To me it is significant that in the opening of this dispensation the foretelling of the Church’s remarkable family history work occurred on the initial visit of Moroni to the boy Joseph Smith on the evening of 21 September 1823. In answer to his supplication, Joseph’s bedroom was filled with light until it was “lighter than at noonday” (JS—H 1:30), and a personage, standing in the air, appeared before him.
He addressed the 17-year-old youth by his first name and said that “he was a messenger sent from the presence of God … and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for [Joseph] to do; and that [his] name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues” (JS—H 1:33).
He then told of the Book of Mormon record, and after speaking in detail concerning this, he quoted from the book of Malachi and particularly from the last verses of that book with some differences from the language of the King James Bible.
He declared: “Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. …
“And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers. If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming” (JS—H 1:38–39).
I repeat, my brothers and sisters: it is tremendously significant to me that this declaration, this repetition of the wondrous words of Malachi concerning the work for the dead, was given to the boy Joseph four years before he was allowed to take the plates from the hill. It was given before he received either the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthood, before he was baptized, and well before the Church was organized.
It says much concerning the priority of this work in the plan of the Lord.
It would be 1836 before Elijah came with the keys of this work. Little could be done concerning it for some years after that. But can anyone doubt the importance with which it is regarded by the Almighty, who, in His infinite wisdom, had a plan under which the full benefits of the atonement wrought by His Beloved Son might be made available to all of the sons and daughters of God of all generations of time? And without this work, the Lord indicated, the whole purpose of creating and peopling the earth would be frustrated, would be wasted (see JS—H 1:39).
There are today many genealogical and family history societies in the world. I think they all have come into existence subsequent to the visit of Elijah. One of the oldest and most prestigious is the New England Historic Genealogical Society, organized in 1844, the year of the Prophet’s death. Since then, and in more recent years particularly, there has been a tremendous surge of interest in family history. With that surge, the Family History Department of the Church has grown to be able to accommodate it.
When the Utah Genealogical Society was organized in 1894, the charter members contributed 11 volumes. That original rootstock has grown to a library of 258,000 volumes. Each month another thousand books are added to this collection.
The collection also includes 1.9 million rolls of microfilm to which are added an additional 5,000 rolls each month. This has become the world’s largest collection of family history data.
Only a handful of our people used the modest family history resources of the Church around the turn of the century. How things have changed! During each of the last five years, more than 750,000 researchers have used the main library here in Salt Lake City and the more than 2,650 family history centers scattered across the world. Approximately 40 percent of those using the Family History Library and 60 percent of the patrons using local centers are not members of the Church. We offer a tremendous service to those not of our faith.
There is nothing else to compare with this treasury of family history on the face of the whole earth. I feel the Lord has designed that it should be so. This is His church which carries His name, and one of its purposes is to make available to the millions beyond the veil of death the full blessings that lead to eternal life.
There are millions across the world who are working on family history records. Why? Why are they doing it? I believe it is because they have been touched by the spirit of this work, a thing which we call the spirit of Elijah. It is a turning of the hearts of the children to their fathers. Most of them do not understand any real purpose in this, other than perhaps a strong and motivating curiosity.
There has to be a purpose in this tremendous expenditure of time and money. That purpose, of which we bear solemn witness, is to identify the generations of the dead so that ordinances may be performed in their behalf for their eternal and everlasting blessing and progress.
The real fruit of this identification finds expression only in the house of the Lord, the temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And as the work of family history research goes on and grows, there is a concomitant flowering of temples. More temples have been constructed and dedicated in the last dozen years than were constructed and dedicated in all the prior history of the Church. This is the great season of temple building and temple activity. Several beautiful temples have been dedicated in recent years. A dozen more are in some stage of development.
I am confident that the Lord will permit us and direct us to go on building these sacred structures as we become worthy of them. Our important test of that worthiness will lie in doing the research that becomes the foundation for the major work to be carried on in them.
The work of the Lord is a work of salvation. For whom? Through the grace of our Eternal Father and without any effort on the part of the beneficiaries, the atoning sacrifice of the Son of God has made it possible for all to rise from the dead. And beyond this, by virtue of that divine sacrifice and through His limitless grace and goodness, opportunities for eternal life may be opened to all through personal or vicarious service.
That which goes on in the house of the Lord, and which must be preceded by research, comes nearer to the spirit of the sacrifice of the Lord than any other activity of which I know. Why? Because it is done by those who give freely of time and substance, without any expectation of thanks or reward, to do for others that which they cannot do for themselves.
Great is our mission and tremendous our responsibility. In an address to the world issued in 1907, the First Presidency eloquently described this mission. Said they:
“Our motives are not selfish; our purposes not petty and earth-bound; we contemplate the human race—past, present, and yet to come—as immortal beings, for whose salvation it is our mission to labor; and to this work, broad as eternity and deep as the love of God, we devote ourselves, now, and forever” (in James R. Clark, compiler, Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 volumes [1965–1975], 4:155).