When news broke early Monday that M. Russell Ballard, a high-ranking official in the Mormon church had passed away at the age of 95, obituaries included an eye-popping fact concerning the longtime faith leader.
“President Ballard is survived by his seven children, 43 grandchildren, 105 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild,” read the report.
As impressive as the numbers of Ballard’s extended brood might be, the news brought to mind Cordelia Mae Hawkins, 98, who this past spring welcomed her 230th great-grandchild into the world.
“MaeDell Hawkins,” who lives in a Kentucky nursing home, was just 16 when she married her first husband. He was a 50-year-old widower with ten children. They’d go on to have 13 children together. All told Hawkins has 623 living descendants.
Guinness World Records credits the late Samuel S. Mast with having enjoyed the most living descendants at 824. At the time of his death in 1992, Mast had 11 children, 97 grandchildren, 634 great-grandchildren and 82 great-great-grandchildren.
It’s difficult for most of us to fathom enjoying such large families, but the ongoing decline in the birth rate only further accentuates these remarkable outliers – and leaves some of us admittedly a bit jealous for such extensive family trees.
The 1850 US Census indicates families of between 6 and 9 children weren’t that unusual. By 1980, less than half a percent of moms and dads had eight or more children in the home. The average total family size, inclusive of parents, is closer to three than to four.
Even as recently as only a few decades ago, there was a significant “fertility gap” regarding people of faith. Most of us remember growing up that when you’d encounter large families in your neighborhood, the typical question asked was: “Are they Catholics or Mormons?”
It’s not really the case anymore.
In fact, while Mormons are still averaging more children than Catholics (2.8 to 1.8), Muslims (2.9) are the most likely to have the largest families today. The evangelical birth rate is estimated to be 1.9 children per mother.
Evangelical Christians have seismic theological differences with both Mormons and Muslims, but their emphasis on the importance of bearing children (whatever their differing motivations) in the confines of marriage should be noted.
God made clear in the Bible that Christians were to “be fruitful” and have children (Genesis 1:28, 1:9). We also know that children are a blessing. “Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from Him,” wrote the Psalmist. “Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate” (Psalm 127:3-5).
Of course, not every couple can have biological children, but adoption is a wonderful avenue to enjoy the blessings of parenthood.
Why so many couples are choosing intentional childlessness is a matter of great debate and conversation. But for the broader faith community, nothing will give you greater joy and purpose than raising boys and girls who grow into responsible men and women who serve the Lord.
Yet the dire issue we face extends well beyond sentiment and personal satisfaction. God commands married couples to have children because the continuation and health of civilization itself depends on it. Married evangelical Christians would be wise to heed the biblical dictate to welcome more children. Large families won’t solve every problem – but they sure are a wonderful place to start.
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