It’s a dark time for LDS temple work, but family history research remains a bright spot

Stuck at home and separated from loved ones, millions are turning on their computers to connect with their long-lost kin.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

COVID-19 restrictions led The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to order a now year-old and all but complete global halt to baptisms and other temple rites on behalf of the dead.

Before the pandemic, proxy baptisms likely numbered in the millions annually. The church won’t reveal specific numbers for such private, sacred ceremonies performed in its 168 dedicated temples worldwide. Officially, the faith confirms only that such rites have almost entirely been suspended since March 26, 2020. (At this writing, fewer than 20 temples have resumed offering limited vicarious ordinances for deceased ancestors.)

However, the Utah-based church and the legions of family historians among its 16.5 million members have hardly ceased their genealogical labors. Instead they are anticipating the eventual end of the pandemic, and with that the reopening of temples to widespread in-person use.

FamilySearch.org, the church’s massive nonprofit genealogical research website, reported 207 million visitors in 2020, an 18% leap from pre-pandemic 2019. Meanwhile, the site’s index of searchable names hit 8.43 billion as of Feb. 1, up from 2019′s 7 billion.

“The pandemic is a great tragedy, but it has also been a great accelerant for family history,” says Steve Rockwood, president and CEO of FamilySearch International. “We see more and more people coming online to discover their family history ... but we are also seeing this desire for people to turn to family in general, the past, the present and the future.”

(Courtesy photo) Steve Rockwood, president and CEO of FamilySearch International.

Crista Cowan, corporate genealogist for Ancestry.com, says the world’s largest for-profit genealogy company has seen its new paid-subscriber numbers grow 28% between March 2020 and January 2021. Entering this year, the Lehi-based company had topped 3.6 million subscriptions. In all, more than 20 million “unique visitors” explore the website monthly.

“We’ve seen over the past year that ‘family’ grounds us and makes us feel less alone. That’s something we’ve always needed, and more than ever now,” Cowan says. “People are turning to family history ... because they are home, but also because there is this reconnecting with family that [genealogy provides].”

(Courtesy photo) Crista Cowan, corporate genealogist for Ancestry.com.

A record RootsTech

Perhaps nowhere has this burgeoning interest been so evident as the Feb. 25-27 all-virtual RootsTech Connect conference, co-sponsored by FamilySearch and Ancestry, along with many other genealogical and ancestral DNA-related testing companies that contributed their expertise while having a major platform to promote their products.

In 2020, the annual event brought 25,000 family history buffs into downtown Salt Lake City’s Salt Palace Convention Center. Another 50,000 viewed presentations online. By the time this year’s all-online RootsTech Connect wrapped up, more than 1 million people had participated worldwide.

RootsTech Director Jen Allen estimates roughly 90% of the roots-seeking throngs were first-time participants in the conference, usually a paid event but offered free this year with the church’s blessing and financial support. In a time of virus-induced isolation and economic hardships, that decision was key to the event’s success.

“We knew it had to be global, therefore it had to be free,” she explains. “We wanted everybody and anybody to feel like they could come. ... By doing this, we were celebrating every new person coming to this event.”

(Courtesy photo) RootsTech Director Jen Allen.

For Camille Stansfield, a 35-year-old Latter-day Saint mother of five who signed on from Mesa, Ariz., RootsTech Connect provided insights into her pedigree research. And because the event’s content will remain accessible online through the year, it will continue to offer that help.

“I’ve always had a little interest in family history, but I really began diving deep into it when the coronavirus happened,” she says. “I’m a stay-at-home mom and with little kids. This all is a big change, and I was trying to find somebody [in my family] who had done this before ... to bring some direction and clarity to what I needed to do.”

What Stansfield unearthed while mining genealogical data and family memories over this past year was a tender, haunting and encouraging narrative: She had long known her grandmother Jean Johnson had been born during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, but Stansfield discovered there was much more to the story.

She learned that her great-grandmother Mable Worlton gave birth to Jean inside a bedroom that had been sealed off from the rest of a rented, company house in a Utah mining town. The mother and her newborn had been isolated because the flu had infected her husband and three other children. One of them, a girl named Virginia, succumbed to the illness eight days after her little sister was born.

“When she was close to dying, they held her up outside my great-grandmother’s window,” Stansfield recalled, fighting tears. “They didn’t want to expose her or the baby to any of the germs. So, my great-grandmother had to say goodbye to her 8-year-old daughter through that window.”

Though grief-stricken, the family persevered. An aunt came to live with them, nursing the sick back to health and watching over the recovering brood until the isolation of Stansfield’s newborn ancestor could end.

“Even though there was a pandemic and people were dying, they still reached out and cared about each other,” she says. “That inspired me. I could still reach out and take care of my family [through family history work], even if I wasn’t able to be close.”

New genealogical trails

Another first-time RootsTech Connect participant, Charlotte Schalau Janney, already was caring for her disabled husband as well as her elderly mother at home when pandemic restrictions hit a year ago; that turn of events only heightened the Almont, Mich., grandmother’s sense of isolation.

“I would have to say that yes, COVID has sparked that more. Being so isolated at home, there wasn’t much for me to do. That’s the same for a lot of people,” Janney said. “It seems everyone is searching for their roots; they are thinking more about their families and starting their own personal journey into their story.”

Thanks to a presentation she viewed on RootsTech Connect, she has found new genealogical trails to explore her father’s German heritage.

Heather Purkiss took an Ancestry DNA test in 2019 but otherwise characterizes her family tree efforts as “dabbling, not taking it super-seriously” — until the pandemic lockdowns and restrictions kicked in last spring.

“I started again really looking at those DNA results,” the 52-year-old resident of Ventura County, Calif., relates. “We had several family mysteries, the first being who my biological grandfather was. ... I was able to narrow down my possible grandfather to two brothers, but I found that anyone still alive who knew them didn’t want to discuss them in any way.”

So some mysteries remain unsolved — at least for now. But while Purkiss keeps those on the back burner of her genealogical quests, she has fleshed out her family tree with details of ancestors who fought in all the nation’s major wars, beginning with the Revolution.

“This research has really helped me [during the pandemic],” she says. “It gave me something to become absorbed in, a real mental focus.”

Purkiss does offer this warning to would-be family historians:

“Remember that there can be trauma and drama around families. It isn’t always joy and sunshine, accepting new biological family members into welcoming arms. A lot of people don’t want to revisit bad family history with you.”

Post-pandemic outlook

Nonetheless, the family history industry expects interest in ancestry worldwide will continue to be strong, even as COVID-19 limits fall and vaccinations rise.

Still, having exceeded its own initial expectations by successfully offering more than 1,000 sessions in multiple languages to participants in more than 235 nations and territories, RootsTech Connect and its enablers will not be resting on their laurels.

David Rencher, chief genealogical officer for FamilySearch International as well as director of the Latter-day Saints’ downtown Salt Lake City Family History Library, says pandemic-related closure of the brick-and-mortar research complex actually allowed planned renovations there to accelerate during the past year.

“We’ve added book shelving, increased the collections on them by 40,000-50,000 volumes, and brought many other volumes back out [of storage] onto the floor for patron and guest use when we reopen,” he says. “We have also updated all the computer workstations, which now have multiple monitors, added new tables and chairs. ... The last time the library has had such a refresh was prior to the 2002 [Winter] Olympics” in Salt Lake City.

(Courtesy photo) David Rencher, chief genealogical officer for FamilySearch International and director of the downtown Salt Lake City Family History Library.

There also has been special focus on making the Family History Library a more robust virtual resource. Rencher’s staffers — and the boss himself — have been offering free, 20-minute online consultations. Indeed, as RootsTech came to an end, the library staff and volunteers had logged 5,000 such conversations in the space of a week.

In addition to supporting the church’s 5,000 family history centers around the world, the library recently began providing direct links to its collections, services and tutorials on the FamilySearch website.

The trove of genealogical data thus offered by the library system, like interest in family history in general, keeps soaring exponentially.

“We continue to add between 1 million to 1.5 million names per day, and that’s all done on the backs of hundreds of thousands of volunteers who are indexing those records,” Rencher says, adding that the library is working to make FamilySearch’s catalog of 4.35 billion images internationally searchable — a task he estimates is about 20% complete.

And that, he believes, will only help Latter-day Saints yearning to submit names of loved ones for proxy baptisms and other ordinances for the departed once the temple visits resume.

“People [have] not been able to attend the temples, but their participation [in preparing for the rites] can still go on,” Rencher says. “Members can still reserve in their files, and when the temples reopen, they can pick up where they left off.”

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) FamilySearch indexing tool makes it easy for anyone to help make historical records more accessible.

Of course, the benefits to all those seeking to learn their family’s history, whatever their faith backgrounds, could be, if not eternal as Latter-day Saints believe, at the very least life-changing.

That is why, RootsTech’s Allen says, the conference and its speakers, classes and how-to knowledge will live on throughout the year as video content on demand at its website — and on YouTube, where its events are posted on the FamilySearch channel.

“People just want to connect with other people, and in particular connect [not just to the dead but] to the living,” Allen says. “[In genealogy] it’s the dead who bring us together [through] common ancestors.”