I have come to really enjoy the Bible studies programs that St. Luke’s has undertaken in the last few years. Many who know me have heard my celebrations of the Psalms of Lament, which I use to soothe my anger as I navigate my way through rush hour traffic. One surprising and more peaceful discovery that I have made was through Tuesday Mornings Irregulars at Table Talk Restaurant and listing to the Sunday morning scripture at Church has served to add context to my search for the history of my ancestors in this country. This has been one example of how I have found myself through the Bible.
In readings for the Fourth week of Easter in Acts we learned about Tabitha, also known as Dorcas.
Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name is Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to God works and acts of charity. At the time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was in Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.
Dorcas is a rare, but not an entirely unheard-of name in England. It is used in BBC situation comedies to denote a ridiculous English country lady, but there are several actresses of various races in England with that name as well. This verse intrigued me because it is a rare mention of a female disciple and, more personally, because Dorcas is the name of my third great grandmother along my maternal line. Other than their common rare names, the two women had little in common.
The Biblical Dorcas
Dorcas is the first Greek name of a female in the New Testament, its Hebrew equivalent being Tabitha which is the Syro-Chaldaic form of the Hebrew Zibiah, or Tsibiah, the name of a princess of Judah, the mother of King Joash. Tabitha’s dual names result from her residence at Joppa, which was a seaport inhabited by foreigners speaking chiefly the Greek language.
Saint Tabitha is considered the patron saint of tailors and seamstresses, since she was known for sewing coats and other garments, which are mentioned in Acts 9:39. She died wealthy and childless and, in all likelihood, she was literate.
My ancestral Dorcas
I can find out little more information about my own Dorcas. She was born in 1834 in Tyrell, North Carolina. Her. First born, Lucy, was the mother of my mother’s maternal grandmother, and the earliest name recorded in the family bible. She bore 14-19 children between the years 1852-1881. Dorcas Sanders (or Sanderson) Hanner died at age 78.
I have not been able to find out anything about Dorcas Sanders’s legal status at the time of her birth. She married an enslaved person, Osbourne Hannah (or Hanner) in 1852. In the post-Civil War censuses, her race was listed variously as black, mullatto, and white, according to the subjective judgement of the census recorders. Neither she, nor her husband could read nor write, though all of their children could.
There are marked differences between the two—the biblical Dorcas was the widow of a wealthy man, probably literate and had no survivors. My Dorcas was destitute by the end of her life. One of her youngest sons was ordered by the courts to pay $2.00 per month in support for her and her husband in the final years of her life.
I will probably never learn much more about either my third Great-Grandmother Dorcas or about the biblical Dorcas. But what I do understand is that almost 200 years ago, someone who had read Acts was in the position to give a baby that name. The person who did so was most likely her father, William Phillip Sanderson (sometimes listed as Sanders), who likely descended from immigrants from England to North Carolina.
The link between the biblical and ancestral Dorcases has allowed me to make the connection to ancestors in a different way beyond the traditional connections via archives. I am the last woman in this female line that descended from Dorcas Sanders, it is amazing coincidence that I would find her about the same time that I was reading about her namesake in the Bible. I know that none among previous three generations before me knew her name because she was not recorded in the family Bible. It is soothing to believe that at some point in her life, if only at the very beginning, someone thought to give her a meaningful and powerful name.
The value of that name has deep meaning for me. It has bound the few scraps of information that I have found on my ancestor about help bind them into a fuller picture of her life.
In closing, I offer a prayer for the absent, including Dorcas Sanders Hanner.
Prayer for the Absent (BCP, 830.52)
O God, whose fatherly care reacheth to the uttermost parts of the earth: We humbly beseech thee graciously to behold and bless those whom we love, now absent from us. Defend them from all dangers of soul and body; and grant that both they and we, drawing nearer to thee, may be bound together by thy love in the communion of thy Holy Spirit, and in the fellowship of thy saints; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.