RootsTech 2014

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Monday, February 20, 2012

Lesson in Genealogy from 1915 Part One


In 1915 the Genealogical Society of Utah (GSU) in Salt Lake City, Utah published a 76 page book (including the paper cover) called "Lessons in Genealogy." The copy that I found online on Archive.org is the Third Edition. WorldCat.org shows only one copy of this Lessons book in any library across the world and I would assume that this would qualify as a "rare" book.

Back in 1915 the GSU was a subscription organization sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Church). Today, the GSU uses the tradename "FamilySearch" but is still operating as a separate entity from the corporation, FamilySearch, International. For all practical purposes to those outside of the the staff and employees of the two organizations, even though the two separate entities exist, they are essentially the same. 

Some time ago, I finished reading Jacobus, Donald Lines. Genealogy As Pastime and Profession. New Haven, Conn: Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Co, 1930. I was very much interested in the point of view expressed by Jacobus concerning the methodology and practice of genealogy. This small pamphlet from the GSU is another generation earlier than Jacobus' book and expresses another, even earlier, view of the process of genealogical research. I think those of us who live in the computer age tend to improperly discount work done by researchers in much earlier times. Although some of the genealogies produced back in the 1800s and before are less than helpful to us today, there was a considerable amount of work done by careful and accurate researchers based on the records available at the time. We also have to remember that many of today's less careful researchers copy the old compiled books on genealogy wholesale into the present online mass of family trees.

If we ignore the past, we will never understand the present and will have no ability to see into the future. In the United States, there has always been, since the foundation of the Church, an undercurrent of anti-Mormon sentiment as evidenced by the current political contest for a presidential nominee. It is not unusual for genealogists to be affected by this 150 year old controversy. Even among the blog writers of today, there are those with a decided anti-Mormon and anti-Church sentiment. The fact that different genealogists have distinct and sometimes contradictory motivations for doing their genealogy should not limit us from putting aside those differences and cooperating at the level of investigators of the past.

Back to the 1915 Lessons book, a lifetime membership in the UGS was $10, no small sum back in those days. Adjusted for inflation the cost in today's funds would be over $200.

To even begin to understand the content of this Lessons book, it is necessary to recognize that genealogy is a basic tenant of the teachings of the Church and that genealogy is looked upon, not just as a pastime, but as a solemn religious duty of every member. The introductory paragraph of the Lessons is illustrative:
Every well-informed, consistent Latter-day Saint should believe in genealogy as much as he believes in faith, repentance, and baptism for the remission of sins ; and this belief should be manifested in works, the same as belief in baptism, tithing or any other gospel principle is shown to be genuine by its fulfillment in actual practice. This statement, that every Latter-day Saint should be a genealogist, may at first thought, seem a little extreme. It will be necessary, therefore, to establish the proposition by briefly pointing out what the Latter-day Saints believe regarding the salvation of the human race. [typographic and spelling errors in the original have been corrected].
As a side note, this statement is essentially applicable to the members of the Church today and may help to explain many of their attitudes and motivations. I am not going to indulge in a doctrinal treatise because my purpose is to examine the genealogical practices at the time. By the way, there have been few changes, if any, in the fundamental doctrinal basis for doing genealogical research since 1915 but it is highly unlikely that modern writers and teachers in the Church would make reference to some of the content of the Lessons.

Beginning at page 8 of the book there is a very interesting summary of the status of genealogical societies as the existed at the time. The most notable of these from the book's standpoint, was the New England Historic Genealogical Society which by the way, is still flourishing and was a prominent participant in the recent RootsTech 2012 Conference. Here is an interesting quote from the then librarian of the Society quoted from a letter dated 19 August 1911:
No one knows how many volumes of genealogy we have in our library. We have never taken the trouble to ascertain either how many volumes of genealogy or how many titles. Our chief concern has been to secure everything possible in this line in order that we might show any American genealogy called for. We are striving to make this the court of last resort. We have paid prices ranging from $5 to $150 each for pamphlets and broadsides which really have but little use except to make our collections complete. As to this library's rank, it is unquestionably first of its kind anywhere, for three reasons : first, its completeness in printed works : second, its manuscript collections ; third, its duplicate copies.
 I think the goals of the Society have changed somewhat over the years, but it is still an extremely valuable organization. Interestingly, at the time the UGS had only a few dozens of books and other materials in its own collection.

When you look at the world through genealogical glasses, the whole world seems like genealogy. Looking at the past helps in establishing a perspective in the present.

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