Awarding-winning actress Ashley Judd discovered that she is the descendent of Protestants who traveled to America on the Mayflower seeking religious freedom.
The Emmy and Golden Globe nominee discovered family ties to America’s Christian heritage Friday as she followed her family tree on the NBC television show, “Who Do You Think You Are.”
On the show, Judd explores her father Michael Ciminella’s side of the family all the way to New England. There, she discovers that she is related to William Brewster, a Protestant that spoke vehemently against the Church of England in 1607 and later traveled to America to escape religious persecution. The discovery shocked Judd who said her own faith as a Christian “is really important to me.”
Judd traveled to York, England, where she learned that Brewster, a bailiff to the Archbishop of York, belonged to a group of Protestant separatists called Brownists. Brownists, York University Professor Bill Sheils explained, openly criticized the Church of England’s morals and ethics. (The Church of England was formed in 1534, driven by King Henry VIII‘s quest for a male heir.) Brewster’s membership in the religious group led to a warrant for his arrest and his imprisonment for several months.
“So I have an ancestor who was disruptive socially and politically. This does not surprise me,” she commented.
Judd is very active as a social justice activist for human rights and public health. In her recently published memoir All that is Bitter and Sweet, Judd detailed how her background as a victim of neglect, abuse and depression drove her to become a vocal advocate for women suffering from HIV/ AIDS and working in the sex trade. Judd’s outspoken nature has also drawn controversy. Most recently, she made news for criticizing rap culture in her previously mentioned book as a culture of rape.
The actress said she was led to explore her heritage in order to find out if there was anyone else in her family who “agitated for reform, who fought for the poor, the disenfranchised and the disempowered.”
Judd found a fellow agitator in Brewster who later escaped to Holland for 12 years where he was disseminating the Perth Assembly, a 1619 book protesting King James I’s imposition upon the Church of Scotland. Brewster, being wanted again this time by Scotland, immigrated in 1620 to what was then considered the “New World.” Brewster’s name was listed among the 102 signers of the Mayflower compact, signifying that he did sail aboard the Mayflower.
“Religious tolerance is incredibly important to me,” said a teary-eyed Judd as she sat in Brewster’s jail cell. “That passion that William Brewster clearly had to even become a prisoner and possibly a martyr is something I really respect.”
She added, “What's interesting about knowing these stories is that they're so validating of my experience of myself. Knowing that William and Mary Brewster had such extraordinary faith it is so psychologically imprinted in the narrative of my family.”
Judd’s own faith is described as “an inclusive Christian faith that honors and respects all backgrounds” on her official website.
In the show, the actress also discovered that her triple great grandfather, Elijah Hensley, fought for the Union in the U.S. Civil War. Hensley was twice a prisoner of war. His second imprisonment followed the amputation of his leg. Judd cried as she read Hensley’s bio which detailed how he became a farmer and an active member of the Methodist church after being honorably discharged from the Army.
“Two of my ancestors having been wrongly imprisoned and under abominable conditions may have been informing all along in my lifetime my absolutely furious, passionate need for social justice,” she observed.
Ciminella, Judd’s father, expressed his amazement at their joint history saying, “The thread that you have followed is the fabric of our country.”
Judd opined, “The American idea adheres in [Brewster’s] story. Everything is implicated. All of our basic freedoms which we value and, in many instances, take for granted in America [are] in here: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, separation of church and state.”
Judd is the sibling and daughter of country singers Wynonna and Naomi Judd. The Judds have deep roots in Kentucky. As an actress, Judd starred in movies such as “Double Jeopardy,” “Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood” and “Ruby in Paradise.” She is also married to Indy racer Dario Franchitti. Together they reside on a farm in Tennessee.