Perpetuating Myths About Mormon Genealogy

KenneallyI was interested in the New Republic article found over in the “Worth Reading” bar. The article is titled The Mormon Church Is Building a Family Tree of the Entire Human Race, and is excerpted from Christine Kenneally’s new book, The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures.

In this excerpt, Ms. Kenneally initially seems to be praising the efforts of the LDS Church for assiduously collecting records of the human family. She writes about how knowledge of family history reduces anxiety and is correlated with other improved outcomes for children. The magnitude of the collection is many times the information contained in the US Library of Congress, with information being added at a rate similar to adding the contents of the Library of Congress every year. Kenneally notes how these efforts have driven technology.

But then the article begins to focus on the negative. First up is the conjecture that if only the records in the Church vaults were to survive, the future remnants of humanity might think everyone was Mormon. Despite the explanation that proxy ordinances are an offer to the dead, rather than hijacking the identity of the dead against their will, Kenneally’s eloquently explains the concern of those groups who oppose the Church’s efforts to offer salvation to all. Kenneally clearly hasn’t used the website, which has ample facility for capture an individual’s actual life experiences.

Further, the article goes on to say some future, post-apocalyptic remnant looking at the LDS records would presume there had never been anyone who was married to someone else of the same gender and implies that there is no way to record extra-marital children. This, again, is absurd.

The website defaults do focus on the idea that a child has two parents, a mother and a father. However it is perfectly possible to add as many parents as one wishes. Further, one can add any number of notations regarding ceremonies, including photos and stories. Therefore it is completely possible to document as much as anyone wants about their family history, including non-traditional families.

Where the GUI of the Family Search website will offend those in same-gendered relationships is the continually insistence that one add a wife (to a male individual) or a husband (to a female individual).

On the other hand, my deceased son, who died when he was only 8 days old, also has that same GUI suggestion:

Arthur

I suppose as the mother of an infant that died, I could get seriously bent out of shape. Heck, were I still an individual who wished to be married and who hadn’t yet achieved that desirable state (or who no longer had a spouse), I could get seriously bent out of shape.

And yet, what harm has been done in past generations because there wasn’t a prompt requesting that the spouse’s information get recorded? How many of us are able to trace our male progenitors, but find ourselves unable to identify the females, beyond perhaps a first name?

A PC version of Family Search might refrain from suggesting a spouse be added if the individual was at least X years old. But I don’t know what value one would add for X. Making X equal to zero ensures that one doesn’t have to deal with offending by specifying an age at which it is appropriate to marry.

A PC version of Family Search might find a more generic term, like spouse. But what of people who have engendered children without benefit of legal ceremony? They aren’t spouses, and yet we do want them entered in. Would we want to specify the nature of the relationship between individuals in a relationship? Then would we have wife, mistress, random lass, sex partner? And how would we translate that into other languages?

A PC version of Family Search might allow anyone to be added as a spouse, where it currently insists that a spouse must be of the opposite gender. Here I actually am a bit sympathetic with those who complain, merely because if we want to capture information about the whole human family, it might not be helpful to leave barriers that alienate individuals up front. If a hypothetical Madison Brown, who is in a same gender relationship, declines to ever interact with Family Search because of the GUI, then Madison Brown’s relatives will never be able to learn of the information Madison might have added to the database.

Thus we are poorer, through lack of information.

I can imagine that there are those who want to make certain that the Church doesn’t acknowledge same gender relationships as having the potential to become eternal, as we hope can be the case for heterosexual relationships. This could be handled via policies regarding which relationships may be solemnized by proxy in the temple, rather than via the GUI that all users must interact with. But any decision to modify the GUI will be up to those in charge of Family Search.

In the mean time, if folks are desperate to ensure that they are recorded as they are, then I would suggest that they use the system and make full use of the existing tools to document their lives, their unique beliefs and the individuals they care about.

Despite the impression conveyed by Ms. Kenneally’s article, the LDS genealogy work and tools do not prevent actual history from being recorded. Any who assert that they prevent documentation betray their ignorance about the tools.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but may have privately defied the commandment for love of his wife, Emma.

22 thoughts on “Perpetuating Myths About Mormon Genealogy

  1. I also think it is worth mentioning that the main purpose of the records that the church keeps is to make temple ordinances available to all, not necessarily to record all the doings of the human race. In that sense it makes total sense that some of the more politically correct suggestions are not implemented.

  2. The reason the Church invests in these records and genealogical tools is in the hope that temple ordinances can eventually be made available to all mankind. But if all we cared about was doing ordinances, we could simply perform a bunch of them and let God hand them out like MREs.

    I think there is a functional reason for us to seek out our dead individually. And I think that has to do with us knowing them, cherishing them. In my opinion, we can’t do that fully if we only have a redacted and limited image of who they were.

    If you read the article I was critiquing, you’d see that I’m reacting to two specific critiques she makes about the Church tools, in the context of a book about how history shapes the future. She (incorrectly IMO) asserts that the Church tools are excluding and deforming history. I do not agree with that view, other than acknowledging that when individuals choose not to add their information to the tools, the tools become limited by that lack of use.

  3. Re-writing the structure of a family tree (which is the basis for the Family Search site) would be excluding and deforming history. There is no child born without a father. There is no child born without a mother. Even the case I saw on a documentary about infertility, where a gay man purchased an anonymous egg and had the infant carried by an anonymous surrogate, can’t avoid the fact that there is still a mother’s DNA in that child.

  4. Granted that there is always going to be a woman involved in producing a child. There will also be a man involved. Therefore no same-gender relationship that includes nurturing children can have more than one partner listed as a biological parent.

    For a moment let’s think of the use case where a child who has been engendered by reproductive technology is recorded as the child of a traditional couple. If they are being honest, they will not lay claim to biological relationships that don’t, in fact, exist. I am not aware that the identity of individuals donating eggs or sperm is routinely recorded or even provided in such situations.

    As I’ve written about before, there are multiple situations related to same-gender unions with respect to children:

    1) There are no children.
    2) There are children from other relationships where both the biological father and mother are known.
    3) There are adopted children.
    4) Children have been created using “purchased” sperm, egg, and/or womb.

    The methods for documenting cases 1-3 are already established. Case 4 already exists for heterosexual couples.

    At issue here is not whether an inidvidual will be prompted to input information on a mother and a father. Rather the question for individuals like Ms. Kenneally and others sensitive about this issue is whether the Church website will allow the record of civil relationships that various states term marriages.

    There are use cases that would benefit from some flexibility in the tree. For example, my first daughter is the biological child of my first husband, however the man she primarily considers her father is my second husband. She has always referred to both of them as “Dad.” She might appreciate the ability to view three parents in Family Tree, allowing her to easily trace each of her parents’ trees without having to toggle. As for covenant relationships, she was born in the covenant when I was sealed to my first husband, but that sealing has been cancelled and I am now sealed to my second husband. However that cancellation of sealing does not rupture her sealing to her biological father.

    In another situation, my ancestor Job Welling was married to four women over the course of his life, three of whom were biological sisters who were all married to him at the same time, and who nurtured his 20 surviving children for decades after his death. Even though the children recognized one of the four women as their biological mother, the other women also served as their mothers.

    In both these cases, the folks I am talking about have been able to function with the GUI as it currently is. However if there are reasons for considering a more flexible GUI for situations that have nothing to do with same gender relationships, I submit such GUI updates could reasonably be considered.

  5. But if all we cared about was doing ordinances, we could simply perform a bunch of them and let God hand them out like MREs.

    Could we? I can’t claim to have made an exhaustive study of the subject; but I have a dim impression that Mormon theology and liturgy gives names a significance–perhaps even a power–that are very easily overlooked.

    I think there is a functional reason for us to seek out our dead individually. And I think that has to do with us knowing them, cherishing them. In my opinion, we can’t do that fully if we only have a redacted and limited image of who they were.

    I think that’s an integral part of it; but one that the Church has downplayed until fairly recently. The software’s primary purpose is to facilitate the temple work, and gay marriage/gay parenting has no place in those eternal relationships. I’d rather see FamilySearch remain incomplete, than see a “complete” version hijacked for the purposes of an extremist agenda.

    I suspect there are few things the libertine wing of the Church would love more, than to exploit gender vagaries in the FamilySearch program and then present thousands of proxy same-gender sealings to the Church as a fait accompli.

  6. The Church would like to have a website that the whole world uses, coming to consensus on a shared vision of the human family. To this end they have created this grand resource that is offered to individuals and governments alike for capture of information. This face of the tool is agnostic. For example, it is strictly forbidden for Family History Center workers to proselyte. If one isn’t a member of the Church, the website doesn’t show anything about temple ordinances. This is the reason that there is a notation that we are to avoid discussing temple ordinances/status/etc. in the open comments.

    The second face of the tool, the face active Mormons see, is the aspect that allows us to use the tool to identify our own relatives and prepare ordinances for our own family members. In the past, the tool was much harder to use, yet it allowed ordinance work to be prepared for individuals who were not strictly relations of the user. Family Search is trying very hard to stop users from performing ordinances for individuals for whom they aren’t related, who are members of restricted groups (e.g., the Jewish holocaust victims), or even relatives who have more direct relations who object to temple ordinance work being done.

    I am arguing that the agnostic face of the tool could have the GUI modified to allow capture of all configurations individuals might wish to view as family. The side of the tool that allows members to perform ordinances need not permit sealing ordinances between individuals who current doctrine doesn’t permit sealing.

    What I am arguing is that the agnostic face of Family Search could have a GUI that better aligned with the aim of inviting all mankind to make use of Family Search. Most of what I see written in comments regarding the current GUI borders on false doctrine, and at the very least isn’t written by individuals who have been trained over the years on the policies and capabilities and long-term strategies of Family Search.

  7. I think what tipped me off that she didn’t respect Mormons at all is her description of the building next to the Joseph Smith Memorial Building as the “white, Disney castle-like Mormon Temple.”

    Her historian excitement is overwrought. If in the wreckage of SLC in our likely dystopian future, an historian finds a wedding cake topper with two men on it. They’ll think everyone in Utah was gay! Be afraid! Be suspicious of these people, because someone in the future might make an incorrect assumption, and it will be -their- fault! Why didn’t we stop them? Oh, the humanity!

    I hope the rest of the book does better, but from the excerpt, it’s a little hope.

  8. Meg – thank you for your well-written post and your perspective is helpful to me as a non-LDS genealogist and as a gay man who’s made a career out of genealogy. I reviewed the Kenneally book earlier this week at my site GeneaBloggers (http://www.geneabloggers.com/review-invisible-history-human-race/) and also read her article/post at The New Republic and thought it was a good read and immersion into various aspects of genealogy including the function of FamilySearch and the LDS Church in the genealogy industry.

    One issue I have with your post is the perception of a “PC version” of Family Tree on FamilySearch or some mechanism for recording family history. I’m assuming PC means “politically correct,” a definition which seems to be fluid depending on who is using the word. I don’t see that a request to be able to add a legal spouse of the same sex as “PC.” In over 30 states – including Utah – marriage equality is the law in this country. It is a fact. Plain and simple. I find that people who use the term PC often feel victimized as if their rights were being trampled on. Rights extend as far as the tip of your nose. My same-sex marriage does not impact you or anyone else except me and my spouse. It doesn’t raise the price you pay for coffee. It doesn’t mean that you can’t do something. It doesn’t force a church to change its doctrine. It doesn’t prevent you from pursuing happiness. It just says that in the eye of the law – civil law – that I have the same options as anyone else. The sky has not fallen nor will it ever fall because two people in love want to have the same legal protections as everyone else.

    Speculating that someone could then add almost anyone (sex partner, mistress, one night stand) is part of tried and true (and stale) arguments I’ve heard for years when it comes to marriage equality. What you left out is the ability to marry a dog, or a tree or an inanimate object (that argument is used frequently as well). We all know that marriage is a contract which requires consent – and inanimate objects can’t give consent.

    Yes genealogy is about blood lines. That’s why I prefer to pursue family history which is inclusive when it comes to family and the influences on a person’s life. Otherwise we are left with pure pedigree, much like tracking AKC blood lines for dams and sires in the dog world.

    If FamilySearch wants the general public to document true family history including those who raised them besides those who provided equal parts of their DNA by being born, then perhaps there does need to be a dual system of documentation. If FamilySearch wants to remain competitive with other products such as Ancestry.com and RootsMagic, then it should listen to its user base and offer an option. Doing so does not change any church’s doctrine. It simply recognizes humanity as it is.

  9. Hi Thomas,

    As you can see from the responses I’ve gotten here (other than the atta boy notes), folks are criticizing me for suggesting that there might be utility in making the Family Search GUI more generic and flexible.

    You seem to be under the misimpression that you can only input one set of parents for an individual. You can add as many parents as you wish, step parents, bio parents, adoptive parents, etc. If you add the parents as a heterosexual couple, then you won’t be dogged by the suggestion of adding an alternately-gendered spouse to a parent, but you can add twenty fathers to an individual, if you had an individual who wanted to acknowledge the influence of twenty fathers in their life.

    As for life events, Family Search has the ability to allow upload of text files (I forget the character limit, but you can upload books worth of material in each record) and pictures. You can add events to acknowledge important milestones. I believe this can be customized. You can add children with any mix of parentage between yourself and others.

    The one thing you can’t currently do is add a spouse who is the same gender in the default tree view. You can document the relationship using a wide variety of other functions in Family Search, however, specifically the stories and life events functions.

    For example, I mentioned my daughter’s situation, with having two fathers and two mothers. These are all documented in Family Search. It is merely that the default tree view won’t allow her to show two parents who aren’t of separate genders or who haven’t been linked as “married” in the system. So to see her full range of individuals who are parents, she has to toggle in the GUI.

    In the case of same gender individuals in a committed relationship, Family Search doesn’t have a mechanism for showing a linkage between them if they don’t share a relationship to a child. And as mentioned, it won’t allow the view for that child to show the two same-gendered parents simultaneously.

    In software, when people report bugs, the incident reports are assigned a priority and an urgency While this GUI issue is obviously irritating to some, the GUI doesn’t prevent individuals from recording their actual situation on the LDS servers at the expense of the LDS Church. The question becomes, then, whether the inability to make the default tree view display the information desired by a segment of the user base constitues a Pri 1 defect. Adjudication of the severity of a problem reported by the user community is done by those with a responsibility and accountability for Family Search, not by consensus of the users.

    Actually, through use of the photos and stories, Family Search begins to meld the social interactions that aren’t even familial. I can put up a photo of a group of college friends, link the picture to the ID numbers/names for those in the picture, and thuse Family Search allows you to capture relationships other than even family ties. I could upload an autobiography, for example, where each segment links not only to the subject of the biography, but to all the individuals mentioned in the biography.

    Again, I come back to the impression that people are speaking about the limitations of Family Search without being actually familiar with its power to capture the multi-dimentional aspects of a life, as contributed by a wide range of interested parties.

  10. Meg says: “I think there is a functional reason for us to seek out our dead individually. And I think that has to do with us knowing them, cherishing them. In my opinion, we can’t do that fully if we only have a redacted and limited image of who they were.”

    This is a great point. The ordinances are secondary in that they have evolved and been reinterpreted in the days since Joseph Smith, when everyone was sealing themselves to Joseph Smith’s family, not their ancestors. Sealing yourselves to your ancestors was a reinterpretation by Heber J. Grant of Joseph Smith’s revelations which deemphasized the importance of specific blood lines, while still retaining a theological motivation for performing ordinances for the dead.

    Honoring the dead through an ordinance is an act of “turning the hearts of the children to the fathers,” and the spirits that accept the ordinances turn their hearts to us. Dogmatic theological interpretations may help some people find the motivation to do the work, but they are a bit ridiculous when you think about it logically. But I still love genealogy and temple work because I see it as a beautiful way of honoring ancestors and binding ourselves to them in our hearts.

  11. Nate, I thought it was Wilford Woodruff, as president of the church, who implemented the change that you ascribe to HJG. I’m too lazy to do an online search for it right now, but can you clarify your reference to HJG if you have a better recollection/understanding of what I’m thinking that WW said?

  12. I love the worry that future generations will somehow be confused and think that everybody was Mormon. Shouldn’t it be obvious what is going on with a man who was born in 1722 and died in 1786 and never left Birmingham, England but has a baptisim date in Bogata, Columbia in 2008?

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