Sunday thought: Family history

2nd Sunday before Advent

In five days I have gone from little interest in family history (or better put, feeling I had no time to prioritise it) to burning the midnight oil trawling through old censuses and BMD records. Tolkien once said that all cosmic music — even the bad — will eventually bend to God’s harmony; in the case of the evils of the Great War it seems that one small positive is a renewed interest in family history in Britain. This was my conversion: I went to a talk on Remembrance Day about the battle of Gheluvelt fought in 1914 by my local regiment (the Worcestershires). My interest piqued — and being a Worcestershire man — I typed some family names into Family Search and became aware of the service of a number of g-grand uncles.  One was badly injured at Ypres in 1917 and reading his medical records was a grim experience. My aunt remembers he had a dent in his skull; now we know why. It’s compelling stuff.

Why do we do family history?

The Sunday School answer comes easily: proxy work for the dead. I struggle with the theology of this somewhat — not the principle of vicarious work, for such is the foundation of Christianity — but that because we are punished for our own sins only, it is difficult for me to imagine how people might be disadvantaged beyond death because of our inability to find them. Joseph Smith taught that the spirit of Elijah was the sealing power, that the father and children were to be sealed together beyond death but reason suggests that this is not some legalistic exercise, for if it is, we know it fails when in human hands. If the knots and mysteries of family history will “all be worked out in the millennium” as we admit they must be, then why do we do it now?

The answer must be that it offers some tangible spiritual benefit to the living.

Families are not neat “lines” but webs, connected below the surface like trees that share the same root system. If genealogy teaches us anything, it is how narrow and contingent is our understanding of kinship. We call each other brother and sister; the truth is, if you have Worcestershire roots like me, we are probably related at some point. Our nuclear families are not discrete islands, so let us not live in protective isolation from each other. DNA testing has shown that no matter how English you think you are (a good thing, of course, for being English, as Cecil Rhodes said, was to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth) you are also Welsh, Scottish, and Irish. My father’s great grandfather was born in Ames, New York – an American in the family! It goes wider still – if you are “white British”  you are obviously a European but you are also, if you go far enough back, part Asian and African too.

Genealogy therefore teaches us that racism and misguided ethno-centrism are the enemy of Zion, where we are all brothers and sisters, children of the same God, with the same human blood running in our veins. There is no “pure blood.” The concept is a nonsense.

But what of the more specific: how does my knowing about my ancestor’s army service help me?

Most of all I am struck by his humility. No word, no family story about the battle of Ypres in 1917. No doubt George didn’t want to make a fuss, or else he was traumatised by what had happened to him. Duty, bravery, humility. In our Facebook-centric world where we herald every minor achievement, the generation of the Great War teaches us a great lesson.

To that end, I am glad to know George, to be able to do family history, and to know that our family roots intertwine across tribes and kin. One hopes our dead fathers’ hearts are sealed to the children; however, that the children’s hearts can be sealed to the fathers is a tremendous blessing in the here and now. Get on Family Search and use the many resources that are now free to members. The church’s efforts here are a marvellous work and a wonder.

The Worcestershire Regiment

The Worcestershire Regiment


  1. Thank you for this. Wonderful! ” we are all… children of the same God, with the same human blood running in our veins. There is no ‘pure blood.'” How do we get everyone to understand that truth?

  2. Very nice, Ronan, and what Ann quoted. I am currently privileged to be witnessing, and helping just a little, as two families explore their shared family history. One family is descended from an African-American slave, the other from his owners. It’s a complex and emotional and somehow wonderful experience.

    The resources on FamilySearch are excellent — and for all those who are inspired by this post to start working on FamilySearch Family Tree, remember to cite your sources and give reasons for changes as you update your lines — and if you have an LDS membership account, you can also use the resources of Ancestry and FindMyPast and MyHeritage:

  3. My husband and I traveled to England this year for a long awaited trip. To make it even more meaningful, we did a lot of family history research before we went and while we were in England, we went to a lot of towns, saw a lot of churches, and walked down streets where our ancestors lived. It was glorious. My dad asked me if we found any more names to take to the temple — we did not. Not even one (this family history was “done” over 100 years ago). But we found out a lot more about our ancestors’ stories, how they lived, and what brought them into the church, and it was amazing. We felt very connected to them, and somehow more “whole”.

  4. Thank you Ronan. Thank you.

  5. Reblogged this on Water, Blood & Oil and commented:

  6. Fine thoughts, cousin. (My Crow ancestors joined the church in Worcestershire where they lived for generations.) The gospel leads us to places our ancestors never dreamed; Ever growing as our understanding grows.

  7. I’ve been trying to talk about and teach this attitude about family history for a while (though not so eloquently). What surprises me is how little traction it gets. So many seem convinced this couldn’t be enough to count. A stance that baffles me. I’m so glad to read others spreading this approach.
    Even if we did temple work for all people for whom there are records, we’d still have 99% for whom we have no records. This effort is meant to refine us, to make us more loving, IMO.

  8. God bless, Ronan. I quite agree with your emphasis on the good it can do the living. Family history, like all history, should be more than a rote practice; it should be an exercise in learning to love the dead. (John Fea gets credit for that last idea.)

  9. It’s the Mormon ancestor cult and I love it.

  10. I see a t-shirt in our future!

  11. Love it, Ronan. Thanks for the post. Completely agree with this celebration of family history work!

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