Family History Is about Hearts before Charts, Says Elder Packer

  By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 18 February 2014

Elder Allan F. Packer of the Seventy speaks at a session of Family Discovery Day, an LDS-oriented component of RootsTech 2014 on February 8.  Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

Article Highlights

  • Elder Allan F. Packer suggested the following to help members participate in family history:
  • Help members one-on-one or in small groups, especially families.
  • First, touch hearts by sharing family history stories, and then worry about the charts.
  • Encourage members to participate in family reunions.
  • Encourage members to make family history a family activity.

“Family history is about the heart before the charts.” —Elder Allan F. Packer of the Seventy

Past approaches to family history work in the Church have resulted in less than 3 percent of members submitting names of ancestors for temple ordinance work, Elder Allan F. Packer of the Seventy said February 8 at a session of the RootsTech family history conference in Salt Lake City.

“To reach the other 97 percent, we need to change how we think, how we teach, and what we teach,” he said. “The 97 percent need to be a priority for priesthood leaders, and they are a priority for the [Family History] Department.”

Elder Packer spoke in a session primarily for ward and stake priesthood leaders and family history advisers, consultants, and center directors as a part of Family Discovery Day, a component of RootsTech geared toward Church members.

In addition to attendees at the Salt Palace Convention Center, the session was viewed live on the Internet or will be seen later by Church members in some 600 stakes holding family history fairs.

“These numbers are a cry for change,” Elder Packer said regarding the statistics he cited, though he did say he was happy to report progress. “In the last year the number of members submitting names for temple ordinances is up 17 percent over last year. It has gone from 2.4 to 2.7 percent of the members,” he said.

But he supported the call for improvement by noting that in the United States 25 percent of Church members do not have four generations of ancestors in the Family Tree section of the Church’s FamilySearch Internet site. Internationally, 70 percent of members don’t have both parents in Family Tree, 90 percent don’t have their grandparents in it, and 95 percent don’t have their great-grandparents included.

“These individual members already know the names of the people that are in their first four generations,” he noted. “But our responsibilities go far beyond those first four generations. We need to help all members of the Church find their ancestors.”

Elder Packer drew an analogy from travelers needing a passport and credentials to enter a country and explained that a “spiritual passport” is needed for entering the kingdom of God. Like individuals waiting in immigration lines without a passport and desperately seeking help, persons who have died rely on their descendants who are Church members to provide for them the spiritual passports and credentials they need, Elder Packer said.

The Family History Department, he said, in looking for ideas of how this might be done, found a stake wherein the members were submitting five times the Church average of name submittals for temple ordinance work.

“This stake is in the Ivory Coast, where not very many families or members have computers,” he said. “They are 10 to 12 hours away from the temple, and they have to travel through a war zone to be able to go to the temple. Members depend on consultants or computers at the ward buildings to clear names to take to the temple.”

Even so, they were going to the temple twice a year, taking more family names for ordinances than they could perform on their own.

“What inspired leaders have done, you can do. The Holy Ghost will inspire you to know what to do,” Elder Packer said. He gave several suggestions.

The first suggestion, he said, is to help members, which is best done one-on-one or in small groups, especially families.

“The second suggestion is that it is about the hearts first, not the charts; that will come later,” he said. “Start by touching their hearts with stories and pictures of their ancestors to help members have a spiritual experience to feel the spirit of Elijah.”

Elder Allan F. Packer of the Seventy displays the “spiritual passport” handout distributed to attendees of Family Discovery Day at RootsTech 2014. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.

He shared a story from the life of his own ancestor, Christina Olsen Wight, who was converted to the gospel in Denmark with her family and was able to join a handcart company to immigrate to the Salt Lake Valley. After wearing out two pairs of shoes, she wore a third pair around her neck to save them for entering into the valley.

On the last day’s journey, she tried to put the shoes on but found her feet were so swollen and cut that the shoes would not fit. She had to walk into the valley barefooted. “With each step I took I left bloody footprints in the snow,” she recorded.

“Think of the Christinas in your lives,” Elder Packer admonished. “How have they impacted you?”

He gave a formula to help people have a spiritual experience that leads to turning their hearts to their ancestors: tell a short family history story of your own; invite people to share their family stories; invite them to discover more about an ancestor by talking to other relatives; and record and share those stories by putting them on the Church’s FamilySearch Internet site or recording them in the new My Family: Stories That Bring Us Together booklet provided by the Church for those who do not have computers. A consultant can help them take the information recorded in the booklet and enter it into Family Tree on the Internet.

“Another suggestion is to encourage participation in family reunions,” Elder Packer said. “This is a wonderful occasion to visit with relatives about ancestors and learn stories that you may not have heard, even share pictures. You can have a lot of fun also by sharing stories that you’ve discovered with those same relatives. Encourage them to preserve their stories either in the My Family pamphlet or in Family Tree.”

Another suggestion he gave is to change the order of teaching in family history classes, starting with stories and pictures first before filling out charts.

“Help people discover themselves,” he said. “Family history is about the heart before the charts.”

A member of a family history class who had success by sharing a story about his grandfather on Family Tree and receiving pictures and stories described Family Tree as “Facebook for the dead,” Elder Packer related.

Elder Packer also suggested putting the family back into family history and temple work.

“Rather than going to the temple as classes and quorums, we can encourage that they do so as families, doing ordinances for their ancestors,” he said. “Our family history libraries can become more family friendly.”

He gave seven “proven tips” learned from a survey of bishops. The survey indicated that where wards were applying five of the following seven factors, the rate of temple activity was double that of the average ward. The tips are to make the To Turn the Hearts guidebook a core of the ward plan, to call youth as family history consultants, to have three or more family history consultants in the ward, to have youth take family names on temple trips, to have consultants help members at least monthly, to have consultants meet with priesthood leaders at least monthly, and to have consultants help new converts at least monthly.

Elder Packer spoke of obstacles to doing family history work that over the years have become fixed perceptions in the minds of people, and he said that even though most of the actual obstacles have been eliminated, the perceptions remain. Among these, he said, are that family history is only for old people to do, that all the work on an individual’s ancestral line has been done, that there are no more records to research, and that one must have a lot of technical knowledge.

He said 4,000 youth had signed up to come for the youth session of Family Discovery Day. “We had another thousand that wanted to come, and we couldn’t accommodate them.”

Elder Packer explained that people can find and authorize temple ordinances not only for direct-line ancestors but for cousins as well. A study calculated that going back 10 generations and assuming only four children per family on average, there is a potential to find about 8 million individuals.

“Lest you get discouraged, we are adding 1.7 million names to the Family Tree every day on average,” he said. “We have recently signed partnership agreements with major commercial family history companies like Ancestry.com, FindMyPast.com, MyHeritage.com, the New England Genealogical Society, and others. We estimate it will increase the records we have available to search by three or four times.”

He said technology has improved to the point that it is now easy to be able to submit names for temple ordinance work.