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

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Breaking Out of the Traditional View of Family History

Sometime, very long ago, I was sitting in a Sunday School class and the subject was family history. I have no idea why I remember this particular class other than the fact that the teacher lugged in a huge binder with hundreds of traditional, written family group records and had it there in the table as a visual aid. I can't remember the point of the class but I do remember that I was both annoyed and impressed with that huge stack of paper. I am certain that when I had my own stack of paper family group records that I never put them in a binder and I did not take them to a class I was teaching.

One of the knee jerk reactions any time I mention that I do genealogy is to ask me how far back I have traced my family lines. I usually say 19 generations or so and that usually ends the conversation right there. Of course, there are also those who ask how many names I have in my lines. The question about how far back my research has taken me is one of the questions that makes me most annoyed. As I have written before, genealogy is not a competition sport.

One of the biggest mysteries of my life is the contradiction between the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints concerning the importance of doing the Temple work for our dead ancestors and other relatives and the actual practice of doing family history research in the Church and the attitude of the members. Since I have been heavily involved in family history for over thirty years and more visibly involved for the past twelve years or so, I have been reminded of the contrast between the doctrine and the attitude of most of the members almost every Sunday.

Over the years, I have met many truly dedicated family historians who have done a tremendous amount of work on their family lines. But generally I find antipathy and occasionally outright hostility when I cannot avoid bringing up the subject of family history. This is where the long suffering part of the scriptures comes in.

That long ago teacher was the stereotypic genealogist in the Church. His class and many classes since that time, were centered around the need to do family history with extensive examples of intricate family relationship issues that had been solved by the instructors superior knowledge of genealogy. What is interesting is that I do not remember anything ever being taught about how to do genealogy and over the first twenty years or so of my experience, I don't remember having one person ever offer to help or teach me how to do family history. The standard class was usually full of inspirational stories with a lot of quotes from Church leaders but contained very little substance.

I do remember the "get a box" series of suggestions. I had "gotten my box" and it turned out to be a stack of boxes full of thousands of documents and records. But what was I supposed to do with all that paper? I think these are some of the most common questions that arises in the context of family history in the Church. The questions are not about why to do family history, but how to do it. Almost every week when I am at the Brigham Young University Family History Library, someone asks me exactly the same series of questions. This happens today when I show them the Family Tree and the person stares at the Family Tree and says, "Now what am I supposed to do?"

I believe the reason why we have such a negative view of family history lies, in part, in the stereotypical view of the family historian as old, fussy and wrapped up in a pile of paper and who sees the world in terms of black and white: those who do genealogy and those who don't. The reality is sometimes not too different than the stereotype.

Today, we have the "family history is an occasional Sunday School class" view of the subject. In ward after ward that I visit, when I inquire about family history, I hear that "we don't have a class going right now." It is as if family history is something seasonal that you do only when it is scheduled by the Ward leaders. Now, I have to admit that I got started in doing genealogical research when I was strongly encouraged to do so as the Stake Mission President, in order to submit my "four and five generation sheets" to the Church.

Some of the other attitudes that pervade the Church include:

  • My work is all done. My grandmother did it all.
  • I don't have time for family history right now, I am planning on doing it when I retire.
  • I got stuck on my great-grandfather and haven't done anything since.
  • All the records of my family were lost in a __________ (fill in the blank).
  • Oh, my ___________ (fill in the blank) does all our genealogy.
  • I know I should do my family history, but __________ (another blank to fill in)

Once someone decides to do something with their family history, unless they are motivated by more than a passing interest, they will soon become discouraged and in the average ward and stake, they usually do not know where to go to get help. Why? Because the when they go to the family history class, there is either no help on how to get started or the class is talking about intricate problems in research that they do not understand. What they need is a mentor. Someone who can provide help in a non-threatening way. When that kind of help is provided in a consistent manner, many more people would begin doing their family history.

What I have found, going into the homes of the members and sitting down with them, is that they have to be convinced that I will really help them and that I will continue to help them as long as they need help. That is one reason why I have stopped going to an endless round of conferences. I believe that family history has to be done one family at a time, both living and dead.


  1. Except for RootsTech!
    Your description is right on. I recently made a presentation on my husband's Swiss immigrant grandparents who came through Ellis Island for Swiss TVNZZ. (Yes, this was the real reason behind why Utah legislators got involved with the Swiss for the past 2 summers and not what the Des News reported daily for a week).The TV anchorwoman and cameraman came to our family home and observed about 50 of us watching the presentation, singing songs, and enjoying family time. The question they really wanted answered was "Why we do family history?" The anchor said they are doing a documentary (which will air in February) on FamilySearch, a typical Swiss/American family (us) and why people get involved in FH. She said that so many Swiss people and elsewhere were getting doing family history, as the most popular hobby in the world. Why is that so? I told her it was not a commandment for Mormons, but certainly as Jos. Smith said, the greatest responsibility we have. We did not mention temple work, since that didn't apply for her. I finally said it becomes addictive. Since we don't drink, smoke, etc., this is our addiction. And as we learn about our ancestors, we love them, and we learn about ourselves. Since our families are the most important thing we have, learning about past ancestors keeps our current family strong. I mentioned the Bible admonition of Malachi and briefly the Spirit of Elijah. But honestly, if one has not engaged in FH, it is difficult to explain exactly why we do it. Fellow family historians get it. Others don't, and I find it personally troubling that 97% of members don't get it, including leaders in charge of promoting it to members. What's to be done?

    1. Thanks for all this additional information.

  2. I am absolutely convinced that "converting" individuals to consistent and sincere family history efforts is exactly like missionary work... A one by one effort, with continuous follow up and support. Having been a family history consultant and/or stake family history specialist for nearly all of my adult life, this is the only way that has had a true and lasting effect. As a recent counter example, I was asked recently to give an inspirational family history talk in sacrament meeting. Afterwards, a friend and neighbor came up to me and stated: "That was a great talk! You almost convinced me to do family history!" No lasting effect there! But I am still happy to share my testimony about the importance of temple and family history work anytime.

    1. I certainly agree. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I think the problem lies in the members not understanding the doctrine. The doctrine of redemption (what the Savior promised to those in spirit prison-that we would do, Elijah's role, the Abrahamic Covenant, Moroni's repeated message to Joseph Smith). The doctrine of the spirit world (where it is, what is happening there, what happens there when temple work is completed, etc). The responsibilities of and blessings for the living. That family history is not a program but is considered "personal worship"; just like scripture study and partaking of the sacrament. That it is about the Father's will, not our will.

    "Temple and family history work is one work divided into two parts. They are connected together like the ordinances of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. " - Elder Richard G. Scott, "The Joy of Redeeming the Dead," October 2012, General Conference

    And then once someone understands the doctrine, they need someone to show them how to do the work; in whatever they are interested in doing. It is more detailed then "Find, Take, Teach".

    I am currently teaching a presentation called "Family History Blesses the Living" and I just taught it to our area high priest group leaders (16 stakes). The spirit was so strong! A room full of men with red teary eyes. The common comment I have received and am still receiving is ... "until that presentation, I never understood WHY we do family history."

    1. Thanks for you nice comment. I would be glad to teach one stake. What a blessing to have that opportunity.

  4. This is exactly what we are doing in our ward. We start the class with 3 weeks of Genealogy basics that include one class on the Spirit of Elijah, What's in a Name and Why We Want to Link to Our Past. The rest of the classes are how to use and what you will find in FamilySearch, introducing and the other affiliates and connecting FamilySearch and At that point we start on the records: census, property, tax, courts and immigration. This takes about 16 weeks. If anyone wants to continue, we are offering an second class to continue and start a new class for the next group. We have also started offering a weekly workshop for anyone interested in or needing help with the genealogy.

    You are so correct. Merely talking about Genealogy and quoting General Authorities will not bring very many people to the table. Faith without works is dead.

    1. I just skip all the classes and help people one-on-one.

  5. I just came across your blog. I started doing family history very recently and would love to learn more. What just got me excited though, is that I read in one of your other blog pieces that you are a Grandson of Harold Morgan and Jessie Christensen. My Grandmother, Anne Morgan (Herbert), is a daughter of theirs. I would love to learn more about them and would love to learn how to better do this work.

    1. We would love to help you get started. I live in Provo, Utah and work at the BYU Family History Library. You can email me at genealogyarizona at gmail dot com.