To members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, family history research is an important component of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The family unit is central to the Gospel and genealogical information enables Latter-day Saints to document their family lines. Since the Gospel of Jesus Christ was restored to the earth in 1830, ancestors were not able to receive it in its fullness while they lived on the earth. God’s merciful plan enables the Gospel to be preached to all men, whether in this life or in the world of spirits after death. However, God commanded some ordinances, like baptism, to be performed on earth. The Savior’s perfect vicarious work for all mankind and the priesthood of God empowers Latter-day Saints to perform ordinances in holy temples for ancestors who died. Mormons believe that their ancestors have the same choice to accept or decline the ordinances in the spirit world as a living person has to accept or reject the Gospel in this life.
Family History Consultant, Sue Laing shares her thoughts about the importance of family history by explaining why Mormons do family history, how family history work is accomplished and some of the blessings of family history work.
Family History: Whys
Nearly 2,000 years ago the Lord Jesus Christ entered a garden called Gethsemane, where He chose (for He had His agency as all of us do) to suffer for our sins and bear our every affliction; then, being falsely tried and scourged before struggling with His cross toward Golgotha, He allowed the cruelty of crucifixion to compound the torment He had already undergone. There on that cruel cross He completed the mortal part of His mission with three simple words “It is finished.” He had done it!
I don’t know about you, but when I have successfully accomplished some task I have been given, I have to re-gather my energies before I can carry on. But not our Savior!
During the brief time between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, Christ went into the spirit world to organize the work for the dead, so beautifully explained to us in Doctrine and Covenants 138. It’s astonishing that after the agonies of Gethsemane and Golgotha—which are beyond our comprehension but which “suffering” He Himself made clear to the young prophet Joseph Smith He had never forgotten—“suffering,” He said that “caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink” (Doctrine and Covenants19:18). That he could undertake a mission of such scope, with no rest at all between, to there announce the resurrection, to those who hungered for it (even before He Himself was resurrected), is remarkable. But the Father had given Him that charge. The scripture records: “He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound” (Isaiah 61:1).
The great work of salvation which we, in our day, are charged to hasten had its genesis with that visit to the world of the spirits, where faithful followers of Christ were organized as a mighty missionary force to teach His gospel and prepare the dead to accept the vicarious work that only we in this dispensation of the fullness of times are able to provide. The scope of this work is breathtaking in its importance. Yet it would be hundreds of years until the Restoration began to make the fulfillment of these promises possible.
It was not until after Elijah came in 1836 and restored the sealing power necessary to prepare the world for the Savior’s Second Coming that family history research began to come into vogue.
Remarkably, governments began placing a greater emphasis on keeping a record of their citizens. There are no coincidences. And so in January 1837, just eight months after Elijah had appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, England and Wales passed legislation to civilly register births, deaths, and marriages, and the United States began to pass laws requiring the registration of vital records while the federal government began to require more detailed information in the censuses being taken. And now in our day, experts believe that genealogy ranks second only to gardening as America’s favorite pastime.
President Henry B. Eyring reminds us that “many of our deceased ancestors have already received a testimony that the message of the missionaries is true. But in this world when someone accepts the gospel message he can ask for baptism, while those in the spirit world cannot . . . Someone in this world must go to a holy temple and accept the covenants on behalf of the person in the spirit world.”
It is for this purpose that some 142 temples across the world are now operating, with another 28 in process.
Michael Wilcox spoke of taking his own family to the temple to do work for their kindred dead saying:
The ordinance worker certainly did not know about my family yet said to my children: ‘Many of the people for whom you will do work today lived hard and bitter lives. Many of them died believing that God had forgotten them. But today you will show them that God has not forgotten them. He doesn’t forget any of his children. Their names will be spoken in his house and they will know that God has not forgotten them.’
We are under obligation to find the names of our ancestors and ensure that they are offered what they cannot receive without our help—that they are not forgotten!
President Eyring adds: “Remember that the names which will be so difficult to find are of real people to whom you owe your existence in this world and whom you will meet again in the spirit world.”
Family History: Hows
We live in a day when information and technology is coming at us in both volume and speed, which is exponential. Think, for example, of the burgeoning numbers of records available online. Consider indexing alone: since online indexing began in 2006, over 2.2 billion searchable records have been made available. And this year the Church plans to publish a minimum of another 1 billion records, or a little less than 3 million per day!
To help us better succeed in this great work, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is also forming partnering agreements that will make other huge bodies of records available without charge to us through ancestry.com, Find my Past, and other subscription partners. The tools and resources available to us are amazing. If what you seek isn’t there today, check back tomorrow.
We are indeed blessed with remarkable technology!
These resources are being made available for us that we might more seriously fill the task Joseph Smith wrote of: “The greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us is to seek after our dead.”
And it isn’t just the records themselves. Some 88 years ago, in 1926, Joseph Fielding Smith made it clear that the discoveries we enjoy haven’t come by chance “they have come and are coming because the time is ripe, because the Lord has willed it, and because he has poured out his Spirit on all flesh.”
Those smart phones and iPads we carry around weren’t just designed for our entertainment; they have come into our hands because the “Lord has willed it.” Now it is up to us to choose to use them to do His work. No amount of records or technological advances will help us if we don’t use them for His purposes. (By the way you can now use those tablets to index records!)
Some members may grapple with the challenge of limited records from some areas in the world. Some others of us struggle with our worked (and reworked) pioneer lines that demand that we clean up earlier-made messes!
Whatever our situation, help is available, and when we can’t break through dead ends and brick walls that keep us from reaching further back, we can try turning around to “find our cousins” in the descending generations of those we came from. The grandmothers or grandfathers in this audience don’t want to be without their grandchildren in the Celestial realms, and our ancestors don’t either. Go out as far as you can on your lines and turn around and work forward to find their grandchildren—your cousins.
Please also know that there are many faces to Family History, many different activities you can be involved with that provide you with a great variety of worthwhile activities—there is no room to be bored or have nothing to do!
Yes, we can do genealogical research to extend our lines, seek for our cousins through descendancy research, clean up our family on Family Tree, submit names for temple work, write our own personal and family histories, plan and hold family reunions, and spend time building memories with children and grandchildren. These are all important parts of Family History work!
And if we are somehow deluded into thinking we have done all we can, we can listen to Joseph Fielding Smith who taught this important principle:
“It doesn’t matter whether your computer is able to compile all the family group sheets for everyone that ever lived on the earth, it remains the responsibility of each individual to know his kindred dead… Even if the work is done, then it is still each person’s responsibility to study and become acquainted with his ancestors.”
The lives of those who lived during earlier times, have stories, letters, and heirlooms that help us come to better know them, and not only the dates of events or the names of places they lived.
Family History: Blessings
This past December my cousin Richard E. Harris died, having lived from 1929 to 2013. Just days before his “graduation” into the spirit world he wrote his own obituary, wherein he said, “I was born, I died, and in between I tried.” It is that “in between part” so often illustrated by a simple dash between two dates where all the stories of our lives hide.
And knowing the stories of our heritage does make a difference.
Bruce Feiler, one thoughtful writer, noted: “We live in troubling times, where many feel that their families are kind of falling apart.” He researched what the ingredients are that make some families effective, resilient, happy and others not.
A surprising theme emerged from his research: “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative. Children who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges as they have a sense of being part of a larger family.”
Knowing we belong to something bigger than ourselves makes a difference and family stories do just that.
May I illustrate: My mom, struggled with fear as a young person. Then when she was 17 her father died suddenly while away from home; she watched her own mother confront her worst fear—“to be a young widow,” by simply picking up some near-at-hand task and going on.
Years later Mom still struggled with inexplicable fears especially when confronted with new and challenging assignments. At that time, 1981, she was beginning to do research before writing Elder LeGrand Richards’s biography. It was even more of a challenge than she had anticipated.
In her own words she said: “During the first months, words did not flow, fear of failure was ever present, and I wanted desperately to run from it. One cold evening of wind and sleet, I stood at dusk just inside the door of the Deseret News Building, where I had been researching material for the project. Cars were bumper to bumper in the gloom, their drivers honking and trying to move ahead of the snarl of traffic. I thought how easy it would be to step out, slip on ice in the tangle, and be crushed out of my misery.
At that precise moment a little motto entered my mind with immense force—a lifeline sent me in time of great need:
‘Work in place of worry, faith in place of fear!’”
Mom left the building with new resolve. She would be all right. The book would be written! And I and all my family have that story and her lifeline motto to hold fast to as we face our own fears. We know how to go on!
Bruce Feiler wrote, “The bottom line: If you want a happier family, create, refine, and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.” [See Bruce Feiler’s recently published book, The Secrets of Happy Families]
Family History consultants can help you in any of the Family History areas you have a desire to participate in for I know that you, and I, can “work in place of worry”; and have “faith in place of fear” as we wholeheartedly participate in hastening this great work of salvation!