Family History: “In Wisdom and in Order”


Dallin H. Oaks
There is much each member can do toward redeeming the dead—and each can contribute according to individual circumstances and abilities.

The Lord God told Moses that his work and his glory was “To bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39.) The immortality of man has now been assured by the atonement and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Each of us is privileged to assist in the remaining work of bringing to pass the eternal life of man. This is the mission of the Church.

Our current efforts to accomplish the mission of the Church have been organized to include three dimensions: proclaim the gospel, perfect the Saints, and redeem the dead. As we know, these three dimensions are interlocking and inseparable.

I will suggest some general principles that should encourage all Latter-day Saints to receive their own ordinances and provide the ordinances of eternity for their ancestors. The linkage to ordinances is vital. In this Church we are not hobbyists in genealogy work. We do family history work in order to provide the ordinances of salvation for the living and the dead. “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.” (A of F 3.)

The first principle is that our efforts to promote temple and family history work should be such as to accomplish the work of the Lord, not to impose guilt on his children. Members of this church have many individual circumstances—age, health, education, place of residence, family responsibilities, financial circumstances, accessibility to sources for individual or library research, and many others. If we encourage members in this work without taking these individual circumstances into account, we may do more to impose guilt than to further the work.

The second principle is that we should understand that in the work of redeeming the dead there are many tasks to be performed, and that all members should participate by prayerfully selecting those ways that fit their personal circumstances at a particular time. This should be done under the influence of the Spirit of the Lord and with the guidance of priesthood leaders who issue calls and direct the Church-administered portions of this work. Our effort is not to compel everyone to do everything, but to encourage everyone to do something.

There are many different things our members can do to help in the redeeming of the dead, in temple and family history work. Some involve callings. Others are personal. All are expressions of devotion and discipleship. All present opportunities for sacrifice and service.

We think first of submitting names and going to the temple to perform proxy ordinances for those who are dead. But there is much more to this work. There are ward family history consultants, missionaries in records centers, and workers in microfilming, libraries, data entry, and name extraction. There are temple missionaries, ordinance workers, clerks, and receptionists. And there are the unsung people who work behind the scenes in the kitchens and laundries and nurseries. Behind all of these are the family members and friends who facilitate the service of others by support and encouragement. For example, a young woman who baby-sits or a couple who provide overnight accommodations for those who are attending the temple should understand that they are also making an important contribution to temple work.

Some of the most important temple and family history work is done at home. I do not refer just to the important work of keeping family genealogies up-to-date and the much-needed verifying that all sealings have been performed. At home we can keep our journals and gather pictures and data for the books of remembrances of our family members. We can gather and record information available through living relatives. We can write family histories and share their great lessons with our children.

We know that some of the greatest work we will ever do will be within the walls of our own homes. President Ezra Taft Benson has taught: “The family is the most effective place to instill lasting values in its members.” (Ensign, Nov. 1982, p. 59.) Some of the most important efforts toward fulfilling the mission of the Church will be those of parents who teach their children the doctrines and practice of the Church by precept and example. Young parents who are fulfilling that responsibility ought not to feel guilty if they are not submitting as many group sheets or attending the temple as frequently as their parents who are retired.

Some members may feel guilty about not furthering the mission of the Church when they are actually doing so. This kind of guilt comes not from insufficient efforts, but from insufficient vision. For example, a mother with several young children may be furthering the mission of the Church most profoundly in all three of its dimensions in her own home when she helps her children to prepare for missions, when she teaches them to revere the temple and prepare to make covenants there, and when she shows them how to strive for perfection in their personal lives.

The third principle is that it would be desirable for each member of the Church to think about the work of proclaiming the gospel, perfecting the Saints, and redeeming the dead not only as an expression of the mission of the Church, but also as a personal assignment. Every member should have some ongoing activity in each of these three dimensions, with a total personal activity that does not exceed what is wise for his or her current circumstances and resources.

The three dimensions of the mission of the Church overlap and are inseparable. A person who invites another to come along to the temple helps perfect the Saints as well as redeem the dead. All who attend the temple will be strengthened by the personal associations and Spirit in the house of the Lord. Adult members should be encouraged to receive their temple ordinances and to keep the covenants they have made in the temples. And young people should be encouraged to prepare for missions and temple marriages.

On the question of how much and what each member can do in individual efforts, in addition to his or her Church calling, we should be guided by the principle taught in King Benjamin’s great sermon. After teaching his people the things they should do to “walk guiltless before God,” including giving to the poor, he concluded: “And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength.” (Mosiah 4:27.) Similarly, as the Prophet Joseph Smith struggled through adversity to translate the Book of Mormon, the Lord told him: “Do not run faster or labor more than you have strength and means provided to enable you to translate; but be diligent unto the end.” (D&C 10:4.)

Guided by these inspired words, leaders should encourage members to determine, according to the promptings of the Spirit, what temple and family history work they can do “in wisdom and order” consistent with their own “strength and means.” In this way, if we are “diligent unto the end,” the work will prosper. The list of ways to further the work is long, and the consequences of a broad-based multitude of individual efforts by Church members are far-reaching.

In mapping out our personal efforts in temple and family history work, we need to take a view that is not only broad in scope but at least lifetime in duration. The total amount of time and resources we can spend on the mission of the Church—what we can and should do at a particular time of our life—will change with time as our circumstances change. The relative amount of time we will spend in each of the three areas will also change.

We are all acquainted with the wise teaching that “to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven; … a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away.” (Eccl. 3:1, 6.) Leaders should teach this reality and apply it in their leadership decisions.

The nature of our Church callings at a particular time will obviously have a great influence upon what we do in our personal efforts to further the mission of the Church. For example, full-time missionaries will devote almost exclusive attention to the assignments of their missions. That is appropriate for a season, and then the balance should change.

When I was going to law school, we lived 1,400 miles from the nearest temple. We were poor in material goods and hard-pressed to pursue our schooling and care for our small children. My wife and I attended the temple each summer when we returned to Utah, but at no other time. I am glad my priesthood leaders did not make me feel guilty that I did not attend the temple more frequently. A few years later I worked in our nation’s capital, accessible to its great library resources. During that year, I chose to concentrate my personal efforts (in addition to my Church calling) on family history research. When we moved to another city, I was called as a stake missionary, and my priorities shifted from family history research to missionary work.

The principle of encouraging members to prayerfully determine what they can do “in wisdom and order” in their present circumstances is an important principle of Church administration and individual growth. I remember how I felt in my first year out of law school (over thirty years ago) when the bishopric in our new ward sent us a budget letter in November asking us to pay seventy-five dollars before the end of the year. I was devastated that after paying our tithing and meeting our other obligations we could not pay more than fifty dollars. I explained to a member of the bishopric that my wife and I had three children, and we had just emerged from five years of student poverty and an expensive cross-country move. I told him I thought we could easily pay twice the requested amount in the following year, but fifty dollars was all we had before December 31. He said he was sorry the bishopric had assumed that all lawyers had a lot of money, and he restored my confidence in myself and my leaders by telling me that it would be all right if we just did what we could.

Quotas or per capita assignments violate an important principle. In the past, most of us have heard a person give an assignment for every member of a quorum or Relief Society to attend the temple a certain number of times per month. In the past, most of us have observed a local leader make assessments for each member of a ward to contribute exactly the same amount of money for a particular financial need. Such assignments or assessments take no account of individual circumstances or the spirit of voluntary offering. Head-tax assessments require some to do more than they are able, and they require others to do less than they should. Assessments deny everyone the blessing of making a voluntary offering.

King Benjamin did not say “all things should be done by mathematical division even if this requires some members to run faster than they have strength.” (See Mosiah 4:27.) The Prophet Joseph Smith did not say “I teach the people correct principles and then I give them an assessment.” (See Journal of Discourses, 10:57–58.)

In summary, we should understand and apply these principles:

(1) All things should be done in wisdom and order. We should recognize that our members have many individual circumstances. Considering these, we should promote the mission of the Church in such a way as to accomplish the work of the Lord, not to impose guilt on his children.

(2) There is a time to every purpose under the heaven. There are many tasks to be performed in temple and family history work. We should encourage our members to make prayerful selection of the things they can do in their individual circumstances and in view of their current Church callings, being “diligent unto the end.”

(3) Each member should think about the three dimensions of the mission of the Church—proclaiming the gospel, perfecting the Saints, redeeming the dead—as a lifelong personal assignment and privilege. Each should gauge his or her personal participation from time to time according to his or her own circumstances and resources, as guided by the Spirit of the Lord and the direction of priesthood leaders.

There are family organizations to be formed, family projects to be planned, hearts to be touched, prayers to be offered, doctrines to be learned, children to be taught, living and dead relatives to be identified, recommends to be obtained, temples to be visited, covenants to be made, and ordinances to be received.

As we fulfill our responsibilities to teach and show our brothers and sisters how to help bring to pass the eternal life of man, we will all be blessed, for this is his work and his glory.

[illustration] Illustrated by Larry Winborg