June 2013 Visiting Teaching Message: Joy in Family History

Let me guess: You surfed onto this site looking for a way to make this month’s Visiting Teaching message interesting.


Now, I don’t mean to be disrespectful towards family history temple work. But it is a topic that comes up rather often, (I have written about here and here , oy!). So- either I get hit with the family history thing way too often in the Lesson Plan lottery, or the spirit is trying to get me to do work. Either way, looking up my family tree is not new. And clearly the topic can be hard to address and re-address, especially because it is a topic that so often hits news headlines.

 Out of interest, Mormons are not alone in proxy work. There is evidence that the Coptic Church practiced baptisms for the dead in the 3rd Century C.E., but ended as it was decided that those who are deceased are not privy to receiving Eucharist ordinances. (1) Mandaeans also practice proxy baptism, but only on a small scale. (2) But, by and large, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are the primary group that performs proxy ordinances, likely because it is taught to us so very often as a part of applied and real, church piety. There is some evidence that the LDS church members practiced proxy work for the living in the early days of the church- likely for other church members or relatives that were unable to migrate to Nauvoo (3) But because there is also evidence that not everyone enjoyed being proxy-baptised into another church, the practices was changed for the dead. It seems to me that the long lists of unrelated proxy temple work that were completed and created controversy furthered this practice to focus only on family history. Perhaps that is why there is such an emphasis in the church today; because if we do the work of our ancestors who have dead, we offend fewer of the living.  


But on to the formal message! In the history section of this message, we have the typical reasoning and purpose behind temple proxy work:


Sally Randall of Nauvoo, Illinois, whose 14-year-old son died, found great comfort in the promise of eternal families. After her husband was baptized for their son, she wrote to her relatives: “What a glorious thing it is that we … can be baptized for all of our dead [ancestors] and save them as far back as we can get any knowledge of them.” Then she asked her relatives to send her information on their ancestors, saying, “I intend to do what I can to save [our family].”


Clearly the intention is the “save souls.” This is beautiful, is it not? Ah, yes it is. And yet…. when we consider Alisa’s well-written reticence, we see that sometimes, proxy family choices are not so clear, so obvious, so saving. So, how can those of us, who are hesitant to encourage family history for whatever reason, share the message for this month?


Well, you know me. So- I decided to focus this message on word used in the topic: Joy. Yep. There must be an inspired reason why the ter term “joy” is the first word in the title, but no where else in the message. So I am going to focus on that. Joy, because in broad terms, it seem to me to suit a wider audience that might not be comfortable, able, or willing to do family history work.


“I am the only one who can determine how much joy I experience and that depends on how I manage my perceptions of what is real and what is good.” – Shelly Swain, Clark and Thatcher, eds., A Singular Life: Perspective for the Single Woman, 1974, Deseret Book, 136.


What is joy in your life? How can you express this joy to the women you visit teach? What brings joy to the women you visit teach?


“Good can come from trouble. Trauma can enliven the heart and enrich the soul. Clouds do have silver linings, and the leaf will burst again on the dry branch. “Weeping may endure for [the] night,” sang the psalmist, “but joy cometh in the morning.” (Ps. 30:5.) My dear sisters, the daily work of the Lord involves changing hopeless to hopeful—for all of us. And it is for us to find at last that in the midst of winter we have within us an invincible summer. In a world filled with adversity we can reach for joy.” Elaine Cannon, Reach For Joy, April 1982


How can we reach for joy when we are in the midst of a trial?


And, in consideration of family history, if you are inclined to couple joy with family history when you share your message:


I have never been afraid to tackle new or challenging projects. I believe it is because of my heritage. My parents taught me early that I was a very unique person descended from great ancestors who had challenged and tamed the wilderness to fulfil their promises to God. – Jaynanne Payne, To Fulfil Her Promise,  Liberty Publishing, 1975, 2.


This is not necessarily applied to doing family history work, but in finding power in yourself and your unique heritage. From the woman who is adopted to the woman who is a convert, to the women who is a 6th generation church member… we all have a heritage of brave choices, strange bedfellows, opportunities, challenges and utter miracles. If nothing else, recognise this amazingness in yourself and the women you visit teach. Better yet, write and submit your own personal history to be remembered for generations of Mormon women to come.  (A little more information is also here) Your grand-daughters and their friends will be eternally grateful.


“We all… carry the fragrances of other lands, the mysterious heritage of a past that is not our own, but had been bequeathed to us. To understand the importance of this eternal link between past and future is to understand ourselves better.” – Jaroldeen Edwards, Things I’d Wish I’d Known Sooner,  Simon& Schuster, 1991, 92.


How can you help the women you visit teach to find joy, and therefore, find themselves better and closer in relationship to Christ?

If you do family history work, what positive experiences have you felt?


(1)   John A. Tvedtnes, “Baptism for the Dead: The Coptic Rationale,” Special Papers of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology, No. 2, September 1989.

(2)   http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/encounter/johns-baptisers-mandaeans-in-australia/3188282

(3) Gavin, Independant Comopanion, Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 31, No. 1 2010.


Spunky lives in Queensland, Australia. She loves travel and aims to visit as many church branches and wards in the world as possible.

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7 Responses

  1. Em says:

    There is great joy in family history work, entirely separate from the joy that temple ordinances can bring. Here are some of the blessings I see.

    1) Service to others. Not just the dead, but the living. The work of indexing makes it possible for people to find their families, even those who are not of our church. The family history centers are open to non-members and are one of the main ways our church interacts in a real way with our communities. Our FHC does not allow proselytizing (I think this is universal?) so it is one of the few ways that our callings benefit someone other than other Mormons.

    2) Intellectual life. Real family history research (not slapdash shortcut attempts to get a name in three days) is hard intellectual work. Committed genealogists learn how to do a really difficult intellectual task and reap the rewards that a mental challenge can bring. When we consider that many church members have not had the opportunity or motivation to jump into other highly intellectual pursuits, this can be a real blessing.

    3) The joy of knowing people who are dead. The real work of redemption is turning your heart, and a name on a card is not going to do that. When you have toiled for months and finally find that record that tells you the next generation back, the joy is huge. You can rattle off generations off the top of your head because you worked so hard to find every scrap you could about each one of them. It is the joy of remembering and knowing those who, without you, would be forgotten.

    To me, the joy of family history is great. You do not need to be a current temple attender or to find meaning in temple ordinances to feel real happiness in searching for your family.

  2. cfg says:

    I just gave presentations to every ward in the stake about joys of genealogy, and in several of those presentations, I used the following talk from April 1999 GC, Dennis Neuenschwander:

    “If I want my children and grandchildren to know those who still live in my memory, then I must build the bridge between them. I alone am the link to the generations that stand on either side of me. It is my responsibility to knit their hearts together through love and respect, even though they may never have known each other personally. My grandchildren will have no knowledge of their family’s history if I do nothing to preserve it for them. That which I do not in some way record will be lost at my death, and that which I do not pass on to my posterity, they will never have. The work of gathering and sharing eternal family keepsakes is a personal responsibility. It cannot be passed off or given to another.

    A life that is not documented is a life that within a generation or two will largely be lost to memory. What a tragedy this can be in the history of a family. Knowledge of our ancestors shapes us and instills within us values that give direction and meaning to our lives. Some years ago, I met the director of a Russian Orthodox monastery. He showed me volumes of his own extensive family research. He told me that one of the values, perhaps even the main value, of genealogy is the establishment of family tradition and the passing of these traditions on to younger generations. “Knowledge of these traditions and family history,” he said, “welds generations together.” Further, he told me: “If one knows he comes from honest ancestors, he is duty and honor bound to be honest. One cannot be dishonest without letting each member of his family down.” 1

    To me, there is real joy in reading my late mother’s letters and journals, and in my grandmother’s letters from 1917. I come from a long line of literate, witty women. I can continue this tradition, I can document my life and the lives of my children. Family history to me is not about checking off a name taken to the temple, it is about learning about and knowing my family. I search obituaries not for vital statistics, but for hints about the lives of now dead people. I am charmed to know my great-grandfather was a scholar, and witty and knew Latin, Greek, French, Gaelic and English. After he died, my great grandmother supported herself and 4 children giving voice and piano lessons. How did she learn those skills? How many women in my family played the piano and sing? Many.
    In my presentations, I gave many options for the members to select from which could give them satisfaction, from labeling photographs, recording stories from relatives, visiting the old family homestead, creating annual albums, etc etc. Just don’t think of family history as preparing names for the temple, and pretty soon you find yourself having a very satisfactory experience .

    • spunky says:

      Thank you for your comment, CFG! I appreciate your literal take on the formal message, with suggestions for developing an interest in family history. Thank you for covering this for an average LDS audience.

      What suggestions might you include for those who come from abusive families who have no desire to develop what they see as a line of abuse and negativity, wherein they have left thier family of origin, with blessings from leadership as a means of emotional survival?

      What also do you suggest for infertile or single individauls whom will have no posterity, therefore will have no one to read thier journals, or the journals of thier ancestors?

      What suggestions do you have for adoptive families?

      What suggestions do you have for children who are adopted, or have been abandoned (this is a world-wide church; this issue is not unheard of.)

      You have some great ideas, I am so glad you made such a detailed comment– so with the above issues becoming more and more common, I look forward to your further suggestions for a world-wide LDS audience 🙂

      • Em says:

        1) I would say that coming from one or two generations of abuse does not mean that you cannot find meaning going further back. You might find joy in learning about a particular ethnic heritage, or find an ancestor that you CAN admire. Nothing wrong with skipping generations. I know that I have enjoyed learning about great-grandparents even though there are members of my family who have acted in hurtful and damaging ways

        2) I am currently writing a dissertation based on the joint diaries of a husband and wife in the 1800s who never had any children. Their documentation is a treasure and is a key part of a museum collection because they were so diligent. What they had to say tells a lot about what marriage meant to them, how they coped with infertility as well as so many other topics relevant to historians. Telling a story isn’t just for your biological posterity.

        3) Adoptive families and adopted children have, if anything, richer opportunities because there are more possible lines to research. Whether you feel most comfortable looking only at your adoptive lines, or are also interested in biological lines I don’t see adoption as a barrier to family history research. In some cases it can be a challenge if you don’t have much data to get started with, though new DNA technologies in genealogy have also helped with this.

        As I mentioned earlier, there are meaningful ways to get involved in family history even if it is not possible to trace your biological lines (due to abandonment). The work of indexing is inherently enjoyable and also is a meaningful service to the living and the dead. The more we get involved in this as a world wide church the better, because many indexers currently working only speak English.

        Those are my thoughts. I think that Family History is fun only when you get the hang of it. For some tasks (like indexing) that doesn’t take long at all, while others might take longer to figure out. It seems daunting or unenjoyable when you don’t have the time to jump in, which is why I think that different family history tasks are appropriate at different ages. Some other ideas:
        -scrapbooking, interviewing older family members, labeling children’s artwork and filing it, putting family documents in one place/scanning them, writing your own memories of high school/college/dating etc before you forget, blogging, writing and saving letters to family members, labeling photos etc.

      • spunky says:

        Great ideas, Em. I think for those who are ready and in a space to do indexing and general research, that these are great ideas. Thank you 🙂

        I am still hesitant to make this the *only* message for a general, international, audience (inclusive of “less active” membership) if only because the church focus is always for families and family sealings, which is different to the purpose of your dissertation topic. As a historian, I appreciate the drive to record histories, such as for the CGU project. But as a visiting teaching topic, therefore institutional church assignment, there are problems, only a few of which have been recently addressed by both Alisa and KellyAnn (Unredeeming the Dead).

        I think your focus is more in tune with a post EmilyCC wrote a while ago, wherein Alisa commented that she keeps a journal for herself, rather than for posterity. I am all for that. and appreciate you addressing that topic in the comments.

  3. Jan says:

    Being in a worldwide church, there are numerous family situations wards have to encounter and sensitively address. I appreciate your concern for all of these “other families”; however, Salvation for the Dead is probably the most important principle we must obey in order to Come Unto Christ as families.

    No family is perfect. Every family has skeletons. You will find something weird in every household that is different from your own whether it be a family joke, a hidden sickness, an emotional handicap, or shear meanness.

    Nevertheless, we have been commanded to seal our families together the best way we can, then allow God to work His eternal love as he seals us His.

    The joy is in our desire to obey and seek out our eternal salvation. The spirit brings us that joy.

    P.S. I think you mean 2013

    • Spunky says:

      Thanks for your insights, Jan. I would add that there are branches as well as wards that deal with any number of issues.

      I also understand that this is a comandment. But again, I refer you to recent posts by Alisa and Kelly Ann as to some of the problems involved with outrightly telling the women we visit teach to do work for the dead. For myself, my family history is inclusive of unhappy polygamy (the “other mother” abused the children of a different mother) incestuous child molestation, child trafficking, illegal adoptions that abruptly end one family line after 2 generations, and individuals who refuse to let others do family work because they want to to do the work themselves- i.e. competition, not devotion. With that, I have also very much enjoyed doing family history work– when I am in the right space and have a non-political family line to follow (see some of my other posts).

      Because of this, I am very aware that not everyone is in a space to feel the spirit, hear the admonition with love, or feel encouraged. I appreciate your thoughts, and am happy that you have shared them in the comments for those who seek this direction and know the women they visit teach well enough to encourage the literal message application. But I also feel strongly about reaching out from the “99” to address the needs of the “one”, if but for no other reason than compassion.

      First and foremost, we are instructed in the VT message to:

      Prayerfully study this material and, as appropriate, discuss it with the sisters you visit. Use the questions to help you strengthen your sisters and to make Relief Society an active part of your own life.

      That is what I felt directed to do with this message, to reach for an international audience that might not have the emotional, financial, spiritual or physical ability to do family history work outright. In this, I still believe it is imperative to bring relief, indeed– to bring JOY to these women. Hence, my thoughts.

      Again, I DO appreciate your comments on family history work, but I feel more strongly about being in tune with what will help the women on your visiting teaching route to feel uplifted.

      Yes! I have been typing with a broken finger and thought I was doing so well…. alas, not! The year in the OP is corrected, thank you!! Please come back and comment more and again!! We need more commenters like you!

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