Family History, Warts and All

“Family History, Warts and All,” Ensign, Apr. 1987, 70–71

Family History, Warts and All

We all have skeletons of one kind or another in our family history closets, but many of us are tempted to avoid writing about those details that might blemish the memory of our ancestors. Why do we feel it our duty to filter out weaknesses, even when filtering the truth results in distorted family portraits? We can be proud of our ancestors in spite of their faults. After all, great men and women are not necessarily great in all respects.

Benjamin Disraeli, a controversial political figure in nineteenth century England, told the British people: “If you are going to paint a picture of me, paint warts and all.” And President Kimball said that histories “should contain your true self rather than a picture of you when you are ‘made up’ for public performance. There is a temptation to paint one’s virtues in rich color and whitewash the vices.” (New Era, Oct. 1975, p. 5.) Writing honestly about the history of our family is not easy or comfortable, and it takes a deep commitment to the issue of truth. But it can be wisely and straightforwardly done.

Why should we write about sensitive issues?

  1. So we can know our family members more completely. We don’t know the whole person until we know the weaknesses and the strengths that are often only revealed through experiences some family members consider sensitive.

  2. To correct rumors. Rumors are often far more incriminating than the truth. And candid family histories may prevent the pain that occurs when we encounter evidence of human frailties that our pasteurized family histories have not prepared us to expect.

  3. In order to know ourselves. To know who we are, it is necessary to know who our ancestors were. We inherit habits, attitudes, and ways of dealing with life from our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Even imperfect links in the chain help determine who we are, and we can’t ignore that influence.

  4. To learn useful lessons. Moroni declared: “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, … but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.” (Morm. 9:31.) Seeing the mistakes our ancestors made can help us choose a wiser course for our own lives—without having to experience all things for ourselves.

  5. To build our faith and confidence. Realizing that our ancestors were also imperfect can help us overcome discouragement as we work to improve ourselves.

What do we do with sensitive records?

If we choose not to deal with a certain issue, do we cut out pages or burn records? Heavenly Father sealed two-thirds of the Book of Mormon because he didn’t want it read now, yet he didn’t have the pages destroyed. We may wish to restrict the use of the documents—but we shouldn’t dispose of them. If we later decide to openly discuss the matter, we will want to refer to the original records.

How do we write about sensitive issues?

  1. Use tact and caution. Treat anything that may harm living persons responsibly. Don’t identify by name others involved in sensitive situations if it is not necessary.

  2. Tell the truth and nothing but the truth—but leave out embarrassing details not necessary to make the point.

  3. Give a person the benefit of any doubt. If we must err in our judgment, we should err on the side of mercy rather than condemnation. Although we have to deal with the warts, we do not have to do it with malice.

  4. Use appropriate and inoffensive words.

  5. Do not distort a person’s overall character. President Kimball said, “We should not emphasize the negative,” and asked, “Why dwell on one ugly truth about someone whose life has been largely circumspect?” (New Era, Oct. 1975, p. 5.) We must remember to balance the imperfect side of our ancestor’s life by pointing out the good things he or she did. My great-grandfather, an early Mormon pioneer in Joseph City, Arizona, eventually stopped attending his Sunday worship meetings—an action some might consider a black mark on his overall goodness. On the other hand, Great-grandpa was an excellent carpenter who, for fifty-nine years, made nearly every casket for those who died in Joseph City—without accepting payment. Describing my great-grandfather’s unselfish contributions gives his life story the balance it deserves.

  6. Explain. It is not enough to just know what our ancestors did, we must try to understand why they did it. In researching my family history, I learned that John McLaws, my third great-grandfather, was arrested in 1816 for grave robbing. I was disappointed until I found another side of the story. Robbing graves was the only way this Glasgow, Scotland, surgeon could obtain cadavers to study anatomy and thus save lives. He readily admitted grave robbing was degrading, but he saw it as necessary.

    If our ancestor was not perfect, then we shouldn’t try to make him or her so in our family history. Treating weaknesses is hard, but we do ourselves and our posterity a greater service by adopting the philosophy of Disraeli to write our family’s history, “warts and all.” If we do this, we will learn to appreciate our ancestors as they were. And seeing that they were made of flesh and blood rather than granite or marble, we may find that struggling with their weaknesses they became not merely good, but sometimes even great.—Monte McLaws, Bountiful, Utah