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RootsTech is an annual family history and genealogy conference, sponsored in part by FamilySearch, that was held last weekend in Salt Lake City. The last day of the conference is called Family Discovery Day where Latter-day Saint families can attend classes, workshops, hands-on demonstrations and hear an apostle speak about the importance of temple and family history work.
President Dallin H. Oaks and Sister Kristen M. Oaks spoke to thousands in the hall and another 300,000 through online streaming at Family Discover Day at RootsTech sharing the secret of family resilience and the way to help our children and ourselves be strengthened and empowered in these sometimes difficult times.
It was a presentation dotted with videos of family history stories, gatherings at the Oaks home and enthusiastic comments from youth temple and family history consultants who report that doing family history has changed their young lives. These are youth who have turned to connecting to FamilySearch instead of only Facebook and other social media.
What may be a surprise is just how much doing family history can help youth change their lives.
The Oaks gave three ideas that we should remember when doing family history. Discover. Gather. Connect.
President Oaks said, “Family stories count. Children should know that they belong to something bigger than themselves.”
He noted that a recent study by a university in the south concluded persuasively “that if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the stories of your ancestors positive moments. Emphasize their ability to bounce back and persist through adversity. That act alone will increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.”
He said, “We learn better who we are, where we come from and are blessed with a clearer vision of where we are going when individuals and families search out their ancestors’ inspiring actions and words. They will receive strength and direction for their own lives.”
Sister Oaks acknowledged, “I know that I would not be sitting on this stage without such stories. The journals we keep and the stories we tell have the capacity to teach the gospel to those who come after us, even if faith may have skipped a generation or if ancestors are not on earth to share their testimonies.”
Her home was filled with the writings of her grandfather, Joseph Straus Peery, and a favorite memory was spending hours down in the basement poring through his journals and family photos. “In truth, she said, “much of my religious training came from this grandfather, a man I had never met in this life. His thoughts, his faith, his stories of our family, their heartbreaks and victories, persistence and love of the Savior inspired me.”
Sister Oaks great grandfather, David Harold Peery, also empowered her with hope and faith. At age 28 in 1852, he was the most eligible bachelor in Tazewell County Virginia where he already owned a farm and had opened the most profitable store.
This was just about the time the Higgenbothams, an LDS family arrived from Nauvoo, penniless, and too destitute to accompany the Saints to the West. People claim it was love at first sight, when “that little Mormon girl”, Nancy Higgenbotham, arrived at the store one day to purchase supplies. Their marriage prospered and flourished in every way but one. David disliked her faith and tried to dissuade her from its teachings.
He brought two Protestant ministers to try to talk her out of her faith, but Nancy had studied the scriptures and “could wind him up so tight, he couldn’t think of a word to say.” David dismissed the ministers with disappointment, “The idea of your letting my young wife out argue you.”
Yet tragedy struck. While away at the Civil War, David caught typhoid fever, and when he returned his family caught it as well. His parents, Nancy’ father, Nancy and their newborn son all died of the disease.
Broken and sorrowful, David remembered his gospel conversations with Nancy and the good news about eternal marriage, which prompted him to open her LDS books and read. Finally, one day he drove 25 miles to find the nearest priesthood leader. Together they cut through 6 inches of ice, and David was baptized.
“I am so thankful for Nancy’s determination and strong faith in Jesus Christ and also thankful for a great grandfather who humbled himself in his time of grief and made us an eternal family,” said Sister Oaks.
These stores of faith live in Sister Oaks because this material was easily available to her as she grew up.
Once we have begun to discover the stories that have shaped us, we must gather our loved ones around these stories, and share them in a way that penetrates lives, “Our ancestors words and actions can help guide our lives,” said President Oaks.
The Oaks shared many specific ideas about how they have done this. President Oaks has written three books about his ancestors, two about his parents and one called 50 Pioneers, about his ancestors who brought wagons or handcarts across the plains.
One night the Oaks invited their grandchildren to a “Stella” party, named after Stella Harris Oaks, President Oak’s mother. The table was decorated in yellow, her favorite color. Since she had loved and worn hats, everyone was invited to wear a hat in her memory.
Each family member was given a copy of the book President Oaks had written where he had marked favorite passages about his mother. The cousins sat around the table and read them together.
Another evening, the Oaks had researched ancestors’ attributes and created posters with their pictures and notable qualities. Sister Oaks said that the children selected some of the qualities shown in the posters and signed up for the qualities they particularly wanted in their lives, things like, “Listened to the Spirit.”
“Then,” said Sister Oaks, we moved the cover sheet and introduced them to the ancestor and a story of how they showed that quality in their lives. Heaven came close to earth and we could feel warmth and inspiration as we participated in this activity.”
They have also created a book of inspiring stories from the lives of their ancestors so that they can be read again and again.
Elder Oaks said that a favorite saying of his father was, “If the gospel is worth anything, then it is worth everything.” It is worth our determination to gather our family around the stories of their ancestors who are of so much consequence to them.
In a video, Joy Jones, General Primary President, said that children have this “inborn, innate ability with technology.” “They can sit down and just in a manner of minutes or maybe an hour and they gather names of these wonderful family members who have ben forgotten.”
She said, “Children can be the instigators in their families. They can be the ones to lead out and say Mom where did you and Dad get married? Where did you meet? What was your life like when you were six years old. We can share in the car. We can share stories at bedtime or at dinner when we are one on one with children or grandchildren. It doesn’t have to take a lot of preparation. It doesn’t take anything but just a desire to share.“
She added, “I have a testimony of the power and blessings of temple and family history work. I know that our Heavenly Father is blessing this precious these children. I hope we don’t underestimate their abilities. I hope we won’t under estimate the power of the Spirit that is in them. This work will lead our children to our Savior. It will lead them to the temple.”
How an Ancestor Helped through a Personal Challenge
A granddaughter of the Oaks, Stephanie Ward Steeleman said that her knowledge of her three greats grand parents empowered her to meet a personal challenge. Abinadi Olson left an extensive journal of his three-year mission to Samoa with these touching first words, “I…gave my wife Hannah Seeley Olson and four children…one long and loving embrace. After this most trying moment, I seated myself in the carriage and drove down the street. Heaven only knew my thoughts as I can not write them.”
Stephanie needed the example of her grandmother’s strength when she sent her husband away for a six-month deployment while she was left at home caring for the children. “He talked to my children almost every single day—and when I think how challenging those six months were for our family even with technology, the faith shown by my grandmother Hannah Seeley, overwhelms me…I admit that in the past I have said, I can’t do family history work because I am just really involved in helping the living.” Now she has had a change of heart.
She has also changed something else in her home. On Sunday nights, the family used to read a book together. Now they are reading excerpts from Abinadi’s journal.
Discovering and gathering our family ultimately leads to the temple, and here, too, all ages can be involved. As they are, they are strengthened and protected by covenant blessings. Now youth are being called as temple and family history consultants, and it is often youth who fill the family history centers.
In a video the Oaks showed, youth were saying things like this: “I am not twelve yet, but I am finding names to be able to take to the temple when I am twelve.” “The times I find a couple of names I am just crying in the corner and I feel so giddy.”
Sister Oaks said, FamilySearch can be like a sacred portal connected to heaven. In reality, the visions and blessings of old are returning and angels are coming to visit the earth. Youth working in family history feel the transforming power of working for family members beyond the veil. Family history has eternal consequences in the lives of each person you serve, but it can also have very immediate blessings in the life of the person performing the work.
Elder Oaks said, “As we observed youth doing family history, we saw them experiencing almost instantaneous joy and increased confidence. They became more connected to their families. They no longer feel so alone. They begin to feel a celestial kinship. They learn what it means to feel the Spirit.
Kaitlyn Ward, is a 15-year-old granddaughter of the Oaks from California who has become immersed in family history. “Before I started doing family history,” she said, “I believed the two greatest myths of family history—that all of the work had been done and it was only for old people.” She said those ideas have proved to be false and when she started doing it, “I actually surprised myself by having fun.”
Now she has a stack of her own family names to take to the temple.
Elder Oaks reminded us, “We live in the last days, wonderful days in which the Lord has promised that knowledge will flow down from heaven until nothing shall be withheld from those who have endured valiantly for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Technological resources unthinkable only a short time ago have been revealed and are being eagerly used by the rising generation. We must teach that generation to use it for holy purposes like FamilySearch not for the evil or even for the trivial.”
As Kaitlyn said, “Family history has given me a role model, and a guardian angel, and courage and strength and the strongest testimony that I have ever had.” That opportunity awaits for all of our youth.
This important broadcast will be available soon at LDS.org. It is inspiring, practical and not to be missed.