“Family History: A Work of Love,” Ensign, Mar. 1999, 15
President Gordon B. Hinckley has counseled, “In a spirit of love and consecration, we must extend ourselves in the work of redemption of the dead through service in the temples of the Lord” (“He Slumbers Not, nor Sleeps,” Ensign, May 1983, 8).
We, the general presidency of the Relief Society, encourage the sisters of the Church worldwide to hearken to our prophet’s counsel. We urge each of you to do your part, however great or small, in strengthening and binding your families together by engaging in temple work and the family history work that supports it.
I know for some this will not be easy. Our lives are full and burdened. In speaking of this work, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, “Our effort is not to compel everyone to do everything, but to encourage everyone to do something” (“Family History: ‘In Wisdom and Order,’” Ensign, June 1989, 6).
The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “The greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us is to seek after our dead” (History of the Church, 6:313). From the beginning, Relief Society sisters have supported this great work. In Nauvoo in 1842, Sarah M. Kimball’s desire to help the temple construction workers prompted a group of sisters to organize themselves so that they could serve more effectively. As they began to meet, the Prophet told them that the Lord had something greater in mind for them, and he organized the first Relief Society after the pattern of the priesthood. From that time on, the Relief Society sisters helped further the work on the Nauvoo Temple in any way they could so the Saints could receive their endowments there. They also helped to officiate in the ordinances of the temple before the Saints were driven from their homes (see Jill Mulvay Derr and others, Women of Covenant , 26–27, 41, 64, 451, note 26).
In 1855, eight years after the Saints first arrived in Utah, the Endowment House was established. Eliza R. Snow, who had been one of the original members of the first Relief Society and had preserved the records of that organization, was called by President Brigham Young in 1866 to be the general Relief Society president. She and other sisters were faithful workers in the Endowment House. Then, as the St. George, Logan, and Manti Temples were completed, these sisters traveled to each temple so they could do work for the dead there (see Women of Covenant, 124–26). After the Salt Lake Temple was dedicated in 1893, Zina D. H. Young, then general president of the Relief Society, was called to serve as temple matron. Bathsheba W. Smith, who would follow Sister Young as president, coordinated the women’s work in the temple (see Janet Peterson and LaRene Gaunt, Elect Ladies , 58, 75).
Today, the Relief Society, in company with all other organizations of the Church, continues to emphasize the importance of laboring for the salvation of the dead. We will focus here on five aspects of this sacred endeavor: record keeping, family gatherings, sharing stories and experiences, searching for our kindred dead, and temple blessings.
The Lord considered records so vital that after Lehi and his family had departed into the wilderness, the Lord directed him to send his sons back to Jerusalem at the peril of their lives to obtain the records of their people. In 1 Nephi 5:16 [1 Ne. 5:16] we read Nephi’s words: “And thus my father, Lehi, did discover the genealogy of his fathers. And Laban also was a descendant of Joseph, wherefore he and his fathers had kept the records.”
As in all previous generations, the Lord, through His prophets, has counseled us in this generation to keep records. Church leaders have urged us to organize information about our families—including names, dates, places, and relationships—on pedigree charts and family group sheets. Additionally, they have encouraged us to keep journals and personal histories. Our lives have been enriched by the stories of the pioneers that were recorded under difficult conditions. Can we who live in this day do less?
There are many ways to keep family records. A new mother who gathers pictures and mementos of her new son or daughter is doing family history. Such information can change the lives of those who come after us if it is prepared and passed on to them.
For 37 years my five sisters and I have gathered with our families on or near the 24th of July to celebrate our heritage. We visit with one another, participate in sports with one another, and share one another’s sorrows and joys. In addition, a great deal of humor is exchanged. Our children and grandchildren do not want these events to cease, even though the number of family members has grown large and somewhat cumbersome. A spirit and blessing come through this effort that help family members know who they are and that they belong to and are an important part of the family.
My husband and I have also organized reunions for our own immediate families. At each of these reunions we have focused on a theme and have taken pictures for memory books. Talents have been shared and increased through participation. Most important, bonding has taken place. These blessings can be enjoyed by any who take part in similar activities with their families.
I was 25 years old when my mother died at the age of 59. At that time four of my seven children had been born; the youngest was barely walking. I realized that my first two children might have some vague memories of my mother, but the others would never remember her. My sisters and I determined it would be up to us to share our mother’s beautiful life story with our posterity.
We included in her history some of the experiences we recalled sharing with her, as well as photographs we had gathered. Our mother had not written much, but she did write a few pages we could draw from, including talks she gave while serving as stake Relief Society president.
After finishing this project we decided to help our father write his history. We gave him a booklet listing potential chapter titles including “First Recollections,” “Our Homestead and Family Life,” “Conversion to the Church,” “School Days,” “Vocation,” “Missionary and Church Experiences,” “Community Service,” and so on. He filled the booklet with ideas to include in his personal history. The project was a joyful experience. After we typed up his reminiscences, we read them to him and he added other memories.
There are many different approaches to writing histories. You can also do oral histories and even videotaped histories.
My father passed away about five years ago at the age of 95. All of his grandchildren remember him, in part because of our efforts. They adored Grandpa Wood. To honor him, we had a card made with his picture and quote: “When we all get to the other side of the veil, I want all of you there; we do not want one missing from our eternal family.”
My grandfather James G. Wood, the first bishop of the Clearfield Utah Ward, was an example to all of us as he wrote an 89-page history of his life. He used the hunt-and-peck method on his typewriter, and when the old typewriter would ping, he would return the carriage whether the word was finished or not—even if the word was it. The i would be on the right and the t would be on the next line, at the left-hand margin. We cherish the determination of this great man whom we never met because he died while our father was serving in the mission field.
Several years ago I wondered if anyone really read the histories we had spent so many hours writing. I knew some of my children did and were inspired, but the thought came to me that each grandchild or great-grandchild should also become acquainted with the stories of their ancestors. So for Christmas that year my husband and I typed, in large print, brief faith-promoting incidents from the lives of our loved ones and placed them in attractively covered three-ring binders. We gave them to our children so they could leave them out for their own children to read.
Our efforts have been rewarded. Now many of our grandchildren will call and say: “I had to speak in church today, and I told the story of ‘The Crooked Willow’ or ‘The Pinto Pony.’” They have come to know one another and their ancestors, including their trials and testimonies, their faith and commitment.
I am convinced that as we study the lives of those who have gone before, we are influenced by their testimonies and strength. I know that family stories can become legacies of faith in our lives.
After my husband was called to preside over the Ohio Columbus Mission, the first mission presidents’ seminar in Kirtland was held. In the meetinghouse was a cabinet containing a list of the original settlers of Kirtland. Both my husband and I found the names of our great-grandfathers. We looked at one another, and I said, “Do you think we were called to this mission because of anything we did or because of what our great-grandparents sacrificed in this community?”
Our regional representative stood at the pulpit and encouraged all those who had ancestors in that area to search the telephone book and contact individuals who might be related to them. At first my thought was, I am too busy with my responsibilities; I cannot get into genealogy while I am here. Then one Saturday afternoon after cleaning the mission home, I was alone. I entered the office and picked up the phone book. Six Smoots were listed there, and with two phone calls I was able to find a connection to our family. As a result of this, after my husband and I returned from the mission field our family was able to do temple work for hundreds of Smoots.
I testify that much peace and joy can come into your life when you watch your children and grandchildren being baptized and then sealed to their families on behalf of your ancestors. I can only imagine the joy you will experience when you are greeted by your loved ones on the other side of the veil.
At present it is not possible for all members to attend the temple and participate in actual temple work, but I know if each of us will be temple worthy, the Lord will pour out blessings on us. President Howard W. Hunter said: “It would be the deepest desire of my heart to have every member of the Church be temple worthy. I would hope that every adult member would be worthy of—and carry—a current temple recommend, even if proximity to a temple does not allow immediate or frequent use of it. …
“Let us go not only for our kindred dead, but let us also go for the personal blessing of temple worship, for the sanctity and safety which is provided within those hallowed and consecrated walls” (quoted in Jay M. Todd, “President Howard W. Hunter: Fourteenth President of the Church,” Ensign, July 1994, 5).
The announcement that smaller temples will be built throughout the world is a step toward the goal of enabling all worthy Church members to do temple work. As each new temple is dedicated, thousands of Saints will join the ranks of those currently participating in this sacred responsibility.
We have been promised that as we begin to seek after our dead and go to the temples to perform saving ordinances for them, our lives will be blessed. Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, “No one takes hold of this work without being susceptible to the blessings of the Lord. If you have problems with your own immediately living family, do all you can for them. Begin working in behalf of the Lord’s family and good things will start to happen” (The Holy Temple , 179).
President Ezra Taft Benson, a faithful attender of the temple, said, “I promise you that, with increased attendance in the temples of our God, you shall receive increased personal revelation to bless your life as you bless those who have died” (“The Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants,” Ensign, May 1987, 85).
When my husband and I served our mission, we watched as new converts came into the Church and found joy in their newfound faith. We could not help noticing the strength of those who became involved with family history and temple work. We soon learned that there was no better way to help new converts become fully integrated into the Church and remain active than by encouraging them to participate in this sacred work.
I think of our dear friends Charles and Barbara, whom we met on our mission. Charles was an African minister of another faith before he joined the Church. He had not been happy in his church because he was convinced that people should be baptized by immersion, and his church allowed its members to choose the method of baptism. Charles was fasting and praying to know what to do. During this time the missionaries stopped by the home of an older woman whom Charles’s wife, Barbara, was caring for. Though the woman was too ill to see anyone, Barbara told the missionaries that they could come to her house in the evening.
Charles was not pleased when he learned that the missionaries were coming. He had had a bad day and didn’t want to talk to anyone, and he was ready to jump on anything he did not agree with. But when the missionaries came, they asked if they could begin with prayer. As the discussion progressed, Charles could not find anything he disagreed with. He and Barbara soon gained testimonies that the gospel was true, but they had to wait to be baptized until Charles’s ministerial contract was completed.
After baptism Barbara had a strong impression that she should have the temple work done for her father, even though she knew little about him. He had left her mother shortly after Barbara was born, and she had seen him only occasionally before his death. Through her involvement in family history and the welcoming arms of ward members, this couple became strong and faithful members of the Church.
It has been my experience that some of the happiest people I know are those who are engaged in family history and temple work. Let us demonstrate our willingness to follow the prophet by consecrating a portion of our time and energy to the Lord’s redemptive work, and let us do it in a spirit of love. As we do so, not only will we bless the lives of those who have gone before us, but we will bless our own lives and the lives of our family members as well.