More than just compiling names, true family history, which reaches into both the past and the future, is about saving people from obscurity, an emeritus General Authority said July 27 in the keynote address beginning the 34th annual Conference on Family History and Genealogy at BYU.
Elder Dennis B. Neuenschwander, who served as a member of the Seventy from 1991-2004 — including four years in the presidency of that quorum — acknowledged names are important in genealogical research. He added, "Knowledge of the historic context in which our ancestors lived, the details of their lives, and the experiences that shaped their personalities are essential to our understanding of ourselves."
Thus, in researching family, "we're really researching ourselves," he said. "We research our own personalities, we research the traits we receive from our ancestors. We know why we feel the way we do about certain things; we know why our eyes are the way they are, or the shape of our nose."
Elder Neuenschwander said, "For the Latter-day Saints there are powerfully beautiful doctrines that provide not only the foundation for the identification of our ancestors but for their salvation as well."
He added, "The plan of salvation and the Atonement of Jesus Christ are the very backbone of genealogical research. They are eternal and they are infinite in their meaning and in their breadth. There is no end to them."
If there were no other doctrine in the Church than that of the plan of salvation and mortality being a probationary state, Elder Neuenschwander said, it would be enough to convert him.
"But what about our ancestors who lived and loved and filled their lives with good things to the extent of the knowledge they may have had?" he asked. "Is there any hope for them? Are they lost? Or does Christ's Atonement provide for them the exact same hope as it does for us?"
If salvation comes by obedience to ordinances established for that very purpose, and, as Joseph Smith taught, they are unalterable and required of every individual, "then there must be a way for a just and loving God to reclaim and save all of His children," he said. "Otherwise, it seems to me that He would neither be just nor loving, but would be a respecter of persons, something He has said He is not."
Each individual must have the right and privilege of accepting or rejecting the saving ordinances and principles, Elder Neuenschwander said. "The identification of our ancestors and the performance of sacred ordinances on their behalf provide a way for them to make this very decision."
He emphasized that priesthood ordinances make available the full blessing of Christ's Atonement.
"An ordinance is a sacred and outward act that introduces us to a sacred covenant wherein lies the power of godliness," he said. For example, the ordinance of baptism enables the remission of sin, which only God can accomplish, he explained.
"Only the person who goes through this process of repentance and baptism and who feels, because of that preparation, the remittance of sin, knows this mystery; there is no other way to know it," he said. "The ordinance without the covenant lacks power, and the covenant without the ordinance is impossible."
The requirements and promises are the same for each son or daughter of God, Elder Neuenschwander said. "Only in such a way can God be just, loving and unchanging."
He said the purpose of missionary work and the gathering of Israel is to bring to God's children, both living and dead, priesthood ordinances and salvation.
He contrasted the hope in the scriptural passage about Elijah coming to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and children to the fathers with the obscurity and loneliness in the words of Malachi that speak of destruction at the last day "unless we do something to prevent it."
"By the third or fourth generation," he said, "our ancestors live in obscurity. They are lost from memory. But the obscurity of which Malachi speaks is much more. It is a spiritual obscurity, a spiritual wasteland in which one stands alone, disconnected from ancestors and posterity alike."
He added, "Without the saving ordinances of the gospel, without the priesthood and its power, we would all be alone; we would all be disconnected. Isn't that a terrible thing to contemplate?"
Family history work is the saving of one's ancestors from the spiritual obscurity in which they reside, Elder Neuenschwander said.
"But for me, there is yet an important question to be asked," he said. "Does not family history reach as easily to future generations as to past ones?"
He noted that quality of life is affected by knowledge of one's ancestors because it gives one a sense of identity and personal responsibility "that, really, can come only in that way."
"If this is true, is it not also true that our posterity will be so influenced by our lives?" he asked.
"If we do not create records that document our lives, or that of our families, knowledge of who we are is lost within a generation or two, and we become those who are lost in obscurity," he said. "Without that knowledge, our posterity becomes disconnected from their roots and from the nourishment those roots provide."