My father wrote a beautiful post about one of the great benefits of doing family history work. I’ll quote about half of his post:
“Slowly my heart turned to my ancestors…. The more I investigated, the more there was to investigate. Sometimes I would just sit and feel almost crushed by the weight of all those dead people. They began talking to me. How could I go on with all those lives? All those days of work and all the sorrow and tears? How can you keep on going when your son, your namesake, is crushed by the wheel of a wagon crossing the plains? How do you live through the loss of your twenty-two year old son, electrocuted by a power line? How do you live on when your mother dies and you are only eight years old? How do you live in a place with little water, when the wind blows 350 days a year and the temperatures in the winter are 20 degrees below zero? How do you go on when your home is burned by a mob and you are beaten over the head until senseless? How can you live in Boston with no job and no income and no food and watch your children starve? How do you live when you look out from your tiny ship after crossing the ocean and see a whole empty continent and face a winter of starvation? How do you keep from being crushed by all those dead peoples’ lives?
“Genealogy is not a pastime. Genealogy is not a hobby. Genealogy is not even a discipline. It is not technology. It is not a software program or backing up files. It is the hopes, fears and lives of your ancestors. It is life. It is who you are when everything else is lost and gone. At the end of your life, you have only your memories and your family. Truly said, what is it worth to gain the whole world if you lose your soul? Your family is your soul.”
The scripture my father quoted at the end comes from the New Testament. The Savior said, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt. 16:26). If our family is our soul, do we sell that in our pursuits of other things? Do we neglect the roots and branches of our family trees? Do we give up what matters most for what might matter at the moment? Are we gaining fleeting things by ignoring what really lasts?
One of Shakespeare’s characters contemplated,
“What win I, if I gain the thing I seek?
A dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy.
Who buys a minute’s mirth to wail a week?
Or sells eternity to get a toy?
For one sweet grape who will the vine destroy?
Or what fond beggar, but to touch the crown,
Would with the sceptre straight be strucken down?”
By neglecting our ancestors, particularly their temple work, we are neglecting the vine and selling, or at least delaying, eternity.
In 1977 Truman G. Madsen gave a devotional talk entitled Elijah’s Mission at Brigham Young University [link to all of his recorded talks at BYU]. He notes that the first (temporally) section of the Doctrine and Covenants is Section 2, which is something that Moroni told Joseph Smith when he visited on Sep. 21, 1823. He said,
“Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers. If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.”
Elijah’s mission, Elijah’s spirit and keys, are partially related to genealogy. If the hearts of the fathers and children do not turn towards each other and the promises (covenants) made, the “whole earth would be utterly wasted at [Christ's] coming.” So just how important is genealogy (implying also temple work)? Well, it saves the earth so it probably could not be any more important.
Truman Madsen said a lot of things pertaining to this subject in his talk [note: this is a partial transcript I did because I'm not aware of a transcribed version of this talk]:
“He [Elijah] somehow bridges some gap, some alienation, some separation that has occurred in the human family. No subject preoccupied the Prophet Joseph Smith more than this. And in his late years he spoke at least 8 times, pleading with the Saints to ponder and pray over this principle. And for example, he gave us some insight. We ordinarily say, ‘Well, Elijah did something pertaining to the dead or work for the dead.’ A half truth. In the first place, no one is really dead. Those who are in the spirit world are, we are taught by the prophets, more alive than some of us. Elder Melvin J. Ballard used to say that they have every feeling intensified spiritually. And as for their being dead and gone. No, they are not gone either for the prophets teach us that the spirit world is not in some remote galaxy, it is here, it is near. And as the Prophet [Joseph Smith] put it, speaking of their feelings for us – those who are bound to us somehow by the anxieties of their fore-bearing; he said, their bowels yearn over us. He said, they are not merely idle spectators in the last days. He said, enveloped in flaming fire, they are not far from us. They know our thoughts, motions – one account says emotions – and feelings and are often pained therewith – and he could have added, rejoiced therewith. When the scriptures say all eternity is pained, that is I take it a metaphor for their pain. When it says that the heavens weep in joy – the same.
“So Elijah does have something to do with them [our ancestors] but the Prophet [Joseph Smith] taught he [Elijah] also has something to do with us and with the living. And there is this strange phrase that had he not come, then the whole earth would be cursed, or, in another version, the earth would be utterly wasted at Christ’s coming. Wasted I take it means at least two things. It would be in a sense, a waste, if this earth created by our Father and His Son as the dwelling place of their family turned out to be a house barren. Not a home, not a place of genuine familial love. And in that sense it would have been a waste to have created it. But secondly, it would literally be the case were there not a family welded and united and full of love for Christ, it would be the case that all mankind would be laid waste at His coming, unable to endure His presence. But thank God for the restoration of the power to prepare such a family! And that conferral came through Elijah.
“The Prophet [Joseph Smith] said, speaking of this, ‘How will God come to the rescue of this generation?’ And answers, He will send Elijah. Well that generation may have been a difficult one, this generation in which you and I live is in some ways a worse one….
“Elijah had a revelatory function. There is a spirit that is somehow emanating through him and his work and ministry, which has reached out far beyond the pales of this Church. Turning hearts and not just heads. And one account says that it was his function to reveal to us the covenants made by our fathers and the covenants made by us with our fathers, again pointing to something that happened prior to mortality….
“Elijah has been patient through millennia to bring earth and heaven back together, to tie to together the old and the new worlds, to take the estranged and the alienated and the embittered and somehow transform their hearts and to prepare all of the family who will to be a family, welded indissolubly in order to greet the Christ.
“The Prophet [Joseph Smith] said on an occasion to the Relief Society that he grieved that there was so little union of feeling among them – and they were marvelous! And he went on to say, by union of feeling we obtain power with the heavens. When on the other hand he introduced the ordinance of the washing of the feet among the brethren, he taught them that this ordinance, a sacred one, was essential to the union of feeling and affection among them – that their faith might be strong.
“Now we needn’t dwell on the point that the family in our culture is coming unglued and there are those that recommend it and who hold that the great wave of the future – a better future – is to totally abandon the notion of unit families….
“We’re in a real world and the alienation, the pain, the hostility, the torment, the trauma, even of Latter-day Saint homes is a long distance from Elijah who said he would turn the hearts toward and not away. Is there hope? I’m here to testify there is….
“It may be difficult to forgive your enemies but it’s even more so to forgive your loved ones who have sometimes manifested hate and you [have manifested hate], in response. It is harder to forgive your loved ones because you care about them and you have to go on living with them or struggling to and they can go on hurting you over the years and decades and it’s a little hard. But your hearts will never turn to your fathers in the way this spirit of which we have been testifying motivates you to do unless you forgive.
“See, you’ve inherited all kinds of things. There is a standard procedure for students with bad report cards – they can go home and say, ‘Look Mom’ or ‘Look Dad, which do you think it is? Heredity or environment?’…You willingly chose to come into the world, likely in this time and this circumstance and you may have had some choice as to your parentage and to your posterity….
“As you look back at the seventy men, and that’s what it would take – only 70 men – to get you back to Abraham, you might recognize that you have inherited the blood of generations. And blood might not be a correct word scientifically but it stands in the scriptures for seed, which is specifically the heredity, the inheritance of tendencies, and all of you have them. And so you have the blood of this generation, which Section 88 says you must become clean from – that’s a strong prepositional ending. Clean, from the blood of this generation. If so, you must be clean from the blood of every generation because it is compounded and cumulated into now and that includes the blood of some degeneration.
“You do have problems that you can blame on them and if you forgive that and choose to stand close to the Lord in the process of purifying your life, that will affect your whole family – in both directions. You are not alone. There is no way you can gain solitary and neutral ground. You are in it – in involvement [with your family]. And this I take it one of the profound meanings of that long, laborious allegory in the Book of Mormon – Jacob’s allegory of the tame and wild tree….
“If you take a tame [olive] branch and graft it into a wild tree – in due time, if it is strong enough, it will heal and regenerate to the very roots. You will then have been an instrument in the sanctification, even of your fore-bearers. Do you believe it? Does that ever sober you in moments where you suppose that either no one cares for you or whether they care or not, your life makes no difference? To be that kind of branch and achieve that kind of transformation backward and forward is the greatest achievement of this world! But to do it one must be great, one must be linked, bound to the Lord Jesus Christ. He must be mighty! Why he must be something like a savior and that is exactly what the Prophet Joseph Smith said you are – saviors on Mount Zion. And how are you to be saviors on Mount Zion, he asked once in a discourse, and he answered – and I’m paraphrasing – by going, first building, and going into the temples of the Lord. And in your own propria persona – in your own first person presence – to go through for and in behalf of loved ones – all of the ordinances, and he [Joseph Smith] names them all – and says by the way, that Elijah’s keys apply to all ordinances, not just the final one; sealing all of them, culminating in that final linkage that binds for time and for eternity. Saviors, redeemers of your families….
“The sacrifice I suggest that the sons of Levi and the daughters of Levi are to offer in the end, is the willingness to give yourself in the cause of saviorhood and to care more about family and the preservation and intensification of family than you care about anything else in this world! And that has costs. Some things have to be given up; some things have to be postponed – and the focus is sacrifice.
“I have to say, honestly, that I find that I believe that it is painful. I have to say that I believe that there are many among us who are easily pulled in other directions, and I have to say that I consider that tragedy. I occasionally hear housewives say that’s what they are – mere housewives. ‘What have you done in the past 20 years?’ ‘Oh, nothing. Ah, I just fed my family three meals a day and more or less kept them together.’ ‘Is that all?’ Pres. Lorenzo Snow said with power on an occasion, ‘If a woman did nothing more than that [faithfully take care of her home and family], she would be exalted in the Celestial Kingdom.’ If she didn’t do one other thing! Our generation is making attractive every other thing but. And that is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. So I plead with you, be forgiving and be sacrificial….
“It is our privilege and calling in our own limited way, to become redemptors of not just the human race but the human family – ours and His. It is impossible to love Him truly and not love what is His – and the Lord God assigned Him all of us. And it is not possible for you to really love yourself unless you love what is truly you, and that is whole house of Israel in which you belong….”
There is a lot there. Family is important, it is all that really matters in the end. Genealogy and family history work are part of Elijah’s mission. It is not just about building up databases of names; this work is about providing necessary ordinances to those who are waiting. It is about linking generation to generation and hearts to hearts. Our ancestors lived lives of joy and sorrow, they were people both good and bad. They can be, through their faith and ours and through the sealing power of the Priesthood, which keys Elijah bestowed upon Joseph Smith, forever ours.