Why Family History?

When I was in Primary, many years ago, we sang a song titled “Genealogy- I Am Doing It.” The song has since been rewritten as “Family History- I am Doing It”. This change is just one of many indicators of a general shift in the Church in the past couple of decades from talking about genealogy to talking about family history.

So why the change? If I understand correctly (and I concede that I know nothing about the subject), genealogy is the organizing of our ancestors into giant pedigree charts. Family history, on the other hand, is like genealogy plus. It not only involves figuring out our ancestors’ names and dates of birth and the like; it includes searching out all the records to tell us more about their lives. It’s family history research that turns up all the pioneer stories we hear in General Conference, for example.

But it seem like all we really need to do is genealogy. President Hinckly said in April 1998 General Conference, “All of our vast family history endeavor is directed to temple work. There is no other purpose for it.”

If the purpose of family history research is to do temple ordinances, why bother with the extra work of family history? Why not just do genealogy? I think that all we need to perform temple work for someone is enough information to identify her uniquely. That might include birth date, birth location, death date, and the like. So if I do genealogy research and find out about my ancestors Jane and John Doe*, who were both born in 1882, what does it matter if I do more digging and find out that they started a business that supplied mazes to psychologists for experimental rats to run through?

*Names have been changed. Their real names are Jane and John Q. Public.


  1. Well, one straightforward reason is that as you’re reading their journals you might discover that there was a baby born that wasn’t recorded anywhere else because it died, or other similar sorts of things.

    Another perk might be that you may find you could be a beneficiary to some class action lawsuit or other restitutionary compensation.

    More seriously, I think President Hinkley’s quote answers the question it brings up, that is- the whole endeavor is directed towards Temple work. I can’t count the number of testimonies I have heard where people have felt impressed to do the Temple work, and to continue the other plain ol’ geneology for lots of people after learning about and coming to love one or two specific anscestors. The affection gained for one entreprenuerial rat maze maker, and perhaps a testimony that she wanted her work done by you keeps you working for years on your entire family tree. It’s a motivator.

  2. Calling it “family history” also helps take it out of the realm of blue-haired little old ladies. “Genealogy” is such an old-fashioned term. Calling it your family history connects it to you. These are your people, so their history is your history.

    And I *loathed* that Primary song.

  3. This is a good question. None of our theology surrounding the importance of family history work entirely makes sense to me, partly because I don’t understand what exactly “sealing” means to begin with, why someone has to have a physical body to go through with it, and what our spiritual relationship to our ancestors is. (I understand the genetic connection and the fact they all raised each other in a long chain, but what was our relationship before we were born, if any?) I can understand people might have a personal interest in their own ancestors and want to discover more about their lives. But I don’t really understand the religious component to either geneaology or family history work.

  4. The thought that comes to my mind is “turning hearts.” Kinda like what Starfoxy said. I find that when I learn and read about my family, I feel a desire to be connected to them spiritually, through ordinances. I feel close to them, and full of love for them…and it’s easier to feel a desire to serve (e.g., in the temple) when there is that love there.
    I also think there is a great benefit from understanding the lives of those who went before. Who hasn’t benefited from the faith of the early pioneers, for example? I recently read a book by Pres. Hinckley’s daughter, and she talked about someone who had read the book of letters from Sister Hinckley that her children compiled and published. A young mom thanked Sister Pearce for doing that — because she was able to feel hope and understanding, knowing that Sister Hinckley’s life had been just as ordinary and routine as this young mom felt her life was. We can find validation, understanding (it helps to know my headaches are hereditary, for example, or the occasional struggle with depression that can creep in), gratitude…there is much to be found from learning about our ancestors. I really think there is a spirit about the work that is hard to pinpoint, but is real. Sure, it culminates in the temple ordinances, but I think there is a journey along the way with benefits of its own. I also tend to believe they are aware of us, and maybe there is something about us being aware of them, too.

  5. Doctrinally speaking, neither “Genealogy” or “Family History” capture the purpose for what we are doing in the slightest. Sealings are primarily a forward looking, not a backward looking enterprise.

    Temple work is not about the preservation of history it is about the preservation of families, and not just couples or nuclear families, but whole clans, tribes, even nations, to the degree that the persons involved were or become worthy of such a blessing.

    This family order is the very structure of heavenly society, much more so than the structure of contemporary society, due to one very obvious fact – the members of all the different generations will be present simultaneously.

    Now there is a lot that can be said about the aspects and reasons why such an eternal family order is important – much of which is scattered all over the scriptures – but normally it suffices to say that without this order, preserved as a result of planting in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children turning to their fathers (generically speaking, mothers too of course), the whole earth would be wasted, leaving neither root nor branch.

    In other words one of the most prominent purposes of this earthly estate is not to be individually tested, it is to be tested as families, families that survive not for a decade or to, but families tested to see if they can survive in the eternities. Is there cultural diversity in the celestial kingdom? I would bet on it. And where does this cultural diversity exist, if not in families, extended families, clans, tribes, and peoples, each implementing the common and necessary principles of celestial government and society in their own way?

  6. To continue in Mark Butler’s thread, I think it’s a little off the mark, or at least a little incomplete, to say that family history “culminates” in temple ordinances. The ordinances are not ends, but means to an end, which is eternal life. Presumably, if we’re going to go to the trouble of sealing ourselves to generations of ancestors for eternity, we’re going to want to like being around them for eternity, and it seems to me that we should get to know them, to whatever extent we can, in order to facilitate that.

    I have ancestors who I really, really like as people, even though I’ve never met them. I want to know more about them not because I need to do their ordinances (they’ve been done for years, many during their own lifetimes), but because through those ordinances I have the opportunity to be with them, and I think I’m going to like them. So, I want to get to know them. And THAT’s the purpose of temple ordinances. We (ideally) ENJOY being around our families, and want to continue to enjoy that across generations throughout the eternities.

  7. I can see a lot of value in family history (though I must admit that I personally struggle to find much interesting in it; I’m hoping that my sister Elbereth will do it all and relieve me of my responsibility. ;)) But there are a few things about it that I don’t understand.

    First, what’s the significance of being related to someone in mortality? Put another way, is there more value in learning about and coming to care for our own ancestors than in doing the same for people of earlier centuries to whom we’re not related? I can see having everyone do their personal genealogy as a logical way of collecting names for temple work, but I’m a bit uneasy with the possible implication that we should be more concerned with the salvation of people somehow related to us than with anyone else.

    You might say, okay, we have limited time/resources, and of course people are going to focus on their families, and I’d agree with that priority. But it makes more sense to me in the context of family members within one or two generations of us, ones whom we actually might be acquainted with in this life, than in the context of genealogy.

    Which brings me to another question–I don’t know what to think about the idea that I might have a more significant eternal relationship with some 16th century ancestor (to whom I’m “sealed”) than with my closest non-family friends in this life. I really like the idea that salvation isn’t individual. But I wonder if it’s necessary to put so much emphasis on mortal biological ties.

    I guess what I’m saying, to get back to Ziff’s question, is that family history makes sense to me as part of the more general work of building positive relationships with other human beings, but I’m not so clear on why the “family” part of it is all that important.

  8. I think it’s a little off the mark, or at least a little incomplete, to say that family history “culminates” in temple ordinances. The ordinances are not ends, but means to an end, which is eternal life.

    Of course. I was more just echoing what Pres. Hinckley said (as quoted in the original post). But of course he would agree with what you say as well. I like this idea of liking our family members who have gone before before we get to the other side. 🙂

  9. On the D&C 130:2 principle, it may very well be that you have a closer every day relationship with a current friend than with an arbitrary 16th century ancestor. However, no doubt your relationship with a direct line ancestor will always be rather more formal, and indeed permanent than a relationship with one of your friends, the same way it is now.

    Allow me to quote from a particularly relevant article by Lee Harris:

    There are, in truth, only so many ways to preserve the ethical baseline of a society, all of them radically less effective, and far more intrusive, than the method offered by the family. Plato offered one of them in his Republic: The elite guardians directly controlled the ethical molding of the children by reducing the populace to puppets in the hands of master manipulators.

    But there is one advantage above all advantages that the family possesses: the long-term temporal framework within which it operates. The playmate, the buddy, the girlfriends, the colleagues, the guys — all see us as a given thing with an established set of attributes, and this is just as true when we meet them at six as at 60: We are what they see us as. But for our families we can never be reduced to being something fixed and permanent. To them we are not six feet tall; to them we turned out to be six feet tall, and who knows how much more we might grow in our mothers’ eyes — even if we are in our 50s and shrinking.

    To a mother and father, a child is a project and the child’s personality a trajectory. This is not a consciously held value or principle, taught by a book: It is the natural cognitive mode of the parent who, in looking upon a child, sees its past, present, and future all at once, in a vision that is genuinely sub species aeternatis and not entirely unlike God’s vision of the universe, even if it is a bit more partial. Others teach us how to be; our family teaches us how to become.
    (Lee Harris, “The Future of Tradition”, Policy Review, June/July 2005)

    For the complete article:


  10. This is both wildly speculative and non-theological, but I think that family history may offer a useful corrective to the atomistic individualism of modern (Western) culture–it is salutary to discover that the traits one is proud (or ashamed) of having cultivated all by oneself are actually somehow deeply rooted in the history of one’s clan. Family history counterbalances the pernicious myth of the self-made person.

  11. Perhaps I am completely mistaken in this interpretation, but I saw President Hinckley’s use of “our” as his speaking for the church more than as a voice for the general membership. He is speaking on the construction of smaller temples that we (we the church and not we the members) to better serve us (us the members).

    To that end, the vast efforts the church has put in place regarding family history is simply for temple work. That is what the church is gaining from the vast resources (money, time, effort, etc.) used in compiling the information.

    So, if we look at his statement from that perspective, he is making no comment at all on what we as individual members are supposed to gain from family history.

    I personally think that the 6th verse of Malchi 4 refers to much more than just names, dates, and doing work for someone we don’t know:

    And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

    Yes, you may have feel more connected with friends than ancestors you have never met, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the status quo is how things should be or how He wants them to be.

  12. Some of these ideas are interesting, but they leave me with other questions. I apologize in advance for those who consider my ridiculous scenarios too ridiculous to think about. 🙂

    For example, what if basically your entire ancestral line for the last several centuries is burning in hell? If you do go to the CK, you’re not going to be in any tribe or clan. If people are living in tribes, you’re going to have to find one that will adopt you.

    Also, I’m still not sure what our spiritual relationship is to our ancestors. What if, as a historian, I read personal unpublished journals (or even ancient letters) and feel a connection to the individuals who wrote them? Is it acceptable for me to seal myself to them and break the sealing with my current line?

    And this poses even more potential problems. Our relationship to the dead is mediated almost entirely through written materials, which do not always yield an accurate portrait of how someone behaves in person. Is it fair to say our relationship to the distant dead is, in some ways, essentially a relationship with fictional characters?

  13. Sealing are performed in family lines. I know of a few isolated exceptions in early restored church history, but current sealings take place in along genealogical lines.

    I think it would be foolish for people to think that if a family line is broken somewhere that those after the break are stuck by themselves. We do not know or understand the organization of the CK or how God will fix problems of gaps in families.

    This is one of the a beautiful things about the millenium. It will be a time for temple work and all the problems and dead ends that were run into here during mortality will be able to be corrected.

    I trust that the Lord will fix the problems that we may see in His plan. It is a plan that has been devised by the omniscient divine and I will trust that there are no chinks, loopholes, or omissions. Trust in the Lord.

    As for our relationship with our ancestors, I don’t consider them to be fictional characters any more than I consider famous historical figures to be fictional or people who are alive now that I don’t know. Do you consider people alive right now that you don’t know fictional? How are they less fictional than your ancestors?

    In researching your genealogy, you should develop an affection for and a love for your ancestors but that doesn’t mean it has to be the strongest bonds and ties you have ever forged. Of course it will be weaker than many other ties you have developed merely for the lack of interaction and information. However, your loyalty should be to your family, as God has instructed, not to other people, no matter how interesting, notable, respectable, or “close” you feel to them.

  14. I prefer to think of the concept of sealing as less about personal family ties than as an expression of communitarianism, reminiscent of classic Mormon hopes for Zion. Until the 1890s, it was common procedure for orphans, or those with no Mormon relatives, to be sealed to prominent Mormons; this demonstrates, it seems to me, a greater emphasis upon investing one’s relationship with the community with these sorts of ties than on personal family lines. Same goes for lineage statements in patriarchal blessings – and even, I hereby speculate, for polygamy. I think I’d address K’s problem in this way – it’s not so much about our personal ancestors as it is about fostering a sense of community, in ways similar to what Kristine describes. Ultimately, the community is intended to embrace all of humanity, and that will be – and maybe is now – our family. That’s why we call seminary teachers “Brother” and “Sister,” right?

    I think the current term ‘family history’ has as much to do with the church’s present sociopolitical concerns as any theological reason.

  15. Coming late to the discussion– but I’m wondering when the switch in name was made? Also, was there any official announcement at the time?

  16. I have no basis for believing this, but I always kind of figured that the emphasis on seeking out one’s own ancestors was more for administrative convenience than because it was important to be sealed into a particular family line. It’s just a convenient way of dividing up the work, in other words. After all, as Kiskilili points out, what would be the value in being sealed into a family line from which everyone is damned? And since we don’t exert any control over our dead ancestors, how can any of us know that we aren’t sealed into just such a line?

    With Lynnette, I have a hard time imagining that my next life relationships with my ancestors will be more important than my ongoing relationships with my unrelated contemporary friends. After all, my ancestors will probably be most interested in spending the eternities with their immediate family and their contemporary unrelated friends, I suspect, and will not have more than a passing interest in me.

    Of course, this speculation will all be moot when I’m the one damned, hopelessly breaking the family line. Sorry, Eve, Kiskilili, and Lynnette!

  17. By the way, thanks to those who suggested that the family history–the story aspect–might be a motivator to do the tracking down of the information necessary to do the ordinances. When I asked the question, I kind of suspected that this would be one of the answers I got.

    Unfortunately, I tend to be more motivated by the making of big charts than it is by story gathering. Am I still obligated to search out the stories, I mean beyond what Starfoxy mentioned, for the purpose of gathering more information?

    Of course this is all academic right now since I’m not actively engaged in either genealogy or family history. I’m just trying to figure out what I should do if I ever actually get off my lazy rear end and get started.

  18. Since the church is in the “business” of eternal families, family histories make sense to me. How can you truly know who you are without knowing what your roots are?

    I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for my ancestors. I wouldn’t have been born in the USA if it weren’t for my ancestors didn’t come to America, starting in the 1600s, including ones that came on the Mayflower. I wouldn’t be a member of the church if my ancestors hadn’t converted in Sweden and Denmark and come to America to be in Zion. I wouldn’t have the comfort in knowing that I’m going to see and be with my grandmother, again, when she passes away. I’ll see my beloved grandfather who died 15.5 years ago because I had ancestors who believed and were converted. Knowing that is powerful to me.


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