I gave the talk in my branch's Sacrament Meeting today. I was assigned to speak on family and family history work. This talk is the most difficult one I've ever had to prepare. I'm grateful to the Lord for the chance to prepare it, and the experience it has given me. Enjoy!
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The spark of our divine essence—that portion of godliness which gave us meaning, beauty, purpose, and life—is no longer tangible. Our spirits have fled, and because we are unique in our position and creation, we leave behind an undeniable void which cannot be filled—only remembered, or forgotten.
Without intervention, we deteriorate and fade; bodies decomposing in a steel box in the ground, or bagged and folded neatly in an urn on someone else’s shelf. As a family historian, it never ceases to amaze me how divine lives become pathetically reduced to bits and pieces of paper—a census record here, a photograph there, which become fewer and fewer in number as the years pass.
Where is the glory, the life, in a handful of ashes and dust?
It’s easy for us not to care about the answer to that question, isn’t it? We’re young and invincible—entitled to at least another 50 years on this planet to do whatever we want, right?
But what happens when the one who slips away from this world is someone we never wanted to lose? What happens when we are the ones so deeply shaken by grief and pain that we are overtaken, our hearts are broken, there is no comfort, no peace, no life without the one we have lost? What happens when we must face death—and our peace of mind, our ability to continue functioning from day to day, relies on knowing whether or not we live again after we die?
I want to introduce my topic with a very important section from the Doctrine and Covenants. But for that section to have weight and substance like it should, we should understand the grief of the man who gave it to us.
Joseph F. Smith was the son of Hyrum Smith, who was murdered and martyred alongside his brother Joseph at Carthage Jail in 1844. Joseph F. Smith was only five when he lost his father and his uncle. At 13, his mother Mary Fielding Smith also dies. Throughout his life he buries a wife, Sarah, and 13 children. The first child he loses, Mercy Josephine, is only 3 when she dies. President Smith records these thoughts from that time in his journal:
“My heart is bruised and wrenched almost asunder. I am desolate, my home seems desolate. … I look in vain, I listen, no sound, I wander through the rooms, all are vacant, lonely, desolate, deserted. … No beaming little black eyes sparkling with love for papa; … but a vacant little chair. … and only the one desolate thought forcing its crushing leaden weight upon my heart—she is not here, she is gone!”
Near the end of his life, President Smith loses a son. This loving father has not hardened against what death can do so easily, and writes:
“My soul is rent asunder. My heart is broken, and flutters for life! O my sweet son, my joy, my hope! … O God, help me!”
But death does not cease from him. That same year, he loses a daughter-in-law to a deadly scourge, the flu pandemic which has already killed millions of people by the time she dies from it. One historian comments on this sickness, that “Nothing else—no infection, no war, no famine—has ever killed so many in as short a period.” Because of the overlap between this flu and World War I, the worldwide death toll reaches 50 million people between 1917 and 1918. Devastation and death, missing sons and daughters, and forgotten generations become a way of life. (see "I Saw the Hosts of the Dead," Ensign)
This period of suffering forever changes the world. It’s in this modern age that faith begins to die in ways it never really has before—a spiritual death from which many nations have never fully recovered.
When Joseph F. Smith loses his precious daughter-in-law to the flu pandemic, the anguish of millions became his pain. These circumstances, and the wisdom of the Lord, inspired the 138th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, also known as the vision of the dead.
President Smith had been pondering the first epistle of Peter in his room, when the Lord gives him a vision. He sees Christ in the three days of His death, establishing His ministry among the dead.
…the eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great.
12 And there were gathered together in one place an innumerable company of the spirits of the just, who had been faithful in the testimony of Jesus while they lived in mortality;
16 They were assembled awaiting the advent of the Son of God into the spirit world, to declare their redemption from the bands of death.
17 Their sleeping dust was to be restored unto its perfect frame, bone to his bone, and the sinews and the flesh upon them, the spirit and the body to be united never again to be divided, that they might receive a fulness of joy.
18 While this vast multitude waited and conversed, rejoicing in the hour of their deliverance from the chains of death, the Son of God appeared, declaring liberty to the captives who had been faithful;
19 And there he preached to them the everlasting gospel, the doctrine of the resurrection and the redemption of mankind from the fall, and from individual sins on conditions of repentance.
23 And the saints rejoiced in their redemption, and bowed the knee and acknowledged the Son of God as their Redeemer and Deliverer from death and the chains of hell.
Joseph F. Smith sees the Lord preparing his valiant spirits to preach the gospel to the dead. Adam, Eve, Abraham, Isaiah, and many others were organized, and:
33 These were taught faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands,
34 And all other principles of the gospel that were necessary for them to know in order to qualify themselves that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.
35 And so it was made known among the dead, both small and great, the unrighteous as well as the faithful, that redemption had been wrought through the sacrifice of the Son of God upon the cross.
These spirits were taught and prepared to be missionaries by the very same gospel principles we are supposed to teach. Every time the Savior organizes His ministry, it’s based on the same unchanging principles, which lead us to eternal life.
This organization among the dead is the foundation for the temple work in our day. That’s why this section also teaches:
47 The Prophet Elijah was to plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to their fathers,
48 Foreshadowing the great work to be done in the temples of the Lord in the dispensation of the fulness of times, for the redemption of the dead, and the sealing of the children to their parents, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse and utterly wasted at his coming.
So they see the foreshadowing of a new and glorious day—the restoration of this gospel under the hands of Elijah. This was one of the very first things that Moroni taught to Joseph Smith when he appeared to him—that Joseph would receive the authority and ministry of Elijah. From D&C 138, we learn that the work of Elijah is the ministry for the salvation of the dead.
This has everything to do with us, and we are mentioned in this section as well:
53 The Prophet Joseph Smith, and my father, Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and other choice spirits who were reserved to come forth in the fulness of times to take part in laying the foundations of the great latter-day work,
54 Including the building of the temples and the performance of ordinances therein for the redemption of the dead, were also in the spirit world.
55 I observed that they were also among the noble and great ones who were chosen in the beginning to be rulers in the Church of God.
56 Even before they were born, they, with many others, received their first lessons in the world of spirits and were prepared to come forth in the due time of the Lord to labor in his vineyard for the salvation of the souls of men. (emphasis added)
Brothers and sisters… you have been told you are noble and great ones by prophets and servants of the Lord, who know you better than you know yourselves. Some of you have been told this all of your lives. But do you understand what makes you a noble and great one? Do you realize what this means you have already done and seen? Do you understand what requires you to do now, and to become?
Many of us want to be received into the Celestial Kingdom, but we have not yet understood that if we want eternal life, it will not be given to us just because we asked for it. It won’t be given just because someone else in our family did all the work, and we came after them to reap the blessings.
Eternal life means living forever with our families. If we have not personally invested ourselves into our family relationships, we won’t receive eternal life. We want the great inheritance, but what have we done to bring salvation to our dead so we have an inheritance? What efforts have we made to know our history, to prepare to teach it to our children? What efforts have we made to protect and preserve that history so it isn’t lost or destroyed—not just spiritually by having sealings performed, but preserving the actual records which remain of our kindred dead? What are we doing to continue the records of our family? What are we saving and preserving of our own lives, to leave to the generations who will come after us?
Because we are single, we look at eternal life and we instantly think of marriage. We think our biggest impediment to receiving the glory of God, aside from our own imperfections, is the fact that we are not yet married. I challenge us this afternoon to change this perception. We must open our eyes to the great gift of eternal life, and realize that everyone, everyone belongs there—but the place we prepare for ourselves will determine the inheritance we receive.
There are four essential relationships which make up the divine inheritance of eternal life. The parents who gave us life, our ancestors who gave us a heritage, our spouses who will give us a promise, and our children who give us a legacy; in heaven, these become our greatest treasures. Those four relationships are crucial—without any one of them, we have not received the fullness of God’s joy, and our eternal life is not secure.
So in the time I have remaining, I want to give us questions to ponder. I pray that the Spirit will use these questions to help us recognize our challenges in our family relationships. By doing so we can counsel more directly with our Savior for the guidance and support we need to overcome our challenges. I promise that as we make efforts to counsel with the Savior to improve these relationships, we will see and feel the promises of Elijah come to fruition in our lives. Our hearts will turn to our fathers, and their hearts will turn to us, and we will be willing and able to make the sacrifices necessary to preserve those relationships forever.
Why is our relationship with our parents essential to obtaining eternal life? How can family history work improve my relationship with my parents?
Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve apostles has taught:
“…the final responsibility to prepare for salvation and exaltation rests upon each person, accountable for individual agency, acting in one’s own family, bearing… sacred title[s] of mother, father, daughter, son, grandmother, or grandfather.”
“In Church callings we are subject to release. But we cannot be released as parents.”
Our parents will always be our parents, and we will always be their sons and daughters. No amount frustration, personal injury, or strife can or ought to break the bonds between parents and their children. I learned this lesson after years of trying to push my parents away from me.
My parents had many challenges in their lives, which affected their parenting in significant ways. I was deeply hurt by many of my parents’ choices, and it was easy for me to believe my problems outnumbered my blessings. But as I grew older and became more familiar with the lives my ancestors, I saw how the story of addiction, abuse, and divorce had repeated so many times in my family. Suddenly my parents’ struggles were symptoms of a much larger problem.
Generations of my family had been powerless to face the hell of their experiences, living without faith and hope in Jesus Christ, without redemption, without the healing inherent in the Savior’s forgiveness. They needed the gospel, and the empathy and compassion the gospel inspires. Nothing but the truth would ever set them free.
And in order to reach the generations Heavenly Father had given to me, I had to begin with my parents. At the time, there was nothing more impossible to me. I viewed myself as being wholly incapable of what the Lord was asking me to do. But my discipleship, my covenant, and my honor rested on my ability to love, forgive, and sustain my parents in their calling—to seek for their healing and their blessing.
And I stand before you today to bear you my witness that Jesus Christ does change our hearts. He does not set us up to fail—He sets us up to become joint-heirs with Him. He sets us up to become sons and daughters, gods and goddesses, the most beautiful creations in the reaches of this universe. The only way to conceive the enormity of the Lord’s intentions for us is to understand that He sacrificed Himself so nothing would be impossible to us. That includes overcoming problems with our parents.
When everything is at stake, He does not fail.
I would not have that witness to bear to you today if it hadn’t been for family history work. Family history work saved my life.
What does my life mean to my ancestors? What should their lives mean to me? How can I develop a relationship with my ancestors who have passed through the veil?
President Henry B. Eyring gave a talk called “Hearts Bound Together,” in which he makes some profound statements:
“After you find the first few generations, the road will become more difficult. The price will become greater. As you go back in time, the records become less complete. As others of your family search out ancestors, you will discover that the ancestor you find has already been offered the full blessings of the temple. Then you will have a difficult and important choice to make. You will be tempted to stop and leave the hard work of finding to others who are more expert or to another time in your life. But you will also feel a tug on your heart to go on in the work, hard as it will be.
As you decide, remember that the names which will be so difficult to find are of real people to whom you owe your existence in this world and whom you will meet again in the spirit world. When you were baptized, your ancestors looked down on you with hope. Perhaps after centuries, they rejoiced to see one of their descendants make a covenant to find them and to offer them freedom. In your reunion, you will see in their eyes either gratitude or terrible disappointment. Their hearts are bound to you. Their hope is in your hands. You will have more than your own strength as you choose to labor on to find them.”
President Eyring’s promise is real. Great power, resources, and inspiration come into our lives when we dedicate ourselves to gathering our kindred dead. We find great use for our talents, and discover in ourselves talents and abilities we never knew existed. How paradoxical it is that seeking for our own increase, our own divinity, is the surest way never to find it. That is why President Dieter F. Uchtdorf taught:
“In the end, the number of prayers we say may contribute to our happiness, but the number of prayers we answer may be of even greater importance.”
Our ancestors are pleading to be found. Whether or not we give ourselves to answering their prayers is a true measure for how ready we are receive eternal life, and function in the trusts which make up the Celestial Kingdom.
How will doing family history work help me to find my spouse, and live up to the promises which I desire to make with him/her? Why is that promise so important?
Family history work prepares us for marriage in three essential ways. It requires us to put someone else’s needs before our own. It leads us to the temple. And it teaches us to search for someone until we’ve found them—and I would add, to verify our results with both inspiration and common sense.
Jesus taught us how to search when He gave the parable of the lost coin:
…what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?
9 And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost. (Luke 15: 8-9)
Finding someone, after you’ve spent years searching for them, is an amazing feeling. It’s true when you find a relative, and it’s especially true when you find your spouse. Life feels more complete when they are with us, and the joy they bring us brings out the giver in us. We suddenly need to know what the very best thing in the whole world is, so we can give it to them. Why? Because they’ve made us so happy, we just have to find the very best way to express the love and gratitude we feel for them.
That very best thing, the deepest expression of love that any soul has to offer, is a promise—a covenant. It is a very deep profession of love and trust to offer another person a sealing to you and to your family. We extend to them the very same tie, the same expression of love, we have given to God Himself. For God to expect us to make covenants with each other… that is incredible.
The Lord trusts us to invest in these covenants the best we have to offer. To do so is to recognize the divinity in ourselves—to “know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3: 2)
That is the purpose of every covenant we make. If we aren’t recognizing that goodness in ourselves, we need to repent and remember that we are children of God. Doing family history work is an excellent way to get that perspective, and never let it go.
How will doing my family history improve my relationship with my children?
It may seem odd to talk about improving relationships with children we don’t have yet. But President Julie B. Beck made some observations in this month’s Ensign that bear repeating:
“Evidence is all around us that the family is becoming less important… Many times a career gains importance over the family…
Many of our youth are losing confidence in the institution of families. They’re placing more and more value on education and less and less importance on forming an eternal family. Many don’t see forming families as a faith-based work. For them, it’s a selection process much like shopping. Many also distrust their own moral strength and the moral strength of their peers. Because temptations are so fierce, many are not sure they can be successful in keeping covenants…
Youth are being desensitized about the need to form eternal families.”
I’d like to add some of my own observations to hers.
Nothing in our experience outside of the Church encourages us to have children. We’re taught to view children as expenses and liabilities instead of the joy and the blessing they are. In fact, one of the most dangerous messages Satan sends to us today is that children are a nuisance—that they do nothing but need, nag, and annoy us to death. Satan would have us believe that getting married and having children ruins our lives. And if he can’t get us to believe we’ll ruin our lives, he tells us we’ll ruin our children’s lives with our inexperience or lack of resources.
How do we combat these lies and deceptions? How do we keep our minds and hearts open to starting families and having children?
For me, that answer came from doing family history work.
You can’t stand by the Savior in His temple, watching Him bless and reunite families, and not be changed by it. When you feel someone else’s pain because of their separation from their family, and then you step in and end it… when you feel the relief that you just brought to that soul, and you realize they only wanted to go on living because they wanted to see their children again… you walk away from that experience with the truth.
Children are everything. They are worth the sacrifices we make to have them. Mother Eve herself has said:
“Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient.” (Moses 5: 11)
Eve has said what we should never forget—that bearing and raising children is why we came to earth. No amount of education, no career, no amount of wealth or entertainment can replace the joy that comes only when we love our children and raise them in righteousness—knowing they are sealed to us forever. God has said that His work and His glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of His children—why would the work we do for our children, or the families of the dead, be any less important?
President Beck also cautioned in her Ensign message that “This generation will be called upon to defend the doctrine of the family as never before. If they don’t know the doctrine, they can’t defend it.”
Part of that defense, that stand we must take, is to be married and to have children. A major part of it is also to increase our offering in the temple. I challenge you all to begin your work in your families today. Let us commit now to always be temple worthy, so we stand prepared to bless our dead. They need us. They love us. Their ability to receive eternal life is tied to our performance in this life. If we compromise ourselves, we compromise them.
“Wherefore, stand ye in holy places, and be not moved, until the day of the Lord come; for behold, it cometh quickly, saith the Lord.” (D&C 87: 7)
That day is coming. But the Lord does not want us to be afraid. He says:
41 Fear not, little children, for you are mine, and I have overcome the world, and you are of them that my Father hath given me;
42 And none of them that my Father hath given me shall be lost.
43 And the Father and I are one. I am in the Father and the Father in me; and inasmuch as ye have received me, ye are in me and I in you.
44 Wherefore, I am in your midst, and I am the good shepherd, and the stone of Israel. He that buildeth upon this rock shall never fall.
45 And the day cometh that you shall hear my voice and see me, and know that I am.
46 Watch, therefore, that ye may be ready. Even so. Amen. (D&C 50)
We can trust Jesus Christ with our sins. We can trust Him with our weaknesses, our desires, our hearts, and our lives. If we stand by Him, we will be able to face the evil and deceptions of our day. I know His promises are true, and I know this Church is true. I know the Book of Mormon is the word of God, and it was translated by Joseph Smith. I know Joseph Smith is the prophet of this restoration. If we stand by Joseph Smith, we stand by Jesus Christ. I bear you that witness with all the certainty of my soul, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.