During the filming, Warren, who founded the 20,000-member Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, was stunned to learn that his third great-grandfather owned slaves in antebellum Alabama. The anecdote is one of many ancestral tales Gates—a self-described “genealogy junkie”—uncovers with Warren, in an episode that also profiles American Muslim scholar Yasir Qadhi and Asian-American rabbi Angela Buchdahl.
During the Civil War, Gates discovers, wings of Warren’s family were pitted against each other. Warren had one ancestor, a Baptist minister from Illinois named Ebenezer Armstrong, who served in the Union Army—and Warren’s forefather Bird Griffin defended the Confederacy and fought to hold on to his emancipated slaves after the war by entangling them in illegal indentured servitude contracts.
If you look back far enough, everyone has a connection of this sort, Gates told the Daily Beast. Warren was “unsettled” to learn about his slave-holding forebears, Gates said, but similarly unpleasant truths lurk in most families’ backgrounds.
On the show, Gates and his researchers travel with their guests to unexpected corners of their family history. In Warren’s case, “His 9th great grandfather and 10th great grandfather were William and Robert Parke, and they were friends of John Winthrop,” a founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, said Gates. Some Warren relatives fought in the struggle for independence from British rule. In the end, they were able to trace Warren’s tree all the way back to his 12th great grandfather, William Chaplin, born in 1525 in England.
“It’s a way of making American history intimate, concrete, and personal,” Gates said. “It’s one thing to think about the Puritans and the Pilgrims. It’s another to think that [one’s] 9th and 10th great grandfathers were among the Puritan founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.”
Bird Griffin, Warren’s Confederate ancestor, was born in 1803 in Wilkes County, Georgia. He spent most of his life in Alabama, and owned 12 slaves spread over two towns, according to documents from 1860. When those slaves were emancipated, Griffin tried to use the law to keep them under his thumb, binding at least three freed workers to him through court-approved apprenticeships. Griffin died in 1883, and was buried in Mt. Olive Primitive Baptist Church cemetery in Oakmulgee, Alabama.
“We have two fundamental principles,” Gates said. “One is that guilt is not heritable.” The second, a riff on the classical injunction from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, is “Know thy ancestors, know thyself.”
When their roots are revealed to them, “many people cry,” Gates said. “Or are stunned or are just delighted. We don’t prescreen our guests. We just pick them and then the paper trail takes us wherever the paper trail takes us.”
Gates said that he’s been fascinated with Warren, author of bestselling The Purpose Driven Life, since the evangelical pastor delivered the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. Warren has led charity efforts to fight AIDs, poverty, and genocide worldwide.
Warren’s father was a pastor, but Gates was able to show him just how far back the vocation for preaching goes. “He’s got pastoring in his DNA,” Gates said of Warren. “He comes from ministers on both sides of his family. If he had known his family tree, his parents could have said, ‘You’re going to seminary.’”
These unanticipated connections and the unearthed revelations have fired Gates’ passion for genealogy ever since, at age 9, his father showed him a picture of his great-great grandmother Jane Gates and told the young man, “I never want you to forget her.” Finding Your Roots is the fourth series Gates has produced for PBS that traces Americans’ genealogies, and builds on Faces of America and the two-part African American Lives. The episode featuring Warren airs April 15 at 8 PM EST, and was funded by a grant from the Pew Foundation. Other episodes trace the family histories of CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta and New Orleans crooner Harry Connick, Jr.