This is an article I wrote years ago – before blogs existed. It has been published in the newsletters of several different genealogical societies and used to be the top reference on About.com for Mormons & Genealogy. I have updated a little bit at the end to account for recent events…
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints (Mormons) are prolific genealogists. Genealogical societies aside, one would be hard-pressed to find another religious, social, or political group that engages in more genealogy per capita. The two main reasons for this are rooted in the culture and doctrines of the Church.
Culture. Mormons conduct genealogy for many of the same reasons others do. It can be very interesting to learn about one’s ancestors, how and where they lived, and what they experienced. We can learn much about our culture, heritage and traditions by researching our ancestors. It can also bring family closer together, and help reunite family branches.
Additionally, since the early years of the Church (1830s-1840s), members have been encouraged to document their lives and experiences through journals and other family records. As a result, members who have Mormon ancestors often have much more information with which to begin their research.
However, if culture were the only reason Mormons researched their genealogy, the proportion of Mormon-genealogists would probably be no more than that of any other group. The most significant difference is rooted in Church doctrine surrounding the afterlife and the “saving ordinances.”
Doctrine. “Ordinance” is the general term used by the LDS Church for what many other Christian denominations term “sacraments.” They are the basic rituals performed by church members, often becoming rites of passage through life. “Saving ordinances” are the ordinances required for salvation; they include baptism, confirmation, endowment, and sealing. Sealings are the LDS version of marriage – instead of the more common “till death do you part,” a couple is “sealed” for time and all eternity to each other and to any children they might have under such a union. Endowments have no equivalent that I am aware of. While regular baptisms and confirmations are held in chapels, where anyone may attend and observe, endowments and sealings are performed only inside temples of the Church.
The Church’s doctrine states that the saving ordinances must be performed with the proper (LDS) authority, and – significant to our discussion of genealogy – must be made available to every person who has ever lived. Therefore, to make them available to people who did not have the opportunity while living, they may be performed upon a living member of the church as a proxy for a deceased person. Ordinances for the dead may only be performed inside a temple for a known individual or, in the case of sealings, for a known couple or family. Through genealogy, we can find individuals and link them to their families.
Public Relations. Here is where some of the unintentional side-effects begin. Because the doctrine states that every person must have the opportunity to accept the saving ordinances in either life or death, Church members were eager to perform as many of these ordinances as they could. When the church operated in relative obscurity, they were able to perform ordinances for most any deceased individual they could find. Hardly anyone in mainstream society cared what Mormons taught or did, and the Mormons of that time gave little thought to what the rest of society might have felt if they had known who the Mormons were baptizing by proxy. Many early church leaders and members performed “temple work,” as saving ordinances for the dead are often called, for figures such as the Forefathers of the United States of America and Columbus, and ancestors of people of other religions. They would often select candidates who had contributed to the conditions that allowed the Church to come into being, or arbitrarily by the availability of the genealogical information.
With the Church becoming more mainstream, non-Mormons have taken more note of the actions of the Church and its members. Some whose ancestors have been baptized by proxy have been offended. Some feel that their ancestors would not have wanted any relations with the Mormon church. Others feel that they should have been asked permission. Others are offended by the Church’s claim that it has the only valid authority to perform baptisms, and that baptisms into other Christian faiths should be recognized. While the Church makes no apology for the doctrine or the performance of such ordinances, we understand the emotions. Even though the doctrine states that a deceased individual has the right to accept or reject the ordinances done on their behalf, in 1995, Church leaders reacted to outsiders’ complaints and asked members to only submit names of their own ancestors for temple work.
However, it is still possible that someone who is not a Church member may find that an ancestor has had temple work done for them. Usually, this indicates that you may have a distant relative who is Mormon. It could mean that the temple work for that individual was done before the Church asked members to only do the work for their own ancestors. Unfortunately, there have also been cases of members not following the guidelines. After a recent case of this that got a bit of media attention, the Church sent out an email to all registered users of their online genealogy site, familysearch.org, reiterating the 1995 position of the Church and implying that offenders could be blocked from the site for infractions.
An immense resource network has been made available to all genealogists-a result of the Mormons’ zealousness for genealogy. None of this would have happened without the additional doctrinal motivation. Hopefully, the misunderstandings that have arisen due to the practices of the Church can be overcome by conversations and articles such as this one.