Chapter 5: Personal Revelation and Family History

Introduction to Family History Student Manual, (2012), 38–47


Seeking inspiration will increase your success in family history work. When you are striving to obey the commandments, you may ask the Lord for help in your family history efforts and trust that you may be aided by revelation through the power of the Holy Ghost. On occasion, the Holy Ghost may also help you sense the desires of your righteous ancestors in the spirit world to enter into gospel covenants.

President James E. Faust (1920–2007) of the First Presidency explained: “The process of finding our ancestors one by one can be challenging but also exciting and rewarding. We often feel spiritual guidance as we go to the sources that identify them. Because this is a very spiritual work, we can expect help from the other side of the veil. We feel a pull from our relatives who are waiting for us to find them so their ordinance work can be done” (in Conference Report, Oct. 2003, 59; or Ensign, Nov. 2003, 55).

As you study this chapter, consider the efforts you are making to receive divine help from the Lord to assist you in your family history work.


Effectively Seeking Out Our Kindred Dead Requires Us to Exercise Faith in Jesus Christ [5.1]

Faith is a gift of God. [5.1.1]

Faith is a gift from God, a gift that is strengthened and increased as you put forth sincere efforts in righteous endeavors. True faith is shown through acts of obedience. President Joseph Fielding Smith (1876–1972) explained: “If we want to have a living, abiding faith, we must be active in the performance of every duty as members of this Church. I am as sure as I am that I am here that we would see more manifestations of the Spirit of God … if we would live just a little nearer to these fundamental truths” (Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. [1954–56], 2:311).

Elder Kevin W. Pearson of the Seventy further emphasized the importance of obedience in the development of faith:

“Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught: ‘Faith is a gift of God bestowed as a reward for personal righteousness. It is always given when righteousness is present, and the greater the measure of obedience to God’s laws the greater will be the endowment of faith’ (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. [1966], 264; italics in original). If we desire more faith, we must be more obedient. … Faith requires an attitude of exact obedience, even in the small, simple things. …

“As patterns of obedience develop, the specific blessings associated with obedience are realized and belief emerges. Desire, hope, and belief are forms of faith, but faith as a principle of power comes from a consistent pattern of obedient behavior and attitudes. Personal righteousness is a choice. Faith is a gift from God, and one possessed of it can receive enormous spiritual power” (in Conference Report, Apr. 2009, 37; or Ensign, May 2009, 39).

Your efforts to pray with greater fervency, search the scriptures, keep the commandments, worthily attend the temple, fast, serve our fellowman—all of these result in greater faith in Jesus Christ and have a positive influence on your ability to search out the records of your kindred dead. In family history research, this also suggests that you spend the necessary time and energy to find available records and histories.

The First Vision

In the Sacred Grove, young Joseph Smith Jr. asked “in faith” which church he should join.

The First Vision is an example of asking in faith. [5.1.2]

Praying in faith implies not just fervor as you pray but also requires that you follow up your prayer with actions. Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught the principle of asking in faith by citing the example of the Prophet Joseph Smith, who acted diligently after requesting help from God:

“The classic example of asking in faith is Joseph Smith and the First Vision. As young Joseph was seeking to know the truth about religion, he read the following verses in the first chapter of James:

“‘If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.

“‘But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering’ (James 1:5–6).

“Please notice the requirement to ask in faith, which I understand to mean the necessity to not only express but to do, the dual obligation to both plead and to perform, the requirement to communicate and to act. …

“I long have been impressed with the truth that meaningful prayer requires both holy communication and consecrated work. Blessings require some effort on our part before we can obtain them, and prayer, as ‘a form of work, … is an appointed means for obtaining the highest of all blessings’ (Bible Dictionary, “Prayer,” 753). We press forward and persevere in the consecrated work of prayer, after we say ‘amen,’ by acting upon the things we have expressed to Heavenly Father.

“Asking in faith requires honesty, effort, commitment, and persistence” (in Conference Report, Apr. 2008, 94–95; or Ensign, May 2008, 94–95).

Faith opens doors. [5.1.3]

President Harold B. Lee

President Harold B. Lee (1899–1973) expressed his conviction that when we are trying to do all we can to locate necessary information about our kindred dead, the Lord will open doors for us to find the information we are searching for:

“[In our genealogical research] the Lord is not going to open any doors until we get as far as we can on our own. We have to go toward that blank wall and then we have to have enough faith to ask the Lord to help to make an opening so that we can take the next step. And there can be information given to you from sources that reveal the fact that heaven and earth are not far away.

“Many of you have lived to a time in life where you have had loved ones who have gone on. You have had certainty of the nearness, sometimes, of those who have drawn very near to you. And sometimes they have brought to you information that you could not have otherwise had.

“I have a conviction born of a little experience to which I bear testimony that there are forces beyond this life that are working with us. …

“I have the simple faith that when you do everything you can, researching to the last of your opportunity, the Lord will help you to open doors to go further with your genealogies, and heaven will cooperate, I am sure” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee [2000], 104).

As We Proceed in Faith, We Can Receive Inspiration from the Holy Ghost to Assist Us in Doing Family History Work [5.2]


When you were confirmed a member of the Church, you were admonished to “receive the Holy Ghost.”

Qualify for assistance from the Holy Ghost. [5.2.1]

Elder David A. Bednar explained what we must do to receive help from the Holy Ghost:

“These four words—‘Receive the Holy Ghost’—are not a passive pronouncement; rather, they constitute a priesthood injunction—an authoritative admonition to act and not simply to be acted upon (see 2 Nephi 2:26). The Holy Ghost does not become operative in our lives merely because hands are placed upon our heads and those four important words are spoken. As we receive this ordinance, each of us accepts a sacred and ongoing responsibility to desire, to seek, to work, and to so live that we indeed ‘receive the Holy Ghost’ and its attendant spiritual gifts. …

“What should we do to make this authorized admonition to seek for the companionship of the third member of the Godhead an ongoing reality? Let me suggest that we need to (1) sincerely desire to receive the Holy Ghost, (2) appropriately invite the Holy Ghost into our lives, and (3) faithfully obey God’s commandments” (in Conference Report, Oct. 2010, 94–95; or Ensign, Nov. 2010, 95).

By following Elder Bednar’s counsel, you enable the Holy Ghost to provide you with inspiration to help you as you pursue family history objectives.

The gift of the Holy Ghost is sometimes called “the unspeakable gift.” [5.2.2]

We qualify for the direction of the Holy Ghost in our family history work by meeting the conditions for that sacred gift. Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin (1917–2008) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles noted that when these conditions are met, the Holy Ghost can bless us in a number of ways:

“In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord calls the gift of the Holy Ghost ‘the unspeakable gift’ [D&C 121:26]. It is the source of testimony and spiritual gifts. It enlightens minds, fills our souls with joy [see D&C 11:13], teaches us all things, and brings forgotten knowledge to our remembrance [see John 14:26]. The Holy Ghost also ‘will show unto [us] all things what [we] should do” (2 Nephi 32:5).’ …

“President Gordon B. Hinckley taught, ‘How great a blessing it is to have the ministering influence of a member of the Godhead’ [Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley (1997), 259]. Think of what this means, the ability and the right to receive the ministrations of a member of the Godhead, to commune with infinite wisdom, infinite knowledge, and infinite power!” (in Conference Report, Apr. 2003, 27; or Ensign, May 2003, 26–27).

woman praying

Revelation comes to the mind and the heart.

Revelation comes in different ways. [5.2.3]

As you search out records of your kindred dead, the Holy Ghost may communicate with you in various ways. True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference lists some of the ways you may receive revelation from the Holy Ghost:

He speaks to the mind and heart in a still, small voice. … Sometimes the Holy Ghost will help you understand a gospel truth or give you a prompting that ‘seems to occupy [your] mind, and press itself upon [your] feelings’ (D&C 128:1). Although such revelation can have a powerful effect on you, it almost always comes quietly, as a ‘still small voice’ (see 1 Kings 19:9–12; Helaman 5:30; D&C 85:6).

He prompts us through our feelings. Although we often describe communication from the Spirit as a voice, that voice is one that we feel more than we hear. And while we speak of ‘listening’ to the whisperings of the Holy Ghost, we often describe a spiritual prompting by saying, ‘I had a feeling …’ …

He brings peace. The Holy Ghost is often called the Comforter (see John 14:26; D&C 39:6). As He reveals the will of the Lord to you, He will ‘speak peace to your mind’ (D&C 6:23). The peace He gives cannot be counterfeited by worldly influences or false teachings” ([2004], 143–44).

man pondering scriptures

Guidance of the Spirit helps us to do family history. [5.2.4]

President Thomas S. Monson

President Thomas S. Monson spoke of the mandate for family history work and illustrated how the guidance of the Spirit can help us fulfill that mandate:

“The work of seeking out our dead and ensuring that the ordinances of exaltation are performed in their behalf is a mandate from our Heavenly Father and his Beloved Son. They do not leave us to struggle alone but rather, in ways which are sometimes dramatic, prepare the way and answer our prayers. …

“When I served as president of the Canadian Mission, headquartered in Toronto, Canada, there was a devoted family history worker in the mission by the name of Myrtle Barnum. Oh, she was faithful in this sacred work. She had accumulated a lot of data on the St. Lawrence River area. She had come to the end of her line. She did not know where she might turn. She studied. She searched. She prayed. But she never gave up. And though she was frustrated for month after weary month, because of her apparent inability to find that which was needed, she never lost hope.

“One day she was walking by a secondhand store and felt compelled to go inside. Looking up and down the shelves, she noticed a set of books which drew her attention. Why, she will never be able to testify other than that the Lord was able to inspire her. The title of those two books: Pioneer Life on the Bay of Quinte, volumes 1 and 2. They sound like novels. She reached up and took those two dusty volumes down from the shelf, and as she opened them, she was amazed. … These books were genealogical records of all of the people that had lived near the Bay of Quinte from the time records could be maintained. She hurriedly searched through page after page, and there she found the information which opened up her family history lines once again, that her research might continue.

“An elders quorum in that area raised the considerable sum needed so that she might buy those two books. They were sent to Church headquarters in Salt Lake City, and I received a letter indicating that these same books had been the means of opening up the lines of connecting heritages for thousands of names of those who had gone beyond the veil. A large number of people rejoiced to learn of this treasure trove which connected to their family lines, including President Henry D. Moyle [a member of the First Presidency from 1959–63]. One of his grandfathers had come from that very area. All this came about because a faith-filled servant of the Lord had refused to give up, refused to be discouraged, refused to say, ‘There is nothing that I as an individual can do’” (“Happy Birthday,” Ensign, Mar. 1995, 58, 60).

“Are you not on the Lord’s errand?” [5.2.5]

Elder John A. Widtsoe (1872–1952) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles recorded this experience of being led by the Spirit to locate books containing important genealogical records:

“I know of no work that I have done in the Church which has been so filled with testimonies of the divinity of this work as the little I have done in behalf of the salvation of our dead. I could tell you a number of experiences, but the one that impressed me most happened a few years ago when I accompanied Brother Reed Smoot to Europe.

“We came to Stockholm; he had his work to do; I decided to see what I could do in the way of finding books on Swedish genealogy. I knew the names of the two big bookstores in Stockholm. I went to the one, made my selections, and then started across the city to the other bookstore in the hope that I might find some more suitable books. As I hurried along the street filled with people, I was stopped suddenly by some voice which said to me: ‘Go across the street and down that narrow side street.’ I looked across the street and saw a little narrow street. I had not been in Stockholm before. I thought: This is all nonsense, I have little time to spend here. I am not going down that street, I have to do my work, and I walked on.

“Almost at once the voice came again, as distinctly as any voice I have ever heard. Then I asked myself: What is your business in this city? Are you not on the Lord’s errand? And I crossed over; went down the little narrow street, and there, half-way down, found a little bookstore that I had known nothing about. When I asked for books on genealogy the lady said: ‘No, we do not carry books on genealogy. When we get such books we send them to the bookstore’—naming the store for which I was headed. Then, just as I was leaving in disappointment, she said: ‘Stop a minute. A leading book collector, a genealogist, died about a month ago, and we bought his library. Many of his genealogical books are in the back room ready to be sent to the bookstore, but if you want to buy them you may have them.’

“Thus we secured the foundation of Swedish genealogy in our library. I could relate many such experiences” (“Genealogical Activities in Europe,” The Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, July 1931, 101; paragraphing added; also quoted in Boyd K. Packer, The Holy Temple [1980], 245–46).

Elder John A. Widtsoe in bookstore in Sweden, 1923

“A stirring within my soul told me there was something more I could do.” [5.2.6]

The following story illustrates how the Holy Ghost may work gently within you to motivate and help you to do family history work:

“A couple of years ago in a Sunday school class, the teacher encouraged us to do our family history research. He directed the message to everyone in the class, but I felt singled out. I felt I had done my duty and more. My family lines were traced back as far as possible; there was no more I could do.

“I left the class upset. … I felt I had done enough, yet a stirring within my soul told me there was something more I could do.

“I knew I could not rationalize away my guilt. I was not at peace. As my mind raced back and forth, I recalled a friend with whom I had served on a family history committee. She had told me to set aside a specific time each week and dedicate it to family history research and that I would become more effective in the other things I did. I liked this sister, but I didn’t want to believe what she told me.

“Then, as I sat there stewing, I had a quiet and simple revelation: To do family history research I did not need to give up writing or painting. I just needed to spend each Monday morning from 8:00 a.m. until noon doing the work. That would still give me time to paint, write, perform my work as a temple sealer, and attend a temple endowment session each week.

“I decided it was time to give in and rid myself of this lingering guilt. I looked across the room and saw Brother Ricks, one of our ward family history consultants. He had some experience in research and had offered to help me many times.

“I told him my feelings and desires, and he agreed to help me every Monday morning. As I drove home that Sunday, I remembered that my mother once sent money to a researcher in England to work on her family line, the Mayne line, but he never could find her third great-grandfather’s marriage or birthplace. So I decided to begin my research there, determined to give it my best.

“At our first meeting I showed Brother Ricks the Mayne line. When we began searching, we knew my third great-grandfather, George, had lived many years in Wath, Yorkshire, England, but there was no record of his birth or marriage there. Parish records showed that William, my second great-grandfather, had a father named George, whose wife was named Mary, but we did not have her last name.

“We approximated a marriage date around 1785. We entered a general search for George Mayne and found a listing for a George Mayen married to a Mary Holdridge in 1781. Since Mayen is a common misspelling of Mayne, we pursued the lead. The record stated they had been married in Northallerton, Yorkshire. We looked at a map and found that Northallerton was within 20 miles of Wath. We were also intrigued because we knew George was married to a Mary.

“We then found a Mary Holdridge in the International Genealogical Index who had been christened in Wath and realized we had likely found our George and Mary.

“We learned that the Northallerton parish records had not yet been extracted, so the next Monday we went to the Church Family History Library in Salt Lake City and looked through the microfiche records, where I was thrilled to find the marriage of George Mayen to Mary Holdridge. Brother Ricks also searched christening records and found the births of George and four of his siblings to George Mayen and Catherine Aston. And then I found their marriage!

“I think these people are the ones who made me feel guilty when I refused to get involved! Now that they are found, other ancestors will probably leave me feeling a bit restless as well. But I will continue to devote my Monday mornings to family history research. Somehow I just feel better about life and my self-worth. My guilt has been swept away, replaced by excitement and love” (George D. Durrant, “My Guilt Was Swept Away,” Ensign, Jan. 2009, 34–35).

“The name almost leapt off the page.” [5.2.7]

woman looking at microfilm reader

An example of someone receiving remarkable help from the Lord after exercising faith is related in this story of name extraction—now called “indexing”—in family history work:

“The page was faded and yellowed, and jagged, uneven holes punctuated the spidery script. It was the record of a christening that had taken place in Spain on the nineteenth of February 511 years ago.

“The date had been fairly easy to decipher. A concerted effort, seasoned with years of experience and a fervent prayer, had eventually given the worker the name of the father, then the mother. But the child’s name simply was not there. Years, mildew, and hungry mice and insects had gnawed away at the page, leaving it illegible.

“The extractor had come across the entry on the microfilm the day before, and after a diligent effort had gone home, resolving to return to it after a day of prayer and fasting. But today the record was still impossible to read. The worker had gone on, but was compelled to return to it often throughout the afternoon. Finally, she determined to give it one last try before forcing the unsettling entry out of her mind.

“As she turned the microfilm knob, the name almost leapt off the page. She stared unbelieving at the clearly formed letters.

“‘Elena Gallegos, the name is Elena Gallegos,’ she excitedly called aloud. A handful of workers, aware of her struggle, quickly clustered around, marveling at the name plainly displayed on the terminal.

“As she hurriedly copied the name, a warm closeness encircled her. ‘I felt as though I was being hugged,’ she explained afterward. Later when she returned to the entry to double-check her work, the words were once again illegible” (Derin Head Rodriguez, “More than Names,” Ensign, Jan. 1987, 12).

sunlight through clouds

The Righteous Desires of Our Ancestors in the Spirit World May Influence Our Family History Efforts [5.3]

Scriptures to Study and Ponder

We can receive guidance from beyond the grave. [5.3.1]

Elder Melvin J. Ballard (1873−1939) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught of a guiding influence from our ancestors that can help us accomplish our family history goals: “There are thousands of them, hundreds of thousands and millions of them in the spirit world who long to receive this gospel and have been waiting hundreds of years for their deliverance. They are waiting on you. They are praying that the Lord will awaken your hearts in their interest. They know where their records are, and I testify to you that the spirit and influence of your dead will guide those who are interested in finding those records. If there is anywhere on the earth anything concerning them, you will find it. That is my promise to you. But you must begin to work. You must begin to inquire after your dead. And the spirit of your heart turning towards them will come upon you, and the way will be opened in a marvelous manner, and if there is a scrap of evidence concerning them upon the earth, you will find it. When we have done all that we can do ourselves, the Lord will come to our rescue. … If we have done our best and have searched and have discovered all that is available, then the day will come when God will open and part the veil, and the records … will be revealed” (in Bryant S. Hinckley, Sermons and Missionary Services of Melvin Joseph Ballard [1949], 230).

On another occasion, Elder Ballard said, “I want to say to you that it is with greater intensity that the hearts of the fathers and mothers in the spirit world are turned to their children than that our hearts are turned to them” (in Hinckley, Sermons and Missionary Services of Melvin Joseph Ballard,  249).

Work is being done on both sides of the veil. [5.3.2]

President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) confirmed that as faith is exercised on both sides of the veil, ways for those in spirit prison to be delivered will be made possible: “My grandfather, being one of a family, searched all his life to get together his genealogical records; and when he died, in 1868, he had been unsuccessful in establishing his line back more than the second generation beyond him. I am sure that most of my family members feel the same as I do—that there was a thin veil between him and the earth, after he had gone to the other side, and that which he was unable to do as a mortal he perhaps was able to do after he had gone into eternity. After he passed away, the spirit of research took hold of men—his family in the West and two distant relatives, not members of the Church, in the East. For seven years these two men—Morrison and Sharples—unknown to each other, and unknown to the members of the family in the West, were gathering genealogy. After seven years, they happened to meet and then for three years they worked together. The family feels definitely that the spirit of Elijah was at work on the other side and that our grandfather had been able to inspire men on this side to search out these records; and as a result, two large volumes are in our possession with about seventeen thousand names” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball [1982], 543).

“I have three volumes of names that are ready.” [5.3.3]

A. J. Graham recorded the following account of a visit from his deceased parents that illustrates the faith exercised by those waiting for their work to be done:

“One night while in the hospital after an operation and in the act of praying I felt someone present in my room. I opened my eyes and the room was light, the door closed and near my bed stood my mother. She smiled and said:

“‘I am glad to see you are better.’ She held in her hand a book. I asked what it was. She replied that it was a book of genealogies. Father then appeared with three books in his hand, saying, ‘I am glad you are better.’

“‘You must get well, for I have three volumes of names that are ready to have work done for in the Temple. We have connected up our family so you can do their work. Ways and means will open for you if you will.’

“I asked how I was to find these records. He said, ‘If you will work in the Temple, you shall know but it will take money.’ I said ‘Father, I haven’t any money and have been out of work since May 1.’

“He said, ‘never mind my boy, money will come to you if you are determined to work in the Temple for these poor people who are held back and can’t go on. They pray as earnestly for you, that you might have money and the necessities of life, and that your heart will be moved so that you will do this work for them, just as sincerely as you pray for things you need. Don’t forget, they can not go on until their work is done.’

“With a smile of confidence and content they both faded from my mortal vision” (“Bishop Graham Recounts Rare Genealogical Experience,” Church News, June 25, 1932, 2).

    Questions to Ponder

  • How can a person demonstrate faith when doing family history work?

  • In what ways can inspiration come to help you find necessary information?

  • How have you been blessed thus far because of your efforts in family history?

    Suggested Assignment

  • Pray consistently for divine assistance in your family history work.

    Additional Resources

  • Boyd K. Packer, The Holy Temple (1980), chapter 20, “Help from Beyond,” 241–55.

  • L. Lionel Kendrick, “Personal Revelation,” Ensign, Sept. 1999, 6–13.

  • “Revelation,” True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference (2004), 140–44.

  • David A. Bednar, “Ask in Faith,” Ensign, May 2008, 94–97.