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 FamilySearch.org 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.