Sunday, July 29, 2018

Come Follow Me: Why is it important to learn about my family history?

I substitute-taught a Sunday school lesson for the 16-17 year olds today. The official teacher asked me to teach a lesson from August instead of one of the July ones, in particular, the one about Family History. I’m going to share some of the things that I did, what I had them do, and what I talked about.

When class started, I asked them to each tell me a little bit about what family history experience they had had. I wanted to gauge their experience level so that I could tell what level of information would be most interesting and informative to them. (Some had done indexing, a few had found names to take to the temple, some were good at finding the green temple icons that indicated individuals who needed temple work done.)

I started by having them read Malachi 4:5-6. This is the scripture about how Elijah would come to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to their fathers.

I asked them, what that meant to them. They seemed to have a vague idea that it meant love.

To me, when hearts are turned to each other across generations, there is a curiosity to know about each other, a desire to help the other, to learn about, to connect somehow.  I shared this with them, and then I showed a video called “Family History: What I Found”.


This is a really wonderful video on a number of different levels. (I didn’t explain past the first point to the class, but I will to you.)
1) It shows the process that one young man went through to learn more about his grandfather. He was intrigued by a journal account about the war and what his grandfather hadn’t recorded. This led to all kinds of research to try to understand what his grandfather went through and why he hadn’t written anything a particular experience.
2) It shows (completely without any explanation) a wide variety of different types of family history documentation that we can look for. Only someone who had begun to do family history would notice the nice mix of sources that had been carefully curated for this film. If you were trying to figure out what to put in a personal history, you could watch this movie with the sound off and take note of the types of pictures, home movies, written accounts, and why they were each selected. If you followed those examples, you’d have an excellent, efficient result, and your descendants would probably be very happy.
3) It shows us tangible objects that belonged to our progenitors become more meaningful when we learn the stories behind them. For the narrator of that movie, it was his dead grandfather’s gun that he saw in a picture and which he finally found after an exhaustive search of the house.

To me, that movie shows an example how our hearts begin to be turned to our fathers. We learn something that intrigues us—like a narrative hole in an otherwise detailed account— then we want to know more. (Sometimes the feeling of responsibility isn’t automatically there, but curiosity will do just as well.)

At this point of the lesson, I showed the class a belt buckle that belonged to my maternal grandfather, J. Wallace McKnight. It’s square and has a dark blue stone. My Grandpa McKnight liked gems and minerals, and he had a few belt buckles with interesting stones on them. I like to wear that belt buckle sometimes, and it reminds me of him.

I showed them a pearl necklace that I was wearing. My maternal grandmother, Barbara McKnight, liked gems and minerals too, and she had collected those pearls, but never made anything out of them. When I went through her household articles with my mom, I chose those pearls, and I made a necklace out of them to remind me of my Grandma.

(I also had a copy of a big family history book that I could have showed the class, but I didn’t get to that. If I’d had more time, I might have asked them if they or their parents had anything that belonged to their grandparents or ancestors and asked them to tell about those objects if they had.)

In the church, we often think of family history work as pushing the boundaries at the edges of our tree to find names to take to the temple, but it also involves documenting and recording what we (or others) know about the family around us now so that future generations beyond our lifetimes can know them too. (I wish I could have made this point to my class, but I didn’t think to at the time.)

What got me into family history research?  It took a while. I had a PAF file from my dad that I toyed with, but I never quite knew what to do with it. I wondered where all those names and dates came from and how I could know they were accurate. How did anyone add any information on to their family tree?

Finally I decided to take a class in family history. This was an act of faith for me. At the time that I signed up for it, I didn’t want to do it because I knew it would make me work hard on my family history, and I was scared of it. But I knew Heavenly Father wanted me to learn how to do this stuff, and I had hope that I would look back at the end of the class and be glad I had done it. I had hope that I would be much less intimidated by the prospect of doing family history if I had taken a class in it. (All those things I hoped for, I was actually seeing with the eye of faith.)

The class I took was actually through ASU, and it was a writing class. The class was “Writing Family History Narratives,” taught by a certified genealogist.  The big final project was to write a narrative of every person in our 4-generation pedigree chart, including us. All the assignments were geared toward collecting documents to use for the final project. The narrative was to have citations from primary sources. During that class, we learned about primary sources and interviewing and databases and searching techniques. We learned about immigration and slave schedules and censuses and church registrations and a heck-lot of stuff.  I bugged all my aunts and uncles for family history narratives and a number of stories seemed to appear out of the woodwork that I hadn’t known existed. I wrote my 4-generation narrative (duly cited), and then when the class was over, I heaved a sigh of relief, and didn’t touch family history again for another three or four years.

Then on a chance visit to Familysearch, I noticed that the website had suddenly sprouted a way to attach sources to people in our family tree. Suddenly all my knowledge about sources could be applied in a way that could directly impact me and my family members! I might not know enough to extend the branches to find new ancestors yet, but by golly, I could document things with sources!  I could attach the certificates and narratives I had found, add pictures, and so forth. I could search for sources on Familysearch and add them to individuals on my tree.  So that’s what I did.

One major way that my perspective about family history changed after taking that class was in the amount of joy that I got from the research. Before I took that class, I felt like, “If only I could find a name and take it to the temple, I could feel the joy of family history.” But after taking the class, I discovered that I could feel joy all along the way. Every time I find a new source to attach to an individual on my family tree, I feel joy. (I feel joy even if I’m adding sources to people who have already had temple work done.) The more sources I find, the more joy I feel. When I find new people, I feel joy. When I see an individual is ready to have temple work done for them, I feel joy. When I take those names to the temple…I feel satisfaction.   Do you see? I learned we can feel joy all along the way, not just at the end.

(I gave the youth a very shortened version of the above story)
I told these stories so that the youth could understand some of the roadblocks I dealt with in order to get involved in family history. Roadblocks can be very similar, and I hoped to inspire them to try different things.

I also felt like the youth needed to do something to be active learners in this lesson, so I hit upon the idea of having them try out the Familytree app. 

Familytree is a mobile app created by the Church, and it basically makes your family tree accessible through your phone.  It has a tasks section that will aggregate a list together of people who need ordinances (so you can reserve them), people who have record hints (so you can evaluate the records and attach them if they match), people who are missing information (so you can start your search there and hopefully find more records for them).  This app is a very useful thing. They make it possible to do simple family history tasks ON YOUR PHONE! 

The youth were willing to try to download the Familytree app right there in class, but the church’s wifi was too slow and they got stuck. (If I had been a regular teacher, I think I would have called the students a few days ahead of time and asked them to download the app at home and then we could do cool stuff in class.)

One feature of the app that I didn’t expect was in the “more” section. It was called “Relatives Around Me.” I had a hunch about what this would do, and in class, I tried it out with one of the boys who had the app on his phone. We both went to that section, gave permission for our trees to be shared with each other, and the app calculated how he and I were related.  It turned out that we were 9th cousins, once removed!  I could tell by how chatter erupted that the class was fascinated by this.

They were all very interested. Some were skeptical, but we could show them the line of ancestors that went back and met at the top in one person. I challenged them to download the app at home and play around with it to see what they could see and do with it. (I also called their official teacher in the evening and told her what I challenged them to do so she could follow up with them next week on this.)

I wanted to show them, and how I use that to find new cousins and cousin families, but as I was pulling up the website, I noticed the teens had a look in their eyes that made me think they needed a change of pace, so I pulled out an online Jeopardy gameon family history, and we played that for the last 5-8 minutes or so.  They were very interested in that, and it made them think about family history researching methodology, though who knows how long the stuff will stick.... (If I had been a regular teacher of that class, I probably would have inflicted Puzilla on them the next week.)

At the end, I bore testimony that they could have joy all along the way as they did family history work, and that I knew it would protect them from the evils and temptations of the world.

I believe that family history takes a certain special brand of charity to do because you in effect save people who you will never meet during your lifetime (except maybe in a dream or vision or other highly spiritual experience) and who otherwise won’t get a chance to thank you. That special kind of charity will refine us and enable us to make good choices, even leading us to sacrifice pleasures of the moment for the good of future generations yet unborn. We can save past generations through family history and temple work, and we will be given the strength to resist temptations and escape snares whose blighting effects would reach down through generations of descendants.