Family History and Guilt

I have been working in the professional field of Family History for about two years now. Whenever I tell someone what I do for a living, I get a pretty standard response. “Oh,” they say, “I should be doing my family history but I just don’t have the time.” Usually I make some placating comment about doing it later in life or make some remark about just finding a little time. But part of me is screaming to say, “Don’t do your Family History because you feel you should, do it because you want to.” Too many people simply do and redo work for people because of guilt and, honestly, they are missing both the point and the fun of doing Family History.

I’m sure everyone’s familiar with the scripture in Malachi about “turning the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to the fathers.” In my opinion, this doesn’t just mean submitting names for Temple work. If all you’re worried about is getting the work done for your four generations, don’t. (If have you have Mormon ancestors, most of the work has been done more than once and some individuals have even had their work done more than fifty times.) Family History is about getting to know your family, including your ancestors.

I love Family History. I have always preferred learning about everyday people. As a history major, I always wanted to know about the people, I didn’t care about the battles or the laws. Family History is about everyday people, people who lived and loved and lost and married and moved and mourned and fought and dreamed and died. And what makes these everyday people special is that their lives and their choices have a direct connection to my life and it’s possibilities. I also love Family History because it makes history come alive. Instead of learning about demographics, I can hold in my hands a copy of an original document and suddenly I imagine an enumerator lugging his census book from door to door, a proud father walking to the county courthouse to register his daughter’s birth or a crying mother watching the body of yet another child being laid into the ground. I am currently researching the military service of one of my quasi-ancestors who served in the Civil War and I recently acquired his Pension File. My imagination has run away with me these last few days. I can see him signing up, mustering in, marching through Georgia, jumping off a train about to crash, and limping for the rest of his life after receiving a gunshot wound to the ankle. Suddenly, the Civil War is not some distant past event but something that is running around my head.

But I understand that Family history isn’t for everyone, just as Theology, Assyriology, or Linguistics isn’t for everyone either. When people do their Family History out of obligation, it leaves a bad taste in their mouth and, most likely, they’ll never do it again. But, when people do Family History because they want to, they might find themselves lost in some dusty old courthouse or the Family History Library or down a forgotten cemetery road searching for just one more piece of information to add to the papers slowly taking over their house.

So, my advice to you? Get involved in family history when and if you want to. If there’s never any interest, there’s probably someone else in the family willing to do it for you. (I have been designated the Family Historian in the Zelophehad family.) And the next time you meet a Family Historian, don’t feel guilty. Just be glad that they’re doing it and you don’t have to.


  1. I am a rank amateur when it comes to FH, and my counsel to our ward is that even if you’re doing FH for the wrong reasons (initially), you’ll be blessed for doing it at all…

    DW was also a FH worker in our ward and gave a wonderful talk in Church about how keeping a journal was an overlooked element to FH.

  2. Thanks for this post, Elbereth. I’m one of those easily guiltable types, and I’m happy to hear you suggest that perhaps I’m better off not doing family history than doing it grudgingly. I guess this is a specific instance of the very general question of whether or not it’s worth it to do right for wrong (or at least impure) reasons.

    Queuno, thanks for reminding me of the one part of family history I am somewhat good at–record keeping. I keep a journal off and on, and I take tons and tons of pictures of my kids.

  3. Elbereth, you mean people actually pay you to do family history work? When you say quasi-ancestor, does that mean somebody you’re not really related to, but whose life you are studying? That must be an interesting job. I’m with you, I think the details of the lives of other people are fascinating, and I think that our caring enough to learn about them is part of the sealing and binding process.

    My dad has been gone now for 16 years. I always knew he was in Europe in WWII, but he never talked about it. After his death we found some military records and some old letters he sent home. Now, when I see old, grainy, black and white footage of men wading ashore at Normandy beach, I am absolutely spellbound, knowing one of those shadowy figures could be my own father.

    I also agree with your point that this isn’t just about preparing names for proxy ordinances. My mother used to go into the old geneaological library one day a week for years. Some days she would come home without having identified a single new ancestor, and I wondered what in the world she was doing with her time. Now that I’m older, I get it. She really enjoyed getting to know the people she identified and learning about their lives.

    One of your sisters has revealed that y’all are descendants of B. F. Johnson, so that makes us cousins. My own family history has polygamists all over the place, but I still think it is funny to hear Mormon people ask each other “So, which wife do you come through?”

  4. I, too, am a professional genealogist. I started this work at age 14 because I wanted to and love it still!
    I agree that it is very important not to do it because of obligation, but I encourage everyone I meet to give it a try, even if they think they won’t like it, to see if the bug doesn’t bite them. And I always offer that invitation with my personally making a house call to show them the ropes. I think it is much easier to get started and interested if someone leads you by the hand.

    I echo your sentiment, “Family History is about getting to know your family, including your ancestors.”
    It shouldn’t be only about names and numbers. I would rather people nnot do it at all if they go in with that attitude. How frustrated I am with those who hurry through it, knowing just enough to submit names they’ve gathered off the internet without verification of vital information.

  5. Great post, Elbereth! I am also a lover of “mundane” history–the everyday doings of ordinary people are often just as heroic and difficult as those things that are deemed worthy to put in books.

    I am the beneficiary of a project done in the early 70s by ambitious family historians–a huge volume documenting the descendants of Hugh and Mary Owens Roberts, who converted in Wales and pioneered across the Atlantic and this continent. Each descendant (including my 4-year-old self at the time) has a picture, a life story, and a chart included that shows where he or she falls in the family tree. When I moved to my husband’s hometown after we graduated college, I found that I have MORE relatives here than he does, all due to my years perusing the book and becoming familiar with surnames and the towns my family pioneered. In fact, when my new neighbors moved in across the road, I learned their last name, asked where they were from, and pronounced, “We’ve got to be cousins!” Sure enough, the husband’s teenage picture is in my book!

    What boggles me is to consider that I have found so many relatives from knowing the histories and names of just this ONE line (mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s parents). I loved figuring out, for instance, that a woman in my ward who is also an English teacher (and passionate about Browning as I am) is a cousin. I guess one of the things that keeps me from doing family history is that I have an idea that I can’t just do a little at a time, which is probably not true. I need to figure out the whole moderation thing. And the organization thing. And the time management thing. . . .

  6. I took a family history class last winter semester, and I loved it! At first, I was so discouraged because I could not find a single name to submit to the temple. But part way through the semester, that I realized I was doing a great work because I felt like I was getting to know my ancestors. It was really exciting! I felt so close to them and it was so much fun to find out little tidbits of information about them. Now I know, if it’s all about submitting names to the temple, I will always fail. But it’s so fun to find out the little (often funny and weird) things.

  7. Elbereth, thanks for your observations on this. You make some excellent points I’d never considered, particularly that doing family history out of guilt is likely to result in simply mechanically and pointlessly reproducing work that’s already been done multiple times.

    It’s particularly telling to me that love of the subject provides a surer guide than guilt does. As you know I’ve never been much of a family history fan (I confess I’ve always relied on you and Mom to do it!) but as I’ve gotten a little older I’ve started to better understand the appeal of identifying a family to which you belong, and your descriptions of what you enjoy about it help me to see that appeal more clearly.

  8. I have Family History guilt, but mine is slightly different than the regular garden variety. My family- especially on my dad’s side- has a very very dark bent to it. It’s depressing to read about their lives, and to tell the truth I’m not really very proud or happy to learn that these people are my ancestors. I’m sure if I did more work and kept digging I would find some relatives who were very admirable, but so far the group is pretty homogenous. I really do think that Family History would be much more rewarding if my ancestors were the heros of the stories rather than the villains.

  9. Starfoxy, that’s a fascinating question I’ve long had about family history. The stories we tend to tell about it don’t give us much guidance about what to do when we encounter the inevitable ugly family secrets or nasty, even criminal, misbehavior. And sometimes it’s evident that violence has been passed down from generation to generation.

    I imagine all families have dark histories somewhere. It’s probably easier to manage when it’s at some distance (when someone who lived in 1638 was clearly an abusive alcoholic philanderer), but the closer it is to the living, the more difficult it is to know how to address, I think. I’d be curious what Elbereth has to say on the subject, if she and other professionals are given any guidance in such matters.

  10. Starfoxy and Eve,
    I personally have some very recent, dark family history. When I started digging into my dad’s side I had a feeling I might be in for some unpleasant discoveries. My dad’s father left with the family maid when my dad was 3, so he never knew his dad. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know about his dad either. The man who could have been a grandpa to me but chose not to be.
    Finding information about his family was difficult, and finding out what they were like was even more so.
    It was very discouraging to find that my great grandfather, according to family stories was a drunk and abusive. He had six children with his first wife. When she died he sent his young children off to be raised by various family members. Then he remarried and had more children. But he never took responsibility for his first set of children again.
    It was discouraging to weave through this family and find rampant divorce, drinking and general discord.
    To my great surprise I found record of my other paternal great grandfather, having been married twice. First when he was 21. I contacted living descendants of his first wife, to hear that he had fathered a child with her, and then simply abandoned them 18 months later. Ten or so years down the road, his second wife (my great grandmother) up and left him while he was having a lung removed for an experimental tuberculosis surgery!
    I have come to find that his second wife was a woman of…well, deceit is a somewhat harsh word. But evidently if the truth was ugly she never shared it. She also suffered from mental illness, as do many in my family. Her daughter, my grandma told me she remembered being about 6 years old and watching her mother attack her father with a hot poker from the fire.
    I have found many ugly things, and have been so discouraged at times to know I hail from people with such behavior. But in the same lines there are those who are honorable and good.

    The stories we tend to tell about it don’t give us much guidance about what to do when we encounter the inevitable ugly family secrets or nasty, even criminal, misbehavior.

    It’s the same thing we do for all those whose lives we may not know about. We do the work. We put judgement aside and exercise hope that they have repented and accepted the gospel.
    And we don’t try to hide the stories that are ugly and nasty, so that they are not forgotten or repeated.

  11. It’s interesting that the conversation has taken a turn. Elbereth began talking about the guilt that people fell for not doing family history, and now some of us have described the discomfort we feel when we discover some of our family history.

    It’s an interesting question. How much of the family laundry do we air in public, and how much do we keep decently private? The answer to that question probably changes over time, and after a century or two, today’s reprobate might be viewed as a charming rogue. Let’s begin by acknowledging that every family has its black sheep, and that nobody needs to feel ashamed of her ancestry. One of my families had eight children, and every one of them took up residence for an extended time at either the penitentiary or the mental hospital. Another ancestor died from a gunshot wound. He was shot while sneaking out the back door of a house where he had been, uh, keeping company with a woman whose husband came home from work earlier than expected.

    We would like to think that our forebears are heroic, but for the most part, they are just plain old people, and we don’t need to look very far for evidence of our fallen nature.

  12. Great post! I’m not good at family history. I do like to learn about those who have gone before. I don’t think I have ever made their past so present as you have by visualing so much about the quasi-relative in the Civil War.

  13. Perhaps this is too ridiculous for most of you to think about, but I can’t help but contemplate the significance of what geneticists delicately call “non-paternity events” to our genealogical research. It’s a safe bet that some of those ancestors some of us are researching are not our biological ancestors. Does this make a difference to how we think about genealogical research? I suppose not, although it highlights for me how difficult it is to understand what specifically is important to linking the generations.

  14. Ooh. Leave it to Kiskilili to point out that we don’t know which of those bastards we’re really related to anyway. 😛

    It’s a good point. According to Jared Diamond, the number is (as I recall) about 15%. So yeah, it’s safe to say that a great-great-grandma somewhere is statistically likely to have been getting some non-marital action.

    And you’re right, K. That does, to some degree, highlight some of the bigger questions. What exactly links us to past generations? Why should I care who g-g-g-grandma was? Maybe she was really cool. But then, there are really cool people I can meet, today. Should I see her as particularly different than anybody else?

    The best link, of course, is the telephone link. They affected people who affected people who affected people who affected us. They were important to people who were important to people who were important to people who are important to us.

    Beyond that, though, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly why I should worry about one eighteenth-century German farmer, and not another.

  15. Ah, but you joined in the demonic machinations of my twisted mind!

    The best link, of course, is the telephone link. They affected people who affected people who affected people who affected us. They were important to people who were important to people who were important to people who are important to us.

    Fair enough–this does make some sense to me, confused though I be. 🙂

  16. Not coming from LDS ancestors, I have also uncovered sad family stories and proof that my ancestors didn’t always lead stellar lives.

    I don’t think that’s the point, though. The point is to learn to love your family, whomever they are, whatever they were while they lived. Forgiveness needs to be a big part of family history, and charity as well. I have some of these same situations in my ancestry, but I am comforted believing that perhaps if the gospel had found them, they would have made different choices.

    In the process of researching our family members, it’s really easy to sit back and armchair-live their lives for them. If only he wasn’t a wife-beating drunk. If only her parents hadn’t lied about her age so she could marry the wife-beating drunk. But they were real people making real mistakes, just like we are, and even if the truth isn’t always pretty, it’s still our family.

    Even if we don’t remember them, they remember and know and love us. They paved the way and – my best example – lived through childbirth without anesthesia and OUTHOUSES for us. If nothing else, I hope we feel some kind of indebtedness (not to say guilt) for that much.

  17. Not coming from LDS ancestors, I have also uncovered sad family stories and proof that my ancestors didn’t always lead stellar lives.

    Not to worry, Millie–such less-than-stellar lives are hardly confined to the non-LDS. I grew up hearing occasional stories of affairs had and domestic violence committed by my Mormon ancestors. Even some of the sacred pioneers weren’t all that stellar. Thank goodness.

  18. While raising children, my wife and I never thought of family history. (also because we had little old white haired aunts doing the work relentlessly). Now that our aunts have passed on and we are empty nesters, the urge has hit us and won’t leave us alone. We have been attending genealogy classes at the family history center, indexing on our home computer and have been successful in finding my wife’s great, great grandmother (she was married five times which made it difficult to track her down by her last name). Also I found a tree that was named for two of my great uncles in Alabama because they were hung on it for stealing horses! Colorful history.

  19. I have often thought of this post. While I am not gifted in the research end of Family History, I feel there is something for everybody that you can do without duplicating the work. I love the stories. However, I don’t know if I have ever been as immersed in the past as you. I think that is so cool!


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