Guinevere Thomas Woolstenhulme
(From an address given at a Boston Stake Conference, October 11, 2014)
“Behold, I have dreamed a dream.” Whenever the prophet Lehi had a dream, it meant hard things were coming for his family. This time it meant sending his sons back to Jerusalem to get Brass Plates from Laban. These plates contained “the record of the Jews and also a genealogy of [his] forefathers.”
We often think of this mission as going back to get scriptures, but scriptures were only a portion of what they were sent to get. The Lord tells them that they need to get “the record of the Jews and also a genealogy of [their] forefathers.” They were doing family history!
Primary children sing about Nephi’s response: “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded.” We apply this statement to many situations, and rightly so. But what Nephi was originally saying is that he would trust the Lord, and go do some family history! He says, “I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandedth them.”
Lehi’s other family members were not so enthusiastic. Laman and Lemuel complained: “it is a hard thing.”
What is our response when we are asked to do family history? Lehi might tell us the same thing he told his family members: “I have not required it …; it is a commandment of the Lord.” Joseph Smith declared, “The greatest responsibility… that God has laid upon us is to seek after our dead” (History of the Church, 6:313).
Why is it so important for us to seek after our dead? They need our help. Jesus taught that each person must be baptized, but not everyone has the opportunity to be baptized in this life. The Apostle Peter taught that our dead ancestors can hear and accept the gospel of Jesus Christ as spirits. But without bodies, they cannot be baptized. We help them by doing family history to discover who they are, and then going to temples to do baptisms and other physical ordinances on their behalf. That is what the apostle Paul was talking about when he referred to baptism for the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29. That explains why Mormons are so invested in family history. But there is more to it.
The Book of Mormon stories about Lehi’s descendants have completely changed the way I think about family history. I would like to share a few of these insights and impressions:
1. We might not immediately see the full impact of our family history work.
Consider Laman and Lemuel. Why were they sent to get the Brass Plates? They did not get the plates— Nephi did. The experience did not seem to change their attitude or the trajectory of their faith.
But consider the effects of the Brass Plates on their descendants! The Lamanites became obsessed with the Brass Plates. Even at the height of apostasy, they remembered the Brass Plates. They claimed their family records, and complained that they did not have them.
This turned out to be a wonderful thing. Ammon and other missionaries’ success came as they taught the Lamanites the contents of their family records, the Brass Plates. The Lamanites felt the spirit of their own family history. It softened their hearts, and readied them for conversion.
I suspect Lehi and Sariah did not see how Laman and Lemuel’s part in Operation: Brass Plates would bless the Lamanites generations later. They just obeyed.
2. If we obey, we, too, will reap unanticipated blessings when we do family history.
I recently witnessed how family history blessed a family in our stake. In the waiting room of the temple, I listened to a young man tell other youth about the ancestor for whom he was about to be baptized. Elias, this young man’s ancestor, lived in a time of war. Elias was a young man when his country was overtaken. To escape conscription into the invading army, Elias left his home and family to hide outside the city. In this young man’s words:
“Elias went back to the city to check on his family…. [A] neighbor … reported him.… [S]oldiers … shot him [as he climbed a wall to escape], right in front of his mother and sisters (one of [whom] is my great grandmother).”
This story caught the attention of the group. This young man sat up straight as he spoke. His voice was uncharacteristically reverent, … and piercing. This was now part of the young man’s heritage, his identity. He described that Elias had been “brave in his life, and was killed because he wanted to make sure his family was okay.” I know that this awesome young man now has another piece of spiritual armor against whatever trials he will face. Like Elias, he will be brave. He will protect his family.
Of course, I later told the young man’s mom about this special moment, and I got more of the story. She had wanted to send her son with a name on an upcoming youth temple trip, but didn’t know who. In her words, “While doing something totally unrelated, I had this bolt of a thought that stopped me in my tracks. [It] revived a vague remembrance that my grandmother [saw her] … brother … killed right in front of her.” She called family members and learned the story of Elias.
Excited, she invited her son to prepare Elias’s name for baptism. “I was disappointed,” she said. [H]e wasn’t interested in entering the information.” She wondered if she should save the temple work until he was more excited, but felt she should go ahead. Elias had “waited too long already.” So the mother sent the name with her son.
This mother did her best. She (1) did the family history work and (2) involved her son. She felt and followed the Spirit of Elijah— or Elias (that really is this ancestor’s name). She reaped an unanticipated blessing: when I described my experience with her son, she lit up. She did not think that the story had stuck with him. If we will do the work of family history, the spirit of Elijah, the Holy Spirit— and also the spirits of our ancestors— will do their part to bless our families in ways we may not immediately see. The heart of this mother had turned to her child. Her child’s heart turned to his family.
3. Children desperately need to learn about their families.
Researchers at Emory University recently learned that — SURPRISE! Children need to learn about their families. That sounds like family history to me. Go Mormons! The researchers found that “the single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”
The researchers tested children on their family knowledge: “Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know… something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?”
They also assessed the children’s emotional stability and resilience. They found that family knowledge was the best single predictor of children’s resilience, emotional health and happiness.
If you want a happier family, help your kids learn about their family history. Apostle David A. Bednar promises that if we engage our young people in family history, they “will be safeguarded in their youth and throughout their lives.”
4. Even those of us with rotten “branches” on our family trees can find healing and joy in family history.
I come from a family with some rotting branches. There are some very sad, silent generations that didn’t have happy endings. I wish I knew more about the hardships that my people got through. Please do not be afraid to record hard times. When I catch glimpses of the hope and grit that allowed my great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents to improve the lives of each generation, I appreciate the healing of Christ’s atonement in a new way.
Now I can be their happy ending. My eternal family can be our happy ending.
I imagine that is why Mormon and Moroni cared so deeply about the Book of Mormon. They saw the branches of their family tree, rotting before their lonely eyes. They took comfort in God’s promises of restoration and healing, and wrote their fathers’ history. They preserved Lehi’s precious Brass Plates records, including a prophecy of Zenos: fresh, healthy branches would be grafted into the rotten ones, and would bear wonderful fruit.
Mormon and Moroni took comfort in the Lord’s promises to families: The scattered will be gathered. The brokenhearted will be comforted. The lost will be found. The unknown will be named. There will be no strangers. God will fulfill these promises through us and our children.
We do not have to go back to Jerusalem for Brass Plates; our assignment is to help heal our family trees.
5. This work will become the marvel of all creation.
When Laman and Lemuel despaired over the Brass Plates, Nephi reminded them of the Exodus. “[L]et us be strong like unto Moses…. Let us go up; the Lord is able to deliver us, even as our fathers.” Many modern believers still think of the Exodus as “The Miracle.”
But Jeremiah made a breathtaking prophecy. He looked to the future and saw a new miracle that will surpass even the great Exodus:
“[B]ehold, the days come, saith the Lord, that they shall no more say, The Lord liveth, which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; But, The Lord liveth, which brought up and … led the seed of the house of Israel … from all countries whither I had driven them; and they shall dwell in their own land.”
At the last day, the marvel of all creation will be our work of gathering lost family members from all the earth.
This is our work. Doing family history will change our lives, and our families’ lives. May we each join Nephi in saying, “I will go and do this thing that the Lord has commanded.” This is God’s work of salvation, and he will provide a way for us to accomplish it.