Voice of America, a radio program that has been broadcasting from the U.S. to an international audience for over 50 years and now reaches over 94 million listeners, discussed the role of genealogy within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during a series called “Mainstreet.” The feature on the Church was broadcast overseas on April 1 and appears on the program’s internet site, www.voanews.com.
During her March l7 visit to the Stake Family History Center in McLean, Virginia, VOA reporter Maura Farrelly conducted interviews for this series that highlights aspects of life in the United States. VOA producers chose to report on the LDS Church by focusing on the theological and cultural importance of genealogy to its members. In addition, the program will point out that many of those individuals who use these family history centers are not Latter-day Saints, which reveals the broad appeal of genealogy for both members of the Church and nonmembers alike.
Linda Jonas, internationally known genealogist, author, and director of the McLean Family History Center, explained the library’s resources, the Church’s efforts to gather as well as to disseminate data, and the spiritual reasons behind this effort.
Reflecting that America is a nation of immigrants, Jonas said that people feel a need to gather the threads of their history that will lead them back to their ancestors. Those who come to the center want answers to the questions: “What is my family’s history, and what does that mean for me now?”
A boost to the entire genealogy effort was the Church’s genealogy website, FamilySearch.org, which opened in 1999.
“We had no idea it was going to be so popular,” noted Jonas. “Now, more people than ever are coming in even though they can do much of their own work at home on the Internet. They come because they are more prepared and know exactly which film or book they want to see.”
Explaining the library’s resources, which range from original records to books, software programs, and the Internet, Jonas added that visitors also have access to more than two million roles of microfilm in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Her staff in McLean, all unpaid volunteers, shows visitors how to access this information and basically how to begin their research. The center also offers classes for all levels of expertise, from beginners to published researchers.
“When a person comes in and knows little about their genealogy, we just start with what they know and go from there,” said Jonas. She demonstrated by looking up a few of Ms. Farrelly’s own relatives in County Cavan, Ireland.
As a former teacher of American History who has done some genealogy herself, Farrelly said studies show that America is the most “pluralistic religious society” and that genealogy is an “American phenomenon.” When she suggested that her listeners would want to understand the doctrinal basis for LDS genealogical research, Jonas explained the significance of the family in relation to sacred temple ordinances.
“We believe that everyone will have the opportunity to learn about Jesus Christ,” emphasized Jonas, “and this work is part of a greater plan.”
Farrelly was also interested in the mutually beneficial aspects of the Church’s microfilming efforts. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints contacts governmental agencies and churches around the world and asks to film records, then provides the source with a free copy when the work is completed. This effort is very active in South America, where there are many new LDS converts, and in Eastern Europe, where the records were inaccessible until only a few years ago.
Farrelly concluded her taping with interviews of Family History Center patrons, including Marj Latimer and Louise Perry, both members of the McLean, Virginia Stake, and Jim Wall, an enthusiastic genealogist who is a member of the Presbyterian Church. Wall has enjoyed learning more about his grandfather who fought on both sides of the Civil War.
“My family is fractured now, split up by death,” he mused, commenting that genealogy is a way “to connect with relatives who have passed on as well as with those who are still living. This place has great resources, and if a person is doing family research, this is the place to come.”
Jonas agreed. “I love working here because I feel it’s my sacred responsibility to help others find their roots, plus I like to see the excitement people feel when they find their ancestors and learn who they themselves are. “ She paused for a moment to look around the room, busy with people reading books about their ancestors, piecing together family lines on ancestry charts, or scrolling through microfiche readers.
“A lot of tears are shed here,” she reflected. “I’ll hear someone say, ‘Oh, it all makes sense now!’ So at its very core, genealogy becomes a quest for one’s own identity.”
The broadcast, aired in 54 languages, also informed listeners that similar family history centers can be found in those areas where there are large numbers of LDS church members.