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Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse. (Mal. 4:5-6)
This passage from Malachi is the standard in reference to redeeming the dead, the one we’ve heard cited countless times, the one that refers most pointedly to the Lord’s sending Elijah to the Kirtland Temple in 1836 during Passover to restore the sealing power. It’s a standard, and yet, at least for me, this scripture poses a number of problems. One of the foremost is why Elijah? Why was he sent? Clearly he was, and clearly the Lord can assign whomever he wishes, but Elijah is not an obvious choice for several reasons.
For one, as far as we know, Elijah never visited the temple in Jerusalem. Elijah, for the most part, worked the Northern Kingdom, and Solomon’s temple was in the Southern Kingdom. Secondly, as far as we know, Elijah never sealed anyone. There is an incident where Elijah sealed the heavens and caused a drought to come upon the land (1 Kgs. 17:1), but here sealed is used to mean “closed,” not “joined” or “linked” as families can be through temple work. Thirdly, as far as we know, Elijah never did family research. His parentage as well as the names of his children, if he had any, are not included in the scriptural record. No one even knows for sure what a Tishbite is.
Many years ago, as I traveled Europe, the land of my ancestors, I pondered this question—partially because I planned on doing some genealogical research during my trip and partially because, well, my trip involved some very long train rides, and I had a lot of time to think.
Perhaps I had too much time to think, but as I traveled I began to wonder if the reason Elijah was chosen was not so much because his life mirrors ours as we seek to redeem our dead but because our lives, as we perform this work, begin to reflect his. In other words, Elijah the Prophet is himself a prophecy, a kind of foreshadowing of the attitude, the powers, the abilities, and the adventures we experience as we turn our hearts to those who have gone before and bless them through proxy temple ordinances. Unorthodox as this may sound, it certainly seems consistent with my experience in Europe.
Genealogists will be humbled
For instance, Elijah was a humble prophet. He was not a court prophet, dressed in fine linens and eating exotic Near Eastern delicacies. Elijah lived in the wilderness, subsisting on what the ravens brought him and wearing rough skins. He does not appear to be well-educated or socially sophisticated. He knew very well that all his power and prowess, even his very ability to stay alive, came from God.
Seeking to redeem one’s dead creates in one a humble spirit, just like Elijah’s. In fact, few endeavors are as humbling as genealogy. It’s often slow, frustrating, tedious work. I have been humbled by this work many times. However, humility was not on my mind as I got off the train in Osnabrueck, Germany. As part of my grand tour of Northern Europe, I had planned to drive from there to Dissen, a small town to the south to continue some family research I had begun stateside. I did not think that I’d need a great deal of divine help. After all, I had worked with some records from Dissen previously via microfilm, I knew where to go, I had my map, I had my Eurail pass, and I had 3-day Hertz rental certificate. I was all set. All I needed was to walk the short distance from the train station to the Hertz office, pick up my car, and zip off to Dissen, where several generations of family history would instantly open up to me, like pages in a book.
Simple? Yes. However, there was one small problem: the Hertz office was not just outside the train station. Okay, I decided to go back to the train station and ask the people in the information booth where the Hertz office was. Second problem: the people in the information booth did not speak English. Okay, I’d taken some German. I knew a few phrases. I could just ask them in German. Third problem: they could not understand me. The problem here was undoubtedly caused by my poor pronunciation but it possibly involved my use of the word Hertz, which means “heart” in German. The people in the information booth probably had no idea how to answer this crazy American who kept mumbling something about a “heart office.”
Eventually, however, with the aid of a dictionary, a helpful bystander, and numerous comical gestures on my part, the information people understood what I needed and proceeded to guess where the Hertz office was, since it had moved recently, and to mark on a very basic map of Osnabrueck (in a French brochure) where they thought the new office was.
Fourth problem: they were wrong. The people in the information booth mistakenly sent me to the wrong side of town. I walked several blocks, searching for the Hertz office, rechecking my map and retracing my steps many times, before I finally humbled myself enough to ask a gas station attendant where the Hertz office was.
Now, this might not seem like a big deal, but I hate asking for directions. I really hate it. But this was the lesson taught to me time and time again in Germany: if I was going to find anything, I had to be humble and ask. And I was rewarded. No one in the entire train station in Osnabruek spoke English, but this unassuming gas station attendant did, and, what’s more, he knew exactly where the new Hertz office was. And so finally, after taking two buses precisely as he directed, I was able to procure a modest Ford Escort and was at last tooling down a highway to Dissen. However, even at this point, the problems did not stop. On the way, it started raining, I got lost several times, all the hotels in Dissen, my ancestor’s town, were full, and, once again, no one spoke English very well.
Nonetheless, I finally found a hotel in a neighboring village, but only after several hours, loads of frustration, and several prayers. All alone there in my little hotel room in northern Germany, my wilderness, I felt very humble. I thought about Elijah more than once and wished more than anything for some English-speaking ravens to come to me and bring me some tidbit of heavenly guidance as to what I should do now.
Miracles follow them that do genealogy
In addition to being humble, Elijah was a man of miracles. He not only closed the heavens, but he divided waters à la Moses, fed a widow from food receptacles that never emptied, and called down fire from heaven to consume a sacrifice the priests of Ba’al had thoroughly doused with water. In this respect too, people who seek to redeem their dead follow the lead of Elijah. Miracles happen to them as well.
My miracles were certainly not as dramatic as Elijah’s, but they did come. After getting a good night’s rest, I left my hotel fairly early the next day to find information about my ancestors. Still somewhat stressed out by my frustrations of the previous day, I thought I’d begin with the village cemetery—anywhere where I did not have to attempt to speak German. But once again, I had only walked down one row of headstones, when the rains returned. I tried waiting the storm out, hiding under a nearby awning, but nothing doing. The rain persisted. The unseen priests of Ba’al, it seemed, were watering down my sacrifice as well.
Unwilling to sit in rain any longer, I girded up my deflated linguistic ego and decided to try the town hall. Sure, they might not understand me there either, but I figured that I simply could not live with myself if I did not, after coming so many miles, at least make the attempt. Again the going was not easy. The town hall was locked, and it was evident that the only way to get in was to talk to those inside was through an intercom beside the door. My heart sunk. If I had so much trouble communicating in German in person, I had no hope over an intercom. But I tried anyway.
Then came the first miracle: the person on the other end of the intercom spoke some English. Not a lot. Not enough to understand what I wanted but enough to understand that I wanted something and that I was not a threat. She came to the door, brought me in, took me to a local official who also knew a little English, and eventually they figured out that I was researching my ancestors. That was the second miracle.
Unfortunately, the records there in the town hall only went back to 1900, too late to be of any help to me. That was when the third miracle happened. As they spoke to me and expressed their condolences, the local official’s face suddenly brightened. He told me that the Evangelical church across the street had older records and suggested that I might be able to find what I wanted there. He even called the church for me, told them I was coming, and drew a crude map for me, in case I had trouble crossing the street. I said “danke schoen” several times and walked over to the Evangelical church—carefully following his little map.
However, the church too was locked. I looked at the intercom beside it and steadied myself for another attempt at German. However, just as I reached for the intercom button, a woman pushed the door open, walked out, and with a smile held it open for me. Miracle number four. Once inside, I stood in a foyer for a few minutes, busily flipping through my dictionary, desperately trying to find the words for what I wanted to do next. I suppose I had not really expected to get in, not so quickly anyway.
I had found the Germany words for ancestors and archives, but before I could frame them into a sentence, a woman opened another door and motioned for me to follow her. She then led me to a backroom where three old leather-bound books were neatly arranged on a shelf. After the woman took the books down, placed them carefully on the table, and gave me what I assumed to be instructions on how to use them, she left. Using the eraser end of a pencil, I flipped open the top book. There on the first page was the number 1670, handwritten in a brownish ink. It was not long before I found another generation of direct ancestors and many, many indirect ones.
Finally being able to sit down with these old books and study them may not seem like a great miracle, but to me after all the other things I’d been through it was tantamount to heavenly fire devouring a rain-soaked sacrifice. Elijah’s miracles had nothing on me. At least he and the priests of Ba’al spoke the same language.
Genealogists have the power to raise the dead
In addition to these other miracles, Elijah had the distinction of being one of the few prophets in recorded scripture to have raised someone from the dead. In this way too, I feel that those who seek to redeem their dead follow the pattern of Elijah. No, I did not physically raise any of my ancestors from the dead. I do not mean that we raise the dead literally. We resuscitate them imaginatively, in our minds and in our hearts.
As I worked with those old books, touching their ancient pages, smelling them, scrutinizing their sometimes smudged Gothic letters, it was as if my imagination was opened up, unlocked by all the experiences I had had that day and before. I could picture my ancestors in my mind’s eye worshiping in the church I sat in, watching their sons’ baptisms, their daughters’ marriages, and their parents’ funerals, as documented in these old books. I could see them walking the village streets as I had, in the rain, hoping to find help for a problem, a property dispute or an injury, at the town hall. I could smell the mud as their wagon wheels sloshed through puddles, much as my tires did as I drove to distant villages, searching for a place to stay. I could hear the workers in the fields I had passed, quickly but efficiently gathering their tools, horses and plows, not tractors, as well as the hunters, people like me, complaining about the rain and their bad luck, after having gotten lost in the vast expanse of the nearby Teutoburger Wald.
There in the quiet of that backroom with those old books in far off Germany, it was as though my ancestors were no longer dead, but raised again in my heart and in my mind. They breathed the same air I did, smelled the same smells, saw the same sights, heard the same sounds, and experienced the same experiences. Their reality could not have been more clear to me then than if they had actually appeared to me and spoken to me. The spirit of Elijah was with me that day, and it was growing stronger.
Genealogists are taken to heaven without tasting death
This kind of imaginative experience has enriched and ennobled me, but there have been other experiences, more spiritual experiences, mainly in the temple, where I have felt almost exalted, so uplifted was I by the feelings I felt as I performed ordinances on behalf of my kindred dead. In a sense I feel that in this way I am following the Elijah’s pattern as well. As you may recall, Elijah was taken into heaven without tasting death, and in a sense so have I, at least temporarily. In this way, the sweet chariot has sometimes swung low for me and come for me in order to carry me home for a visit, just a few moments, enough to help me realize that just as I have come to love and to care for my ancestors, they have come to love and care for me as well. At these times, I have felt comforted and guided by a force and a feeling that somehow seems familiar to me, a wonderfully loving, home-y feeling, a kind of spiritual hug that I like to think comes from my ancestors. And it is these experiences that have made all the trouble and humiliation worthwhile.
Again, these experiences have not been terribly dramatic. No angels have appeared to me, no vast vision of heaven has open to my mind, but the feelings I have felt during these times have been extremely deep and powerful. But this too is consistent with Elijah’s life. After the fiery contest with the priests of Ba’al, the Lord visited him on Mt. Horeb and there taught Elijah that the Lord is not in the strong wind or the terrible earthquake or the fearsome fire, but in the still, small voice. Appreciating subtlety is also part of Elijah’s pattern. So, why Elijah? Perhaps the answer to this question lies in his mantle and is only known to those who put it on.