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

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The status of genealogy in LDS culture

The Doctrine and Covenants, Section 128: 17-18 states:
17 And again, in connection with this quotation I will give you a quotation from one of the prophets, who had his eye fixed on the restoration of the priesthood, the glories to be revealed in the last days, and in an especial manner this most glorious of all subjects belonging to the everlasting gospel, namely, the baptism for the dead; for Malachi says,last chapter, verses 5th and 6th: Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse. 
18 I might have rendered a plainer translation to this, but it is sufficiently plain to suit my purpose as it stands. It is sufficient to know, in this case, that the earth will be smitten with a curse unless there is a welding link of some kind or other between the fathers and the children, upon some subject or other—and behold what is that subject? It is the baptism for the dead. For we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect. Neither can they nor we be made perfect without those who have died in the gospel also; for it is necessary in the ushering in of the dispensation of the fulness of times, which dispensation is now beginning to usher in, that a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories should take place, and be revealed from the days of Adam even to the present time. And not only this, but those things which never have been revealed from the foundation of the world, but have been kept hid from the wise and prudent, shall be revealed unto babes and sucklings in this, the dispensation of the fulness of times.
The extension of these basic concepts has culminated in the building of over 150 Temples worldwide and the development of an extensive international genealogical support systems consisting of over 4,900 Family History Centers and other related libraries and archives. It is apparent that a significant portion of the resources of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints goes into promoting and supporting the "work for the dead" as it is often referred to. Quoting from the Mormon Newsroom topic on "Genealogy:"
Genealogy, the study of one’s ancestors or family history, is one of the most popular hobbies in the world. People of all faiths and nationalities enjoy discovering where they come from. For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, however, learning about one’s family history is more than just a casual endeavor. Latter-day Saints believe families can be together after this life. Therefore, it is essential to strengthen relationships with all family members, both those who are alive and those who have died. 
Latter-day Saints believe that the eternal joining of families is possible through sacred sealing ceremonies that take place in temples. These temple rites may also be performed by proxy for those who have died. Consequently, for Mormons, genealogical research or family history is the essential forerunner for temple work for the dead. In Latter-day Saint belief, the dead have the choice to accept or reject the services performed for them. 
Since 1894, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has dedicated time and resources to collecting and sharing records of genealogical importance. Due to cooperation from government archives, churches, and libraries, the Church has created the largest collection of family records in the world, with information on more than 3 billion deceased people. This effort was originally facilitated through the Genealogical Society of Utah and now through FamilySearch, a non-profit organization sponsored by the Church. 
FamilySearch provides access to information from 100 countries, including birth, marriage, and death records, censuses, probates and wills, land records, and more. These records are made available to the public free of charge through the website, the world-renowned Family History Library in Salt Lake City, and through a network of 4,600 local family history centers in 126 countries.
As noted, the Church has been collecting and sharing genealogical records since 1894. Now, you would expect that a significant percentage of the Church membership would be either directly or indirectly involved in genealogical research into their families. The actual numbers of active participants are very low. Why, given the obvious importance of the work, does this condition exist?

This is one of the most serious issues I have thought about and researched for some time and I have isolated some of the main factors. Here is my list, not in any particular order, of some of the factors that I see that influence this disparity.

The members of the Church around the world reflect the societies in which they live. The statement above about genealogy being "one of the most popular hobbies in the world" is commonly quoted but unsupported. Interest in families is almost universal, but genealogy is a specific activity that involves research into ancestral lines and involvement in this type of research is highly specialized and challenging. Using the term "hobby" when talking about genealogy is inappropriate. It is true that people have different levels of interest but genealogical research increases in complexity and difficulty exponentially as the researcher goes back in time. There are really very few people with the interest and the skills to do intensive genealogical research. 

With regard to the status of their family history, members of the Church fall into three general categories: those who have little or no information about their ancestral families, those who have some general information and those who have extensively researched compiled genealogies, usually inherited from ancestors who were intensely involved in genealogical research. Considering the entire membership of the Church, most of the members fall within the first two categories. 

Even though the number of members who have extensive genealogies is declining as a percentage of the overall membership, these members are concentrated in the historically predominantly LDS geographic areas such as Utah, Arizona and other western states in the United States and they still have a prominent position in the activity and leadership of the Church. With respect to these "legacy" members of the Church, the "easy" part of their genealogy has been done. Most of the work left is undone because of the scarcity of records or the difficulty of doing the research. 

This overburden of "completed" genealogy creates a conflict in the minds of the members with respect to "doing their family history." This conflict arises because of the doctrinal admonitions and the reality of actually making progress where the activity has moved well beyond adding the "first four generations" to a family tree. 

Many of these legacy members of the Church are the descendants of immigrants from Europe or other countries around the world. For some, access to the records of their ancestors is either extremely limited or involves skills regarding reading languages other than English. These challenges can be overwhelming and prevent even the beginnings of interest in doing the research necessary.

Because of the specialized nature of research beyond a the very basic, first four generations, level, information and promotional materials for many years have been directed at "beginners." This focus is also very appropriate given that the overall numbers of the Church membership indicate that there are more such beginners than legacy members. However, the continued emphasis on beginning research and the ease of doing so has created unrealistic expectations on the part of those members who have the overburden of "completed" ancestral lines. 

There is, in fact, a huge opportunity for those who have the skills and interest to do family history research. In the past year or so, the programs, data and methods of advancing genealogical research have changed dramatically and opportunities are available for legacy members to do substantial additional research. However, the cultural burden imposed by the past history and perception that the work is complete as far as is possible, has discouraged all but the most dedicated researchers. Hence, there is almost no leadership support for the currently outlined activities aimed at increasing membership activity among the legacy members and this, by association, extends to those who could do some basic, four generation, work also. 

We are at the threshold of having a significant advance in the our ability to push back ancestral research into the past. But we are still struggling with the cultural overburden of our historical involvement. It may take a metaphorical "40 years in the wilderness" for this to happen however. 

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