“What is the purpose and history of Church membership records?” Ensign, June 1994, 59–60
Heber M. Thompson, president of the France Paris Mission, and former director of the Church Member and Statistical Records Division of the Finance and Records Department. In Book of Mormon times, people who received baptism and the Holy Ghost “were numbered among the people of the church of Christ; and their names were taken.” The purpose of those records was that Church members would be “remembered and nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way, … continually watchful unto prayer [and] relying alone upon the merits of Christ” (Moro. 6:4).
In this dispensation, the Lord gave additional record-keeping instructions to Joseph Smith. Lists of Church members were to be compiled and updated at Church conferences; the names of those expelled from the Church were to be “blotted out” of the record book; and members moving to new areas could certify their “good standing” in the Church with a letter (see D&C 20:82–84). The spirit of those guidelines is evident today as member-information systems in the Church continue to evolve and accomplish their twofold purpose of recording ordinances and providing useful information to local priesthood leaders.
For the first hundred years of the restored Church, baptism, priesthood ordinations, and temple ordinances for living members were recorded chronologically by ward clerks for annual ward reports of ordinances and actions. As early as 1936, individual membership records were kept in wards and at Church headquarters and, since 1978, in area offices as well.
Since its inception, Church record keeping has been closely related to the stewardship of local Church leaders. For example, a bishop uses membership records as he shepherds his flock: judging members’ worthiness for ordinances, assessing their spiritual and temporal needs, and authorizing their participation in Church programs. He is most effective when he knows his flock and is known by them (see John 10:14). Membership records tell the bishop who his sheep are and what ordinances they have received. He then knows where to focus priesthood and auxiliary resources to bless individual members.
“Lost sheep” have been a concern of Church leaders in all ages (see Luke 15:4–7). They may move from the fellowship of the Saints without their ward leaders, friends, or neighbors knowing their new addresses. Evidently, we did not “speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls” (Moro. 6:5). Not only the leaders, but individual ward members as well, should know members well enough to be involved with their moves. That includes requesting a forwarding address so that former leaders may alert “receiving” priesthood leaders to welcome and fellowship members new to their areas.
It became apparent in the early 1960s that the Church’s manual recording systems could not keep up with membership growth. In 1971 the Church began extensive computerization of membership records in the U.S. and Canada. Computerization opened up a whole new world of information use by bishops and priesthood leaders at all levels. At their fingertips within seconds were organization listings of quorums or auxiliaries and “action lists” that provided information about baptism or ordination candidates, youth birthday interviews, and mission calls.
This extensive member information shows Church leaders at all levels the patterns of success, areas needing improvement, and an overall picture of how well Church programs are working.
In 1984, computerization of international membership records began in Australia and Peru, and by February 1991, all membership records worldwide were computerized.
To facilitate record keeping at the local level—for example, keeping better track of home teaching, visiting teaching, and ward organizations—wards were provided the necessary software in 1987. There will be other improvements in membership information systems as new technologies are applied to further the Lord’s work.
Membership records and reports are useful tools, aiding Church leaders as they seek inspiration to help members progress toward exaltation. The more accurate, complete, and readily accessible those records are, the more likely it is that Church members will be better served.