The world's largest archive devoted to genealogical research is located in Salt Lake City, Utah and it's run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The Family History Library was founded in 1894 and it currently has more than 3,400 branch offices in 88 countries. VOA's Maura Farrelly recently visited a branch office in suburban Washington, DC, to find out why Mormons, as church members are called, are so interested in their ancestors.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has collected more than 2 million rolls of microfilmed genealogical records, 742,000 sheets of microfiche, and 300,000 books devoted to ancestral research. The church has also created a database that consists of about fifty million names, all of them linked to one another through an extensive family-tree. In 1999, when that database was first made available on line, the web site crashed, because so many people were trying to access it. Researchers are now sent to an on-line queue whenever too many individuals are exploring the site. Linda Jonas is director of the Family History Center in McLean, Virginia.
She says Mormon Church officials are constantly combing through marriage certificates, tax rolls, and birth and death records all over the world in a quest to add to the Church's collection. "The Family History Library contacts various governments throughout the world, other churches, private individuals, and asks if they can microfilm the records. So if a government, for example, consents to have their records filmed, the Family History Library sends in a crew of people who microfilm the records, they give that government a copy of the records for free, and they bring one copy back to Salt Lake City, where it's stored in granite vaults in the Rocky Mountains, and so it can never be destroyed," she says.
The Church also makes one copy of the microfilm available for circulation among its 3,400 branch offices. When a crew goes in to photograph a set of records, they aren't just looking to document the ancestors of church members. They're looking to document everyone. And they're also looking to make those records available to everyone. You don't have to be Mormon to visit a Family History Center, and you also don't have to be concerned that someone may try to convert you while you're there. Proselytizing is banned at all of the branch offices, and in fact, many volunteers here are non-Mormon.
But that doesn't mean there's no theological motive behind the Church's commitment to genealogical research. Linda Jonas says Mormons believe family relationships are eternal, and they also believe everyone has the opportunity to return to God, provided they've accepted Jesus Christ and received certain church ordinances, among them baptism and marriage. "This is wonderful news for those of us who had the opportunity to learn of Jesus Christ and to choose to follow him. But we know that there are millions of people that lived on earth who never had that opportunity. And it would be unthinkable for a loving, heavenly father not to provide every single person with that same opportunity," she says. "Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are very concerned about their entire families, so they seek out their ancestors, and perform those ordinances on their behalf."
Finding one's ancestors can be a very moving experience for Mormons because of the religious beliefs leading to the search. Louise Perry has already tracked down her biological ancestors, and now she's searching for the family of her grandfather's second wife. "I know nothing about my grandfather's other wife, who lived in Mexico. And I'm just trying to find out who her children were, and if temple work has been done for them," she says. "I would like to go to the temple and do this work, for whoever I can find. So we can all be together."
So far, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has done its most extensive archiving in North America and western Europe, because that's where the ancestors of most of the Church's current members lived. But as more and more people in Central and South America have chosen to convert to Mormonism, the Church has begun to ask governments there for permission to photograph records. It has also made a concerted effort to document records in eastern Europe, an area that was completely closed off to the Church throughout the Communist era.