Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Are there nuts in my family tree?

Mormons are big fans of family history research. As a church we've invested great resources in genealogical research. Our family history centers are in stake centers and other church buildings around the globe, making our vast resources of microfilmed and microfiched records available for researchers in and outside the church.

The church is in the process of launching New Family Search ( around the world – an online computer resource for church members for tracking family history, and (even more importantly) easily allowing people to link their research with research that others have done to avoid duplicate work.

For church members, one reason for family history research is to allow for saving ordinances of the gospel to be performed in LDS temples. There deceased family members can receive physical ordinances like baptism and confirmation by proxy. We believe that those who died without the opportunity to hear the gospel in this life will have that opportunity in the Spirit World, where Christ preached to the spirits between his death and resurrection (see 1 Peter 3 and 1 Corinthians 15).

Old Testament prophet Malachi (see Malachi 3) promised that hearts of the children would turn to their fathers, and hearts of the fathers would turn to their children. I have felt that turning in my own life as I've dabbled in family history work and as I've taken names of my ancestors to the temple. In fact, it happened again the other night.

As I was checking family records and comparing them to the online records in New Family Search, I realized that certain work for my uncle – one of my father's brothers -- had not been completed. I left the temple holding that blue card with my uncle's name on it, and suddenly also felt close to my father who passed away two years ago, and I wondered if the two of them have already met in the spirit world, and if my father, a convert to the church when he was in his 40's, has taught him the gospel.

Our doctrine teaches us that the fact that we perform ordinances in temples for our deceased relatives does not compel them to accept those ordinances. They will hear the gospel and choose whether to accept it. So while I complete ordinances for my uncle, his decision will determine whether those ordinances will be effective for him. But by our providing the ordinances, he then has the opportunity to choose.

Family history research is more than just connecting me to my uncle. It's also the excitement of discovering names of relatives generations back from Norwegian church records now available online. It's discovering familiar immigrant names on ships' manifests. It's connecting names from one census to another. It's making those connections through time to sort out our heritage, and to learn about those who came before us.

My own genealogy has its challenges. One line goes to Pennsylvania in the 1830s and 1840s. That's a notoriously difficult place to find records, as our family's fruitless (so far) search has confirmed. But another line traces clearly to the American Revolution and earlier to France. My wife's brother's wife discovered a common link between her family and mine – not blood relatives, but families who travelled together west to Washington State to homestead that frontier when it was new.

Family history is daunting to some, and confusing to many. It doesn't help that when we get "training" in family history, we often get training on how to use a specific computer program instead of actual research. But for me, the first step is interest. The second is to start where I am, wherever that is.

Some say their work is "all done." I don’t know what that means. My mother-in-law works as a missionary at the church's Genealogy Library in Salt Lake City. She's worked her own lines (Mormon pioneers, many from the British Isles) and her husband's (from Sweden), and she has binders full of the results of her research, but she's never proclaimed it finished.

I go in fits and starts – I'll work a few weeks and then get busy with other things, and then spend a few weeks again many months later. Recently, I'm discovering that genealogists far more diligent than I am have completed work that applies to my family history, too. On the other hand, there is a certain thrill at finding a name after combing records (online, in the microfilm reader, or in dusty old books) for hours or days.

Family history is one of those pursuits where the journey is as exciting as reaching the goal.


  1. On my mom's side, we've done pretty well; we've only encountered a couple of real dead ends (one in ME in the 1700's and one in KY in the early 1800's); there don't seem to be many records. Birth certificates weren't recorded in KY before 1840. But the real tragedy is my dad's side--we can't get past my grandfather. My grandmother's side has yielded good results, but my grandfather, who escaped Germany in the '30's (and changed his name at Ellis Island) has no discernable roots whatsoever! Eventually I'll need to break down and enlist the help of an expert.

  2. Whoever says it's all done is kidding themselves. It's never ALL done. There are too many. One thing that has just astounded me is the number of people that come from just two persons. It is incredible! I've had the fun of putting lots of histories and diaries online for others to find and get the info also. I have found quite a few who are related but to another sibling in the mid 1800's. It's fascinating.

  3. Thanks, CJ and Lisa, for your comments. One thing I've learned is those who say "it's all done" have not tried to do it.

    The thing I find most interesting is how hard it is to start. Many believe that family history is just too complicated, and it's not so easy to find a mentor who can get someone going.

    Having my wife's mother as a family history missionary has been an excellent resource, but even she admits that there are so many things a person "could" know, and since each person's history is a unique case, it really is scary for some.

    But I've found just dipping in a toe is all it takes. And it's ok to go slow.

  4. Yikes! Who's Lisa?? I meant Lucy! Sorry... (Maybe that's why FH is a challenge for me -- I can't keep names straight from one paragraph to the next!)