Finding family in Salt Lake City
It was unnerving to hear an emergency siren inside the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. The library is run by the Mormon Church and is home to the world’s largest collection of international genealogy records. A voice through the loudspeaker ordered everyone to evacuate the building. My mind made an instant, paranoid leap: this vast catalogue of humanity would make a richly symbolic target for an ambitious arsonist.
It was probably just a drill; it’s always just a drill. But – nihilist firebug nightmares aside – a siren in an enclosed space in the gun-friendly state of Utah is the kind of thing that makes me jumpy. I hurried to the exit and was among the first to assemble in the courtyard outside the building. Soon other people began to gather around me, mostly white-haired white people and skinny missionary boys in ugly suits. After a couple of minutes, I overheard two old men chatting about someone’s pregnant niece. The missionary boys were giggling. It was a magnificent autumn day and people seemed happy to be outside. Clearly, a drill.
Then, a tap on my shoulder. “We thought we’d lost you.” It was Sister Davies, a Mormon genealogy expert and volunteer on the library’s British Isles floor. Before the siren, we’d been sitting at a computer, trying to determine the name of my great-great-grandfather.
“Why don’t they tell you it’s a drill?” I asked. The possible destruction of the library’s peerless collection seemed worth taking seriously.
Sister Davies smiled. She pointed towards the Wasatch Range. The mountains, 39 kilometres south of downtown Salt Lake, have a surreal aspect when viewed from the city; an embarrassingly grand backdrop to a modest little metropolis.
“See those mountains? Out there, there’s a vault – Granite Mountain Vault. All the records, everything that’s here, is in that vault, and much more – something like three billion records,” she said.
The actual number of files in Granite Mountain Records Vault, according to the church, is 3.5 billion images on 2.4 million rolls of microfilm and the equivalent number of digital records. The collection is now believed to be more than 30 times the size of the Library of Congress. FamilySearch, the church’s genealogy arm, is in the process of converting all the microfilm to digital images and they are adding to their records daily. There are more than 200 Mormon data-gathering teams making copies of birth and death records in 45 countries around the world and FamilySearch tries to make as much of this information free and searchable as possible.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has an anachronistic image – thanks, perhaps, to the quaint courtesy and square styling of its missionaries – but is in fact a world innovator in the conversion and preservation of digital data.
What inspires Mormons to perform this endless, painstaking labour and offer its fruits free to the world? I’d discovered the answer the day before, during my visit to Temple Square, one block east of the Family History Library.
Temple Square is part holy place, part LDS public-relations complex. When Brigham Young, the second Mormon prophet and founder of Salt Lake City, brought his persecuted people west in 1847, they stopped here and built their house of worship. Today, rising up from the square’s pristine four-hectare grounds, are Beehive House (the historic home of Young), the Tabernacle (home to the famous Tabernacle Choir), the Assembly Hall, two information centres and Salt Lake Temple itself. The temple – a forbidding, cathedral-like affair – is the largest Mormon temple in the world.
Non-Mormons can’t enter it, but I’d found a scale model in one of the information centres. The model showed a brilliant white, highly ornate, multistorey interior, appointed with gold chandeliers and grand staircases. I was fascinated by a room at the base of the building, which appeared to contain 12 golden oxen bearing the weight of a white jacuzzi. The effect was dazzling in an Old-Testament-meets-Liberace kind of way.
A young man with a giant Nikon slung around his neck was also inspecting the model. I pointed to the jacuzzi and asked if he knew what it was.
“Sure,” he said. “That’s the baptismal font. We believe that because some people don’t have the opportunity to be baptised in this life, that the living can be baptised on their behalf. You can see baptismal fonts like this in Mormon temples all over the world. The oxen represent the 12 tribes of ancient Israel.”
I thanked the man politely and continued my tour, not sure I’d heard him correctly. Had he just told me that Mormons can get baptised on behalf of dead people?
Indeed, they can and they do. Mormons believe that family relationships are intended to continue into eternity. They also believe that an individual can’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless they have been baptised. Accordingly, there is a duty for Mormons to offer their kindred dead – and indeed everyone who has ever lived – the opportunity to hear the gospel and receive baptism by proxy.
I’d known nothing about proxy baptism before my visit to Salt Lake, but the idea seemed both ghoulish and fraught. I stood behind a touchscreen information kiosk, stabbing at high-definition images of Salt Lake Temple, and started a competition with myself: which historical figure would be the most outrageous, obnoxious choice for a vicarious Mormon baptism? Christopher Hitchens? The first Dalai Lama? The contest was, of course, pointless. I was beaten before I began. An overenthusiastic Mormon in the Dominican Republic was reportedly baptised in 2012 on behalf of Anne Frank. Church authorities hold that deceased people have the agency to accept or reject proxy baptisms. Even so, the practice has attracted controversy and the LDS agreed in 1995 not to perform proxy baptisms for Holocaust victims or survivors. LDS authorities in Utah condemned the proxy baptism of Frank.
The practice of baptism for the dead was the reason Mormons began doing genealogy work in Salt Lake City in 1894. In the 20th century, the church began sending representatives outside America to help members collect ancestral records. By 1965 they had so much information they constructed Granite Mountain Records Vault. The church has done this work with the co-operation of thousands of governments and religious institutions all over the world.
Back at the Family History Library, people were starting to file back up the stairs and into the building. It was a slow process. Mormons are famous for their beautiful manners and there was a bottleneck at the mouth of the fire escape; everyone kept gesturing for everyone else to go ahead.
I returned to my seat with Sister Davies. I hadn’t prepared at all for my visit; I wanted to see what the centre could do for someone walking in off the street. I’d asked them to help me find out about my Swedish ancestors. All I knew was the name and birthplace of my maternal grandmother and I knew that her grandfather had been a sailor on a Swedish commercial vessel. As a young man, he’d jumped ship at Robe in South Australia and never returned to Sweden. Within an hour, I was sitting with Geoff, my personal Nordic genealogy expert, and looking at a digital image of the 1833 Swedish birth record of Carl August Wennerbom.
“That’s your guy,” Geoff said. This wasn’t bad considering Carl had entered Australia irregularly and, it turned out, changed his name after doing so. “Sweden has excellent records,” Geoff went on. “From here you can start searching back to the 1700s.”
If I were a practising Mormon would I now presume to get baptised on Carl’s behalf? The only thing I really knew about the man was something my grandmother had once told me. She’d said that whenever her grandfather received a letter from his family in Sweden, he would take the letter outside their house, sit under the nectarine tree and weep as he read. After getting off the ship at Robe, Carl never saw his family again.
The prospect of eternal family unity is what drives the Mormon’s epic genealogical enterprise. It’s extraordinary, in a way, that such industry is inspired by such an abstract idea. But maybe it wouldn’t have seemed quite so strange to Carl. He might have understood, better than his great-great-granddaughter, how the remote promise of family reunion could be so stirring.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2016 as "Baptism of file". Subscribe here.