Why Is Genealogy Important to Mormons?

People do computer research at the Mormon Church's genealogy library July 15, 2004 in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah
People do computer research at the Mormon Church's genealogy library July 15, 2004 in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah.

 George Frey / Getty Images

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), otherwise known as the Mormons, are the foremost genealogical researchers in the world. Their genealogical archives are vast, accurate, and carefully vetted—and kept safe in high-security vaults. The reason for this dedication to LDS genealogy is theological; according to the Latter-day Saints website:

Latter-day Saints believe that the eternal joining of families is possible through sacred sealing ceremonies that take place in temples. These temple rites may also be performed by proxy for those who have died. Consequently, for Latter-day Saints, genealogical research or family history is the essential forerunner for temple work for the dead. In Latter-day Saint belief, the dead have the choice to accept or reject the services performed for them.

Key Takeaways

  • The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS or Mormons) own billions of genealogical records from around the world.
  • LDS genealogical records are stored in a secure vault in the Utah mountains and are made available around the world (free of charge) through Family History Libraries.
  • LDS members research genealogy in order to baptize ancestors by proxy in a Mormon temple. Baptism by proxy, according to the church, makes it possible for people who lived before the LDS Church was formed (or did not accept the teachings of the Church during their lives) to receive salvation.
  • Salvation, in the eyes of the LDS Church, involves being reunited with all of those family members throughout history who were baptized and accepted Mormon faith; this concept is sometimes referred to as the "Forever Family."

About the LDS Genealogy Records

The LDS genealogy archive is the largest in the world. It is a collection of about 3.5 billion images on microfilm, microfiche, and digital media, stored in the climate-controlled Granite Mountain Records Vault built into the Wasatch Mountains just east of Salt Lake City. With 14-ton doors protecting the entrance, the vault is intended to both repel intruders and survive a nuclear impact.

While the Granite Mountain Records Vault is off-limits to all but authorized personnel, many the records themselves are made available freely through several means. Interested individuals can unearth birth, death and marriage certificates, wills and probate records, land records, and church records by tapping resources including:

  • The main Family History Library in Salt Lake City and satellite regional Family History Centers
  • The American Family Immigration History Center and the Ellis Island Web site, created as a collaboration between the LDS Church and the Ellis Island Foundation
  • A growing database of the billions of records held in the Granite Mountain Vault; this database was started in 2002 and is still in process.

The Family History Library

The Family History Library is a physical and online set of genealogy centers, where users can tap into the Ancestral File, Pedigree Resource File, International Genealogical Index, and more. According to the church website, the Family History Library collection "includes the names of more than 3 billion deceased people from over 100 countries." This information is contained on:

  • 2.4 million rolls of microfilm
  • 727,000 microfiche
  • 356,000 books, serials, and other formats
  • Over 4,500 periodicals   
  • 3,725 electronic resources

Most of the information held by the library is available online, but some is available only in written form or on microfiche. To access physical records, individuals must visit The Family History Library in Temple Square in Salt Lake City—the largest genealogical library in the world. It offers, free of charge, access to the church's huge collection of physical, microfilm, and digital ancestry records, along with volunteer and consulting help with the process of genealogical research. The library also offers classes, workshops, programs, and even interactive activities for children.

Family History Library Salt Lake City
Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Brandon Baird / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

For those interested in visiting a satellite Family History Library, as of September 2018, there are more than 5,100 Family History Centers in 140 countries. Most provide one-on-one help with genealogical search.

Volunteers are members of the LDS Church and are described as individuals with a calling who are trained to become family history consultants. Their work, according to the Family Search website, is to "create inspiring experiences that bring joy to all people as they discover, gather, and connect their family on both sides of the veil."

In addition to the Family History Centers, interested individuals can visit FamilySearch affiliate libraries. These are libraries, archives, museums, and genealogical societies that work with LDS to house databases and limited documents. The affiliate libraries may offer fewer resources than the Family History Centers.

The Eternal Joining of Families

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints conducts research into genealogy in order to uncover the names of deceased relatives so that the Church can perform posthumous "proxy" baptisms on behalf of those individuals. These baptisms are conducted based on the belief that only those baptized in the LDS Church (whether living or dead) can enter the kingdom of heaven.

According to the Church's website, "For Latter-day Saints, genealogy is a way to save more souls and strengthen the eternal family unit....The practice is rooted in the belief that certain sacred sacraments, such as baptism, are required to enter the kingdom of heaven and that a just God will give everyone who ever lived a fair opportunity to receive them..."

Proxy Baptisms

According to Mormon beliefs, couples who are baptized, married in a temple, and faithful to the Church can have their children ritually “sealed” to them in a special ceremony. If the children follow in their parents' footsteps, the family can follow the "straight and narrow" path to heaven ("The Celestial Kingdom") and be together forever. Generations of families can join together as well. But most human beings lived and died before the formation of the Church of the Latter-day Saints; as a result, they did not have access to the resources considered necessary for salvation. Proxy baptism of as many people as possible is a way of potentially saving millions of souls and expanding millions of families in heaven.

The process of proxy baptism is straightforward and can be conducted by just two people. The participants, dressed in white, enter a temple baptismal font; a prayer is said in which the name of the person to be baptized is mentioned; the second person is immersed in the font. This form of baptism, in essence, gives the deceased soul the means to become a part of the LDS Church and be saved. According to Church doctrine, however, while it is possible to baptize anyone, living or dead, the soul of the person being baptized must freely accept the baptism. As no one knows whether or not the deceased individual has accepted the baptism, the individual is not formally enrolled as a member of the Church.

In theory, proxy baptism should be conducted only for those deceased individuals found to be ancestors of present-day members of the Church. Issues have arisen, however, when names submitted for baptism are non-relatives, fictitious people, or people who chose a different religious faith in modern times. One notorious example of this practice related to Jewish Holocaust victims who were not related to LDS members. The church and the Jewish community have worked together to right this wrong.

Sources

  • “Archives.” Archives - About - Granite Mountain Records Vault - FamilySearch.org, https://www.familysearch.org/records/archives/web/about-granite-mountain/.
  • “Background Explanation of Temple Baptism.” Newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org, 10 Nov. 2008, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/background-explanation-of-temple-baptism.
  • “Family History Library in Salt Lake City.” Newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/family-history-library.
  • “Mormon Families Forever: Too Good to Be True?” Mormons in Transition, 26 Feb. 2018, http://mit.irr.org/mormon-families-forever-too-good-be-true.