Thursday, September 9, 2010

Impossible?

    "Part of doing great work is being na├»ve enough to not realize
that you’re undertaking things that are quite possibly not possible.”
— Jason Bagley, creator of “the Old Spice ad”

I’ve been thinking a lot the past few days—as I’ve worn out my eyes reading the old script of a hundred or so images I brought back with me from Pennsylvania—that maybe what I’m trying to do is not going to be possible. Maybe the records simply aren’t there. Maybe the people were so busy living their lives and trying to survive that no one took the time to do anything beyond that which was required for subsistance.

They may have written letters. But they apparently went to people who were not pack rats (darn!) Those of the next generation may have been very efficient about throwing away paper which no longer mattered...to them. Great-grandpa’s letters from California? Well, first of all, he abandoned the rest of the family. So why should we care what he had to say? Into the burn barrel with you! Great-great-grandpa’s letters from the middle of Iowa? He didn’t treat Great-great-grandma all that well, so I think we can dismiss him also. Great-great-great-grandpa’s letters which he saved from the cousins in Scotland who hadn’t had the courage to emigrate to the less-than-civilized colonies? Oh, that’s old stuff. No one’s going to need those anymore.

They probably did take the trouble to get married by a clergyman of some sort. But in Pennsylvania, it wasn’t until the early or mid-1880s that the state cared about those marriages. In the meantime, the clergyman may have kept a record of his officiatings. But the mother church may not have requested anything from him, and he may have figured that record was his property. What happened to it once he passed away? Good cleaners-out probably performed their highly efficient role once more and tossed it all out when the house was being cleared. Same thing with all the infant baptisms that occurred out there in the wilderness where circuit riders risked their lives to minister to the people. And what about the hundreds of thousands of people who were buried in the back yard or the church yard without benefit of an enduring monument to mark the place?

Land could even be passed down from one generation to the next without the deed’s having to be recorded until it was time to sell it to someone outside the family. Not everyone was into filling in those pages in the family Bible, much less writing a personal or family history.

So we come along a couple of centuries later and try to weave disparate threads into a whole cloth. Is it possible that we are beating our heads (and eyes and hearts and minds) bloody against a wall that simply might never come down? Is there too little, too late?

Maybe. I guess it’s entirely possible. Will it make any difference to those of us who are somehow so mesmerized by the possibility of one more clue, one more piece of evidence, one more explanatory theory that giving up simply isn’t an option? Probably not.

And maybe, for some of us, it isn’t even the chase. Maybe it’s more the loving ties that bind us to those who have gone before, even though we don’t know them and they aren’t being very cooperative about leaving the intellectual breadcrumbs for us. Maybe it’s something eternal that draws us back again and again to reach into an empty pot in order to see if a remnant might either have been overlooked or mysteriously added.

NOTE: I’m going to add a section here that deals with my faith and the motivation some of us have for doing family history research. If you feel that this would be offensive to you or might generate uncomfortable feelings, please skip down to the next set of asterisks. Thank you!

* * *

I like the quote by Elder Boyd K. Packer (a leader in the LDS Church) who was discussing the magnitude of the work we undertake. After reminding his listeners that baptism is an essential ordinance which has to be performed here on the earth, he described the doctrine that was revealed so that even those who had passed away could have the blessing of receiving it through vicarious offerings in their behalf. Please note that the option of accepting or rejecting any act performed in their behalf is eternally available to each individual. 

We have been authorized to perform baptisms vicariously so that when they hear the gospel preached and desire to accept it, that essential ordinance will have been performed. They need not ask for any exemption from that essential ordinance. Indeed, the Lord Himself was not exempted from it.

Here and now then, we move to accomplish the work to which we are assigned. We are busily engaged in that kind of baptism. We gather the records of our kindred dead, indeed, the records of the entire human family; and in sacred temples in baptismal fonts designed as those were anciently, we perform these sacred ordinances.

“Strange,” one may say. It is passing strange. It is transcendent and supernal. The very nature of the work testifies that He is our Lord, that baptism is essential, that He taught the truth.

And so the question may be asked, “You mean you are out to provide baptism for all who have ever lived?”

And the answer is simply, “Yes.” For we have been commanded to do so.

“You mean for the entire human family? Why, that is impossible. If the preaching of the gospel to all who are living is a formidable challenge, then the vicarious work for all who have ever lived is impossible indeed.”

To that we say, “Perhaps, but we shall do it anyway.”

And once again we certify that we are not discouraged. We ask no relief of the assignment, no excuse from fulfilling it. Our effort today is modest indeed when viewed against the challenge. But since nothing is being done for them elsewhere, our accomplishments, we have come to know, have been pleasing to the Lord.

Already we have collected hundreds of millions of names, and the work goes forward in the temples and will go on in other temples that will be built. The size of the effort we do not suggest should be impressive, for we are not doing nearly as well as we should be.

Those who thoughtfully consider the work inquire about those names that cannot be collected. “What about those for whom no record was ever kept? Surely you will fail there. There is no way you can search out those names.”

To this I simply observe, “You have forgotten revelation.” Already we have been directed to many records through that process. Revelation comes to individual members as they are led to discover their family records in ways that are miraculous indeed. And there is a feeling of inspiration attending this work that can be found in no other. When we have done all that we can do, we shall be given the rest. The way will be opened up.

Every Latter-day Saint is responsible for this work. Without this work, the saving ordinances of the gospel would apply to so few who have ever lived that it could not be claimed to be true.

(Elder Boyd K. Packer, “The Redemption of the Dead,” Ens
ign, November 1975.

* * *

I find those thoughts energizing. And for those who elected not to read them, may I simply summarize by reassuring you...and all of us who get discouraged at times because of the difficulties encountered in the research...that those for whom we are searching still exist, even though we can’t see them. And they may be as interested in being found as we are in finding them, although I’m beginning to think that my family might just be a little more stubborn than some...perhaps to make the pursuit more interesting or to see if I’m truly committed. I have seen miracles occur in my own research, and know of many experienced by others as well.

We simply have to keep trying. We must not give up, regardless of the obstacles in our path.

So is it impossible? Maybe, but we’ll do it anyway! Onward and upward!!!

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