I am not a great genealogist. I am not even an amateur genealogist. I mostly dig into my own family roots as an effort to
bolster my already massive ego by association connect with my ancestors. Thanks to some great genealogical work by my mom and others in our family, combined with connecting through common ancestors to others’ family lines, I’ve got some pretty extensive family trees, dating back well over a thousand years in some cases.
Having said that, I’ve recently been looking through my family tree on familysearch to get a sense for what “my people” were all about. Partly this was fueled by doing a DNA kit and discovering how varied my European roots were, and then it was kicked up a notch when I went to Boston a month ago and found the house built by one of my direct ancestors in 1636 that is still standing. Trying to understand how people lived their lives is interesting, and wondering if I would have made the same types of choices or different ones is a fun exercise.
But here’s one thing I’m discovering as I look through my own family tree, something I also saw when our ward had an indexing challenge: People are sucky genealogists. Like, really really bad. Indexing taught me one lesson, that nobody can read cursive anymore, much less archaic cursive where the letter F looks like S and the vowels are nearly all enigmatic and surname spelling changes from one generation to the next. But looking at my family tree has taught me that there’s a lot of error due to wishful thinking, not knowing history, and being incapable of seeing glaring logical errors or doing a rudimentary Google search . Here are some of the obvious errors I’ve found in my own family tree:
- Heinrich of Babenberg, born in Babenburg Castle in Germany. Thing is, there’s no Babenberg Castle, but there is a Badenburg Castle, and I only know this because I have other ancestors born in this castle. So, this is a case of not being able to tell a B from a D, likely due to handwritten records or a typo.
- Roger Holland, born 1442, died 1494. It is claimed he was burned at the stake. Here’s the problem. The Roger Holland who is the Protestant martyr (burned by Queen Mary I at Smithfield with 12 others) died in 1558, not 1494.
- John Brown Jr was supposedly born in 1591 in Watertown, Mass and died in 1616. Plymouth was founded in 1620. Watertown was founded in 1630. Likewise, Alice Henel was born in 1595 in Watertown, Mass and died there in 1617. These folks were ahead of their time!
- Guy de Chevreuse was born in 1130 in France, then died in 1192. That was pretty inconvenient since his son was apparently born in 990, and his grandson was born in 950!
This reminds me of the times I’ve been in the temple and noticed that a name appeared to be incorrect. The workers instruct you to just roll with it as written, and it makes sense because in a world where humans get to just make up names for their kids (or for immigrants), people’s names are often wacky yet true. But it also brings up some of the same rhetorical questions I always think about whenever I think about the daunting / impossible task of getting a complete and accurate record of the human family. So I will pose these rhetorical questions to you.
- Aren’t most lines going to snuff out once you hit poverty? Clearly, record keeping is only for royalty at some point. The rest of it got used as kindling to stave off the cold winter at some point in the middle ages, no?
- Does accuracy even matter (beyond one’s gee whiz collection)?
- Is the point of genealogy doing ordinances (even when they are duplicated or inaccurate) or is it to “turn the hearts” to our ancestors–meaning that immersion in a hobby is probably on point?
I’ll end by sharing a story that I found amusing. Years ago, our family was in Vietnam on vacation. We wanted a local experience, so we went to a small village and met a family in their home. The father took us into what he called “the most important room” in their house–the ancestor room. Vietnamese religion is focused on ancestor worship. There was a shrine to each of three prominent ancestors including their picture, plus offerings of incense and flowers. Then he took us over to the wall to the right where their family tree was laid out–it covered the whole wall. A few generations earlier, a gggrandfather had four wives, and this traced the lineage of all four. He also shared stories about the ancestors being revered; these were like scripture. It was fascinating.
I shared that story in a council meeting in Relief Society thinking how similar we are as humans when we look to the past for self-knowledge. A sister piped up saying how wonderful it was that the Lord was preparing the Vietnamese people for the gospel! I nearly did a spit take (well, it was fast Sunday, and unfortunately, we don’t serve Diet Coke in our RS, so it was more of a double take). Ancestor worship in Vietnam is an ancient practice! It predates Christianity by millenia! Some evidence dates it to 6000 B.C.
- What do you think the purpose of genealogy is?
- Have you gotten into it at all? What’s your motivation?
- Do you think there are parallels to ancestor worship, or is it completely different in your mind?
 In fairness, I’m sure some of this genealogy was done before Google.
I have no interest in geneology, but my mom is a 50-60 hour a week hobbyist and as her most organized child she has told me I get to inherit all her work. In a sense our genealogy is her legacy to future generations and it is a beautiful gift.
But she has also established a family law that no one makes changes to ancestry or family search without going through her. She’s tired of spending hours doing cleanup work after one of the grand kids YW leaders decide to have a genealogy night. The problems with enthusiastic but untrained researchers is real and she’s got some hilarious stories.
I would do it 24/7 if possible.It’s fun putting people into families , then connecting the families together –like a treasure hunt. You see where the branches extend–and they’re everywhere–all over the world!
I wish my parents were still alive to see the technology show where everyone went. It’s fascinating.
The longer we live, the more mobile we are and the more we reproduce so that Americans likely have relatives in every U.S. state and Canada and of course Europe, easily. It’s amazing to start a family tree on Ancestry.com and realize the thousands of people who share your DNA. It really is like we’re all related. And until you do genealogy, you have no concept of just how many people you are related to. I’ve met online with distant cousins in Brazil, Italy, Canada, England, Australia, and keep adding states here in the U.S. My ancestors were walking the same streets in Brooklyn that my doctor’s ancestors and my friend’s ancestors were walking. Our ancestors were buried in the same cemetery. And with Google Earth, you can sit on the couch and walk the streets anywhere in the world and see where your ancestors walked. You can use Facebook to find the town’s page–and there will be people living there who know and often have old photos of the relatives you didn’t know or just heard about. The old photos are fabulous. Another thing, I gain strength for my struggles when I see what these people went through–life was short, brutal and very hard. I appreciate antibiotics and pain medication.
Genealogy is a great hobby.
p.s. Being the only membre convert in my family, I had always assumed I was alone in the Church–not so! Every line, I find another LDS relative at the end of it and we bump into one another! In every country too.
My interest in family history began simultaneously to my interest in unvarnished church history. Thirty years ago I started compiling on my new PC, the genealogy done by grandparents, uncles and cousins into a single database. At the same time I subscribed to Dialogue and Sunstone to read about polyandry in Nauvoo. Many TBMs find these interests to be incongruous. My database contains 30,000 names and goes back 120 generations to Adam and Eve. I have submitted 600 names for temple work over the past 12 years. I too have some of the “garbage” you described in my records.
In the end it is about “turning the hearts of the children to the fathers” through compiling stories of their lives:
1, 4th great grandfather who was a captain in the army and was 1 of only 13 Americans to die under General Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans in 1814.
2. Son of above, joined church and became bodyguard to Joseph Smith and walked with his 12 year old son in the Mormon Battalion.
3. 2nd great grandmother who lost 3 sons to the confederacy on the same day in the Battle of Vicksburg Mississippi.
4. 2nd great grandmother in UT who threw her husband out of the house when he came home with 2 young Norwegian polygamist wives.
Like your Vietnamese contact, Elder Gong told a story in GC about a Chinese ancestor named Dragon Gong. We westerners have not done as good of job of compiling the stories. I worship my ancestors.
You have barely scratched the surface with your description of the suckiness of the average Mormon genealogist. But its not just the genealogists that are sucky–the record keepers have not always been reliable. One useful piece of advice that my wife passed on from her FamilySearch mission a few years ago–ignore anything European prior to 1500.
Why do it? One reason that the Church doesn’t like to talk about is discussed in this Atlantic article . Spreading sound genealogical research worldwide could have significant positive health implications.
I served a mission in Taiwan. We would roll our eyes at the local religious custom of burning fake paper money, paper cars and paper houses for ancestors. People would also have alters in their homes with pictures where they would leave food and drink for the ancestors. Now I feel bad that I was so critical and dismissive. I think remembering our dead and ancestors is a beautiful practice and helps connect us with the past. I have not really gotten into genealogy work, but I enjoy hearing about my ancestors and knowing where I came from.
After totally shifting my religious beliefs, I have a hard time seeing any value for proxy temple work for the dead. To me, this is about the same thing as burning a paper Mercedes for our ancestors. It’s the thought that counts, I guess. This is mainly because I don’t see ordinances as necessary for salvation. I know people find great satisfaction in doing temple work, so I say, more power to them. But, to me it seems like busy work.
I haven’t looked at my family history for a while, but there was about a two year period about 15 years ago that I worked steadily at it. I enjoyed it then. I think I would still enjoy the research, but the overall urgency to me has waned. I come from several generations of Mormons who’ve apparently done most of the work on the names I collected. Several times. It became a goal for me to update the records I had with the earliest temple work dates I would find. One of the most interesting was finding my 4th great-grandmother, while living, was sealed to her passed on husband twice ( my 4th great-grandfather). She had joined the church with her sons, but after her husband had died. She performed the ceremony twice, some thirty years apart, in two different temples (Salt Lake and Logan). The proxy for her husband the first time she was sealed was one of her sons, my 3rd great grandfather. The second time she was sealed to her husband, my 3rd great-grandfather’s younger brother stood in for his father. I had to go down to the special collections in the history library to look at microfiche of the temple recorder’s entries to make sure she was living for both sealings. Part of the fun I had with genealogy was speculating scenarios for these situations. I figure the story of what happened to initiate the second sealing was: By that time my 3rd great grandfather had died and his brother was concerned the sealing never took place and mother, very old, probably had an unreliable memory. The only way to check would be to search through 30 years of Utah temple registers and hope you didn’t miss the entry. So the younger brother, instead, took his mother back to the temple just to make sure.
A lot of mistakes out there are done by sloppy genealogists, but I’ve found original records with mistakes. During my initial pass with Salt Lake census records, I couldn’t understand why one of my ancestral families never showed up in the 1860 census. I’m pretty sure they were living there then. Were they out of town? Hiding? They didn’t show up anywhere. Then I recalled a story that my wife told of her Dad. He had a strong Southern accent, but during a census he was living in Oregon. The census taker could not understand him when he was trying to give her the spelling of his name. I wondered if that could have been a problem with my newly arrived Danish/German ancestors. I did a search on families based on ages, first names and country of origin but no last names and found them. The census taker had written a completely different last name for them. Mistake or intentional? I don’t know. It really gave me a ‘high’ when I figured this out.
On the other hand, you find some unpleasant surprises. I found credible accounts that a venerated great-great- grandfather abused his first wife. My mother had told me this wife left him, but the story of the abuse never got passed down family lines. 23 and me has revealed even more horrific things in other parts of the extended family, which I won’t detail in this forum.
Overall, I find family history interesting, but if everything is coming up roses for your history, I’m betting you are missing some things.
GES65, One branch of my family has also been traced back to Adam and Eve. That genealogical work was done by a professional in SLC in the 1950s. I did notice, however, that the chart gets to Adam and Eve through both Greek and Norse gods! What’s your route?
Having all those divinities in the family doesn’t seem to have helped me much with ordinary human matters.
There are false genealogies and record keeping (and reading) errors and omissions long after the year 1500 that someone suggested above. So far as I’ve heard, vague references to the Millenium are the only sort of errors and omissions insurance policy that might provide coverage.
I do like stories of real ancestors as well as Greek and Scandinavian mythology, but none of my turning toward the fathers (and mothers) could be characterized as ancestor worship. It is possible to appreciate, care for, and pray for departed ancestors without worshiping them and without thinking they were always good and wonderful, brave and strong, etc. rather than merely human and therefor sometimes ridiculous or merely mistaken (or even evil) or whatever.
I think the 14th Article of Faith reads, “We believe we had an ancestor who was Joseph Smith’s or Brigham Young’s bodyguard.”
My one and only experience with indexing involved having my MAC laptop crash on loading the indexing program during a special HP group meeting. No thanks.
I, too, have the ancestry lines that go through Thor, Odin, Roman Emperors, and a thousand other things that are clearly not accurate or real. There has been a lot of aspiration genealogy in my family, and sorting it out from the real stuff is a tedious nightmare.
My siblings and I ordered DNA kits for Christmas, and I’m excited too see what these say about where we come from. I’m much more interested in the nitty gritty parts of real life and real humans than I ever could find in Mormon genealogy records, anyway. My grandma gets after me every time I excitedly discover a prison record or something similarly unsavory.
One of my good friends discovered that his last name was invented to distance the family from a horse thief who was hanged for his crimes! It’s pretty cool when you unearth these colorful stories, IMO. I found one unsettling connection not as far back as I would have liked: two sisters married two brothers, and they are all my ancestors because their kids married. So that’s great.
Back to the ancestor worship angle, when we lived in Singapore, like Taiwan, they had Ghost Day where they burned paper cars, cell phones, food, etc., to give their dead ancestors these items so they could bribe the guards to hell and so they would not haunt them. If you didn’t give them good enough bribes, they would come back to haunt you. Some of these paper things were pretty expensive. That was the explanation I got from my assistant at least.
The Vietnamese family revered their ancestors and believed they were powerful and good and watching over them, but I didn’t get a sense that they considered them deities in the same sense we think of deities, more like guardian angels and well-wishers from beyond which is pretty similar to how most Mormons feel about their ancestors (at least in Saturday’s Warrior).
We have a family story of someone returning from the other side to comfort a grieving daughter, and I knew a grief counselor decades ago who said that ghostly visits were so common in grief therapy that she wasn’t sure what she believed anymore! She wasn’t religious even, just noted that it was more common than not in her line of work.
A couple years ago, thanks to 23andme, I discovered that I was the product of artificial insemination from an anonymous sperm donor. My parents had intended to keep it a secret and take it to their graves. Half of my previously known genealogy is a complete lie, and is now a mystery. I considered that anyone’s mythologized family history can be built on lies, and I pretty much lost all interest in genealogy and temple work after that.
My relationship with my parents has been permanently damaged. On the upside, though, it’s been kind of fun getting to know my multiple biological half-siblings.
Interesting post. I have commented about this awhile ago. We were given DNA tests as a gift by our daughter a couple years ago. My brother has done a lot of research into our family history. There were no surprises in my test and we even connected with relatives we didn’t know. My husband comes from a very small family on his fathers side . His parents have been divorced over 50 years. He was shocked to have his test reveal the man he knows as his father is not his father. His parents are in their eighties and refuse to discuss this in any way. He was able to connect with one first cousin . The child of his fathers brother. There are no other family members on that side to ask. He will never have the answers he is looking for . To not cause his parents any pain he has dropped all searches and questions. He wishes he had never taken the test. So I guess there can be two sides and outcomes to this. I was excited to see my results but my husband was ultimately hurt by it.
Genealogy as a hobby I understand. But as a religious obsession, it doesn’t work for me. I would rather the Church concentrate on the living. For example, improving the lives of members (and their friends) in developing countries. They need help a lot more than our dead ancestors. Hurray for Pres. Monson’s 4th mission of the Church.
I recently got into genealogy on my maternal grandmother’s side. She was the only member of the church in her family and I always wondered why my Great Grandpa moved from Minnesota to the West. I started with his family and it’s been so fascinating. I’m not doing it to get their work done, but to connect them. I found out my Grand Uncle had a wife and two children no one had bothered to find. I found out my one of my grand aunts loved Avon and my grandma loved Avon products! Seeing the connections, finding out the tragic stories. There are still mysteries to be solved, but I love finding my family and learning more about them. I found out one of my GGGrandmothers loved gardening and lived in Mexico where other polygamists fled after the Proclamation to end polygamy. She sounds so cool. She loved music and had a parrot that spoke English and Spanish. Seeing the connections between me and her brings me happiness. These are the people who I come from.
I’ve enjoyed getting involved in genealogical research – it gives me pause to think about these people and what their lives were like. However – I have come to doubt the idea or legitimacy of proxy temple work.
And reading here of people linking back to Adam and Eve I believe to be absolute nonsense!
I’m going to try to be very measured in my comment because family history is one of my very precious soap boxes. I agree with most of the comments made here – about the nonsense on Family Tree (and elsewhere), about how it isn’t all sunshine and roses (and is in fact the opposite), etc. And I understand why people feel no connection between genealogy and their worship and life as a Christian. But I want to push back on that and suggest that ambivalence isn’t because connecting to ancestors doesn’t have spiritual power to it (no matter your beliefs about the temple and ordinances). Instead, I would argue that is more the way we talk about genealogy and temple work at church that strips it of its power.
We play small ball with a thing that should be suggesting the grandest purposes of belief in Christ. Knowledge about the past, about those who came before is an important way to build compassion for all of God’s children (living and dead). It’s also a way to show faith in an atonement not bound by space and time. Turning a heart to someone else means seeing them with compassionate eyes, means being understanding of the circumstances of their lives – circumstances that shaped their available choices in ways often beyond their control. And if you can develop that skill for ancestors, you quickly learn the same skill can benefit the living, You can be compassionate and understanding with the living also.
Further, it seems like our cultural rhetoric about family history is so small, diminished; we reduce it to our nuclear families or our genetic relatives – forgetting that eventually we are all related. That the only family that is forever is God’s family. That’s the point – to bring us all into relationship with each other and with our Heavenly Parents. Of course we will never complete temple work for everyone. Even if we did temple work for all for whom we have records for (setting aside all the problems with those records ) we’d cover less than 1/3 of the post-1500 population, let alone the pre- and post-1500 billions for whom no records survive. So, it’s not about efficiency or “getting it done”. It’s about showing our convictions that all of God’s children count, one by one, just like they did in the NT and in 3 Nephi. It’s about letting that belief refine away some of our sharp edges and cruelty, so that we can be better neighbors in the here and now.
Oh and for anyone interested in reading about the connection between faith and an understanding of the past, I highly recommend Margaret Bendroth’s “The Spiritual Practice of Remembering”. She is the head of the Congregational Library Archives and a practicing Christian; the book reflects her deep commitment to both history and to faith.
1. Most lines end sooner or later. Well, all of them become unreliable.
2. Does accuracy even matter (beyond one’s gee whiz collection)? It matters to those for whom it matters, otherwise not. i am somewhat pedantic and like for things to be accurate.
3. Genealogy doubtless serves several purposes. As I have met one person who died a couple hundred years ago it is clear to me that at least a few spirits are indeed waiting for temple work. Genealogy ties living families together; probably don’t need more than 4 generations because it gets very big. The Hamar of the Omo River Valley, if I remember right, memorize ten generations (patrilineal line I think) and when they meet someone, by reciting these genealogies can discover if we are 5th cousin twice removed and so I don’t have to kill you.
Life itself seems to have no purpose other than Here you are, make of it what you will. Make it interesting if you like. I ;have visited many places important to my ancestors, at which point they start to become important to me as well. It creates a social fabric.
Michael 2, eternity is long time. Your relatives can wait a little longer. The living are much more critical as their time line is much more immediate.
Not sure we’re in a position with enough data to draw that assessment, Rog.
I became addicted to genealogy when I stumbled across new discoveries that nobody (that I am aware of thus far) has found before! My mother often encourages me with, “If anyone is going to find out the truth, its you!” So far, I discovered secrets on my mothers side that were probably never meant to be discovered, and just recently, for my mother’s husband, I solved a 3 generation mystery that meant a lot to his family. Genealogy, personally for me, is just a fun way to connect with American history and fulfill my love for research. For others, it is solving important family mysteries, proving origins, or just learning more about family history.
Best to luck to everyone on their genealogy journey’s! 🙂
For an ancient like myself, the genealogy pursuit is better than crossword puzzles to keep the mind nimble. Plus, it has a preserved output.