I Have a Question


Questions of general gospel interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy.

I Have a Question

I just got a brochure from a company offering to find out—for a fee—if my family is entitled to a coat of arms. Are these coats of arms authentic?

Henry E. Christiansen, temple ordinance coordinator for the Genealogical Department of the Church Usually the coats of arms these companies locate are authentic for the particular family name. However, a far more important question is whether you are entitled to display the coat of arms for that family.

Coats of arms began as symbols and emblems displayed on the shields of knights in armor. In an age of illiteracy, such symbols provided clear identification of families and individuals within families. However, there is more to heraldry than mere identification.

Knighthood was a rare honor in medieval Europe. Nobility was even more rare. To display a particular coat of arms a person had to belong to the family legally entitled to it. Furthermore, certain branches of a family might have a variation in the coat of arms, and in many cases only the male heir had the right to use the symbol.

Thus heraldry became more than identifying knights in armor from the symbols displayed on their shields. It is now the science of determining the hereditary right of a person to display a coat of arms or other emblem earned by an ancestor. It also includes the science of describing and recording such symbols.

Even if there is a coat of arms for your family name, you might not be entitled to display it. One of the more common misconceptions is that all persons with the same surname are descended from a common ancestor. This is not true—and this is where fraud or error can enter into the picture.

Established family surnames that were passed on from one generation to the next began at different times in different countries. In England, surnames were established around the end of the thirteenth century. Other European nations began the custom much later, and in Scandinavia and some areas of Germany surnames were not established until the mid-1800s.

Surnames usually began as patronymics, occupation names, or geographical names. A patronymic is the father’s first name, used by the son as a surname. For example, in old Scandinavia, if Hans had a son named Peder, his son would be called Peder Hansson. And if Peder named his son Christian, he would be called Christian Pederson—and so on. In Scotland and Ireland the prefix mac or mc meant “son of,” and in Ireland the prefix o’ was also used, giving rise to such names as McKay, or “son of Kay,” and O’Reilly, or “son of Reilly.” Welsh patronymics included ap and fitz, giving us names like Pritchard (ap Richard) and Fitzgerald.

A man’s trade or profession might also give rise to his surname. That is why we have Smiths, Carpenters, Fenstermakers (windowmakers), and Taylors today.

And a surname could also have come from a geographical area, such as Despain (of Spain), Van Dyke (from Dyke), Huntington, or Welch.

Thus two people can have the same last name and yet not be descended from the same ancestor at all. If they share the last name Richards it only means that both are descended from someone named Richard. If both have the last name Miller, it only means that both had an ancestor who worked in a mill.

So, even if there is a coat of arms for your last name, you might not be related to the family that is entitled to display it. If you are related, you may not be from the right branch of the family or you may not be the particular descendant entitled to use the coat of arms. And even if you are allowed to display the coat of arms, you may need to use a modified coat of arms showing your position in the family. Such modifications are called differencing.

Though heraldry has no legal basis in the United States, in some countries it has the force of law, and coats of arms should only be displayed by those who can prove their claim. Space does riot permit a detailed listing of all the conditions that allow display of a coat of arms. But chances are that companies offering you a coat of arms will not make a serious effort to determine whether you have a right to use one. That is something that can be determined only by carefully documented genealogical research.

I’ve frequently heard that the world’s great interest in genealogy began with Elijah’s visit to Joseph Smith in 1836. Could you give me more details?

Jimmy B. Parker, supervisor of genealogical materials for the Church The story of the world’s interest in genealogy in our dispensation is a fascinating hint that—in my opinion—the light of Christ was working to prepare the peoples of the earth for the restoration of that prophet’s sealing power long before his visit to Joseph Smith—much as it worked among such righteous men as Luther, Tyndale, and Calvin to prepare for the restoration of the gospel.

Here are some highlights of our dispensation that will illustrate what I mean:

1. From about 1000 A.D., Chinese and Korean clans have kept records of their ancestors as part of their family duties.

2. In the 24th Session of Trent, held in November 1563, the Council required that parish registers be kept of marriages and baptisms throughout all the Catholic world—Europe, the British Isles, and colonies in the New World and India. Protestant churches continued this registration even after breaking off from the Catholic Church, creating a great treasury of records from which information for temple ordinances can be drawn.

3. By the end of the sixteenth century, many European countries and their colonies were keeping censuses, records of civil transactions, and immigration records.

4. The Code Civil des Français was adopted March 21, 1804, in Napoleonic Europe—the basis for how vital statistics are registered in much of the world today.

5. In 1844, the New England Historic and Genealogical Society was formed to gather genealogical records. Slowly, more such groups were organized until 200 were in existence in the United States alone by 1966. But within the past ten years, that number has skyrocketed past 800.

6. Prior to 1800, fewer than 100 family histories had been printed, according to one estimate. Sixty-five years later, there were still fewer than 300. Today, that figure has passed 20,000.

7. Genealogical research is the third largest hobby in the United States, which includes compiling family genealogies and histories and reconstructing family lineage. In addition to those things included in the hobby of genealogy, there has recently been a great increase of interest in compiling vital statistics and piecing together personal histories.

The picture becomes even more impressive if we move out of our own dispensation where records are kept for the purpose of performing temple ordinances on behalf of the living and the dead and realize that our father Adam kept a “book of the generations of Adam,” giving the genealogy “of the children of God.” (Moses 6:8.) Abraham knew and sought the blessings of the priesthood that “came down from the fathers, from the beginning of time.” (Abr. 1:3.) His children kept their lineage so carefully that even when they returned from the Babylonian exile they were able to reconstruct family ties and the priesthood orders. (See Ezra 2; Ezra 10.) The Jews in the time of Christ were very genealogy-conscious.

This work in all generations was, in my opinion, the natural result of the workings of the light of Christ among the peoples of the earth. In addition, many technological advances that speed the work were also planned and brought about by the Lord, through the light of Christ, so that the Saints would have ready access to the records and the compilations needed to accomplish the sealing work authorized by the keys that Elijah restored. It appears that many of these advances were made and all of them were accelerated following Elijah’s visit.

Now, what were the keys that Elijah restored? As President Joseph Fielding Smith explained, Elijah restored “to the earth, by conferring on mortal prophets duly commissioned of the Lord, the fulness of the power of priesthood. This priesthood holds the keys of binding and sealing on earth and in heaven of all the ordinances and principles pertaining to the salvation of man, that they may thus become valid in the celestial kingdom of God. …

“If Elijah had not come, we are led to believe that all the work of past ages would have been of little avail, for the Lord said the whole earth, under such conditions, would be utterly wasted at his coming. Therefore his mission was of vast importance to the world.” (Doctrines of Salvation, Bookcraft, 1955, 2:117, 121.)

Elder Theodore M. Burton has said: “The spirit of Elijah is nothing more nor less than the application of this sealing power to build and reconstitute the final, completed family of God in a resurrected condition in the celestial order of exaltation.” (God’s Greatest Gift, Deseret Book, 1976, p. 208.)

It seems to me, then, that it was the light of Christ that moved men through the centuries to keep a record of their lineage. And it is through the keys restored by the prophet Elijah that members of the Church can take the accumulated records and have families of all generations sealed together. Thus, our genealogical research and temple work will eventually interlock with the record keeping of past dispensations until all family units can be presented, sealed and perfect, before the Father.

“In my family records I found an interesting genealogy that ties us into one line of European royalty going through Charlemagne back to one Antenor, King of the Cimmerians, then to Judah, and thence through Abraham and Noah to Adam. Can you tell me how reliable lineages such as these are?”

Val D. Greenwood, temple ordinance specialist for the Genealogical Department of the Church Your observation that this genealogy is interesting is very appropriate. It is indeed interesting. The question is whether this genealogy and others like it are anything more than interesting.

This genealogy obviously does not stand alone. There are others that also purport to go back to our first parents, Adam and Eve. One of these traces through Irish royalty back to one Tamar Tephi, a daughter of King Zedekiah, who was king of Judah when Lehi left Jerusalem in 600 B.C. Another traces back through one Anna, a daughter of Joseph of Arimathea, who was a kinsman of Christ and who provided the Savior’s burial place. A fourth, that of the ancestors of Queen Elizabeth II of England, goes back through the kings of Wessex to one Sceaf, “a son of Noah born in the Ark,” and thence to father Adam. There are also others.

Many Latter-day Saints have tied into one or more such pedigrees, and many more descend from them unknowingly. Considering the number of ancestral lines that each of us has, it is a strong probability that all of us who have our roots in Britain and continental Europe could tie into at least one of these lines if we could trace back far enough to make the connection. If a person goes back only ten generations (approximately 300 years) he has 1,024 different direct lines of ancestry (barring the possibility that he runs into some of the same lines more than once). Another ten generations (middle fourteenth century) would give him 1,048,576 ancestral lines. The next generation would have 2,097,152, and the one after that 4,194,304. This would take the average pedigree into the last half of the twelfth century—still about seven generations later than William the Conquerer and about fourteen generations later than Charlemagne (born in A.D. 742).

To double the ancestral lines fourteen more times would give us more than 68.7 billion potential lines (34 generations of progenitors). This, of course, is ridiculous, because there have not been that many people in the entire history of the world, let alone in Europe in the eighth century. Obviously we all run into some ancestral lines more than once—some we run into many times—in that many generations, and, with those kinds of odds, it is relatively safe to suppose that if our ancestry is European we are probably descended from Charlemagne and from every other eighth century couple who have living descendants today.

With that background, and with the knowledge that pedigrees such as those cited earlier are interesting, let us return to the question posed: How reliable are such pedigrees? The truth is, we just do not know. If we are to accept them, we must take someone else’s word for them because there is no proof. There are six significant reasons, however, why we might choose to take them with the proverbial “grain of salt”:

1. Modern genealogy in the Western World had its beginning in the 1400s and 1500s with the aristocracy of Europe, directly traceable to the influence of feudalism and hereditary privileges. It was more important in that social climate to have the “right” ancestors than to have the “correct” ancestors. The truth was sometimes bent to suit political and economic ends.

2. Authentic documents by which such genealogies can be proven do not exist. The written documentation of the events in people’s lives by which we trace and prove their genealogies does not exist. Most such records were never made in earlier centuries. Even in the Christian era pedigrees were preserved with the assistance of various mnemonic devices and passed orally from one generation to the next. These were later recorded by scribes, primarily monks. Most of these are just name lists but are considered by the authorities to be quite accurate, quite early. For example, the list of Scottish kings is acclaimed to be reliable as early as the third century A.D. Proof, however, is another matter.

3. There was a total absence of family names until the middle of the eleventh century A.D. and a significant absence even much later than that. This caused excessive repetition of names in the society in general, as evidenced in the few available records. This factor alone makes positive identification difficult, if not impossible, in most situations.

4. The rules of evidence were imperfectly understood by the early genealogists. This imperfect understanding provided these early genealogists with adequate pretext for using conjecture and imagination in compiling pedigrees as if they were reliable evidence.

5. Even the most undisputed biblical genealogies, upon which these pedigrees must of necessity rely, are not altogether reliable. In the first place, the ancient Hebrew phrases implying sonship are not to be interpreted as strictly as we interpret them today. Secondly, the ancient Jews were prone to use symmetrical numbers to manipulate long lists. This was accomplished by dropping, and even by adding, names at will.

6. Some genealogies trace back to pagan deities. Julius Caesar was supposed to have sprung from Venus through Aeneas, and the Saxon rulers of England claimed descent from the god Woden.

Before leaving the question, perhaps two other observations as they relate to these pedigrees are appropriate. The first is suggested by the numbers cited earlier to represent the numbers of ancestral lines in various generations. Even if we could say that these pedigrees are reliable and can be accepted at face value (which we obviously cannot do), having one line traced back to father Adam does not absolve one of further genealogical responsibility. There are still thousands of other lines that require attention, each of which we are told we have responsibility for. How many Latter-day Saints, for example, can say that all of their genealogy is traced back ten generations and all of the temple work is done? (And keep in mind that these are the generations in the time period when our most reliable records for such research are available.) Even this is very difficult.

The second observation has to do with temple work. That is, even if we connect to these Adamic pedigrees, we cannot do temple work for the people on them. The Genealogical Department takes full responsibility for work on all royal lines and no names are accepted for temple work for persons born before A.D. 200.

“Would it be proper for me to have my genealogical research done by a professional researcher? If so, how might I go about locating a good one?”

George H. Fudge, director of the Genealogical Department of the Church Every member of the Church is individually responsible to see that temple ordinance work is done for his or her direct-line ancestors. But this does not necessarily mean that a person must do all the research and temple work himself. Others can assist. And it is certainly permissible to obtain assistance from professional researchers. Employing a professional researcher provides a great opportunity for family organizations to become involved in difficult research where individual resources may not be sufficient.

To assist members of the Church who may wish to engage the services of a professional researcher, the Genealogical Department, 50 East North Temple Street, Salt Lake City, Utah 84150, USA, keeps a list of accredited researchers who specialize in particular areas of work. Upon request the department will send back a list of researchers accredited for those areas—for example, “Midwestern States” or “England and Wales.” By “accredited” we do not mean that the researcher is an employee of the Genealogical Department or has any official connection with it; we simply mean that the researcher has been tested and has demonstrated a knowledge of research in a specific area—as well as the ability to use it.

The next step would be for the patron to choose a researcher from the list and contact him on an individual basis. The patron should realize that the Genealogical Department is in no way responsible for the performance of accredited researchers. It is suggested that if a professional researcher is hired, the patron should maintain careful, personal control and request monthly or quarterly written reports of records searched, money spent, and results achieved. The patron should also insist that, when information is found, the researcher enter eligible names on the proper genealogical forms and send them to the patron. In this way, the patron can submit these entries himself and thus maintain personal control of the work done and progress made.

“What can mothers do who want to attend Relief Society when their children are not old enough to be placed in the Relief Society nursery, but old enough to walk and want to play?”

Ann Stoddard Reese, Mother Education Committee, Relief Society General Board This period of time is often a trying one for a mother and her little one. We encourage mothers to bring their babies to the meetings and hope all Relief Society sisters will remember to be tolerant of a mother who is earnestly trying to attend her meetings with a small child.

Children should not be given freedom to run about during meetings. This can be most distracting not only to the teacher but to all the sisters present. However, with proper preparation and an abundance of patience and love, this short time between contentment on mother’s knee and stepping into the exciting new world of association with other small children in a Relief Society nursery can be a pleasant experience for mother and child.

When the child is no longer content to sit quietly and observe and listen to sights and sounds, the mother should be prepared with a few well-chosen items to amuse him in quiet play. These items might include small finger puppets; a favorite book or toy; a small flannelboard with felt figures; a “quiet book” that has zippers, buttons, ties; a mother’s scarf, handkerchief, or rain bonnet in its small packet; or a small treat or cracker saved for just the right time. Be constantly alert to find small, simple, safe, and quiet items that can be rotated periodically so the child will not become bored with the same toys from week to week. Have a special purse or decorated box just for these items for Relief Society. The opening up, taking out, and putting back is an exciting activity in itself for children this age.

The ingenuity of mothers is exemplified in the story of pioneer mothers who used to put a drop of molasses on the child’s palm and stick a small feather on it. This kept him busy trying to pick off the feather and having it stick to other fingers. This would not be practical in church, but young mothers of today are just as clever in discovering ways for encouraging reverence. Be sure to share your successful ideas with other young mothers.

Several ward Relief Societies have found it wise to reserve the back row of their room for mothers with small children. This makes it possible for the mother to stand for brief periods of time if her baby is fussing. A seat near the exit door so that a mother can take out the child who is causing a disturbance is also a good idea.

After consultation with her Relief Society president, a mother might bring a jump seat, stroller, or small portable playpen where there is ample room. Homemaking day with its many activities is usually conducted in a larger area, and this might be a time for mother to bring the playpen so that her hands will be free to work on her homemaking project and baby will be content. Because of health regulations, a Relief Society organization cannot provide cribs or playpens, but this could be done on an individual basis if a mother cared to provide one for her own child’s use if there were room.

It could be that after all else fails, your child is showing symptoms of nursery readiness. As one mother related, “I have struggled for six months with my little daughter who has always been very active. Last month I decided I had reached the end of my rope and I would take her into the toddler class just to see what she would do. To my great surprise, she was a different child. She was ready for the activities there and I hadn’t realized it. I stayed with her for a time or two and now she doesn’t even miss me when I leave. She is completely happy in what she is doing.”

Could it be your child is expressing his desire to enter into the world of shared activities with his own peer group? This would be an excellent time for Mother to volunteer her services to the toddler nursery section so that she might help make this transition a pleasant one. When a child should first go into a nursery situation isn’t a matter of age but of maturity and readiness, and no two children are exactly alike in this. A child needs to be given opportunities to learn independence at this age, and the nursery can help teach it.

The nursery program is designed to make it possible for mothers of young children to come to Relief Society and for the children to enjoy this time. We hope the sisters throughout the Church will provide enjoyable and well-directed activities so that all the children will want to say as one small child did:

“Mommy, it’s very ’portant for me to go to Reef Siety. My teacher loves me.”