by Elder Marlin K. Jensen

Good morning brothers and sisters—


Through the years I’ve developed somewhat of a hierarchy of difficulty for the giving of talks. The most difficult by far are talks to boy scouts out of doors with all the attendant distractions. The next most difficult are talks to high priests and their wives in the evening following a heavy meal! Now to that list, and probably third in order of difficulty, I must add talks at 8:30 a.m. on the subject of family history. Thank you for assembling so early to listen to me. I know the subject is much more compelling than the speaker. I also know that it is the “spirit that giveth life,” even to talks at this early hour and so I pray for that Spirit to be with us.

A Little Humor by the way, though family history is certainly serious business, it has its lighter side too.

To illustrate the point, I share a few brief excerpts from patron letters sent through the years to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City:

“I have had a hard time finding myself in London. If I was from there, I was very small and cannot be found.”

“Enclosed please find my grandmother. I have worked on her for fifty years without success. Now see what you can do.”

“Please baptize this sheet.”

“For running down the Wheelers, I will send three dollars more.”

“My Grandfather died at the age of three.”

“Source of information: Family Bible in possession of Aunt Maime, until the tornado hit Topeka, Kansas. Now only the good Lord knows where it is.”

“I would like to find out if I have any living relatives or dead relatives or ancestors in my family.”

I’m positive if the Lord, as we’re told, can weep, he can also laugh and appreciate the humor we mortals sometimes provide.
The Value of Family History “Enthusiasts”

My talk this morning is advertised as a “devotional,” which is appropriately defined as a short worship service. The words “devotional,” “devote,” and “devout” are related. One who “devotes” him or herself to a cause or activity is referred to as a “devotee,” which is synonymous with “an ardent follower” or “supporter.” I think I can safely assume that your attendance here this morning is evidence of your devotion to the sacred work of family history. Thus, in a sense,
I am really preaching to the choir. Most of you are what the professionals in the Family and Church History Department affectionately refer to as “enthusiasts.” To qualify for this honor, your interest in family history must be more than casual, you must be actively engaged in someaspect of the work and you probably possess a certain level of technological as well as genealogical proficiency.

Whatever your level of enthusiasm or proficiency, I want you all to know how grateful we are for you and how critical your support and assistance will be to the success of the Church’s family history enterprise in coming years. As you may know, under the direction of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, the very dedicated and talented staff of the Family and Church History Department is hard at work developing an Internet-based system to better assist members in identifying their ancestors, linking them into families and ensuring that temple ordinances are performed for them.

The New System

In last October’s general conference, President Gordon B. Hinckley referred to this new system when he said:

“One of the most troublesome aspects of our temple activity is that as we get more and more temples scattered across the earth there is duplication of effort in proxy work. People in various nations simultaneously work on the same family lines and come up with the same names. They do not know that those in other areas are doing the same thing. We, therefore, have been engaged for some time in a very difficult undertaking.”

To avoid such duplication, the solution lies in complex computer technology. Preliminary indications are that it will work, and if this is so, it will be a truly remarkable thing with worldwide implications” (Gordon B. Hinckley, Opening Remarks, October, 2005).

The goals of this new system, in addition to minimizing duplication of work, are to
consolidate the many family history software products currently provided by the Church and significantly simplify family history work. Where possible, we want to make temple and family history work conveniently available to members in their own homes, or at nearby family history centers in those areas of the world where technology is not yet readily available in homes. We also intend to provide local family history support so that priesthood leaders, those with family history callings, and interested members can receive the help they need in their own language and at times convenient to them. The overarching objective is to use the technology with which the Lord has blessed us to support processes that will enable all members, worldwide, to experience success and find joy in this work without needing to be expert genealogists or skilled technologists.

As with virtually all complex computer systems, the Church’s new system will be
introduced in stages and refined over time. I’d like to share with you its major components.

Before doing so, I wish to note that the terms I will use to describe the system are not official names, which have yet to be finalized.

The new system will be built around what is being termed a “common pedigree.” When individuals enter the system, they will see their own name and the names of their ancestors to the extent these have been identified and data about them have been submitted to the system.

Members will be able to tell at a glance if temple work has been completed or needs to be done for ancestors in the system. Any other relatives who are interested in the same lines will see the same information. Having this common view of a family’s pedigree available to all extended family members will enable them to coordinate their research efforts and know what names have been submitted previously and what ordinances have been performed, thus reducing duplication of both research efforts and temple work.

A second key component of the new system is support being provided to members. In the past, support for family history processes, products, and services has been provided centrally from Church headquarters. Some of you may be aware that just last week distribution began of an updated version of the Temple and Family History Section of the Church Handbook of Instructions. One of the major reasons for the update is to reflect changes in family history organization that will enable members to receive better assistance in their local areas. Family history consultants (which we hope many of you now are or soon will be) are key to providing family history help to members in wards and branches throughout the world. The revised handbook section suggests that consultants take an active, rather than passive role in reaching out to members to assist them in their family history work. As an additional advancement, online training and help will be available to both members and consultants. Consultants will also have access to area support centers being established worldwide, and ultimately to headquarters support personnel when difficult problems arise that cannot be resolved locally. This new structure for providing support will be able to expand as the Church grows and provide members with help where and when they need it.

A third component of the new system is in its formative stages, with many of the details still being defined. However, the goal of this initiative is to make the Church’s vast collection of family history-related records available over the Internet to provide much easier access to members. While the goal may be simple to state, the complexity involved in making it a reality is mind boggling. First, a two-pronged approach is being undertaken to digitize family history records. The Church’s collection of microfilm, which consists of 2.4 million rolls, must be scanned into digital format. Additionally, microfilm cameras now employed around the world in filming archived records, are being replaced with digital cameras so that more and more records harvested from record repositories are being captured digitally. Whether captured digitally or converted from microfilm to digital format, the digitized records will need to be described and indexed before they can be delivered to members over the Internet.
To address the need for creating indexes to the significant volume of digitized records that will accumulate over time, a fourth component of the new system is being developed known as Family Search Indexing. The research systems being created from these indexes will contain names, dates, places and other vital genealogical information. The indexes will also link the searcher directly to the digital images of original birth certificates, marriage licenses or other relevant documents. The software for this system is very user friendly and contains all of the tools and instructions one needs to be an efficient and successful extractor. Designed to eventually replace the current program of Family Record Extraction, Family Search Indexing will allow users to participate in extraction work in the convenience of their own homes, at any time of day, and contribute as little or as much work as time permits. Only thirty minutes a week are needed to perform meaningful service. In thirty minutes one can download a batch of images, create an index, and submit data back to the Church. It is intended that Family Search Indexing collaborate and partner with others in the genealogical community in the creation of indexes to our worldwide records. We will also work with nonmember volunteers, genealogical societies and other groups to help them index their own records. For example, the Ohio Genealogical Society is currently using Family Search Indexing to create an index to Ohio statewide tax records. One hundred percent of the workforce for this project is provided by the Society.

This new and vastly improved approach to extraction work has recently been made available in most Utah stakes that were participating in Family Record Extraction. If you are not yet a participant, I invite those of you who live in Utah to contact your stake family record extraction director, or if you live outside Utah, to visit the website at to register and participate in a volunteer-based project.

As more accessible and greater amounts of information become available to membersover the Internet, we anticipate they will also need online research assistance to help themdetermine which records will be most helpful in identifying their ancestors. No timetable has yet been announced for delivery of this fifth and final component of the new system.

As you can see from the brief description I have given of the component parts of the new system, a significant and, I feel, welcome change is coming to our current program of family history. All these steps require the development and implementation of new tools and processes.

I testify that the hand of the Lord is in these changes and I know they will bless both the living researchers and the deceased recipients of sacred ordinances.

The Reason for Family History

I hope you will be as excited and grateful for these coming changes as those of us whose daily privilege it is to help bring them about. Lest we forget why we are going to such great lengths, let me remind us all that just as “love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage,” family history and the temple are inseparably connected by sacred doctrines having to do with the eternal nature of marriage and families. Family history research should be the primary source of names for temple ordinances, and temple ordinances are the primary reason for family history research. Family history is much more than just a hobby. President Gordon B. Hinckley has said: “All of our vast family history endeavor is directed to temple work. There is no other purpose for it” (Ensign, May 1998, p. 88). In the commercial vernacular, family history “ships” and the temples “receive!”

The Role of Family History “Enthusiasts” 

As these inspired innovations are implemented in coming months, we will be relying on family history “enthusiasts” like you to help pioneer and assist with the changes. Hopefully, some of you participated in the Beta I test phase of the “common pedigree” system. If you did, you will automatically be included in the Beta II phase which will begin shortly.

We also wish to impress upon you the value of your personal example. By mastering the processes of family history research and the preparation of names for the temple, you provide much needed proof that this can be done by ordinary Church members. Please be assured that your accomplishments give much needed hope to those who once stood or still stand on the outside of family history looking in. Even in this age of exploding technology, the human element is and always will be the key ingredient in a successful program of family history.
Equally important is for you actively to seek out opportunities to share with others what you have learned and to assist them to master the basic technological and genealogical skills. I know in today’s world those who possess something of worth, tend to guard it carefully. They seek copyright, patent, and other legal protections and often attempt to profit financially fromtheir knowledge or skills. Remember, however, that in the gospel of Jesus Christ to truly possess something, we have to share it with others. Becoming a friend, a mentor, a guide or in family history parlance, a consultant, for someone navigating the shoals of family history research for the first time is a Christian act indeed.
Research shows and I think the experience of most priesthood leaders verifies, that the battle of family history is won, one uninvolved soul or family at a time. As you assist with the recruitment and training efforts that are planned, your devotion to and love of the work will be contagious and critically important.

Making a Case for Family History

If we have an overriding hope for the new system I’ve described, it is that it will be
simple and engaging enough to attract many, many more of our members to do the often difficult but always joyful work of family history. William James, the noted philosopher of the early twentieth century, said the greatest discovery of his generation was that action precedes feeling.

Thus, our challenge is how best to help our uninvolved brothers and sisters at least get their feet wet in the waters of family history. Once they do, as we all know, they will be touched by the spirit of this work and there will be no stopping them.

At least one way to promote greater interest in family history is for “enthusiasts” to conveniently and appropriately share their personal feelings about the spiritual benefits of this redemptive work with those still on the sidelines. To borrow a little phrase from my days as a lawyer, we need to “make a case” for family history. I think we do this most effectively by sharing our own impressions and experiences and by “bearing down in pure testimony” concerning the importance and worth of this sacred work. In the spirit of this suggestion, I wish to share a few of my own feelings about family history. What I will say is based on my own rather limited experience thus far. You will have your own “accumulated wisdom” on this subject and I urge you to keep revising and sharing it in appropriate settings.

Getting Along Better with the Living by Serving the Dead

I begin by saying I honestly believe that engaging in family history work for the benefit of our deceased ancestors motivates us to try to get along better and create stronger relationships with our living family members. It just seems logical to me that we needn’t worry much about eternal bonds with deceased ancestors in heaven unless we learn to get along well with our living loved ones here on earth.

President Harold B. Lee taught: “Now keep in mind this: that when the full measure of Elijah’s mission is understood, that the hearts of the children will be turned to the fathers and the fathers to the children. It applies just as much on this side of the veil as it does to the other side of the veil” (Address delivered at the Eighth Annual Priesthood Genealogical Research Seminar, August 3, 1973, emphasis added). Revealed instruction to Joseph Smith further emphasizes the importance of this truth: “And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy” (D&C 130:2).

In assisting with the selection of a new stake president years ago I learned something very important about the level of sociality that can exist within a family here on earth. On a Saturday morning, Elder Dean L. Larsen and I were interviewing the 30 or so principal priesthood leaders of the stake and, as is the custom, we asked each brother to suggest the names of three men in the stake with the spiritual and leadership qualities to serve as the new stake president. We were surprised when in response a high councilor in the stake said: “I’ve been at my widowed mother’s this morning with my brother doing yard work. I knew you would ask for recommendations and the impression I had this morning is that my brother is the most deserving and worthy man in the stake. I suggest you call him and I have no other names! Oh, by the way,” he said, “My brother is also on the high council and you’ll be interviewing him next.”

When the second brother came in, we again invited him to recommend three possible successors for the outgoing stake president. Without hesitation he said,
“My brother, whom you just met, is the best man in the stake. I recommend him and I have no other recommendations!”

As it turned out, neither brother was called by the Lord to be the stake president, but the relationship those two brothers enjoyed is my strongest memory of that conference weekend.

All the way home and frequently since I have reflected on that experience and have wondered in a similar circumstance what my own brothers would say about me. President Lee showed prophetic insight—Elijah’s mission really can impact family relationships on this side of the veil as well as on the other.

The Worth of a Soul I am also drawn to family history work because by its very nature it is a constant reminder of the worth of a soul. Some have wondered about the efficiency of an endeavor that requires each individual to be identified by name and other verifying data, and then to have his or her saving ordinances performed one at a time. I find this practice welcome evidence that, in the midst of the vast cosmos, our Father in Heaven takes a personal interest in each one of us and sees to it that everyone of His children is ensured his or her moment in the sun. Jesus, who did nothing but what he saw the Father do, ministered in this very personal and individual way. The Book of Mormon records that “he took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them” (3 Nephi 17:21). This event took place at the equivalent of a stake conference since the scripture notes that about 2500 souls, consisting of men, women, and children were in attendance. Based on typical demographics, we can safely
estimate that there must have been at least 300-400 children present at that gathering for Jesus to bless—“one by one.” Our respect and concern for each one of God’s children will grow as a result of our involvement in family history and there will be a difference in how we treat those children, whether living or dead. Can we render a more Christlike service to our ancestors than to identify them, link them into families and perform their temple ordinances, one by one?

Transferring Faith and Values Intergenerationaly

There is another benefit of family history work that especially interests me. I am one of those fifth-generation Latter-day Saints whose family lines have been researched as far back as apparently possible. Therefore, I treasure President Joseph F. Smith’s counsel that my obligation now is to become better acquainted with my ancestors. This is another dimension of the hearts of the children turning to their fathers. I experienced a personal example of this principle at work two years ago as I reviewed my paternal Danish line in anticipation of speaking at the dedication of the Copenhagen Temple.

In locating a biographical sketch done of my great-great-grandfather, Christian Jensen, by his daughter, Bertha Jensen Eccles, I discovered a delightful event in her life. I’ll quote from her narrative written when she was nearly ninety:
“One more incident happened that I must tell. I must have been five sitting at the table eating something from a bowl, and it fell down and broke. My father was there. I do not know if it was mother or one of the maids who started to scold me. But my father said [that] I did not mean to do that. It was an accident. And I thought my father was the best friend in the world. How I loved him. And that act has served me all through my life. I don’t think I ever scolded any of my children for things they did accidentally. Neither have I reprimanded my help. If I ever felt like scolding, I immediately had a picture of my accident at the table, and my father’s kind words.”

This story, as wonderful as it is standing alone, has a sequel that occurred a short time after I first read it: I was home from Europe for general conference and had a chance to have dinner with our oldest daughter and her husband and their two rambunctious boys. My daughter had set a beautiful table and we had just finished saying the blessing when Andrew, who was five and full of the dickens, tipped over his glass of milk, flooding at least half of the beautifully appointed table!

As wise grandfathers do, I just sat back, wondering how my daughter, who has some of me in her, would react. How grateful I was when, as cool and calm as a summer’s morn, she said, “That’s all right, Andrew. It was an accident. Let’s clean it up.” I can’t begin to tell you how thrilled I was about my daughter’s response. To see the kindness of my great-great-grandfather stretching across six generations was as rewarding as anything I had ever experienced.

How do we, as people interested in our children and grandchildren, achieve an inter-generational transfer of our values and the things that we hold dear? It is obvious—the answer is to be found in family history work: the research to find the names, to take them to the temple, to perform the ordinances and in that process to become acquainted, as nearly as we can, with the truly exceptional people we come from. Nothing could inspire us more to be righteous in our own time and to keep our link in our eternal family chain strong and unbroken.

Strengthening Faith In his famous address to Church members in the Book of Mormon, the high priest, Alma, poses a series of rhetorical questions designed to prick consciences and increase righteousness.

One of these has always given me pause: “Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which you have done in the mortal body?” (Alma 5:15).

An acceptable response to Alma’s query about our preparation for a coming judgment requires us to exercise the same faith that supports our efforts to do family history work. Just as we must believe deeply in God and the eventuality of a day of judgment in order to be motivated to prepare for it, so also, to want to do family history work we must have strong faith in the reality of our deceased ancestors, their need for saving ordinances, and our eventual reunion with them.
The spiritual experiences that attend family history work create conviction that we are dealing with real people, though deceased, and foster a sense of accountability to them that is very motivating. I know of no other work where our faith can be so readily and amply confirmed and strengthened.

Help from the Spirit and the Spirit World

I have always been impressed that when Christ’s new world Twelve prayed for that “which they most desired,” they “desired that the Holy Ghost should be given unto them” (3 Nephi 19:9). If that is also the desire of our hearts, there is no activity that encourages the companionship of the Holy Ghost more than engaging in family history work and its twin, temple service. Almost every serious family history worker has heart warming tales to tell of (in Nephi’s words) “being led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do” (1 Nephi 4:6). Being blessed to receive revelatory guidance in a work of such eternal significance is a priceless spiritual gift.

It would be well for us to “Remember that that which cometh from above is sacred, and must be spoken with care, and by constraint of the Spirit . . .”
(D&C 63:64). If we heed this counsel, the frequency of the spiritual guidance we receive will only increase.

In mentioning the vital role of the Holy Spirit in family history work, I would like to offer a word of caution concerning references to something we call the “Spirit of Elijah.” In conversation and even in the writings of some, the “Spirit of Elijah” seems to have taken on an identity of its own—as though it represented a separate spirit emanating from Elijah himself.

Two helpful statements on this subject shed needed light: First, President Gordon B. Hinckley has said, “There are millions across the world who are working on family records. Why? Why are they doing it? I believe it is because they have been touched by the spirit of this work, a thing we call the Spirit of Elijah.
It is the turning the hearts of the children to their fathers. Most of them do not understand any real purpose in this, other than perhaps a strong and motivating curiosity” (Ensign, March 1995, p.62, emphasis added). Second, Elder Russell M. Nelson has taught, “Elijah came to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the children to the fathers. With that, natural affection between generations began to be enriched. This restoration was accompanied by what is sometimes called the Spirit of Elijah—a manifestation of the Holy Ghost bearing witness of the divine nature of the family” (Ensign, May 1995, p. 62, emphasis added). Bearing these teachings of the prophets in mind will keep us on a firm doctrinal foundation. It is the Holy Ghost that guides and directs all aspects of God’s work. The spirit or animating essence of family history work may sometimes be referred to as the spirit (small “s”) of Elijah.

Beyond the guidance of the Holy Ghost, those who perform family history work are also entitled to help from the other side of the veil. Many in the Spirit world have accepted the gospel and have a great desire to have the required ordinances performed for them. Certainly they will make every effort they can to see that their work is completed and, if we do our part, there may be a surprising quid pro quo to be had. In this regard, Elder John A. Widtsoe taught: “These are trying days, in which Satan rages, at home and abroad, hard days, evil and ugly days. We stand helpless as it seems before them. We need help. We need strength. We need guidance. Perhaps if we would do our work in behalf of those of the unseen world who hunger and pray for the work we can do for them, the unseen world would in return give us help in this day of our urgent need.
There are more in the other world than there are here. There is more power and strength there than we have here upon this earth. We have but a trifle, and that trifle is taken from the immeasurable power of God. We shall make no mistake in becoming collaborators in the Lord’s almighty work for human redemption” (In Conference Report, Apr. 1943, p. 39). Could anything be more enticing for those interested in spiritual things than to be engaged in a work where continual assistance is available from the Holy Ghost and our loved ones in the Spirit World?

Elder Henry B. Eyring shared the following illustrative experience in general conference in April 2005: “A few nights ago I had a dream. I saw a piece of white paper with a name on it I did not know and a date I could only partially read. I got up and went to the records of my family. The last name on the slip of paper is from a line which came into my mother’s ancestry 300 years ago in a place called Eaton Bray. Someone is anxious for a long wait to end. I have not yet found that person. But I have found again the assurance that a loving God sends help in answer to prayer in this sacred work of redeeming our families, which is His work and His glory and to which we have pledged our hearts” (Ensign, May 2005, p. 78). I am sure many of you have similar experiences you could share.

Family and Church History

The connection that exists between family history and Church history helps explain why what were once two separate Church departments—family history and Church history—are now combined into the Family and Church History Department. It also helps explain what for me is another of the tangible rewards of family history work—that it inevitably leads to and is enhanced by a study of Church history. The lives of our deceased ancestors take on new dimensions when we see them in the context of the times, places and relationships to the lives of others who have been involved in the advancement of the restored gospel. If a culture or movement can be no greater than its stories, Mormonism is certainly great by virtue of the tremendous wealth of stories its family history researchers have compiled. Conversely, every family history worker worth his salt is sooner or later of necessity going to acquire a very respectable knowledge of the history of the Church.

Conclusion: Saviors on Mt. Zion

Realizing that the spiritual benefits of being involved in family history are as numerous as the stars, I will nonetheless heed the old judicial maxim that a lawyer who has won his case should sit down and not retry it.

I will therefore bring my talk to a close by citing one last benefit of a commitment to family history work. Succinctly stated, it is the unequaled satisfaction one feels in assisting in a very small way with the Savior’s work of redemption. The minor prophet Obadiah didn’t leave much of an Old Testament record, but he did share a vision of the latter days and of those who would come to the temple to perform a saving work. He called them“saviors . . . on mount Zion” (Obadiah 1:21). When we do family history and temple work, we participate in the fulfillment of Obadiah’s prophecy. We also participate in a work calculated to help us learn to love and serve others as our Savior loves and serves them. The ultimate reward we receive in doing family history work is to be found in the relationship and feelings we develop for those for whom we stand as proxy or Saviors on Mt. Zion or in the temple.

The essence of this reward is beautifully captured in a poem whose lines I have long admired and pondered. It was authored by Randall L. Hall and is entitled,

“Poem for Thomas Morgan (after attending a temple session).

Since this morning, Thomas Morgan,
When I stood and spoke your words
I have been wondering about your children
In the quiet, gentle dusk—
Did you hold them on your knee?
Did pleasure kindle in your wife
To hear you speak her name, unplanned?
What subtle tuggings were the sweetest to your soul?
What baubles lingered longest in your hand?
Did you chill with joy
When light and water glowed and tangled in your sight?
How often did you pause to see the fields of grain
Bend lovely in the wind
Or watch small birds in tufted flight?
Ah, Thomas Morgan,
I have been wondering
What did you see, or sense, or say
When I stood in white and spoke for you today?

(Randall Hall, BYU Studies, 29:4, Fall 1989: 136).

To paraphrase the final stanza of this wonderful poem slightly, I wish to inquire of all here today—what did you see or sense or say when [you] stood in white and spoke for [someone] today? In your answer lies the key to unlocking the door of salvation for many, including possibly for yourself. I testify that family history is an essential part of God’s work and glory and of our preparation to be like Him. May we be blessed to perform it faithfully and to lovingly assist others to do likewise, is my prayer. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Elder Marlin K. Jensen a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, Church Historian and 

Recorder and Executive Director of the Family and Church History Department

This address was given at the BYU Family History and Genealogy Conference, August 1, 2006.
© 2006 by Brigham Young University, Division of Continuing Education – All rights reserved.

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