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

Monday, December 7, 2015

Why I am so involved in family history

Now that I am fully retired from my legal profession, I spend almost all my time deeply involved in family history and related activities. What turned a 39 year veteran of the Arizona trial courts into a genealogist? Of all the things I could do in my "golden years" why pick something as complicated and challenging as genealogy? How much of what I do I motivated by my basic religious beliefs as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

In the Church we often speak of the "Spirit of Elijah." Here is a definition of the Spirit of Elijah from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.
For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the spirit of Elijah is the spirit of family kinship and unity. It is the spirit that motivates the concern to search out ancestral family members through family history; and, on their behalf, to perform proxy baptisms, temple endowments, and sealing ordinances (Hc 6:252). This is seen as fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi that in the last days Elijah "will turn the heart [in Hebrew, the innermost part, as the soul, the affections] of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers" (Mal. 4:5-6). 
The appearance of Elijah to the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple in 1836 inaugurated anew this spirit (D&C 110:13). The spirit of Elijah is active in the impetus anyone feels toward finding and cherishing family members and family ties past and present. In the global sense, the spirit of Elijah is the spirit of love that may eventually overcome all human family estrangements. Then the priesthood power can bind generations together in eternal family relationships and "seal the children to the fathers and fathers to the children" within the gospel of Jesus Christ (WJS, p. 329). See also, Smith, Joseph Fielding. "Elijah the Prophet and His Mission." Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine 12 (Jan. 1921): 1-20.
I have had some highly personal experiences that have reinforced my belief in the literal application of the Spirit of Elijah to my life. But using this principle to entirely explain my involvement in family history would be overly simplistic. If the Spirit of Elijah is my prime motivating factor, then why are so few other members of the Church involved in genealogy and family history? Why do member of the Church have such a negative attitude towards genealogy that verges, in some cases, on antipathy?

For the first twenty years or so of my active involvement in doing family history research and accumulating documents, photos, stories etc., I was almost completing isolated from anyone else involved in family history. As I have noted before in my posts, I had almost no contact with other family members as a positive reinforcement of my interest in my own family. I had no mentors or peer group. Even today, I have only my own immediate family that shows any interest at all in assisting with research into my direct line ancestors and their descendants.

Fortunately, during the last ten plus years, I have had the opportunity to be surrounded by some of the most dedicated and talented genealogical researchers that exist in the world. Through working and serving at the Mesa FamilySearch Library and now at the Brigham Young University Family History Library, I have been surrounded by capable and dedicated researchers. Through writing my blog posts, I have also had many opportunities to meed and work with dedicated family historians across the United States and around the world.

One of the most surprising things about my involvement in genealogical research is that the skills needed to do this type of research almost exactly match my background. More than any other factor, this has become my major motivation. I feel more at home in libraries and doing research than any other activity and because these activities correspond to my deeply held religious beliefs, the two motivations seem to reinforce each other. Now I suddenly find myself deeply involved even after 33 years of research.

There is another component to my interest. I like to teach. Part of my active involvement has been teaching classes and making presentations. For while, I sought out opportunities to do presentations across the country. Now, I am focusing on helping people individually and teaching through video presentations, writing books, blogging and webinars.

There are some things I would do differently if I had the chance to do it all over again. I would certainly have read more books on doing family history earlier on in my efforts. I would have also sought out help from other researchers. I would also have spent more time learning what genealogy was all about. Had I done some of those things earlier on in my career as a researcher, my work would have been of much better quality and I would have been much more effective in my research.

All in all, I am glad I decided to become totally involved in family history. Maybe I didn't make so much money or become famous or notorious, but I did have a good time doing research and I still love libraries.


  1. I like this definition:
    “Elijah came to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the children to the fathers. With that, natural affection between generations began to be enriched. This restoration was accompanied by what is sometimes called the Spirit of Elijah – a manifestation of the Holy Ghost bearing witness of the divine nature of the family.”*
    – Elder Russell M. Nelson, A New Harvest Time, April 1998, General Conference.

    *“The Spirit of Elijah can be a powerful force for good in the conversion, retention, and activation of individuals.”
    – Elder Russell M. Nelson, A New Harvest Time, April 1998, General Conference, footnote 8.

  2. I read lots of genealogy books 30 to 40 years ago. But back then, they didn't promote documenting sources or use of evidence to come to conclusions.

    Times have changed only recently, and now the teaching is better.