“Did the world’s great interest in genealogy began with Elijah’s visit to Joseph Smith in 1836?” Ensign, Jan. 1977, 72–73
Jimmy B. Parker, supervisor of genealogical materials for the Church The story of the world’s interest in genealogy in our dispensation is a fascinating hint that—in my opinion—the light of Christ was working to prepare the peoples of the earth for the restoration of that prophet’s sealing power long before his visit to Joseph Smith—much as it worked among such righteous men as Luther, Tyndale, and Calvin to prepare for the restoration of the gospel.
Here are some highlights of our dispensation that will illustrate what I mean:
1. From about 1000 A.D., Chinese and Korean clans have kept records of their ancestors as part of their family duties.
2. In the 24th Session of Trent, held in November 1563, the Council required that parish registers be kept of marriages and baptisms throughout all the Catholic world—Europe, the British Isles, and colonies in the New World and India. Protestant churches continued this registration even after breaking off from the Catholic Church, creating a great treasury of records from which information for temple ordinances can be drawn.
3. By the end of the sixteenth century, many European countries and their colonies were keeping censuses, records of civil transactions, and immigration records.
4. The Code Civil des Français was adopted March 21, 1804, in Napoleonic Europe—the basis for how vital statistics are registered in much of the world today.
5. In 1844, the New England Historic and Genealogical Society was formed to gather genealogical records. Slowly, more such groups were organized until 200 were in existence in the United States alone by 1966. But within the past ten years, that number has skyrocketed past 800.
6. Prior to 1800, fewer than 100 family histories had been printed, according to one estimate. Sixty-five years later, there were still fewer than 300. Today, that figure has passed 20,000.
7. Genealogical research is the third largest hobby in the United States, which includes compiling family genealogies and histories and reconstructing family lineage. In addition to those things included in the hobby of genealogy, there has recently been a great increase of interest in compiling vital statistics and piecing together personal histories.
The picture becomes even more impressive if we move out of our own dispensation where records are kept for the purpose of performing temple ordinances on behalf of the living and the dead and realize that our father Adam kept a “book of the generations of Adam,” giving the genealogy “of the children of God.” (Moses 6:8.) Abraham knew and sought the blessings of the priesthood that “came down from the fathers, from the beginning of time.” (Abr. 1:3.) His children kept their lineage so carefully that even when they returned from the Babylonian exile they were able to reconstruct family ties and the priesthood orders. (See Ezra 2; Ezra 10.) The Jews in the time of Christ were very genealogy-conscious.
This work in all generations was, in my opinion, the natural result of the workings of the light of Christ among the peoples of the earth. In addition, many technological advances that speed the work were also planned and brought about by the Lord, through the light of Christ, so that the Saints would have ready access to the records and the compilations needed to accomplish the sealing work authorized by the keys that Elijah restored. It appears that many of these advances were made and all of them were accelerated following Elijah’s visit.
Now, what were the keys that Elijah restored? As President Joseph Fielding Smith explained, Elijah restored “to the earth, by conferring on mortal prophets duly commissioned of the Lord, the fulness of the power of priesthood. This priesthood holds the keys of binding and sealing on earth and in heaven of all the ordinances and principles pertaining to the salvation of man, that they may thus become valid in the celestial kingdom of God. …
“If Elijah had not come, we are led to believe that all the work of past ages would have been of little avail, for the Lord said the whole earth, under such conditions, would be utterly wasted at his coming. Therefore his mission was of vast importance to the world.” (Doctrines of Salvation, Bookcraft, 1955, 2:117, 121.)
Elder Theodore M. Burton has said: “The spirit of Elijah is nothing more nor less than the application of this sealing power to build and reconstitute the final, completed family of God in a resurrected condition in the celestial order of exaltation.” (God’s Greatest Gift, Deseret Book, 1976, p. 208.)
It seems to me, then, that it was the light of Christ that moved men through the centuries to keep a record of their lineage. And it is through the keys restored by the prophet Elijah that members of the Church can take the accumulated records and have families of all generations sealed together. Thus, our genealogical research and temple work will eventually interlock with the record keeping of past dispensations until all family units can be presented, sealed and perfect, before the Father.