It was in the days before the internet, in a time when Virginia families handed down the responsibility of carrying on the family heritage to the oldest son. This responsibility, passed down in the form of a blessing, was something to be cherished and taken seriously. Kerr received his when he was twelve.
He remembers being summoned to the rambling family summer home in the mountains of Montreat, North Carolina. He was joined by his grandparents, several uncles, three sisters, and his father and mother.
As the rest of the family held hands around the dining table, Kerr’s father placed his right hand on his son’s head and prayed these words: “And Father in Heaven, may you pass this blessing on to our next generation and may they be faithful to your calling. Amen.”
Then Kerr’s father and uncle unrolled a 12- by 18-inch parchment upon the table, revealing a hand-lettered family tree. Kerr’s father moved his index finger from right to left, across 12 generations, stopping at the inscription: “Rowland Taylor, Martyred February 9, 1555.” Beneath Rowland Taylor’s name was neatly written: “Dr. Rowland Taylor, Pastor and Professor of Law at Cambridge University, and Margaret Tyndale were the direct ancestors of five US presidents: James Madison, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Abraham Lincoln, and Benjamin Harrison.” Kerr’s father then said, “Rowland Taylor, our ancestor, was the third of more than 250 Protestant martyrs to be burnt at the stake by Queen Bloody Mary, a religious tyrant. His execution took place at Aldham Common, just outside Hadleigh, England.”
He added, “The great historian John Foxe recorded some of the last words of Rowland Taylor, inscribed into the fly leaf of the Bible he gave his seven-year-old son just two days before he died.”
He reached for an old book on the fireplace mantle. Engraved on the leather cover was the title Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Turning to a dog-eared page, he began to read the first sentence of the words Rowland Taylor had written to his son: “’Son, may Almighty God bless thee, and give you his Holy Spirit, to be a true servant of Christ, to learn his word, and constantly to stand by his truth all the life long.’”
Kerr’s father closed the book and said, “A few days later, Rowland Taylor was burned alive rather than renounce his beliefs. I tell you the story of Rowland Taylor today, but I could have chosen the stories of many on this Family Tree who have fought tyranny of every ilk. You are to do the same.”
Kerr nodded, taking to heart the words that would guide him for the rest of his life.
“Son, the Bible tells us to ‘remember.’ It uses the word 166 times. It is important for you to remember your heritage. It connects you to your past. It gives you identity. Remember where you have come from. Remember to pass these things on to the next generation. Remember that heritage is a blessing from God and, if not cultivated and passed down from one generation to the next, it will die.
“I have given to you my blessing. Go forward remembering your heritage. Remember your identity. And may it give your life deeper meaning.”