Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Friday, October 10, 2014

Not Just a Name

Current in the jargon of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the use of the word "name" to refer to ancestors as in "take a name to the Temple" or "find a name to take to the Temple." From my point of view this use of the word "name" is very unfortunate. We don't just take a name to the Temple, we act as proxies for our ancestors in performing sacred ordinances. Even more unfortunately, this idea of "finding a name" has been extended to the practice of mining names from the Family Tree program without spending either the time or effort to verify that the name found represents a real person or a person whose Temple work has already been completed previously. This practice has been extended by leaders who challenge members of their particular units to take a name to the Temple without considering or providing a way to legitimately discover their ancestors and even specifically challenging them to use Family Tree as a "source" for those names. 

At the same time some of those same leaders fault "genealogists" for merely being interested in finding "names and dates" rather than being interested in the stories about their ancestors and emphasize how "easy" it is to go to the Family Tree program and find a name. They treat the Family Tree program as if it is a magical way to manufacture qualified ancestors. As I have been teaching the missionaries at the Brigham Young University Family History Library these past two months, I have referred to this practice many times and always immediately elicited confirming responses from the class members. This pattern of disregarding the identity or reality of the ancestor in exchange for accomplishing the task of "finding a name" is endemic.

Quoting from a talk given by Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in General Conference in October 2011:
The Prophet Joseph Smith declared: “The greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us is to seek after our dead. … For it is necessary that the sealing power should be in our hands to seal our children and our dead for the fulness of the dispensation of times—a dispensation to meet the promises made by Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world for the salvation of man. … Hence, God said, ‘I will send you Elijah the prophet’” (Teachings: Joseph Smith,475). 
Joseph further explained: 
“But what is the object of [the coming of Elijah]? or how is it to be fulfilled? The keys are to be delivered, the spirit of Elijah is to come, the Gospel to be established, the Saints of God gathered, Zion built up, and the Saints to come up as saviors on Mount Zion [see Obadiah 1:21]. 
“But how are they to become saviors on Mount Zion? By building their temples … and going forth and receiving all the ordinances … in behalf of all their progenitors who are dead … ; and herein is the chain that binds the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, which fulfills the mission of Elijah” (Teachings: Joseph Smith, 472–73). 
Elder Russell M. Nelson has taught that the Spirit of Elijah is “a manifestation of the Holy Ghost bearing witness of the divine nature of the family” (“A New Harvest Time,” Ensign, May 1998, 34). This distinctive influence of the Holy Ghost draws people to identify, document, and cherish their ancestors and family members—both past and present. 
The Spirit of Elijah affects people inside and outside of the Church. However, as members of Christ’s restored Church, we have the covenant responsibility to search out our ancestors and provide for them the saving ordinances of the gospel. “They without us should not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:40; see alsoTeachings: Joseph Smith, 475). And “neither can we without our dead be made perfect” (D&C 128:15). 
For these reasons we do family history research, build temples, and perform vicarious ordinances. For these reasons Elijah was sent to restore the sealing authority that binds on earth and in heaven. We are the Lord’s agents in the work of salvation and exaltation that will prevent “the whole earth [from being] smitten with a curse” (D&C 110:15) when He returns again. This is our duty and great blessing.
I would submit that "finding a name to take to the Temple" from merely searching from those names identified by Family Tree does not even approach this process of identifying, documenting and cherishing our ancestors as explained by Elder Bednar. How do you cherish a name of a person you do not know and have spent only a few seconds harvesting from a program. I am certain that in many, many instances, the people involved in this process can not even articulate their relationship to the person so found.

This name gathering process is also almost always a guarantee that the Temple work done for people whose "names" are taken to the Temple after a brief search is duplicated for reasons inherent in the program such as the failure to search for duplicates. There are those who consider duplicating ordinances to be entirely excusable, however.

 The dichotomy between people who spend their lives researching, identifying and documenting their ancestors (genealogists so called) and the trivial act of "taking a name to the Temple" needs to stop. They are people, not names. Family Tree is a repository for recording the Temple work already done and for accumulating documentary evidence about our ancestors. It is not the place to merely find the records of ancestors whose Temple ordinances have not been completed, but it is a valuable tool in assisting us in that process and becoming more valuable all the time. The work of the salvation our our kindred dead requires work. Why has this belief arisen that the Family Tree program (and its predecessor is somehow an endless reservoir of names to take to the Temples without doing the work required?


  1. Thank you for your message here. We cannot feel the Spirit of Elijah when we have no knowledge of just "Names", instead of knowing, loving, and serving our ancestors in their spirit.

    1. I guess my point is not so much what is said as what is done or not done.

  2. You've touched on two of my pet peeves with regards to family history among church members. Whenever I talking about proxy temple work I always talking about taking my ancestors to the temple. But I don't think I've ever heard another member say anything similar to indicate that they're doing any more thank taking a "name" to the temple. And then there are the leaders who challenge youth (or anyone else) to go to FamilySearch and find someone to take to the temple. To me, that completely misses the point of family history. I love Joseph Smith's quote about seeking our dead being our greatest responsibility.

    1. To expand on my answer to the last comment, I think that the issue is whether or not there is some link established between the fathers and the children. As Elder Bednar says, we need to identify, document and cherish our ancestors.

    2. Exactly! And we're more likely to do that when we see them as individuals instead of names.

  3. Excellent Article. Whenever I teach FT at my center I never even bring up the name submission process. I always teach it as a documentation and collaboration tool.

  4. James, you are so right on. The group of excellent consultants, missionaries and employees who contribute to the website have some really great presentations regarding this very same issue of doing Invalid, duplicate temple work. Thanks for reinforcing our efforts with yours. I am going to link to this article from some of our presentations. Thanks again.

    1. Duplication has been an issue for over 100 years. Thanks for your thoughts and comment.

  5. You articulate the dilemma faced by family history consultants and teachers within the Church; should they be helping members find a name to take to the temple, or should they help them build bridges with their ancestors so they can make temple ordinances available to them? You cite Elder Bednar to support your view, but the “find a name” group can also cite Elder Bednar and his colleagues to support their view. Consequently, consultants and teachers are confused and frustrated.
    The “find a name” group believes this is the way to begin the transformation of members into the “building bridges” group; however the “building bridges” group believes the experience of just finding a name does not turn hearts. Those who have never been involved in family history believe effort must be replaced with effort-free, but the experienced group cannot imagine how this turns hearts.
    While I am in the “building bridges” group, I hope that the mixed messages will be replaced by clear direction so we can be united in moving this work forward. Clear direction is needed to replace the contention these two views create.

    1. Interesting thoughts. Thanks for the comment.

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am not sure how our ancestors became just 'names'. When teaching and working members I remind them that is is people, Heavenly Father's children that we are working with and for. They are not names. Unfortunately there is this mentality, that all you have to do is go to Family Tree and and low and behold there you will find 'names'. There is no connection and no sense of duty to work with those on the other side. Another issue along with the names is the lack of information. No real way to identify the individual.
    A couple of weeks a go when I was trying to get this point across in a class, I had all those in the class come and write their information on the board, and after they had done so, I slowly erased information. The out cry was interesting, as they realized that I was taking away who they were. I asked them, how do you think your ancestors feel when we do little to identify them. There was that moment, when they understood, it is not names we are doing, but people, Heavenly Father's children.
    Thank you again. I will be sending the blog to all I know who are involved and those are just tipping their toes in the water.

    1. You are welcome. Thanks for the example. It was a very good teaching moment.

  7. This is one of the most helpful and important blog posts I've read on family history. Thank you so much! You've done everyone a great service by calling out the misconceptions people have about Family Tree which are slowing down the work instead of hastening it! I'm sharing this post widely.

  8. For James Tanner and those who said "thank you", "well said", "important perspective" type responses:
    1. I think the discourse was a pejorative overly-"broad brush", judgmental, and unkind commentary and speculation about the feelings, intents, and motivations of Church members who are simply trying to do what is right and what they are being urged by prophets and apostles to do - who are actually doing something, which most members are not (yet): Take "names" to the temple so sacred ordinances can be performed for the persons who were known in mortality by those "names".

    2. While serving in the Church and Family History Mission in SLC Aug 2005 -Jan 2007 a great new emphasis was placed on "documenting" names, dates, and places. It quickly became common knowledge among the missionaries and other members who acted on this new emphasis that - they/we were finding persons who were not previously identified and mentioned in family records.
    . . . These were individuals of a family; also entire branches of the "family tree" who had become inactive and who had never received the ordinances in life and had become "lost" to the rest of the active LDS family and never had their ordinances performed for them in the temples.
    . . . My experience is this: There are a lot of infants and young children who do not show up in "family records" - they died young, did not grow to maturity and have families, and no one remembers them. They have simply been overlooked. A lot of kids have died young. There was more disease back then. . . . They need to be sealed to their parents. As I take these "names" to the temple, I feel that they and their parents will probably rejoice when their family unit is finally complete.

    3. In the Church and Family History mission Aug 2005-Jan 2007 we participated in the Aug 2005 "alpha test" of the new system to reduce duplications, then many "beta tests" thereafter, and through using the system from then until now, I find the system to be very useful.
    . . . The system has the tools to combine duplicates and thus reduce duplication. It is working and fulfills the intent of the prophet and apostles. It is only through ignorance, lack of training/help, or carelessness that duplication will occur. There are a very few persons who willfully violate clearly stated rules. It is not appropriate to "broad brush" all "others", the vast majority, who are trying to do what is right, using right methods, for the right reasons.

    4. Now in 2014 the system has become very mature with excellent "Record Hints" and "Search Records" links to help us find and "attach" documents (noun) that document (verb) parent-child relationships and identifying personal information.
    . . . When I see the green Temple symbol in the Pedigree View that leads me to someone who is ready for ordinances, I do not, and cannot, in good conscience, clear that name until I first go in and "start from the beginning" to 1) check for duplicates, and 2) find (easily) more documents to either confirm the dates and places presently in FamilySearch's Tree - or refine (correct) a name, date, and/or place to make the record more accurate and in accord with actual records, not some PRF, Ancestral File, or "guess" or "assumption" by a researcher who did his/her best back in the days before easy access to digitized on-line records that we now have.

    I think this blog entry and the agreeing comments ought to be taken down. It borders on an anti-Mormon attack on people trying to do what is right, for the right reasons. It is too full of unfounded assumptions and actual misrepresentations of the motives and intelligence of those trying to find "names" to "take to the temples".
    . . . It is not an uplifting or helpful blog post.

    1. Thank you so much for your comments. You and I seem to agree on all the essential details of what I am trying to say. I am sorry you seem to disagree with some of my comments. I have reread my comments in the light of your criticism and feel that you do not understand what I am saying at all. You explain how you think it is important to have a good conscience and start from the beginning and then criticize me for saying essentially the same thing in a different way. We both think the superficial finding a name and nothing more to be unacceptable. Thanks again for your comments.

    2. HikerPilot, your comment is entirely out of line.

      Due to the personal nature of your attack, your comment falls under the category of "trolling" (online harrassment or bullying) and would be moderated (removed) by almost every blog I'm familiar with. James is being much kinder than I would be, and I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, more so than most blog authors and moderators.

      You have misread this blog and gotten very upset. That's a good time to step away from the keyboard and think about what is being said, read back through the blog content to calibrate for tone, think over what you want to say, and then say it without making an entirely unfounded and inexcusable personal attack.

    3. I really love this talk:

      Particularly this from Elder Eyring:
      "As you decide, 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. When you were baptized, your ancestors looked down on you with hope. Perhaps after centuries, they rejoiced to see one of their descendants make a covenant to find them and to offer them freedom. In your reunion, you will see in their eyes either gratitude or terrible disappointment. Their hearts are bound to you. Their hope is in your hands. You will have more than your own strength as you choose to labor on to find them."

      I too wish the "it is easy" "find a name" game would stop. I have heard of youth creating fake people in the Tree so that they can meet a set ward/stake goal/quota. All that does is make a big mess of the Tree and perpetuate falsifcation throughout many family trees. And what does it do for the youth? Teach them to lie? Even though they may be baptised in the temple, they aren't really helping anyone - as they created these fake people. Teach them to waste time? It takes about 8 hours to complete all the necessary temple ordinances for one person. Halt the duplication and falsifcation. Let's set some realistic expectations.

      The focus should be instead on getting to know your ancestors/relatives, get to know them and their lives through all the documentation your can find (including stories, photos, memories). Build a relationship with them and then if needed take them to the temple to perform ordinances in their behalf.

      We need to spend more time teaching others how to listen to the spirit so they know what they can do to assist their family in their family history efforts. There is plenty of work to be done.

    4. Thanks for the quote and comments. I have heard several similar reports from different people recently that prompted the blog post.