“I Have a Question,” Ensign, Mar. 1997, 73
Kahlile B. Mehr, collection development specialist in the Church’s Family History Library.
The number of people who have inhabited the earth can only be estimated. Even current population counts are imprecise.
The estimated population of the world in A.D. 1 was 200 million; by 1850 it had reached one billion (see The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1995 , 510). By mid-1995, the world’s population was estimated at 5.76 billion. Over time, as many as 105 billion people may have lived on the earth. (Estimates courtesy of Population Reference Bureau, Washington, D.C.; see Carl Haub, “How Many People Have Ever Lived on the Earth?” Population Today, 23 [Feb. 1995]: 4–5).
The number of completed proxy temple endowments is approaching an estimated 140 million, meaning that this work has been performed for about .13 percent (just over one-tenth of 1 percent) of the earth’s estimated historic population of 105 billion. Obviously, an enormous amount of work remains to be done.
Considering the scope of the unfinished work for the dead, Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said in 1977:
“When we contemplate how big it is, it is astonishing; it is past astonishing, it is overwhelming!
“But it is not discouraging. …
“If the numbers seem staggering, we will move ahead. If the process is tedious, we will move ahead anyway. If the records have been lost, if the obstacles and opposition are overwhelming, we will move ahead anyway” (That They May Be Redeemed [address delivered at regional representatives’ seminar, 1 Apr. 1977], 1–2; emphasis in original).
From Adam until the earthly ministry of the Savior, ordinances were performed in temples only for the living. Following the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the way was opened for the gospel to be preached in the spirit world and, through the Restoration, for ordinances to be performed in behalf of the dead.
Proxy temple work began after necessary keys were restored by Elijah, who, as prophesied, returned to earth “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers” (D&C 110:15; cf. Mal. 4:5–6).
The significance of Elijah’s return became clear when the ordinance of proxy baptism for deceased ancestors was instituted. The Prophet Joseph Smith wrote in 1840: “The Saints have the privilege of being baptized for those of their relatives who are dead, whom they believe would have embraced the Gospel, if they had been privileged with hearing it, and who have received the Gospel in the spirit, through the instrumentality of those who have been commissioned to preach to them while in prison” (History of the Church, 4:231).
In 1977 President Spencer W. Kimball stressed the importance of work for the dead:
“We do not know how many millions of spirits are involved. We know that many have passed away in wars, pestilence, and in various accidents. We know that the spirit world is filled with the spirits of men who are waiting for you and me to get busy. …
“We wonder about our progenitors—grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, etc. What do they think of you and me? We are their offspring. We have the responsibility to do their temple work, and the beautiful temples of the Lord stand day after day, yet we do not fill them always. We have a grave responsibility that we cannot avoid, and may stand in jeopardy if we fail to do this important work” (“The Things of Eternity—Stand We in Jeopardy?” Ensign, Jan. 1977, 5).
The promise of heavenly help is extended to those who diligently work in behalf of their ancestors. Elder Packer also said: “Revelation comes to individual members as they are led to discover their family records in ways that are miraculous indeed. And there is a feeling of inspiration attending this work that can be found in no other. When we have done all that we can do, we shall be given the rest. The way will be opened up” (Ensign, Nov. 1975, 99).
We have the privilege of helping unite the eternal family of our Heavenly Father through the binding ordinances of the temple. We should be eager to provide these ordinances for as many of our ancestors as possible, regardless of their seemingly countless numbers.