A Century of Genealogy
March 1994

“A Century of Genealogy,” Friend, Mar. 1994, 34


A Century of Genealogy

For their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation (D&C 128:15).

Perhaps one of your ancestors sailed for America nearly four hundred years ago, rejoicing when at last the ship reached Plymouth Rock. Or perhaps one was a proud samurai warrior in early Japan, or glimpsed Leonardo da Vinci working on a painting in Italy long ago.

Regardless of where you’re from, there’s a good chance some of your ancestors have had temple work performed for them—and if not, they someday will! Family history researchers have visited many nations, tracking down records of people who have passed away without the blessings of membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The records are then prepared and given to temples, where ordinances are performed on behalf of these people. You, your parents, or other Church members you know may have helped with this important work.

This year the Genealogical Society of Utah (now the Family History Department of the Church) is celebrating its hundredth birthday. In 1894, President Wilford Woodruff received a revelation about the importance of eternal families. He knew that families must be sealed by priesthood authority in the temple if they are to be together for eternity. He also knew that many people had died without this opportunity. The Church needed an organization to help locate their records. And so, on November 13 of that year, the Society was formed.

Susa Young Gates, one of Brigham Young’s daughters, also understood that family history was important. She had been about to die, but a priesthood blessing had miraculously cured her, and she was given this promise: “There has been a council in heaven, and it has been decided you shall live to perform temple work, and you shall do a greater work than you have ever done before.”* Once she recovered, she devoted much of her time to helping people find their ancestors. She started genealogy classes, encouraged Saints throughout Utah and Canada to do research, and compiled a book on genealogy.

Anthon H. Lund, president of the Society in 1910, also encouraged people to find records of their ancestors. The Church had two thousand missionaries helping the living, he noticed—why not do as much for the dead?

Church pioneers in family history have had to learn to be very resourceful. In October 1939, L. Garrett Myers and Ernst Koehler were in charge of the first microfilming of records outside of Utah. They worked out of a hotel room in Tennessee. A big, troublesome fan in the hotel’s kitchen caused vibrations in their room that made working with the cameras difficult, so Brother Koehler decided they would have to film the records between ten at night and early morning, when the fan wasn’t turned on. They used the bathtub to process the film in and a clothesline to dry it on.

The United States was involved in World War II from 1941 to 1945. Most people had little time for genealogy work, and some microfilming supplies were hard to find. When the war ended, the Society expanded its work into the eastern states and into Wales, Denmark, England, and the Netherlands. Many more countries have since been involved.

So where are all the millions of film records stored? Most of them are inside a mountain! From 1960 to 1963, a large vault was dug out of a granite mountain in a canyon east of Salt Lake City. Most of the records are stored there, and film processing work is done in this vault as well. More film laboratories are now in Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Germany, and other places.

Sometimes miracles have helped people perform family history work. One miracle took place in 1971, when heavy rains poured upon the island of Fiji for nearly a week and furious winds bent the palm trees almost double. Ocean waves washed onto the island, mixing with the rain, and rocks, branches, and even rooftops floated down the flooded streets.

Molimau Tupa’i, the Church microfilmer in Fiji, became worried about the microfilming supplies he had left in his office. As he entered the office building where he worked, he saw that the floor was covered with water. He felt sick inside as he approached his office, fearing the films, books, and maps he had left on the floor were ruined. To his surprise, although everything he passed looked wet and damaged, the water was actually flowing away from his supplies on the floor! His office was the only one in the building that still had electricity. For days afterward, all regular work on the floor stopped while cleaning crews fixed things. Brother Tupa’i’s work, however, continued as usual.

Computers have made family history work much easier. By pressing a few keys, people can find out what work has already been done on their family records. They can also add any new information they have found to the files. This enables members halfway around the world to retrieve that very information. If you want to see what Church computer files say about your family, see your ward family history consultants. They can show you how to use the computer to find your ancestors.

The Genealogical Society of Utah became part of the new Church Genealogical Department in 1975, and in 1987 its name was changed to the Family History Department. Today more than 2,000 family history centers all over the world help people do genealogy work.

Thanks to the work performed by thousands of family history researchers, many people who no longer live on the earth can enjoy the blessings provided through temple ordinances. Some of you have already helped gather your family records, and perhaps someday you will help make it possible for your ancestors to become part of your eternal family.

  • All information adapted for this article is from a not-yet-published book by James Allen and Kahlile Mehr and from Links to Forever, compiled by Connie Rector and Diane Deputy.

Illustrated by Nate Pinnock