Does Your Ward (or Stake) Have a History?
Well into our second century of existence as a Church, many wards and stakes are commemorating anniversaries with local histories that not only memorialize the well-loved legends and set a few facts straight, but that also unearth some precious discoveries lost through the years. Other local units are writing histories in connection with the Heritage Arts celebrations planned Churchwide for 1976. Still others are being written simply because history is fascinating.
The responsibility for preparing histories of local units resides with the officers of those units—stake, ward, mission, district, and branch leaders—and is carried out under their direction.
The project is an involved one and complex, but need not be difficult, if these guidelines prepared by the Church Historian’s office are followed:
Tell a story
Good history reads like a story; so, rather than compiling a bare chronicle of facts, produce a lively narrative that will keep the reader’s interest.
In format, your history can be chronological, with a chapter devoted to the administration of each bishop or stake president, including the important events in the Relief Society, Sunday School, MIA, Primary, seminary, and priesthood quorums during that leader’s term. Or your approach can be topical, with each chapter a complete unit devoted to the history of one particular subject, such as the Relief Society, or of a particular episode, like the building of the meetinghouse.
To make your story interesting and understandable, some discussion of “why” and “how” sometimes is needed beyond the usual “who,” “what,” “where,” and “when” information. Further sharpen your story by generously sprinkling in short but interesting examples, vignettes, and episodes that illustrate points being discussed, and by interspersing your narration with brief quotes and reminiscences by the members involved.
In addition to a sense of history, the author of your history should have the ability to write creatively.
Place your history in context
To give full meaning to your history, weave into it background information about your unit, such as your geographic and economic setting (urban, rural, metropolitan, beach, university, isolated, booming population, shrinking community), the types of people living there (immigrants, young families, wealthy, retired, students), and the religious and moral milieu of your community.
Also place your story in the context of stake, community, national, and world events, noting the effects upon your unit of such things as wars, depression, epidemics, the movement of industries in or out, the beginnings of Church Welfare, and so forth.
Utilize official Church records
Consult official sources such as your ward or stake’s Historical Record, minute books of quorums and auxiliaries, and local and regional LDS newsletters and newspapers. Also examine available scrapbooks, photograph collections, and diaries.
Interview former ward and stake members and leaders
Many of these people can provide insights, emotions, stories, and faith-promoting experiences that will enrich and personalize your history.
Pictures are priceless
To give life to your history, generously include photographs of such things as the meetinghouses from the beginning, building projects, leaders, missionaries sent out, ward classes in session, road shows, welfare project workdays, camping trips, socials, typical houses in your community, etc.
Consider film/sound as well as a book-form history
While book-type histories are the most common, photographs, slides, and movie film can be edited and narrated to produce an exciting audiovisual history. Tape-recorded interviews with members can be excerpted and their actual voices used in the sound narrative accompanying the slides or movie film.
One example of a successful history is the 125th-year history of the Salt Lake Stake, edited by Lynn M. Hilton, who was high councilor in charge of the project. In 1847, the Salt Lake Stake was the organized Church. At the time of the history’s publication in 1972, 88 stakes lay within the original stake’s boundaries. This hard-bound, professionally printed volume is liberally sprinkled with photographs; unobtrusive footnotes guide those who want to know more to both published and unpublished sources.
This history, in addition to dates and events, also includes what makes history relevant—glimpses into the lives of the participants. Here we can read the rules for the Valentine’s Day Dance in 1873, which, in addition to excluding intoxicated persons, forbade “swinging with one arm around the ladies’ [sic] waist.”
Salt Lake Stake’s first president was John Smith, uncle to the Prophet Joseph. Its bishop with the longest term of service—possibly a Church record as well—was Elijah F. Sheets, who in 1855 began 50 years of service. During that time he also served a mission to Pennsylvania, as traveling bishop to central Utah villages, as assistant trustee-in-trust for the Church and, during the Church-state difficulties over plural marriage, a term in the Utah territorial prison for “unlawful cohabitation.”
Here we also find that, in an effort to improve attendance at priesthood meeting, the Salt Lake Stake officers decided on an experiment in the 1930s. They tried Monday night priesthood meetings, then shifted to Sunday mornings—first during Sunday School and then just prior to Sunday School, where they’ve stayed.
The record also includes contemporary history: welfare farm projects, complete with photographs of satisfied-looking beef cattle; the organization of the first Japanese branch (“Dai Ichi”) in America in 1962; and the stake’s successful resistance within recent years to a project that would have made First West Street a highway, dividing the stake.
Local Genealogy Seminars
“One of the major purposes of the Priesthood Genealogy Seminar at Brigham Young University has always been to train local priesthood leaders and genealogy teachers to become more knowledgeable in their genealogy assignments, that they might, in turn, train others in their local Church units.” (Elder Theodore M. Burton, Assistant to the Council of the Twelve.)
Last summer the Priesthood Genealogy Committee, in conjunction with the Church Educational System, conducted the tenth annual Priesthood Genealogy Seminar on the campus of Brigham Young University. One of the purposes of this annual seminar is to teach local priesthood leaders how to conduct seminars on the stake and regional levels. As a result of the information and materials received at the BYU seminar, many stakes have held or are scheduling local seminars.
To help in the planning of a seminar, the Priesthood Genealogy Committee has made available a booklet entitled How to Organize a Priesthood Genealogy Seminar. The booklet details a six-month planning schedule, with tasks divided among several committees operating under the direction of the stake president.
It also recommends that seminars begin on a Friday evening and continue through Saturday. Subjects to be taught should be approved by the stake presidency and can be geared to local needs.
Use of local specialists as teachers is recommended, although others from outside the area may be invited and can be suggested by the Church Priesthood Genealogy Committee. This practice should be limited, however, due to travel expense, which must be borne by the local unit. All guidelines are subject to adaptation under local priesthood direction.
Earlier this year, a successful seminar was held by the San Jose and San Francisco California regions. Thomas E. Daniels, executive secretary of the Church Priesthood Genealogy Committee, attended and spoke on the general Church programs and priesthood responsibilities in genealogy. Local speakers and instructors included Robyn Gottfried, associate archivist for the Federal Archives and Record Center of the General Services Administration in San Bruno, California. She is specifically trained in directing researchers to the records they need. Geraldine Davis, reference librarian at the Sutro Branch of the California State Library, also attended and provided information from her area of expertise. A professional researcher, Inez Von Harten, and Barbara Myers, a genealogy teacher in the Cupertino Parks and Recreation Department, were other instructors. Genealogy branch librarians from the area also reported on their activities. Through this local seminar, genealogy leaders were able to obtain information tailored to their needs.
How to Organize a Priesthood Genealogy Seminar, which gives instructions and describes visual aids, films, and filmstrips for a seminar, is available at no cost from the Priesthood Genealogy Committee, 50 East North Temple Street, Salt Lake City, Utah 84150.