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  • Writer's pictureShelli Owen

Family History and Genealogy

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

"For Yours (Our Father in heaven) is the kingdom

and the power and the glory forever.

Amen." ~ Jesus (Matthew 6:13b)



As I’ve shared, the core of LDS “theology” is “eternal family.” This “family” does not only include immediate family; but it also includes one’s ancestors and all who “have gone before us,” as well. Because I was so immersed in LDS Church teachings and practices growing up, I was strongly influenced by the LDS vision of Eternal Life—with one exception. Before I proceed, I want to emphasize that what follows is how I saw things. It is not necessarily a true reflection of my parents or what was or is in their hearts. Some of my family’s history will be included, and the same applies there.


The ancestors of both of my parents were Mormon pioneers, who are given high esteem and beloved by their LDS descendants—including my parents. My Mom grew up in Snowflake, Arizona, a predominantly LDS town founded in 1878 by Erastus Snow and William Jordan Flake, one of our polygamous ancestors. William Flake, the son of Mormon pioneers, was “called,” or directed by LDS Church leaders, to settle there. Generations later, that’s where my mom was born and raised—the fourth of nine girls before a boy (the youngest) was born to her parents.


During my youth, my mom often spoke with emotion about our pioneer and other LDS ancestors. She seemed to hold in especially high regard those who had contributed in a notable way to the LDS Church’s and our own family’s legacy. “Family history and genealogy” (or genealogical research) is of great importance in the LDS Church; and to me, it seemed like my mom embraced it with more zeal than other LDS doctrines and practices.


As I’ve mentioned, members of the LDS Church believe that the proper priesthood authority for performing eternally binding ordinances was restored through Joseph Smith. They also believe that worthy members of the church can vicariously perform—on behalf of the dead—the ordinances the LDS Church considers essential for Eternal Life or “exaltation to the highest kingdom of glory.”[i]


The ordinances deemed “essential” for Eternal Life by the LDS are 1) baptism by immersion, 2) confirmation or the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, 3)“...ordination to the Melchizedek Priesthood (for men), 4) the temple endowment, and 5) the marriage sealing” or being sealed to one’s spouse (and children and other family members “for time and all eternity”).[ii]


All these ordinances must be performed by someone with the proper priesthood authority, and they must be done under the oversight of a specially authorized priesthood holder. Men receive the lower “Aaronic Priesthood” to prepare them to receive the higher “Melchizedek Priesthood.”[iii] Of course, the LDS priesthood is required for performing priesthood ordinations. So—to receive Eternal Life—both the living and the dead depend on “worthy” LDS men who “hold” and correctly “administer” (by LDS protocol) the LDS priesthood “restored by Joseph Smith.” (NOTE: to read more about how living persons and the operation of the whole church are dependent on the LDS priesthood, see references in the footnotes below.[i-iv])


According to LDS doctrine, when a person dies, while their bodily remains stay in the ground where they are buried, their spirit either goes to Paradise or to a place called Spirit Prison. The spirits of people who have died without the necessary ordinances performed by the proper priesthood authority go to Spirit Prison where they are taught “the restored gospel of Jesus Christ,” as defined by the LDS Church. The spirits stuck in Spirit Prison can either accept or refuse this “gospel” and the ordinances done vicariously for them (if they have been done). If a spirit accepts this gospel while they are in Spirit Prison and if someone on earth has performed the required ordinances for them, a spirit can then enter Paradise and eventually be awarded Eternal Life with God (and as a God[v]) at the final Judgment and resurrection. If a spirit accepts this gospel but the required ordinances have not been done for them, they have to wait—in Spirit Prison—until the “necessary ordinances” are completed for them.


There is only one place these substitutionary ordinances may be performed (by someone with the proper priesthood authority, under the supervision of someone with the designated priesthood oversight). They must be conducted in an LDS Church temple.


Young people with a “Temple Recommend” can go to a temple and be baptized, by immersion (in water), for the dead. This was a church-organized, “youth activity” or “service project” that I participated in a few times. There weren’t any LDS temples in Colorado then, so we had to travel to Utah or Arizona. Each time I went, I was baptized, repeatedly, as I did “the work” for around ten to twenty (or more?) “names” or deceased persons. After being baptized for several names, the officiators would ask if I was okay doing more. I did as many as I could. I felt very righteous and charitable in doing something I knew “the dead” could not do for themselves and depended on us—the living—to do for them.


Vicarious “sealings”—marriages and the sealing of children to parents (as I briefly described in the previous chapter/blog)—can only be done in the LDS Church by someone who has first received their own “endowment” and sealing.[vi] In my adult years, I also vicariously stood in place for quite a few deceased persons to receive these ordinances for them. (These were not the same names for whom I had done vicarious baptisms.)


It was the furthest thing from my mind to compare or examine the purpose and activities of LDS temples with those of the original Tabernacle or Temple in ancient Israel. I thought LDS temple work for the deceased was the most fair-minded teaching and practice ever, and I was proud to be a member of a church that maintained this “glorious” doctrine and practice. I was always excited each time plans for the building of a new LDS temple somewhere in the world were announced. Doing temple work and genealogy in the LDS Church has a flavor similar to serving a foreign mission in Christian circles. Both are considered sacrificial ways to serve others and are highly valued.


Meticulous genealogical records are procured, kept, circulated for temple work, and carefully preserved in dry, temperature-controlled vaults in caves in Utah Valley. “Latter-Day Saints” don’t take this work lightly. They look forward to “the millennium” (the thousand years when Christ will reign on earth before the final judgment the Bible speaks of) when they believe the vicarious work that needs to be done will finally be completed.


As a matter of course, I was, as all LDS people are, highly encouraged to do genealogy, search for ancestors who have not had these essential ordinances done for them, to make sure “the work” is done on their behalf.[vii] For the LDS, this work is done, just as missionary work is done, so all those who have died and who have never heard the “true gospel”—as restored by Joseph Smith—while they lived on the earth will also have the chance to receive “Eternal Life.”


My mom invested many hours doing genealogy work. As stories emerged or she was reminded of stories she already knew, she’d tell them to friends and us kids. Again, she was especially animated about our LDS ancestors who had contributed in major ways to LDS communities and the LDS church. However, growing up, being the ornery child I was toward her, I began to loathe hearing about our ancestors who came across the plains in their covered wagons and especially about the one who carved the original eagle on the Eagle Gate at Temple Square in Salt Lake City (above photo).


Almost all of our ancestors who first joined the LDS Church to follow the LDS prophets did so at great personal cost and sacrifice to themselves. However, as a child and teenager, I didn’t see how merely being a pioneer—as difficult as the trek across the plains and mountains must have been for them—was sufficient to automatically make them worthy of the admiration, bordering on worship, I felt was bestowed on them. I despised what I saw as inordinate devotion. This may or may not have been how my mom felt about our ancestors, but I attributed this to her and many other members of the LDS Church. As far as I could see, the difficulty for the early pioneers in gaining and maintaining their LDS faith was no greater than anyone else’s, then or now.


I’m still not sure I was totally off in my assessment. Veneration of the early pioneers of the LDS Church was easy to come by. We often sang what most would consider “anthems” to the pioneers. A few of the songs continue to be firmly embedded in my head from when I loved to sing them in my youth. One is entitled, “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” with the following rousing lyrics:

1. Come, come, ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear;

But with joy wend your way.

Though hard to you this journey may appear,

Grace shall be as your day.

’Tis better far for us to strive

Our useless cares from us to drive;

Do this, and joy your hearts will swell—

All is well! All is well!


2. Why should we mourn or think our lot is hard?

’Tis not so; all is right.

Why should we think to earn a great reward

If we now shun the fight?

Gird up your loins; fresh courage take.

Our God will never us forsake;

And soon we’ll have this tale to tell—

All is well! All is well!


3. We’ll find the place which God for us prepared,

Far away in the West,

Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid;

There the Saints will be blessed.

We’ll make the air with music ring,

Shout praises to our God and King;

Above the rest these words we’ll tell—

All is well! All is well!


4. And should we die before our journey’s through,

Happy day! All is well!

We then are free from toil and sorrow, too;

With the just we shall dwell!

But if our lives are spared again

To see the Saints their rest obtain,

Oh, how we’ll make this chorus swell—

All is well! All is well![viii]

Another couple of songs imprinted on my memory were written for children; one was called, “The Oxcart” and had these lyrics:

Here comes the oxcart, oh, how slow!

It’s pulled by an ox, of course, you know.

The wooden wheels creak as they roll along.

Creak, creak, creak, creak i-i-is their song [It’s my extension of the word “is,” as we sang it][ix]

The other song was, “Pioneer Children Sang as They Walked,” which went:

Pioneer children sang as they walked and walked and walked and walked.

Pioneer children sang as they walked and walked and walked and walked.

They washed at streams and worked and played.

Sundays they camped and read and prayed.

Week after week, they sang as they walked and walked and walked and walked aaaaand walked [It’s my extension of the word “and,” as we sang it].[x]

These oft-sung songs, among others, along with what sometimes seemed like endless “talks” on the Mormon pioneers, were often incorporated into our Primary, Sunday School, and Sacrament Meetings, especially around Pioneer Day. (I generally liked the songs—but the talks, not so much.)


In Utah, Pioneer Day is a state holiday. Sometimes, as outside sources report, it is just “...called ‘the holiday’ by locals”; it is celebrated annually on July 24th, “or the nearest weekday if it falls on a weekend.”[xi] Its purpose is to commemorate the day “Brigham Young and the first group of Mormon pioneers” entered “Salt Lake Valley in 1847.”[xii] On this anniversary day, almost every town or city in the state of Utah will put on a parade and a city-park picnic with events, including pioneer games, re-enactments, and dressing up as pioneers, mixed sometimes with more modern entertainment.


On the one-hundred-fiftieth or sesquicentennial year, one of my Flake relatives from Snowflake with an authentic (rebuilt), covered wagon joined a pioneer re-enactment that began in the eastern United States. The starting point was where many of the early Mormon pioneers set out to make their journey westward. An article in the official LDS Church magazine, the Ensign, October 1997, reported:

On 22 July 1997, the Mormon Trail wagon train reenactment reached its culmination with an emotional flourish as an estimated 50,000 people greeted the 61 wagons, 9 handcarts, 45 horseback riders, and 380 walkers at This Is the Place State Park near the mouth of Emigration Canyon in Salt Lake City, Utah.

... In all, nearly 10,000 people participated—some for only a few hours, days, or weeks, and others for the entire 93-day journey of more than 1,000 miles from Omaha, Nebraska, to Salt Lake City, Utah. The wagon train reenactment has been a means of letting the world know of the Mormons and their westward migration.

...the journey began on 21 April 1997 from the Mormon Pioneer Cemetery at Winter Quarters in what is now Omaha, Nebraska...[xiii]

At the time, I thought this was a perfectly adventurous, wonderful endeavor. I envied those who got to participate. My husband and I and our small children lived in Utah then. When our Flake relative—extending his trip some weeks—came through our town (in south-central Utah) on his way back down to Snowflake, Arizona, it was a big deal, both for our family and for the town we lived in. He had a warm welcome.


He had been invited to participate in the town’s, postponed, Pioneer Day parade. It was planned for and held on the day he was expected to arrive. Later that day, by his invitation, our little family also joined him, with his covered wagon, at a local picnic held by the (Lucy Hannah) White family in his honor. The town’s people were a little surprised and taken aback to find that our little family—the unintentionally as well as intentionally-shunned newcomers to town—were related to them (the Whites). Not only that, to the chagrin of some, they learned we are even more closely related than they are to the Flake relative they were celebrating. It gave our little family both reluctant and real celebrity status, along with our Flake relative, for a few hours.


Out of curiosity, I read the autobiography of my ancestor, Lucy Hanna White Flake. She was William Flake’s first wife—of their polygamous marriage. I found her story interesting.[xiv] I admired her level of what the LDS call “consecration”—the total giving over of all one’s possessions and self to the Lord. Though it seemed to me she mistakenly mistook dedication to the LDS Church and the principle of polygamy as directed by LDS Church leaders to be one and the same as submitting her will and life to the Lord. It appeared she lived patiently and selflessly—with God’s help, which is what attracted me more than anything else. She seemed to have a good understanding with her husband concerning the mutually agreed-upon relationship with “their” second wife. I ended up with an appreciation and respect for many of her and William Flake’s attitudes and character traits based on how they faced the challenges in their lives—as portrayed by their daughter. They seemed like caring, dedicated, and loyal people.



During my growing-up years at home, I never saw (or noticed), my dad participating in genealogical or family history research. If he didn’t, it was probably because his time was taken up completely by the full-time leadership positions he held in the LDS Church, while also working full-time and raising a family of seven children. It wasn’t until I was an adult that my dad began to dig into and share with my siblings and me more about our LDS predecessors on his side of the family.


My dad grew up on a farm near a small town in Utah—the third of four children, one of two boys. Our ancestors on his side of the family were also Mormon pioneers who settled in various locations in Utah. Some of them were responsible for many of the ornate wood carvings on homes they constructed or helped adorn throughout the Utah Valley and most notably in Midway, Utah. This is where one of our ancestors, John Watkins, settled with his three wives. Our ancestor, Margaret, was his first wife.


As my dad began to do more research, he also grew more animated in talking about his Mormon pioneer ancestors. He became especially fond of talking about John Watkins, who was a bugler for the Martin handcart company and, with others, faced severe hardships coming across the plains. Many pioneers in the same company didn’t make it to “the valley” (Salt Lake) but perished in the early, deep snow and cold on the way.


Independent of things I admired about some of my relatives and ancestors, my early sentiments—that too many LDS people tended to revere the Mormon pioneers to an unrealistic, even unhealthy, degree—had by this time developed into a firm conviction and determination. I will not idolize my own or any other predecessors.


I think if my dad had been more involved in family history when I was young, the seeds for my later resolve would not have grown so readily nor become so strongly rooted as they were by the time I became an adult. By then, my view and feelings on this matter had been so repeatedly affirmed that there was no shrugging them off.


In all honesty, I’m glad this resolution on this topic arose to take hold of my mind and heart so thoroughly. This determination has spurred me to seek a healthy balance in other areas of my life as well. It has also helped me to see the difference between devotion to a church—or people connected with it (prophets, pioneers, church leaders...)—and dedication to God. This distinction was especially amplified after my first encounter with the living Christ, Jesus (a part of my story I will share in a later chapter).


Eventually, as I became an increasingly ardent Christ follower, I also began to recognize it has not been by my efforts or wisdom that I’ve been, and continue to be, sustained and upheld; it is God who helps me; it is God who has given me temporal (earthly) life and who has restored me to live always in His Presence (through His Spirit’s indwelling).


I believe the early Christian martyrs—and even some of the LDS pioneers—who were later put on pedestals or made into statues, placed on altars, and otherwise elevated beyond measure believed this as well. I don’t think they would have liked being given super-star status for their preservation or perseverance. They themselves have said and acknowledged things like, “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:2). They would have wanted the glory or credit for their strength, faith, and endurance to be attributed to the Lord. They would also witness it was God, through the name of Jesus, by His Spirit who got them through their trials and difficulties, and who deserves the glory and praise, forever.


It's not only the early pioneers who receive inordinate credit for their faith and perseverance in LDS circles. Like people all over the world honor their own, the LDS people take pride in famous personalities affiliated with their church, even if they are LDS in name only. They especially like to own those who are thought to be practicing members of (“active” in) the LDS Church, for example, Donny Osmond, the Piano Guys, Glenn Beck, Mitt Romney, and so on.


But more than any of these popular names or the pioneers, the LDS people tend to idolize favorite church leaders, especially particular “modern prophets,” and none more so than Joseph Smith. This makes sense because these men are held to be like prophets of old—direct conduits of God’s word and will—raised up to help establish “the only true church” on the earth in these, “the latter days” (modern times).


The pioneers and the prophets are often inadvertently just as—if not more—beloved, venerated, and glorified in the LDS Church than the Lord Jesus Christ, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, together, are outside the LDS Church. I don’t think LDS people generally realize this. LDS beliefs about eternal family and Eternal Life and the resulting “worthy” pursuits serve as major distractions, in my opinion. Truly, being a “worthy” Latter-Day Saint takes up all one’s time, energy, and resources. And all these works are done with the belief that one is serving God and making oneself and others worthy to receive Eternal Life or exaltation in the highest kingdom of glory.


I didn’t (and still don’t) know my dad’s heart. I do believe both he and my mom mean to love and honor Jesus and God the Father more than anything, including their ancestors and the LDS prophets, and that they have never intended to put anything, including their progenitors and even Joseph Smith, in the place of God.


Whether this is true of any of us—whether we have idols that absorb our thoughts, energy, time, and devotion in place of God—only God knows. One thing I do know is that talk concerning our Mormon pioneer ancestors automatically puts me off, or rather on—the defensive. When my dad, or anyone in my family, begins enthusiastically sharing stories about our ancestors on either side of the family, I find myself having a similar reaction to their zeal as I had initially to my mom’s and others’ seemingly limitless exuberance on this topic.


My dad thoughtfully provided my siblings and me with a book, newly republished, compiled, and written by one of John Watkins’s daughters,[xv] which I have yet to read all the way through. Some of what I have read has been interesting, and yet, I find myself reluctant to wade through all of it. As the Mormon pioneers created deep ruts with their wagons and handcarts, and like the mud they would sometimes get bogged down in—the glorification of forebearers, especially in connection to their LDS faith—expressly in the LDS Church and its leaders—is the mud in a rut that has always bogged me down.


I don’t have this same trouble when there is a clear focus on God and how He Helps His people (by His Spirit) through Jesus. Because the truth is, only Jesus has been able to get me out of the deep pits I’ve gotten into. Only He has been able to restore me to God’s Presence. It’s been well established with me that it’s through His blood and righteousness in my place, not by my own efforts or “worthiness” that I am saved from sin and death and given new life.


I lift up my eyes to the mountains—

where does my help come from?

My help comes from the Lord,

the Maker of heaven and earth.


He will not let your foot slip—

he who watches over you will not slumber;

indeed, he who watches over Israel

will neither slumber nor sleep.


The Lord watches over you—

the Lord is your shade at your right hand;

the sun will not harm you by day,

nor the moon by night.


The Lord will keep you from all harm—

he will watch over your life;

the Lord will watch over your coming and going

both now and forevermore.

(Psalm 121)


 

[i] Exaltation to the LDS people means, after the final judgment, being assigned to live with God the Father, as God’s themselves, in the highest tier of the Celestial Kingdom, which is the highest degree of glory out of three kingdoms of glory (more on this in a future chapter). [ii] See: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Gospel Topics, “Doctrinal Study: Ordinances,” (accessed 1/16/2023) https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/ordinances?lang=eng [iii] See: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Gospel Topics: “Aaronic Priesthood,” “Melchizedek Priesthood,” and “Elders Quorum”; (accessed 1/16/2023) https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/aaronic-priesthood?lang=eng, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/melchizedek-priesthood?lang=eng, and https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/general-handbook/8-elders-quorum?lang=eng&para=title_number3-p180#title_number3 [iv] The LDS “living” rely on the LDS priesthood for the “non-essential” ordinances of setting people apart (for church callings), Patriarchal Blessings (another subject for later), “naming and blessing children, consecrating oil [oil required for various ordinances and blessings], administering to the sick and afflicted,”1 the administration of the Sacrament (communion or the Lord’s supper), conducting LDS Church meetings, and basically for the running of the whole church. All these latter “ordinances,” while not considered “essential,” are for the “comfort, guidance, and encouragement” of the LDS people (see the first footnote above for this reference). [v] I will discuss this doctrine in a later chapter/blog. [vi] See my previous blog/chapter entitled: “Eternal and Extended Family,” to learn more about “sealings.” See below for a description of the LDS “Endowment.” [vii] See: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-principles/chapter-40-temple-work-and-family-history?lang=eng [viii] Clayton, William, text; music: English folk song; Hymns, “Come, Come, Ye Saints, (accessed 1/16/2023,) https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/music/library/hymns/come-come-ye-saints?lang=eng [ix] Anon., Children’s Songbook, “The Oxcart,” (accessed 1/16/2023,) https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/music/library/childrens-songbook/the-oxcart?lang=eng [x] Bates, Elizabeth Fetzer, 1909-1999, Children’s Songbook, “Pioneer Children Sang As They Walked,” (accessed 1/16/2023,) https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/music/library/childrens-songbook/pioneer-children-sang-as-they-walked?lang=eng [xi] Pioneer Day (in lieu) in Utah in 2023 | Office Holidays, (accessed 1/16/2023,) https://www.officeholidays.com › holidays › usa › utah › pioneer-day [xii] Pioneer Day in the United States – Time and Date, (accessed 1/16/2023,) https://www.timeanddate.com › holidays › us › pioneer-day [xiii] Gaunt, LaRene Porter, Associate Editor, and Jennifer Shumway Ballard, “Faith in Every Footstep 18-47-1997: Letting the World Know,” October 1997, (accessed 1/16/2023,) https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1997/10/letting-the-world-know?lang=eng [xiv] “To the Last Frontier,” from the journals of Lucy Hannah White Flake, compiled by her daughter, Roberta Flake Clayton; reprinted 1977. [xv] “John Watkins: A Brief History of the Pioneer,” by Mary A. Schaer, Daughter.

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