The Gospel Doctrine lesson #40.
A few months ago our girls’ youth group had a family history night at the church. The girls had different levels of experience with this, so as adult leaders we decided we’d come prepared to help them with whatever they wanted to work on. Their experiences show the variety within family history work and showed me the inherent value of this endeavor.
One girl knew very little about her own family history. When she was a baby, her mother had left behind an unhappy family situation and a country at war to bring her to the United States. Now living with a step-father and younger half-siblings, she wasn’t sure what her mother’s maiden name or her grandparents’ names, and she wasn’t clear about the details of her own emigration. During our hour together, she wrote down a brief summary of what she did know. Then she looked at a list of oral history interview questions and circled some that she wanted to ask her mother. This is where family history starts: it means talking to family members, asking for stories, listening to each other, and deepening our bonds with our living families.
A second girl already had a family tree that went back about three generations. She was interested in researching primary documents, so we logged into some census records. With just a few tries she was able to identify her great-grandmother and found the names of siblings and an aunt that had been previously unknown. These census records gave her additional insight into her family’s living situation, their income, professions, residence, and neighbors. She also came away with an exciting glimpse of her family’s New York City neighborhood in the late 1800s and a now personalized perspective on the history of her larger culture.
Another girl did some indexing, looking at documents from the Philippines and checking the handwriting transcriptions. These documents weren’t relevant to her own family tree, but her work contributed to the family history of others. From our little chapel in the eastern United States, she was serving people on the other side of the globe.
Finally, one girl combed through her family tree looking for temple ordinance opportunities. The next time our youth group went to the temple, each of them was able to carry with them one of her family names. She helped her peers bond with each other in meaningful ways and deepened their temple experience.
These girls’ activities address some important questions: Why do Mormons focus so much on family history? In what way should this work be connected to our temple experience? And how do these activities give us joy? Researching, retelling, and preserving family histories help us love the family of God a little more deeply. And while we often focus on the temple ordinances as our end goal, in reality, the atoning power of family history work takes effect long before a family name ends up at the temple. As we turn our hearts to those who have gone before, we can also find unity or “at-one-ment” with the living. And when we remember the names and stories of our foremothers and forefathers and offer them the symbols of holiness of our most sacred rites of worship, we come closer to God as we feel his love for his own children.
In the temple, I’ve had some of my most powerful experiences of unity across cultural and temporal divides. As I served as an ordinance worker in the Manhattan temple, I learned that a group of vastly diverse volunteers could work in harmony. One day a woman came in, a patron from the Chinese Branch in Brooklyn. She showed the name on her temple slip and said “This is my grandmother” with a voice full of love. And so our group of volunteer women performed the ordinance: We were three women–American, Filipina, and French Arab– working together to help this Chinese granddaughter offer her grandmother covenants and blessings with Christ. We didn’t know whether the name on the slip represented a woman who was rich or poor, educated or not, saint or sinner. In this context, the only thing that mattered was that she was a child of God. This experience might not seem dramatic or earth-shattering, and ones like it happen every single day in the temple, but what could be a more beautiful demonstration of caring cooperation? It is through these quiet experiences that our own hearts can be welded together. And through this unity we can experience God’s love.
When Joseph Smith envisioned the purpose of this earth, he saw humanity united by a “welding link” (D&C 128:18). Salvation is dependent on our connection to those who have gone before us, for “we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect” (D&C 128:18). This vision of the saving power of a unified human family keeps me going to the temple; it makes the atonement a reality.