Local church helping individuals trace their genealogy
By Maggie Miles/Correspondent
When you think of religion, you normally don’t think of genealogy. But in the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints, the study of our ancestors and their stories are just as important as the relationships we have with our living relatives.
Since 1984, with help from government records, churches and libraries, the church has created the largest collection of family records in the world through a nonprofit they sponsor called Family Search. It hosts a database with records from over three billion (deceased) people from over 100 countries. It’s like a giant online family tree that everyone can contribute information to, and they are partnered with other databases, like Ancestry.com.
“It’s like a Wikipedia for history,” says Elder Boyce, 20, a missionary from Boston, Mass., who teaches people how to use FamilySearch.org at the church’s Nags Head Ward.
The records are available through the website, the world-renowned Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, and through a network of 4,600 local family history centers. At these centers, members of the church, like Boyce, volunteer their time by offering free genealogy consulting to anyone, church member or not. You can go in for a consultation, and they sign you up with a free account, help you start to connect the dots and, most significantly, teach you how to do the research yourself.
“We don’t give them the fish, we teach them to fish,” Carol Hoffman says, a longtime student and consultant for the local Family History Center. Hoffman, of Nags Head, had always wanted to learn genealogy. She tried Family Search when she retired but couldn’t figure it out. In order to hone her skills, she signed up to volunteer at the church’s Family History Center for about 20 hours a week.
Since, she’s helped many people discover their own families’ histories as well as had her own revelations, including discovering her late grandfather and finding his old journals on the site.
“He wrote really well, and he talked about the ancestor she knew about, and it just lets you know about the challenges they went through, and yet they persevered, and it gives you that feeling of hope,” says Hoffman.
Hoffman, Boyce and the other members of the church are interested in this for many reasons.
“I think it gives us a sense of identity to learn more about who we are. As we learn more about the history of our ancestors and the things that made them what they were, it helps us to learn more about who we are, and who we can become,” Boyce says. This was certainly the case for Brenda Hachtman, 70, of Southern Shores. She found records of her family in this country thatdatedbackuntilthe1590s, before the founding of Jamestown. She also found out that she was a descendant of two people from the Mayflower and, wait for it, Cleopatra. With records from around the world, Hatchman traced her family history back centuries.
“It solidifies more of who I am,” she says. “And when you reach out and touch backwards and see the people that you are descended from, it makes me humble. To think of some of these people and what they’ve lived through, the wars and all of that stuff, for me to be able to be here today and discover those people in relation. I look forward to meeting everyone when I leave this earth.”
Anne Jacobson of Kitty Hawk, on the other hand, used the Family History Center to connect to people on this plane. When her daughter planned a destination wedding in Iceland, Jacobson used the church’s resources to discover a vast family history there, one intertwined with historic places, people and farms.
For example, the family wanted to have their wedding in a Viking stave church. The one they chose, a Google search later revealed, was the first place that Mormon missionaries taught people in Iceland. Additionally, the church had a large monument onsite that was sponsored by—who? —Jacobson’s father, aunts and uncles, built in honor of their grandmother!
The Jacobsons took time to re-letter the monument during their trip as well as dive deeper into their family history. Along the way, they discovered they were cousins with Hatchman’s daughter-in-law.
The serendipitous revelations all came from Jacobson’s daughter’s random decision to get married in Iceland and spending a little time with Family Search.
“There were so many things that we were able to find out through the Family- Search program,” she says. “From piecing things together, we were able to go there and have a real depth of history that we wouldn’t be able to have without these resources. It’s amazing.”
For Hoffman, the most heartwarming thing about family history is realizing that our ancestors are near us. Outlining a family tree, contributing knowledge to your ancestors’ stories and, in turn, learning more about them, you feel their spirits.
According to her, discovering stories of your ancestor’s life is priceless.
“There are stories that people have uploaded [about my relatives] that I didn’t know, and it’s just so heartwarming to know, even if it’s just, ‘He was a good man and he lived on the side of a mountain and he was always kind to people,’ ” she says.
“It’s really rewarding. It really is.”