Church History
Family History and Genealogy
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“Family History and Genealogy,” Church History Topics (2022)

“Family History and Genealogy,” Church History Topics

Family History and Genealogy

Latter-day Saints’ interest in and commitment to family history research emerged from several significant events in the Church’s early history. During Joseph Smith’s first encounter with the angel Moroni in 1823, he was told the Lord would “plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers.” 1 In Nauvoo, Illinois, in the early 1840s, Joseph taught that fulfillment of this prophecy entailed the performance of saving ordinances on behalf of one’s deceased relatives. 2 These included proxy baptisms and confirmations and sealing family members, preserving their dearest relationships in the next life. The Saints enthusiastically began to participate in these ordinances. 3

At first, Church members were mainly sealed to their immediate ancestors or to prominent Church leaders as “adopted” kin. 4 In 1894, President Wilford Woodruff announced that Latter-day Saints should research their family histories and bring their ancestors’ names to the temple so families could be sealed. “We want the Latter-day Saints from this time to trace their genealogies as far as they can,” he taught in general conference, “and to be sealed to their fathers and mothers. Have children sealed to their parents, and run this chain through as far as you can get it.” 5 Temples became a more prominent and regular part of Latter-day Saint worship as Church members flocked to them to perform proxy work for their deceased family members. 6

The Genealogical Society

In 1895, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles approved the incorporation of the Genealogical Society of Utah (an institution that the Church later adopted as the Family History Department in 1987). 7 Joseph Fielding Smith, an early leader in the society and eventually its president, implemented a collection and archival system based on his research trips to libraries and genealogical societies in the northeastern United States. 8 While the Genealogical Society’s operations expanded, devoted genealogist Susa Young Gates organized a cataloging system to track records in each temple. In the early 20th century, she worked to promote genealogy by writing articles, teaching classes, urging the inclusion of genealogical education to the Relief Society, and serving as president of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. 9 Susa Young Gates and Joseph Fielding Smith worked on committees that furnished magazines and classes to instruct the general public in collecting ancestral records and using library collections. 10

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Genealogy and family history

Office of the Genealogical Society of Utah before 1917.

From Genealogy to Family History

During the 20th century, Latter-day Saints broadened access to genealogical records. In 1938, they were among the first to use microfilming technology to preserve records. Staff members of the Genealogical Society and later the Family History Department collaborated with archives, churches, state and county governments, and other institutions to photograph records on microfilm, capturing approximately 150 million pages of records by 1954 and accelerating to a rate of 130 million exposures per year by 1992. 11 In 1969, the Church held its first worldwide genealogy conference in Salt Lake City with the goal of training amateur researchers and bringing together institutions to collaborate on record preservation and access. 12 Attendance at the second World Conference on Records in 1980 more than doubled, in part because of increased public interest in genealogy after the premiere of the 1977 television series Roots, based on Alex Haley’s book of the same title. Haley received an honorary doctorate from Brigham Young University and partnered with Church leaders to promote the World Conference on Records and family history research generally. 13

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Granite Mountain Records Vault

Interior of the Granite Mountain Records Vault, where millions of microfilmed records are preserved.

In the 1980s, Church members engaged in a massive effort to gather and record their family histories running back at least three generations. 14 Growing interest in family histories inspired record-keeping beyond strictly genealogical information. In 1987, Church leaders renamed the Genealogical Department as the Family History Department, a title intended to attract everyone to participate. “The change to ‘family history,’” President Boyd … Such sacred family history is fundamental to the temple ordinances.” 15

Technological Advances and Collaborations

In 1999, the Church launched FamilySearch.org , a website and database for family history research that also tracks proxy ordinance work for the dead. Building on the foundation of 60 years of microfilming records, FamilySearch.org provided access to more than two billion images within two decades of its launch. 16 FamilySearch Indexing began in 2006, which enabled volunteer users to view and transcribe historical documents to assist researchers. 17 Other efforts to advance family history research for the general public culminated in establishing thousands of family history centers, collaborations with regional and national archives to expand access to records, and, in 2011, the first RootsTech—the world’s largest family history convention. 18

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Rootstech 2020

Convention hall for RootsTech in February 2020.

The Church remains at the forefront of family history research. Church members’ efforts to participate in the three-generation project and provide proxy ordinances for their ancestors, coupled with the Church’s long-standing endeavors to preserve and share records from around the world, produced the crowd-sourced, collaborative Family Tree on FamilySearch.org in 2013. President Russell M. Nelson remarked that such combined undertakings furthered the goal to “organize the family tree for all of God’s children.” 19

Related Topics: Baptism for the Dead, Sealing, Temple Building, Nauvoo Temple, Salt Lake Temple

  1. Joseph Smith—History 1:39. See Topic: Angel Moroni.

  2. Richard E. Turley Jr., “Latter-day Saint Doctrine of Baptism for the Dead,” BYU Family Historian, vol. 1, no. 1 (Fall 2002), 23–39; Alexander L. Baugh, “‘For Their Salvation Is Necessary and Essential to Our Salvation’: Joseph Smith and the Practice of Baptism and Confirmation for the Dead,” in Scott C. Esplin, ed., Raising the Standard of Truth: Exploring the History and Teachings of the Early Restoration (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, 2020), 253–70.

  3. See Topics: Temple Endowment, Baptism for the Dead.

  4. See Topic: Sealing.

  5. Wilford Woodruff, Discourse, April 8, 1894, in The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, vol. 56, no. 22 (May 28, 1894), 339.

  6. Richard E. Bennett, “‘Line upon Line, Precept upon Precept’: Reflections on the 1877 Commencement of the Performance of Endowments and Sealings for the Dead,” BYU Studies, vol. 44, no. 3 (2005), 38–77; James B. Allen and Jessie L. Embry, “‘Provoking the Brethren to Do Good Works’: Susa Young Gates, the Relief Society, and Genealogy,” BYU Studies, vol. 31, no. 2 (Spring 1991), 117–18, 121–26; Richard E. Bennett, “Wilford Woodruff and the Rise of Temple Consciousness among the Latter-day Saints, 1877–1894,” in Alexander L. Baugh and Susan Easton Black, eds., Banner of the Gospel: Wilford Woodruff (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 2010), 233–50.

  7. Kip Sperry, “Genealogy: 1894–Present,” in Brandon S. Plewe, ed., Mapping Mormonism: An Atlas of Latter-day Saint History (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2012), 152–53.

  8. James B. Allen, Jessie L. Embry, and Kahlile B. Mehr, Hearts Turned to the Fathers: A History of the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1894–1994 (Provo: BYU Studies, 1995), 71–74.

  9. Miranda Wilcox, “Sacralizing the Secular in Latter-day Saint Salvation Histories, 1890–1930,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 46, no. 3 (July 2020), 23–59; François Weil, Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 174–76. See also Topic: Susa Young Gates.

  10. Allen, Embry, and Mehr, Hearts Turned to the Fathers, 77–80.

  11. Allen, Embry, and Mehr, Hearts Turned to the Fathers, 217, 230–31.

  12. “World Conference on Records,” Church News, Aug. 2, 1969, 3.

  13. Jack Emmerson, “Haley Talks of ‘Roots’ Phenomenon in Interview after BYU Exercises,” The Daily Herald [Provo], Aug. 21, 1977, 4; Matthew F. Delmont, Making Roots: A Nation Captivated (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016), 175; Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Foreword,” in Erica L. Ball and Kellie Carter Jackson, eds., Reconsidering Roots: Race, Politics, and Memory (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017), xi; “World Conference on Records,” 3; Jim Boardman, “Author Encourages Histories, Reunions,” Church News, Aug. 9, 1980.

  14. Allen, Embry, and Mehr, Hearts Turned to the Fathers, 202–3, 274–77.

  15. Family History Department Is New Name for Genealogical Department,” Ensign, Oct. 1987, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1987/10/news-of-the-church/family-history-department-is-new-name-for-genealogical-department.

  16. FamilySearch Digital Records Access Replacing Microfilm,” June 26, 2017, https://media.familysearch.org/familysearch-digital-records-access-replacing-microfilm; “FamilySearch Adds 2 Billionth Image of Genealogy Records,” Apr. 23, 2018, https://media.familysearch.org/familysearch-adds-2-billionth-image-of-genealogy-records.

  17. Heather F. Christensen, “A Call for Indexers Worldwide,” Ensign, Mar. 2012, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/liahona/2012/03/a-call-for-indexers-worldwide.

  18. Completed Freedmen’s Bureau Project Indexed Nearly 2 Million Records of Freed Slaves,” June 22, 2016, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/church/news/completed-freedmens-bureau-project-indexed-nearly-2-million-records-of-freed-slaves; Steve Anderson, “Senior Missionary Couples Serve to Preserve Genealogical Records in Lima, Peru,” FamilySearch, https://www.familysearch.org/blog/en/senior-missionary-couples-serve-preserve-genealogical-records-lima-peru-2.

  19. Steve Anderson, “FamilySearch.org Launches Family Tree for All Users,” FamilySearch, https://www.familysearch.org/blog/en/familysearchorg-launches-family-tree-users; Russell M. Nelson, “Generations Linked in Love,” Ensign, May 2010, 91–94.