The “Turning of Hearts”: On Family, History, and Faith

A few weeks ago, during an unusually long summer excursion away from home, my wife and I had the opportunity to spend a few days staying with my paternal grandparents. It turned out to be a nice time with them in their quiet, settled home. In part, this was an opportunity simply to be in their company; as they advance in age, and we continue to live at a distance, there’s no guarantee of when we’ll see them next. But our week-long visit also had more focused and deliberate purpose. As much as an extended visit, it was a self-commissioned project to capture the essence of their life experiences for posterity.

We came away from the experience with many hours of recorded conversation, collected as my grandparents sat comfortably on the sofa, wired up with a clip-on microphone. In the comfort of their own home, without any reason for self-censorship, they talked freely about the vicissitudes of their experiences. It was an experience that propelled us backward more than a half-century in world history: there was much talk, for instance, of the joys and privations of the family farm. Through their telling, with the immediacy of those who lived it, we experienced the late days and militarism and rationing of World War II. There was also the very real and unremitting tension of the Cold War—and then the profound relief when that tension suddenly melted away in 1989. These global reflections, of course, were intertwined with all the intricacies and patterns of personal life.

Hopefully, in the future this will be an artifact of some value to family members; a way to acquaint grandchildren and great-grandchildren, perhaps, with remarkable forbears they don’t remember or never knew. Plus, there were other motivations: as a historian, I felt an ethical obligation toward preservation, which I see as valuable in its own right. And all this is to say nothing of the fact that my grandfather—also a historian—has had a rather outsize influence on my life.

Still, both during and after this experience, I couldn’t help but feel that it was more than an exercise in family history. For Latter-day Saints (an identity both that my grandparents and I share) there are deep meanings that underlie generational connections. At the heart of Mormon theology, in fact, there are remarkably rich doctrines about family ties—ties that stretch well beyond the first, nuclear generation. Biblical prophecies about the relationships between generations, and a coming day when the ancient prophet Elijah would return, and “turn the hearts” of children and parents to one another, have been an essential part of Mormon teaching, reiterated and renewed from the faith’s earliest days.  Today, believing that Elijah has indeed returned, Mormons hold that a divine influence, the “Spirit of Elijah,” pervades the world, drawing human generations closer.

Most often, the “turning of hearts” is understood in relation to the sacraments of the Church. According to Mormon teaching, it is incumbent upon children and descendants to provide the ritual means, if necessary, for their parents and ancestors to achieve salvation through Christ. Hence the exceptional and well-known emphasis upon genealogy and upon “baptism for the dead.” And hence also the emphasis of the Church upon interpersonal “sealings,” which reify familial ties through divine power, making them impervious even to the dissolution of human death.

However, it seems to me that there is significance to this sacred generational consciousness besides the way it serves these vital sacraments. It’s possible to take a rather perfunctory view of the “turning of hearts,” which starts and ends with the pedigree chart. But that hardly seems to satisfy the poetry of the phrase, which suggests much more than dates of birth, death, and rites of passage. For me at least the “turning of hearts” has also come to mean attending, inasmuch as possible, to the remote and ever-retreating content of progenitors’ lives—cultivating a deep interest in their experience, to the way they worked out their destinies in the context of a world that has since passed by. It means acting, in other words, not just to help secure their immortal souls, but to appreciate the griefs, discoveries, and triumphs of their mortality. This can be, for Mormons and perhaps for others, an act of faith that carries its own reward.


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