In the winter of 1791, a New England farm wife wrote a letter to her parents. For decades, the mother of seventeen had kept her troubles to herself: her husband had viciously beaten her and her children throughout their twenty-two-year marriage. Abigail Bailey had never told a soul. But the family’s tensions reached a breaking point when Bailey learned of her husband’s extensive sexual abuse of their teenage daughter. The girl left home. Bailey threw her husband out. Now a single mother, she had to write to her parents to explain why her family was falling apart.
A devout Christian, Bailey reached for familiar biblical characters to explain her new world. “I am like Joseph in the prison,” she wrote, “waiting on God to bring my feet out of the stocks. Or like Israel in Egypt, waiting on God’s time to come forth from bondage. Like David in his distresses, I attempt to encourage myself in the Lord.” Joseph, Israel, David: Bailey wrote of those who understood longsuffering.
She closed her letter with a more obscure biblical reference. “For I believe,” Bailey wrote, “the great God will overturn, overturn, and overturn, till he has adjusted the concerns of our family.” Overturn, overturn, and overturn: the words come from the King James Version of Ezekiel 21:27, where the prophet predicts a divinely orchestrated regime change for the Hebrew people. Bailey’s statement of faith, I believe, can also be read as a prayer. Please, God, she said as she wrote to the generation behind her, please overturn what has happened here.
I am Abigail Bailey’s great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter. I discovered my foremother’s words just as I was confronting my own childhood sexual abuse. I was stunned to learn that the book my forebear penned, along with her letter to her parents, is considered by historians to be the first autobiographical mention of incest ever written in America. Learning that one of my ancestors had prayed against sexual abuse in our family over two hundred years before left me equally as astonished.
Overturn, overturn, and overturn, Abigail Bailey prayed. My great-grandmother had prayed for me, yet her prayer had not spared me. How, I wondered, had God chosen to “adjust the concerns of our family”? Just what kind of legacy had I inherited across eight generations? What, exactly, had God overturned? So I looked to the words of Ezekiel to find out more about what exactly her prayer might mean.
Thus Saith the Lord God
“Remind me of this with every decision,” sings Sara Groves in her song “Generations”: “Generations will reap what I sow / I can pass on a curse or a blessing / to those I will never know.”
Throughout the Old Testament, God’s people are reminded that their choices carry consequences. God follows the third of the Ten Commandments—to not make idols—in Exodus 20 with: “for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses warns that disobeying God will have drastic effects for “your children who follow you in later generations.” The prophet Jeremiah also speaks of a God who “bring[s] the punishment for the parents’ sins into the laps of their children after them.”
Ezekiel’s words are written across a backdrop of generational idol worship, a full-scale rejection of God, and an anticipation of the curses wrought by the wickedness of Israel’s own kings. The prophecy that Bailey referenced in the King James Version reads:
And thou, profane wicked prince of Israel, whose day is come, when iniquity shall have an end,
Thus saith the Lord God; Remove the diadem, and take off the crown: this shall not be the same: exalt him that is low, and abase him that is high.
I will overturn, overturn, overturn, it: and it shall be no more, until he come whose right it is; and I will give it him.
The “profane wicked prince of Israel” at that time was King Zedekiah, a man who “did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” He had learned his evil ways from his father, Jehoiachin, who had learned it from his father, Jehoiakim. The kings of Israel had done evil in the eyes of the Lord for generations. Zedekiah’s great-great-great-grandfather Manasseh had burned his own children alive as sacrifices to idols. King after king, with the notable exception of Josiah, had fallen under the sway of vile generational sin for hundreds of years. And here in Ezekiel, God promises that the wicked royal line’s day has come. The curses God warned would come for wickedness would come to pass. The evil practiced in Israel would have an end. Zedekiah would be dethroned, the family line stripped of its royal claim, and the nation sent into exile.
The words “profane wicked prince” should remind us of someone other than Zedekiah—the one whom Jesus called “the prince of this world” in John 12. Satan himself. Satan, the object of the very first curse. Here in Ezekiel, God’s promise of numbered days and the end of iniquity extend to the most wicked prince of them all. Satan’s ability to lure the children of God into self-destroying and generation-destroying sin will one day be no more.
The middle stanza of the prophecy feels particularly germane to the subject of sexual abuse. “Exalt him that is low, and abase him that is high.” Who is lower than the victim of child sexual abuse? Who seems higher in that child’s eyes than his or her abuser? Who is in greater need of exaltation, and who of abasement? This theme of exalting the low and bringing down the exalted runs throughout scripture, from 1 Samuel 2 to Isaiah 40 to the Magnificat—and always, when I encounter it, I am reminded of the goodness and finality of God’s justice.
“I will overturn, overturn, overturn,” says the Lord. The NRSV translates this verse, “A ruin! A ruin! A ruin—I will make it.” In the New Living Translation, the verse reads, “Destruction! Destruction! I will surely destroy the kingdom.” Evil, in other words, is going down. In 1791, centuries before anyone would coin the phrases “child sexual abuse” or “#metoo,” in a time when it was still shameful even to speak of what the ungodly did in secret, Abigail Bailey spoke out and called on God to overturn, overturn, and overturn; to ruin, ruin, ruin; to destroy, destroy, destroy.
The last line of this prophecy contains another note of hope. The position held by the profane wicked prince “shall be no more, until he come whose right it is, and I will give it him.” Someone else was coming who would rightfully wear the crown.
The Lasting Legacy
A generational blessing is far more powerful than a generational curse. In the third commandment, God promises to punish children for the sins of their fathers to the third and fourth generation, “but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” Three or four generations compared with a thousand: God’s blessing is exponentially greater than God’s curse.
The problem, of course, is that none of us is righteous, no, not one. None of us perfectly loves God or keeps God’s commandments, and generations feel the impact of Abigail Bailey, for all her fervent prayers, failing to see that her husband was abusing her daughter until it was too late. I know this in my own life, too. I have no evidence that anyone else was sexually abused in the family line between Abigail Bailey and me, but I can see the ripple effects of abuse: I know that the person who abused me was himself abused as a Boy Scout (it must be said that the vast majority of abuse victims do not go on to abuse others; still, abuse takes its toll, and sometimes repeats itself). Someone hurt someone who hurt me. Lord willing our missteps don’t propagate abuse, but we all fail our children. We all do things that our children will need to talk about in therapy. We all participate in the generational legacy of sin that stretches from Adam and Eve on down.
The disheartening certainty that our sin will have consequences only tells the story in part. The good news is also right there in Ezekiel’s prophecy: generational blessings do not hinge on our moral record, but on the power of the overturning God. Righteousness, and the blessing that accompanies it, comes from Jesus. Just as sin entered the world through one man, says Paul in Romans 5, “how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” In Christ, God has overturned the generational curse of sin, replacing it with overflowing grace. We grab hold of the gift of God’s blessing for us and for our children simply by putting our faith in Christ. Jesus is the one given the throne from the wicked prince of this world to rule forever with truth and justice. Jesus Christ is the overturner.
The real lasting legacy of my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother is that she called on the name of Jesus. She spent hours in her prayer closet, praying for herself and her children. Because of those prayers—because of God’s determination in Christ to answer those prayers—I am blessed.
That is not to say that our actions do not matter. Abigail Bailey prayed that God would adjust the concerns of our family, and those adjustments have begun to come, for our family and for all of society. The faithful acts of many women and men, Christian and non-Christian alike, across two and a quarter centuries have changed our society. I endured abuse just like my ancestor, yes, but my life could not be more different from that of my abused great-grandmother. I have the benefit of therapists and psychiatrists, of internet research, of support groups, of books, of medication, of a society that makes space for me to tell my story. Laws exist to make needed divorces easier to obtain, child abuse easier (though still not easy enough) to prosecute, sexism easier to redress. Despite everything, my life is unquestionably easier, freer, more open to possibility, than the lives of my forebears.
Yes, there is still reason to cry out with my grandmother Bailey, “Overturn, overturn, overturn.” The cry will remain and the work will not be complete until Jesus, who came once to break the curse of Adam and Eve’s generational legacy, comes again to heal the nations.
A Generational Gift
Like my ancestor, I pray for my descendants. I place my hand on my children’s heads as they sleep, and I pray: for their childhoods, for their adult lives, for their spouses and children and children’s children, should they have them. I hope their lives will be full and satisfying, free of tragedy and trouble. I pray knowing that the legacy of sin will reach them, too. Just as my great-grandmother’s prayer did not protect me from abuse, my prayers will not seal my descendants off from Adam’s curse. We cannot stop bad things from happening to the ones we love.
Still, a prayer for a loved one is a tangible gift, a means of passing on a generational blessing. And though faith cannot be inherited, by the grace of God, our faith has an impact on the ones who come after. The greatest gift Abigail Bailey gave me was a faith in Christ: a faith that was handed down from my forebears—to Abigail Bailey’s great-grandson, a pastor and theologian; to my mother, who was raised in the church and later came to know Christ’s love as a young adult; to me. And that faith is the legacy I hope to pass on, in my own small way, to those who come after.
So I find myself humming along with Sara Groves: “To my great-great-great-granddaughter, / live in peace. / To my great-great-great-grandson, / live in peace.” Live in peace, children: not the peace of perfect lives, which are impossible to attain this side of glory, but the peace of knowing the one who will one day overturn wickedness and who will hold you through it all.
Cover image by Cody Board.