By Elder Kent F. Richards, USA
Second Counselor in the Europe Area Presidency
“Nourished by testimony and watered with faith, the lessons of the past can take root in your hearts and become a vibrant part of who you are.” Elder M. Russell Ballard taught us in these few words the real purpose of keeping and studying Church history—to learn faith and willing commitment from our ancestors. Through their experiences and examples our own testimonies are strengthened and our hearts are more firmly fitted for our personal journeys through mortality. Rather than just cataloguing events, studying Church history is the understanding of how those events connected to the very people who lived them. We learn very quickly that while the immediate surroundings and circumstances of the past may vary from our setting, the challenges, opportunities, and principles of faith apply exactly the same.
Each of us can look to our first generation ancestor who joined the Church (and it may be you!) and rejoice in their humble faith and willingness to change their life and carefully pursue the gospel path—often at great personal and family sacrifice. The lessons of the past are actually strengthened in each succeeding generation as the traditions of faithful obedience and service are learned and lived. We can all learn from the sweet examples of many early saints, but we receive the most power in the example of our own ancestors—our own personal Church/family history. In reality we can’t separate Church and family history. As we study the names, places, events, and lives of our family ancestors, we are indeed studying Church history in its finest form. Even if they were not yet members of the Church, they were faithfully preparing the generations to follow for the acceptance of the gospel truth when the light finally shone for them.
As I have studied the lives of my direct ancestors, I have been enriched and strengthened in my own faith through their faith and steadiness. Their humble service involved many great sacrifices of comforts and conveniences. They left families and children in the hands of the Lord and departed to serve—only to have some of those very family members die, never to be embraced again in mortality.
Perhaps one of the most poignant expressions of an ancestor was made by my great-great grandfather Willard Richards as he conversed with the Prophet Joseph Smith in the Carthage jail just minutes before the mob took the life of the prophet. The prophet had asked him a question that tested his heart and his resolve. From Willard’s own journal in his own handwriting (note that he refers to himself as “Dr. Richards”):
“Joseph said after supper we will go in [to the jail cell for safety]. Joseph said to Dr. Richards. If we go in the jail will you go in with us. Dr. answered – Br. Joseph you did not ask me to cross the river with you, you did not ask me to come to Carthage. You did not ask me to come to jail with you—and do you think I would forsake you now. But I will tell you what I will do – if you are condemned to be hung for treason, I will be hung in your stead and you shall go free. Joseph [said] you cannot. Dr. said I will.”
“I will.” “I will.” No matter the cost, even my own life if necessary, “I will.”
The question may come to us in a different form, though in reality we all face it—“will you?” Will you give your heart, forsake comforts, and live to serve the Lord Jesus Christ and His children? Will you give your all?
May our answer be: “I will.” May our lives be “Church history” for those who follow after us.
 Elder M. Russell Ballard, Ensign, May 2009
 Willard Richards personal journal, copy in possession of author.