Mormons think as hard as, probably harder than, anyone else in the world about what it means to keep facts alive, or at least to keep them accessible to the living, and the phenomenon they have built out of granite, microfilm, machines, and software is as mind-bogglingly ambitious for our century as the flying buttresses and gargoyles of Notre Dame were in the twelfth century.
Even as a large branch of American genealogy sheared off at the turn of the twentieth century into a mad eugenic scheme to reshape the human race, the Mormons got on with their mission to gather and share records. Around that time Mormons whose ancestors had come from Europe could find out about their forebears only by traveling back to their home countries and transcribing whatever information they could find. As a way to assist its members, the church began to send representatives to locate collections of records, copy them all, and bring them back to Utah. In the 1920s the church began recording the genealogical information it had gathered on index cards, and in 1938 it started to make copies on microfilm. Eventually the microfilm was circulated to thousands of Mormon libraries throughout the world. By the 1950s the church elders faced an ever-growing pile of film, and in the wake of the great destruction of records in Germany in World War II, they started to store it safely for posterity inside the Granity Mountain Records Vault.
The mountain now holds parish records and old English manuscripts dating from the 1500s, including records from London, when civil registration began in 1837, and copies of jai pu, Chinese family records, which date back before AD 1. Overall the data the Mormons have gathered is equivalent to thirty-two times the amount of information contained in the Library of Congress—and the church adds a new Library of Congress’s worth of new data every year.
This massive infoverse exists to serve Joseph Smith’s teaching that church members should offer baptism to dead relatives. Because members may only carry out the rite for their own ancestors, all church members now spend a great deal of time tracing their lineages back through time. Have humans ever built anything of this magnitude without an eye on the afterlife?
Fifteen miles away from the vault, in the clean streets of Salt Lake City, I met with Jay Verkler at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Built originally as a grand hotel in 1909, the structure stands next to the white, Disney castle-like Mormon Temple. When we met, Verkler was the CEO of Family Search, the Mormon organization that manages the vault's records and promotes genealogy throughout the world. Once a gifted twelve-year-old who wrote software for the bank where his father worked, Verkler became a Silicon Valley entrepreneur until the church's elders summoned him back to Salt Lake City. Verkler is of an imposing height, and he has a thick helmet of blond hair (which, at a recent genetic genealogy conference hosted by the LDS, had its own Twitter feed, @JayVerklersHair). He looks exactly like the kind of modestly presented, clean-living Mormon missionary you might find knocking on your front door. His command of the intricacies of information storage in an ever decaying world combined with an implacable commitment to the eternal ideals of the church make him a powerful presence. More than any other organization his church has shaped how genealogy is practiced in the world today.
“The core concept of why this church cares so much about genealogy stems back to the notion that families can be eternal organizations past death,” Verkler explained. “Members of the church seek out their ancestors because we think we have a duty to them to help them understand this gospel that we understand, and we think we can actually be together.”
The idea was magically appealing. At the time, my own boys were so young that I could scarcely imagine a time or place where I would not be present for them. As Verkler continued to talk theology, I mused at how brilliant a basis this was for a religion. What parents would not want to believe that they could be with their children forever?
Of course, if entire families are destined to be together in the afterlife, that would include parents and siblings and their spouses and children, aunts and uncles, and in-laws. Is this afterlife going to look like some kind of celestial neighborhood where the streets map out bloodlines, with entire apartment blocks assigned to close families? Or will it be more like a perpetual Thanksgiving feast designed by M. C. Escher after a bad night’s sleep?
“We’re not quite sure how it’s going to work,” Verkler admitted. “It’s not going to be like one big group family, but we think those connections will still exist in the afterlife.”
The LDS philosophy is about not just the next stage of existence but life before the afterlife too. “We think there’s a strengthening of you as a human when you know who you came from and where your roots are and when you respect that part,” said Verkler. He surely speaks the truth, because some of the Mormons I met in Salt Lake City were the friendliest people I have ever come across, respectful and polite to a most disarming degree.
Over the last ten years Marshall Duke, a psychologist from Emory University, has explored the value of family history in the lives of children. He developed a list of twenty questions such as “Do you know where your parents met?” “Do you know which person in your family you most look like?” and “Do you know some of the jobs that your parents had when they were young?” Duke found that the higher children scored on the family-history test, the higher they also scored on measures of self-esteem and self-control and the lower they scored on anxiety, among other measures. Duke even looked at children who experienced the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. Even in this extreme case, knowledge of family history appeared to indicate how resilient the children were in the months that followed. Duke explains that it’s not necessarily the facts of the family that give children these qualities but the fact that, if children can answer these questions, it usually means that they have strong connections with mothers and grandmothers and that significant amounts of time have been spent communicating at family dinners and on family vacations. All the stories of a family add up to what Duke calls an intergenerational self, which he associates with personal strength.
All the industry that the Mormons have devoted to assembling genealogical records is not just for church members. “We provide our records for everybody,” Verkler explained. “We think that it’s doing good for the world.” Accordingly, there are more than 3,400 Family History Centers in the world. They are a sacred municipal library system, and anyone who wishes to research his family history can make use of them. Smart, kindly people will help him search historical documentation such as birth records, death certificates, land records, and any other document that might establish a genealogical connection. A borrowing system between the centers and the main Family History Library in Salt Lake City means that if your local center doesn’t have the record you are after, another might be able to copy it onto a disk and send it.
In this respect too the LDS differs from all other religions. Its kind of twenty-first-century munificence requires an extremely sophisticated understanding of informatics and digitizing. Trying to determine and then store everyone’s name and existence for perpetuity is also an insanely costly process. Today the Church has 220 data-gathering teams in forty-five countries that are making digital copies of new records. They are also converting 2.4 million microfilm records into a digital format. The LDS drove microfilm technology in the twentieth century, and today it is a leader in digital data storage. Its digital camera operators photograph records and get those images online within two days, and then an enormous army—that is to say, hundreds of thousands—of volunteers index the files and make them searchable. The Mormons were crowdsourcing long before the word was invented.
The last time I visited the church, it was deeply engaged in its biggest project to date—a joint effort with the national archives of Italy in which more than one hundred Italian state archives gave the LDS teams access to all the birth, death, and marriage records from about 1800 through to 1940. LDS photographers have produced more than 115 million images of the files, which recorded the lives of over five hundred million Italians from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They included people who lived before the invention of photography, people who watched their children die of the flu in 1918, and people who years later themselves died at the end of World War II. It is the most definitive collection of Italian civil records in the world.
The church’s most ambitious project is its online tree. Anyone who logs in to Family Search may record and research his or her family history there, but what distinguishes this tree from all the other online services is that the church is trying to connect all the branches, using its massive records and the activities of users to build a big tree of all of humanity. The endeavor must be, to some extent, possible. If anyone has the records to create this structure—a family history of all of the documented individual members of the human race, this group does. But the distinctive element of the LDS tree is that it’s collaborative: People can log on and add names and link them to documents and write personal stories—and once they have done that, their fifth cousin once removed may also jump online and edit that information, changing a relative’s name, linking it to other documents, or deleting the story altogether. No one I spoke to at Family Search seemed to think this would be a problem, but surely everyone’s version of her own family is different from that of her cousins?
Still, even if the online tree is in constant flux, the names and lives of millions of people will stay safe in the vault long after the names chiseled into all the world’s gravestones have eroded to nothing. The Mormon records will last for a very long time, at least until a natural disaster occurs, or maybe until some point in the process when a human being makes a mistake.
What if there were a huge natural disaster, and everything outside the Granite Mountain Records Vault were destroyed? Future historians could retrieve the mountain’s records and re-create many hundreds of years of demographic history. Would they also discover that most humans from all of history were, in fact, Mormons?
In the 1990s a Mormon group started working its way through all the names of the victims of the Holocaust, apparently baptizing them into the LDS. The controversy that erupted was resolved by a 1995 agreement between Jewish leaders and the LDS, whereby the church agreed to remove the names of posthumously baptized Jewish people from its records. But in the years that followed many Jewish names found their way back into them.
In 2003 an Armenian group protested that the LDS had baptized by proxy notable members of its community as well. In 2008 the Vatican sent a letter to parishes all over the world asking them to not share their records with Mormon genealogists. In 2012 it was widely reported that Anne Frank had been posthumously baptized into the Mormon Church. Similar stories emerged. Stanley Ann Dunham, the late mother of Barack Obama; Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was abducted and murdered in Pakistan in 2002; Adolf Hitler; Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter; and Steve Irwin, the Australian TV naturalist, had all been baptized.
I asked Jay Verkler about proxy baptism. It was a misnomer, he explained: Members of the church only offer baptism to their ancestors. These ancestors are then checked off a list that notes that they have received an offer. That list is different, he said, from the “Members of Record” database, which includes only the names of people who have officially, during life, accepted such an offer.
Nevertheless, Verkler said, Frank had probably been offered what the church calls proxy ordinance about one hundred times. Members are supposed to offer proxy ordinance only to their own ancestors, but the policy has occasionally been abused. “What happens is that a member is reading about Anne Frank and [he] says, ‘Boy, I hope someone has made this offer to her. I think I will.’ And they go and they take care of it. Sometimes people get a little misdirected there.”
Mormons, explained Verkler, have warm associations with the idea of baptism. He understands that many Jews do not. “There were some really awful things that have been done to the Jewish community. Jews were forced to be baptized or burned at the stake, so ‘baptism’ is not a happy word. We didn’t understand that for a while, I think, culturally.” (As one Jewish genealogist confirmed to me, “The whole idea of proxy baptism is incredibly offensive for Jewish people.”)
“On the other hand,” Verkler said, “if you think about other religions that light a candle and say a prayer for someone, or create a prayer for someone who is deceased, it’s not a unique pattern, so that same kind of motivation is what I think motivates people.”
The same motivation may be involved, but as many Jews have pointed out, when they light a candle, they don’t make a record of it. The practice remains a point of tension between the two faiths, especially as there is a large Jewish genealogical community that relies on the resources created by the LDS.
Future historians of the Granite Mountain Records Vault may also be surprised to find that only heterosexual people married and had children in the early twenty-first century. Within the last two years, a growing series of online complaints have noted that people who want to record marriages of family members who are the same sex cannot because the software won’t record the union. Which is to say, the family tree database won’t allow users to report a marriage unless it takes place between a man and a woman. If this is the only database that survives a catastrophe, it will offer a skewed picture of life in our time. (Multiple requests to Family Search for comment on this issue went unanswered.)
Remember Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the illegitimate daughter of Senator Strom Thurmond? She said, “There are many stories like Sally Hemings and mine. (Hemings, a slave, had children fathered by the United States president Thomas Jefferson.) The unfortunate measure is that not everyone knows about these stories that helped to make America what it is today.” What America is today is a nation in which same-sex marriage has been recognized in more than half the states, Washington, D.C., and nine Native American tribal jurisdictions. The federal government of the United States recognizes gay marriage, as do those of at least nineteen other countries. In the United States alone there are at least 220,000 children being raised by same-sex couples. But if the LDS software won’t register these unions, all those American stories will have been lost, and the database of millions is no longer a real record, because it doesn’t record what’s real.
Excerpted from THE INVISIBLE HISTORY OF THE HUMAN RACE: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures by Christine Kenneally. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Christine Kenneally.
A previous version of this piece stated: "This massive infoverse exists to serve Joseph Smith’s late-nineteenth-century teaching that church members should offer baptism to dead relatives." We have removed "late-nineteenth-century" from this sentence since Smith died in the middle of the century.