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Those of us who have been bitten by the family history bug know how fun it can be. But this isn’t why we have the largest genealogical library in the world and why 15 million Mormons are encouraged to research their family roots. Rather, we are driven by our doctrine that teaches that marriage and families can continue beyond this life. But this can only happen when families are sealed together in one of the Lord’s holy temples around the world and united for all eternity.
That’s fine for all of us today who have the chance to be sealed in a temple, but what about our ancestors who die without the opportunity to receive ordinances like baptism, or the blessings of being an eternal family? Does it make sense that God would simply say, "Too bad, tough luck?" Of course it doesn’t. When Christ organized His Church anciently, it included vicarious work for the dead and the practice of performing ordinances for deceased relatives "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead?" (1 Corinthians 15:29). Christ’s restoration of his original Church to the earth through the Prophet Joseph Smith included the ancient practice of performing these ordinances for our deceased relatives in holy temples. The gospel of Jesus Christ includes the same blessings today in holy temples.
Genealogical or family history research is the essential forerunner of temple work for our deceased ancestors. We do it to obtain names and other genealogical information so these temple ordinances can be performed for our kindred dead. Our ancestors then are taught the gospel in the spirit world and have the choice to accept or reject the work performed for them. Mother Teresa once said that "loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty." The thought that this poverty of loneliness—this being unwanted and separated from loved ones—could extend beyond this life is truly sad and something temple work can prevent.
Why are they doing it? Most would probably say because it’s an amusing hobby and they feel motivated by a strong curiosity about their ancestors. It is because they’ve been touched by the spirit of this work. According to the Old Testament, Elijah was to come back and prepare the way of the Lord. The Spirit of the Lord is the spirit of love that may eventually overcome all human family estrangements as it builds bridges between the generations. It binds beloved grandparents, now deceased, with the grandchildren who never knew them by preserving and sharing their histories and keepsakes. A life not documented is a life that within a generation or two will largely be lost to memory. And yet, knowledge of our ancestors shapes us and instills us with values that give direction and meaning to our lives.
This prophecy was actually fulfilled when the Prophet Elijah appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery (the man who helped Joseph translate the Book of Mormon) in the Kirtland Temple on April 3, 1836. Elijah restored specific powers of the priesthood by conferring them upon Joseph and Oliver. This power is what makes it possible for families to be sealed throughout generations. Through family history work, we can participate in the continuing fulfillment of this prophecy. We can learn about our ancestors, and those who died without the opportunity to hear the gospel and receive ordinances, and increase our love for them. We can be inspired by their stories of courage and faith. We can pass that legacy on to our children.
Even though our reasons for doing family history may be different than most, we’re happy to share our collections of microfilmed and digitized records free of charge with anyone sharing our passion. That includes millions of people, since genealogy is said to be the fastest growing hobby in North America, surpassing quilting, stamp collecting and even gardening in popularity. So popular, in fact, that several TV shows have appeared recently featuring celebrities, as well as everyday people, tracking their roots.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Family History Library, located in Salt Lake City, Utah, is the largest genealogical library in the world and provides access to many collections of records, with more than two billion names of deceased people. It contains records from more than 100 countries, covering everything from 14th century English church records to African oral histories. An average of 2,400 people, including many visitors from Europe and Asia, visit the library each day.
In addition to our main library, there are more than 4,500 local family history centers worldwide, often located inside our Church meetinghouses. Their purpose is to teach people how to search for their ancestors. They’re staffed by local Church members who volunteer their time, and all these services are provided free of charge.