Genealogical Research in Perspective


Genealogical research is not looked upon by Latter-day Saints as a doctrine of the Church but rather a work to help accomplish a doctrinal objective. We believe that doctrinal objective to be the sealing of individuals and families in an eternal family unit, or patriarchal order, which is a celestial form of government.

Requisites to that order, in addition to worthiness in the Lord’s sight, are baptism, confirmation, ordination to the priesthood, washings and anointings, the endowment, and marriage for time and eternity. We further believe that these ordinances may be administered by proxy for those who died without an opportunity of hearing the gospel; and if they are willing to receive them, the ordinances are as effective as if performed in life.

Research for direct-line ancestors remains a basic responsibility of all Latter-day Saints, and the Saints are responsible to see that temple work has been performed for their ancestors.

The need for competent genealogical research has never been greater than at present. How can we know our ancestors have been sealed unless we know who they are, and how can we identify them unless we investigate and study the records of the past?

As a member of the Church, I have been given the responsibility to seek after my dead and perform ordinances in their behalf, as well as keep a genealogical record. Who is better able to do this than I? The Church assists me through its wonderful records acquisition and library programs, and through the Genealogical Society names are processed for temple work, but I am the logical person to seek out my ancestors and see that they are cared for.

It is estimated that approximately 38 million endowment cards are on file in the Temple Records Index Bureau of the Genealogical Society, representing the total endowment ordinances performed since 1842. That’s quite a number, but it’s not too significant when compared with the estimated seven billion persons who have lived or who are now living upon the earth, a goodly number of whom are direct ancestors and relatives of Latter-day Saints. Each of these should have opportunity for the fullness of the gospel.

One’s ancestry doubles in each generation; that is, we each have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so forth, suggesting that in a very few generations we have hundreds of direct ancestors and in many cases thousands of collateral relatives. In the tenth generation alone we have 1,024 direct ancestors, although some may appear more than once on a particular pedigree because of intermarriage. We all have thousands of progenitors for ordinance work, and each of them is an individual with a distinct personality. He lived, he had issue, he was part of society, and he passed a heritage to us.

The phrase “tell it like it is” seems quite popular these days and perhaps has its place in genealogy, because the genealogist is not able to accomplish everything he would like. As a matter of fact, few lines can be traced and documented earlier than A.D. 1500, and many are lost in the 1600s. Through the destruction of records, many lines in the southern United States end as late as 1861–65. Certain European lines are traceable to 1060, while others are not of record earlier than 1896. Polynesian genealogy was oral and preserved through song and chant until the mid-1800s, while much American Indian lineage cannot be found prior to 1908. Some Asian genealogies carry the male line forty-two generations, while most female lines are not on record at all. Hence, we do have certain limitations, but we can all perform to some degree, and we can find joy in it.

Joseph Smith stated, “The greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us is to seek after our dead,” but he didn’t suggest we would find them all. We must each go forward and do what can be done, and the Lord will provide for those names that are lacking. He is a just God, and no program indicates this more fully than salvation for the living and the dead.

Genealogical research is protracted investigation based upon original sources to determine one’s ancestry. The method for recording the facts or processing procedures through the Genealogical Society is not necessarily genealogy. This takes nothing away from either area, but the two are quite different.

It should also be pointed out that neither genealogical research nor name processing is a doctrine of salvation; it is merely a means to that end. Genealogical research may be accomplished for reasons other than religion, and rightly so, just as the computer might be used to process name information for other than temple ordinance work. A clerk who copies names from a record and processes them through the Society is not necessarily a genealogist. This does not suggest that any of the actions taken are not productive and worthwhile.

A professor at Brigham Young University has been conducting genealogical research on families of the witnesses of the Book of Mormon in order to write history better, and he is doing an excellent job in history as well as genealogy. Another professor in social work has been conducting research on certain families of Massachusetts, New York, and Ohio to plot peculiar behavioral patterns. Medical men have conducted genealogical research on certain families of the South and of England to study the incidence of neurological disorders. A merchant has been conducting genealogical research on his ancestry for several years purely out of curiosity, while his wife has been engaged in the work in an effort to join a national patriotic society. Each of these efforts is worthwhile and productive.

However, the Latter-day Saint engages in the work primarily because he is concerned about an eternal family unit. It’s more than the ordinance to him, and it’s more than correct identification of the child and his parent. He wants to strengthen family ties, both in body and in spirit. He desires to make the past live, in truth, with God. Genealogy can do this.

Brother Wright, assistant professor and supervisor of genealogical research technology at Brigham Young University, is first counselor in the bishopric of the Pleasant Grove (Utah) Sixth Ward.