The Secular Purpose of Genealogical Work
October 1972

“The Secular Purpose of Genealogical Work,” Ensign, Oct. 1972, 20

The Secular Purpose of Genealogical Work

During my years of law teaching, the subject I taught most frequently was trust law. The area that interested me most was the law pertaining to charitable trusts. The law gives a great many special advantages to charitable trusts; they are tax exempt, their duration is unlimited, and they are allowed greater flexibility of administration than is available to trusts created for private individuals. The law grants these advantages to charitable trusts on the theory that they confer a measurable benefit on the public.

As I taught this subject, I found myself wondering occasionally how genealogical work would fare if it were tested against the standard of “public benefit.”

What is the public benefit in a program by which we search out our dead, identify them, and “do work for them,” as we say? The most apparent precedents are those cases where the courts have considered whether a trust to erect a monument is a charitable trust. In these cases the courts have drawn a distinction between a notable or famous person whose qualities deserve emulation and whose life is well known, on the one hand, and ordinary folk like you and me, on the other hand.

A trust to erect a statue or monument to the memory of a famous or notable person will qualify as a charitable trust. The public benefits by emulation of the fine qualities of that person. But if a person leaves a large sum of money to erect a statue or monument to his honor without having established his reputation in the court of public opinion, that trust cannot qualify as a valid charitable trust.

To each of us, all of our ancestors are notable. We couldn’t get along without any one of them. Just as important, when the “hearts of the children turn to the fathers,” we identify with the great qualities of our ancestors. Our aspirations and lives are lifted and we and our society are benefited. This is the secular purpose, the “public benefit,” of genealogical work.

I suggest that upon the same theory that the law recognizes a public benefit in monuments to emulate notable persons, we as individuals benefit—and through us society benefits—by the noble qualities we find in our departed dead. By genealogical work we identify with them and grow stronger in our resolve to be worthy of the heritage left us by their sacrifice and their nobility.

Our families—unorganized as well as organized—have great influence upon our conduct. Being conscious of position and relationship to people and to society gives a sense of purpose and direction to our lives. The essential ingredient of this sense of direction is a knowledge of family and our relationship to it. Thus, a knowledge of family history and ancestry can be compared with the role of the flag, the national anthem, and the pledge of allegiance in inculcating patriotism and love of country in each of us.

I would like to single out three qualities that are evident in the study of our ancestors and use these as illustrations of the kind of personal strength each of us should draw from that study.

The first quality is sacrifice.

On a recent visit at the BYU library I worked my way back into code number M270, where some of the personal histories are found. As an illustration of sacrifice I selected the diary of William Driver, a convert from England who came to America in 1866 and later became prominent in the Utah Territory. As William Driver was preparing to leave England on a ship under the direction of the priesthood, he observed in his diary that all inhabitants were striving to demean themselves so that nothing tending to immorality be made manifest, “that God’s blessings might be with us on our journey across the ocean.”1 (There is a worthy objective for any of us when we set out upon a journey.)

While he was gathering his little family about him to get on the ship, a cart on a steep street broke loose, and in the ensuing accident one of his youngsters (aged two or three) was badly injured by the cart. For about eight or nine days on shipboard, as they made their way across the Atlantic under very adverse conditions of crowding and stormy weather, he recorded that this little boy began to fail. He recorded the fatigue of his wife as she looked after the boy. Then follows this entry in his diary (with original spelling and punctuation):

“Willie my Dearest Child was very ill all night until 7:30 A.M. when he was released from his Sufferings, God bless his dear Soul, how he suffered, he came to his death Through Mr. Poulters Cart breaking on St Anns Hill, Wandsworth, Surrey, England. Oh how I mourn This great affliction, O Lord help me by thy power to bear it as from thy Hand and stimulate me to more nobly and faithfully serve Thee and may I live to prepare to meet Him in a Happier and better World with his dear Sister Elizabeth Maryann and at The Resurrection of the Just may I be there to meet them, O God grant these blessings in the Name of Jesus. My Wife is much cut up.”

On the next day:

“[A]fternoon saw my Dear boy sown in canvass by first and second Mates, he was burried at 7 P M, Captain Adey read the Burial service, in Latitude 48 Deg 22 min North, Longitude 20–12, on Monday May 21st 1866, he was born Dec. 26th 1863 at Wandsworth, he was a fine intelligent boy, God bless him, peace to his slumbering ashes. He was taken from our berth by order of Docter into the Forecastle, a most unfit place where he took cold as he laid opposite the Hatchway, his spine was injured and he had a malignant sore Throat. The Dr. Told me had he been on Land he might have recovered!”2

When I read of the sacrifice of this good and obscure man, I am reminded of the debt that I owe to my own ancestors, of lives lost because good people heeded the call of the servants of the Lord and came at great sacrifice across the ocean to establish this society.

I would like to suggest that people who are familiar with that kind of history, people with a sense of ancestry and a sense of searching for what is past, will not take lightly the spiritual blessings that we obtain. These are the kinds of things we identify as our hearts turn to the fathers. These are the things that influence our conduct, consciously and unconsciously.

The second quality I would like to cite is love of country.

George Rogers Clark, an aristocrat of Virginia, was sent on the eve of the Revolutionary War into what was then called the Northwest Territory (Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky) because the English had established several strongholds in that area that the colonials felt—correctly, I am sure—would be a constant threat to them in their attempt to gain independence from the crown. A small but hardy group of frontiersmen (about 200 in number, dwindled to about 175 by the time these events took place) left with George Rogers Clark to secure that mighty area. They were to pit their ingenuity and courage against the fortifications of several British outposts.

George Rogers Clark and his men took the British fort at Vincennes. Then they proceeded westward across what is now Illinois to a point south of the present site of St. Louis, Missouri, a British fort called Kaskaskia, which they took by a stratagem. Soon after this they found that the small garrison they had left at Vincennes had been overpowered by the British. In the middle of winter the frontiersmen set out to the Northeast across the frozen plains of Illinois some 150 or 200 miles to regain Vincennes for the Revolutionary cause.

It was the middle of February. Wind was sweeping across the flat plains, a frozen wasteland. For much of the journey these hardy men, dressed in the primitive clothing of that time, were up to their knees in frozen water. As they came close to their goal they encountered the Wabash River, which had flooded the plain three feet deep across an area of about three miles. They rested in a ten-acre area that was relatively dry and then got ready to make the final break. Clark recorded in his diary:

“It was impossible, they said, for us to march from this place until the water should fall. This would require several days since the plain in front of us for a distance of three miles was covered too deep to march over. Some of our men urged that this be done, but I refused to permit it. I have never been able to account satisfactorily either to myself or any one else for thus refusing a proposition which was apparently so easy to execute [that is, to stay right there for three days] and of such great advantage to us, but something seemed to tell me that it should not be done and it was not.”3

We would refer to that kind of direction as inspiration.

In the meantime, British patrols with skilled Indian scouts were out trying to locate and destroy the Revolutionary expedition. By setting out across this watery wasteland because he felt that he ought not to wait, Clark avoided any detection whatever.4

“This was the coldest night we had and in the morning the ice was one-half or three-fourths of an inch deep in still water and close to shore. Shortly after sunrise I addressed the men. What I said to them I do not now remember, but it may be easily imagined by anyone who can understand my affection for them at that time. I concluded by informing them that by surmounting the plain, now in full view, and by reaching the woods opposite they would put an end to their suffering and in a few hours would have sight of their long-wished-for goal.”

That long-wished-for goal, by the way, was the privilege of fighting to regain the British fort.

“Without waiting for any reply I stepped into the water and a hurrah was raised. We commonly marched through the water in single file as it was much easier to advance in this way. When about a third of the men had entered I halted them and further to prove the men, and because I had some suspicion of three or four of them, I called to Major Bowman to fall into the rear with twenty-five men and to put to death any of the men who refused to march, saying that we wished to have no such person among us.

“The whole force raised a cry of approbation and on we went. This was the most trying difficulty of all we had experienced. I had fifteen or twenty of the strongest men follow after me and, judging from my own sensations what must be those of the men, on reaching the middle of the plain where the water was about knee deep I realized that I was failing. There being no trees or bushes here for the men to support themselves by, I did not doubt but that many of the weaker ones would be drowned. [So exhausted, they would drown in three feet of water.] I therefore ordered the canoes to make the land, discharge their loads, and then ply backward and forward with all possible diligence, picking up the men. To encourage the party I sent some of the strongest men ahead with orders to pass the word back when they reached a certain distance that the water was getting shallower, and on approaching the woods to cry out ‘Land.’ This stratagem produced the desired effect. Encouraged by it, the men exerted themselves to the limit of their ability, the weaker holding on to the stronger ones and frequently one man being upheld by two. This was a great advantage to the weak, but the water, instead of getting shallower, became continually deeper. On reaching the woods, where they expected land, the water was up to my shoulders.”

Can you imagine being up to your shoulders in icy water for a distance of three miles across that area?

“Nevertheless, gaining these woods was a matter of great importance. All the weak and short men clung to the trees and floated on logs until they were taken off by the canoes. The strong and tall men got ashore and started fires. Many would reach the bank and fall with their bodies half in the water, not being able to support themselves outside it. This was a delightful spot of dry ground about ten acres in extent. We soon found, however, that the fires did us no good and that the only way to restore the men was for two strong ones to take a weak one by the arms and exercise him.

“The day was delightful and by this means they soon recovered.”5

Can we take lightly our freedom and our independence and our Constitution when we read of that kind of devotion to duty? That example could be multiplied many times over. The love of country exemplified by the courage and sacrifice of these men has been commonplace in history.

As we search out, as we learn, as we come to know the people who—if we aren’t careful—can just be names and dates on our sheets, our hearts are lifted up; our resolve (in this case, to love our country, to cherish it) becomes stronger; and the fabric of our national union is strengthened. All this happens by genealogical work.

The third example might be called fidelity to duty. My example is from Nels Anderson’s book Desert Saints, one of the first sociological studies of a Mormon community, recently reprinted by the University of Chicago Press.

Speaking of the priesthood government in the establishment of Zion, the devotion of the people, and their loyalty to the priesthood as it was used in the colonization of the West, Brother Anderson illustrates his point with the case of Levi M. Savage, a Latter-day Saint pioneer of Arizona:

“Year by year, he did all that duty required. He entered polygamy and reared a large family. In his old age he wanted a little rest. He would not ask to be relieved. The following item is from a letter dated March 29, 1918, sent by the president of the church to the president of the Snowflake Stake.

“‘We have just received a letter dated 27th instant from Parley Savage, son of Levi M. Savage of Woodruff Arizona, stating in effect that his father who is now near 70 years old, is obliged to work for his living, that he is doing day’s work on the Woodruff Dam, walking six miles to and from the place of his work; that he has been eager for years to leave Woodruff, that he thought that after 40 years on the Little Colorado, shoveling sand a great part of that time into the river only to see it washed away, was sufficient to bring him release, but he is willing to stay provided we think it best for him to do so.’

“The president of all the Mormons sent the assurance that Bishop Savage should ‘consider himself free to make his home elsewhere.’ However, according to his own journal, Savage changed his mind and remained some time longer, until a new dam was built ‘to get the water into the valley again,’ after which he felt relieved of a duty imposed by priesthood authority in 1871 [47 years before].”6

Can we take lightly our priesthood and our other Church responsibilities if we are conscious of and identify with that kind of example of fidelity to duty?

The benefits from genealogical work to our country, to our society, to our families, and to ourselves are enormous if we don’t close our eyes to the essential principle of love and identification that we ought to bring to all of our undertakings in the priesthood genealogical program.

Let us not forget that the activity in which we are engaged is to turn our hearts to the fathers. We should reach out to them and love them. We should identify with and emulate their great qualities and make them known to our own children. By this means we will reinforce our own testimonies and take our place in this tradition of sacrifice, love of country, and fidelity to duty that we find spread upon the pages of history and recorded upon the pages of our own family histories and books of remembrance. This charitable trust exists for the benefit of all.


  1. Frank Driver Reeve, London to Salt Lake City in 1867: The Diary of William Driver, reprinted from the New Mexico Historical Review, vol. 17, p. 40.

  2. Ibid., p. 42.

  3. Milo Milton Quaife, ed., The Capture of Old Vincennes: the original narratives of George Rogers Clark and of his opponent Governor Henry Hamilton, with introduction and notes by Milo M. Quaife (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1927), p. 128.

  4. John Edwin Bakeless, Background to Glory, 1st ed. (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1957), p. 170.

  5. Quaife, The Capture of Old Vincennes, note 2, pp. 128–30.

  6. Nels Anderson, Desert Saints, 2nd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 1966), p. 359.