Finding and Remembering Ancestors with Help from the Latter-Day Saints

Finding and Remembering Ancestors with Help from the Latter-Day Saints October 15, 2014

I used to talk disdainfully about the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead. Taking an obscure reference in one of Paul’s letters and developing it into a doctrine seemed to me very dubious.

I’m still not persuaded that the LDS church has understood what Paul was referring to correctly. But I have a new-found appreciation for this doctrine of theirs, which essentially leads them as a community to investigate and appreciate family history.

It has been a while since I’ve done much in the way of family history research. But about a decade ago, I dove in with a passion, for several reasons. One was discovering that I had actually visited places in Eastern Europe that some of my ancestors were from, without knowing that they were from there at the time. The other was the passing away of some older relatives, and realizing that there was a limited window of opportunity to find things out that I might not be able to later.

When I first visited an LDS Family History Center, I didn’t know what to expect. But the staff were friendly, and no one tried to proselytize me. Instead, they were merely eager to help me with my investigations. By using their subscription to websites like Ancestry.com, I was able to make a good start. I found one relative, who had changed their name at some point and thus had been hard to track down. That made it possible to then dive into looking at parish baptism and death records, and to follow the trail that led from there.

I quickly learned some of the challenges of such research. A first and last name plus a location was not always enough to find your own ancestor. I found a significant number of them nevertheless. I found that I was not the first person to go into theology in my family. On the internet, I managed to find out about books that a great great great uncle wrote, see his name and coat of arms in a cathedral’s stained glass window, and find his funerary monument, which he shares with his mother, my great great great great grandmother.

I might perhaps have been able to find all this out some other way. But it would have been much harder without the help of a local Family History Center.

We can’t remember our ancestors until we identify them and learn about them.

And so I may still not be persuaded that LDS exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15:29 has found the most likely original meaning of that reference. But lots of texts are obscure, and it is what if anything we do with them when they are part of our tradition that matters. I know more about my ancestors thanks to this LDS doctrine. And I am grateful.

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  • Joseph M

    Baptism for the Dead and Family History are more a working out of our understanding of the promise made through Malachi (CH 4)

    5 ¶Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord:

    6 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

    Joseph Smith reported that it was quoted to him by Moroni when he was first visited by the angel.

    Joseph Smith – History (1:36-39)

    36 After telling me these things, he commenced quoting the prophecies of the Old Testament. He first quoted part of the third chapter of Malachi; and he quoted also the fourth or last chapter of the same prophecy, though with a little variation from the way it reads in our Bibles. Instead of quoting the first verse as it reads in our books, he quoted it thus:

    37 For behold, the day cometh that shall burn as an oven, and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly shall burn as stubble; for they that come shall burn them, saith the Lord of Hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.

    38 And again, he quoted the fifth verse thus: Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.

    39 He also quoted the next verse differently: And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers. If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.

    The whole of Malachi 3 and 4 are quoted by Christ in the Book of Mormon when he is teaching the Nephites (see 3 Nephi 24-25)

    Doctrine & Covenants 110 records the fulfillment of this prophecy

    13 After this vision had closed, another great and glorious vision burst upon us; for Elijah the prophet, who was taken to heaven without tasting death, stood before us, and said:
    14 Behold, the time has fully come, which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi—testifying that he [Elijah] should be sent, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord come—
    15 To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse—
    16 Therefore, the keys of this dispensation are committed into your hands; and by this ye may know that the great and dreadful day of the Lord is near, even at the doors.

    Given the number of times this particular passage gets quoted in our scripture we obviously think its something God considers to be a BIG DEAL.

  • arcseconds

    Isn’t it somewhat problematic baptizing people who haven’t consented to the process? I suppose you could make this statement about infant baptism too, but at least infants aren’t going to already have an opinion on the matter, whereas adults are frequently going to have had rather firm opinions on the subject, opinions which will in many cases be quite opposed to being baptized into the Church of the Latter-Day Saints.

    • Amy

      It’s just something we believe in and the end result isn’t evil, so why argue the point? Overall, it makes people feel at peace to know families can meet again in heaven.

      LDS is a religion of having agency (the right to choose). We don’t believe in infant baptism, nor is the baptism for the dead something that’s forced upon the deceased individual. We simply believe that everyone needs to lead by Jesus’ example and be baptized, but everyone still has the choice (in the afterlife) to accept or reject the gospel. So, baptism for the dead doesn’t force any spirit to do anything they don’t want to do.

      • arcseconds

        OK, but as a matter of fact, a lot of people object to rituals being done in their name without their consent, particularly if they’re a part of a religion that they do not believe in, and may in fact have considerable animosity towards.

        In order to understand this, maybe consider if someone were to propose to do the following in your name, without your consent:

        *) baptise you into a different religion (imagine if you were to come into, say, a Shinto temple, and find yourself listed among the devotees, and then be informed that they’d inducted you into Shintoism last autumn).
        *) perform a pagan purification rite
        *) “marry” you. (would you like to find Kim Jong-Il considered you part of his harem? Even if this meant nothing in practical terms except for his belief that he’s in some way united to you and you might join him in the afterlife)
        *) use your remains as elements in a ritual magic spell

        Now, maybe you personally are fine with anything of this nature, I mention them only to try and motivate the idea that being personally involved in a ritual that’s not of your choosing might be disturbing and offensive to people. But the fact remains that people actually do find this disturbing and offensive, even if you do not. Some people even object to being prayed for.

        • Brian

          For me personally, if a religion had a doctrinal practice similar to that of the LDS (not like the examples you mention though), I’d be more offended if they didn’t include me.

        • Gary

          I think you skipped the obvious example, that stirred up a lot of controversy. Jews that had died in the Nazi concentration camps were being baptized. Whether by relatives, or not, it evoked, I think, an apology from the LDS higher ups. Don’t know if they are still doing it.

          • Gary

            BTW, I quit the LDS church a long time ago, when they still had the “Your tongue will be ripped out by the roots” if you speak about the Temple rituals, as part of their endowment ceremony. This was in the 70’s. Now they are more politically correct. But left a bad taste in my mouth with any LDS Temple ceremony.

  • Amy

    LDS is a religion of having agency (the right to choose). We don’t believe in infant baptism, nor is the baptism for the dead something that’s forced upon the deceased individual. We simply believe that everyone needs to lead by Jesus’ example and be baptized, but everyone still has the choice (in the afterlife) to accept or reject the gospel. So, baptism for the dead doesn’t force any spirit to do anything they don’t want to do.