Carolyn Moroney set out to learn about her mother’s family after she died. She quickly ran into roadblocks.
There was little information available after two generations in her family. Her mother’s parents were born in Portugal and immigrated to Hawaii in 1911. Any records about them were still in Portugal.
“I would probably have to go to Portugal and go to the various districts to get the information I needed,” Moroney said.
Moroney turned to the Frederick Family History Center at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. LDS churches around the world document genealogies and offer services to the public, an extension of the church’s emphasis on the importance of family. According to the Mormon Newsroom, there are 4,600 history centers in 126 countries, the largest of which is in Salt Lake City.
The center subscribes to a variety of genealogy websites that can access digitized records overseas.
“The Family History Center is perhaps the only place I could come to research Portugal,” Moroney said.
She was able to see the marriage certificates and obituaries of about 40 relatives in Portugal. Being able to see the birth certificate of her grandmother was “overwhelming,” she said.
The Importance of Family
The LDS church believes the family is the central unit of society — the most important church values are instilled there to build better societies.
The bond of families also extends beyond their individual lives on Earth. At the time of Jesus’ resurrection, families will be spiritually reunited, said Jeffrey Cook, stake president for the Frederick LDS church.
“We feel very strongly that life is eternal and that families are forever,” Cook said. “We believe our earthly families here can be reunited with our heavenly father and our heavenly parents.”
Baptism is one of the LDS ordinances that allows families to be reunited in the afterlife. The Family History Center allows church members to identify people in their families who can be baptized, even posthumously. All people are eligible for this process of cleansing of sins, Cook said.
“We believe that everyone needs to be baptized in this world — everybody who lives or who has lived,” he said.
The spirits of those who have passed — living in what the LDS church calls the “spirit world” — can choose to accept the blessing of baptism. The LDS church believes that baptism is a requirement to receive salvation and therefore be reunited with their family at the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Cook said.
Learning about your family can be a spiritual experience, Cook said. The LDS church wants all people to have those types of experiences, which can also inform our lives in the present, he said.
“We attribute a lot of what we do now back to our ancestors,” he said. “It’s a very spiritual thing, as well, as we connect with people on the other side of the veil.”
People who are not members of the church, like Moroney, can use the family history center and volunteer to help other people learn about their family histories.
Those spiritual experiences are happening less while hunched over an aging book or in a dark room looking at a projected display of microfilm. Instead, the archives that were once only accessible by having a physical copy are being recorded and distributed digitally.
History centers are relying less on physical records and microfilm than previous decades, which has given rise to the industry.
Researching ancestry has become one of the most popular hobbies in America, according to familytree.com, with websites claiming millions of users. The genre of websites is consistently the second-most visited, trailing only pornography.
The genealogy site Ancestry.com — founded by two LDS members — is valued at $2.6 billion. It, along with many similar sites, charge subscription fees that can range from $10 a month to nearly $200 a year.
The center subscribes to paid-membership sites such as FamilySearch.org, American Ancestors, Newspaper Archives, Paper Trail and ProQuest Obituary Listings.
Russ Sparks, a center director, said the center helps between 80 and 100 patrons a month.
Millions of records are added each year to the digital archives, Sparks said.
“More and more is happening all the time to make this information available for everyone,” Sparks said.
Instead of searching through boxes of microfilm and having to spool them onto a projector — a time-consuming process on top of requesting microfilm and having to wait for it to arrive — all the images can be quickly searched and reviewed online.
But even with the growing digital archives, family researchers still run into difficulties, Sparks said. Finding records before 1600 are a challenge because either the records are not kept or they have been lost. Ancestors who traveled between countries could have misplaced information. Some countries restrict access to their records — some of which are only accessible using the subscription services available at the history center.
In some cases of tracing ancestors in African countries, the Frederick center staff refer people to African ancestry specialists. There are many ways to research a family, said Karen Sparks, a center director.
“Keep searching, that’s what we tell them,” she said. “It can come.”
Understanding the Past
Gary Karstens had collected bits and pieces of his family history over the years since joining the LDS church more than 30 years ago.
Karstens was inspired by the LDS focus on the family.
“Those that came before you are eternal,” he said.
Through newspaper articles and the websites available at the history center, Karstens identified his connection to European nobility.
He found a personal connection to Charles Martel, a Germanic military leader who stopped the advance of Arab forces into Europe in the eighth century. The relation to Martel was particularly exciting to him as a 20-year Army veteran.
The collaborative nature of doing genealogy work is both helpful and exciting, Karstens said.
“After going back just a few generations, you start to connect with family trees that other people have done,” he said.
Linda Gladhill, an LDS member and center volunteer, said tracing her ancestry is an extension of her love for history. The details about her family’s lives allows her to place them at certain areas in moments in history, like her sixth great-grandfather during the French and Indian War of 1754, she said.
The information she has gathered shed light on family medical issues, like a blood disorder shared in her family. She learned that her grandfather, who died when she was 4, was blind. That little piece of information shed a lot of light on family quirks that she once thought were odd.
“Now,” she said, “you know why Dad said, ‘If you pick up something, put it back in the same spot.’”