to discover new family history and find spiritual encouragement.


Emily McGowin headshot 380x253Wheaton College Assistant Professor of Theology Dr. Emily McGowin wanted to find a way for her students to understand how historical theology affects their day-to-day life.

“Students want to have this theological knowledge base, but they don’t really get how it intersects with their lived experience as a Christian,” she said. 

In hopes of doing just that, she introduced a new project to her Historical Theology course this past semester, which she titled “My Theological Heritage.” For the project, students were asked to interview their families and research the history of their home churches. Their investigations would culminate with a two-page narrative and a theological family tree.  

Some students, like junior Josh Harder, discovered new facets of their family’s faith journey. For instance, Harder’s ancestors were some of the first Mennonites in Europe, having fled persecution for their pacifist beliefs in the Netherlands and later Prussia, Russia, and the United States and ultimately ending up in Canada, where Harder was raised.

But what Harder found most encouraging was his family’s commitment to Christ through the years—and their strong desire that future generations would know and love him.

“It was deeply impactful to me to find that my family has generations of people who were just convinced of the truth of the gospel,” said Wheaton College junior Josh Harder. “Remembrance is a large part of what it means to be a Christian, and it was just very impactful to see how completely my family relied on God just to get by—and how much it meant to them that their children know that.” 

Another student, Peter Zhou, who completed the course remotely this semester from China, was able to trace back six generations of Christians who were some of the first known Protestant missionaries to China. Another student Katie Mesa found a rich tapestry of faith on both sides of her family—Cuban Roman Catholic and Swedish Lutheran. 

“Even the students who don’t come from a Christian home like me were able to research their home churches, and it helped them to see ‘I do have a heritage. I didn’t just plop down here out of the heavens. I have this history.’ I think that’s really valuable,” McGowin said.

In speaking with students, McGowin was delighted to hear how spiritually encouraging the project has been.

“The main goal of the project at first was just for students to see why we should study historical theology at all, but as I read through their reports, I realized I also wanted them to see that they are a Christian within a larger story,” McGowin said. “When you see yourself in the midst of a larger story, I think it gives you better perspective on your life and what you’re going through.”

Due to the success of the project, Dr. McGowin is looking forward to assigning it to future students.

--Emily Bratcher