The Mormons, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints,have elevated data collection to a religious plane, especially the collection of genealogical data. They are the inheritors of the American prophetic
movement led by amateur archeologist, clairvoyant and polygamous Christian, Joseph Smith.
These post modern christians play an avant-garde role in the contemporary counter-reformation with their re-ritualisation of the religious experience.How did a genealogical obsession and corresponding compulsion
for documentation become the key to the success of a new world religion?
Why are seventy men and women constantly occupied feeding names of deceased persons into the Genealogical Information and Names Tabulation (GIANT) system?
Since the Genealogical Society of Utah was founded precisely one hundred years ago, much genealogical research has been done in Salt Lake City. One can read the results and findings in the Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, which first appeared in 1910. The capital of Utah also has a large genealogical library, open to the public, to which genealogical researchers come from the entire world to trace their family history. Not only amateurs, but also scientists who prefer these genealogical sources. Many visitors to the library travel to Utah because Salt Lake City has the largest genealogical databank in the world. For countless numbers of them, this visit is also the fulfillment of a religious duty.
At the moment, the genealogical collection of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints is estimated to contain more than two billion names of the deceased. This file is growing steadily, because roughly 150 teams are working worldwide to microfilm vital statistics. In Salt Lake City, one can find and consult almost the entire birth, baptism, marriage and death registers from Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Great Britain, Scandinavia and Hungary. For the Dutch file alone, 90,000 rolls of microfilm were needed. Every month, 500 new rolls of microfilm arrive. The available genealogical documentation now contains 200,000 books and 1.8 million rolls of microfilm. The goal is to include all existing accessible genealogical documentation of the whole of humanity.
The Mormons are still far from achieving their goal. Their efforts at present expand the file with approximately 100 million names annually, but this titan's task is progressing slowly. The assumption is that it must be possible to trace the personal data of about 8 billion people. But that is only 10% of the estimated 80 billion people that have inhabited the earth. The Mormons focus their efforts on the location and documentation of such data as is still accessible at present. But the greatest hope of the religious community of Mormons is that the personal data of our earliest ancestors will emerge in a miraculous fashion from the mists of prehistory.
The Mormons' religious fervor is regarded with amazement everywhere. Besides missionary work, it is mainly in this compulsive genealogical data collection that it finds expression. Few realize that genealogical work lies at the core of the gospel of the Mormon church. Not only do they hope to gather the vital statistics of all of humanity: they see this superhuman task as a cosmic duty. In its turn, this work is necessary to fulfill another religious duty: the baptism of those who lived and died without knowledge of the gospels. Like their founder Joseph Smith, the Mormons believe that the good news must be carried not only to the living, but also to the dead who missed the chance to be converted to Christianity for purely chronological reasons.
The Mormons adhere to a somewhat modified Christianity, supplemented by a third testament. One of the most important sources of the religion is the Book of Mormon. Aided by instructions from a Heavenly Messenger, Joseph Smith found this holy scripture in the village of Manchester in New York State on the 2nd of September, 1827. It consisted of a series of inscribed golden plates. The plates purported to be an ancient chronicle tracing the earliest history of America to the migration of one of the tribes of Israel to the New World in 600 BC. Through God's grace and power, Smith was able to translate the inscription. The text was then transmitted to us in 1830 as the Book of Mormon.
Besides the Bible and the Book of Mormon, the church founded by Joseph Smith has two other fundamental scriptures: the Doctrine and Covenant and the Pearl of Great Price. They also accept the power of revelation to the prophet and his deputy, the head of the church. The room for continuing revelation explains the evolution of the scriptures and the Mormons' religious practice. Smith's followers first achieved notoriety through the practice of polygamy. They based this on the Revelation on the Eternity of the Marriage Covenant, including Plurality of Wives, revealed to Joseph, the seer, in Nauvoo, Illinois on July 12, 1843. They believed that the time had come to restore the archpaternal marriage conventions so extensively described in the old testament, especially for the leaders. These marriage conventions provoked severe conflicts with traditional Christians, causing the Mormons ultimately to be banned to the salt desert of Utah. But after a period of adjustment, the conventional marriage and family structure was re-instated on the authority of the prophets.
But this morality of marriage only applied to everyday life, as provided for by the civil law code. In the cosmic order of things, containing life in time and eternity, other, much more extensive laws prevail, laws established in a divine code. Mormons only recognize the celestial marriage, a bond affirmed by the highest authorities on earth. Celestial marriage is marriage unto all eternity. According to the revelation on this subject all the marriages entered into without divine authority are dissolved by death.
Through marriage to widowers, polygamy is apparently maintained on a cosmic level. If a wife thus sealed to her husband should precede him in death, it would be his priviledge to wed another. The second wife, or third, if the second should die, would be sealed to him in the same manner as the first. They would be all his equally. In the resurrection he would have three wives, with their children, belonging to him in the everlasting covenant.
The forging of family bonds has played a prominent role in the religious history of the Mormons, but another aspect of religious life has gradually become dominant. Activities related to the dead have come to occupy a central place in the life of the church. One of its most visible results is the genealogical databank of Salt Lake City, generously open to the investigative efforts of laymen. Retroactive missionary work and the corresponding regressive conversion rituals have actual become the Mormons' most essential religious activity. In the privacy of their temples, the Mormons devote themselves to the posthumous baptism of dead souls.
Related unto Eternity
The Mormons believe that we all are descended from Adam. Thus, humanity is one. Tracing the bloodlines that connect us should allow us all to find our common origin in the first family. The statement of origins is a biblical figure of rhetoric. For example, the gospel of Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob, Jacob begat Judah and his brethern, Judah begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom, and Esrom begat Aram; and Aram begat Aminadab, Aminadab begat Naasson; Naasson begat Salmon; and Salmon begat Booz of Rachab, Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse; and Jesse begat David, the king; etc. Based on these biblical passages, every Mormon has the religious duty to document their own genealogy and to have children. Because:// Woman without man and man without woman cannot be saved. The larger a progeny a man has, the greater will be the fullness of his eternal glory.//
The theological basis of these duties is the principle that descendants are considered responsible for the spiritual welfare of their ancestors. A member of the church must transmit the gospel to his or her own dead family members. This is not only a selfless deed of love for one's ancestors. The Mormons believe that the dead and the living are dependent on each other in the attainment of grace. The meaning of this forceful family bond that transcends the barrier of death is based on Malachi 4:5-6: 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 heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse. In this theology, the family is more than the cornerstone of society: marriage and the resultant offspring cause our inclusion in a family bond for all eternity.
In preaching to the dead, Jesus Christ preceded us, according to the Mormons. After his death, Jesus preached to spirits before his ascension to heaven. In 1 Peter 3:18-20, we read: For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient. A sincere member of the church thus follows in Christ's footsteps and preaches the gospel among his ancestors. It is perhaps a bit difficult for outsiders to conceive the exact form of this transmortal conversion. The Bible again provides an explanation. In his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15: 29), Paul writes: Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptized for the dead?
Through surrogate baptism, the Mormons also succeed in including their non-christian antecedents in the community of believers. People have themselves baptised for a deceased family member. But the baptism is only one of the sacraments that must be received; there is also an endowment and seal. An outsider cannot know the details of these ceremonies. They are carried out in secret in the Mormon temples. The temples are only open to those considered suitable to receive the sacraments. But a baptism by empowerment can only be accomplished after the living member has produced the necessary documentation of the identity of the deceased. A baptism rite for an anonymous ancestor is impossible. This is the reason that the creation of a genealogical tree and the facilitation of genealogical research are central religious duties for the Mormons.
Thousand Year Baptism
Genealogical research and temple work, as the believers call these rituals, are two sides of the same coin. Methodically and with great persistence, the church of Joseph Smith is copying all existing registers of vital statistics, while the members of the church trace their ancestry. Their lists are included in a universal register of vital statistics. This is not on microfilm, but an IBM 3081 computer. The computer also facilitates maintenance of the baptism and celestial marriage registers. The temples have computer terminals from which the rituals can be registered directly upon completion. To achieve the greatest possible administrative simplicity, the Mormons turn in a magnetic pass before stepping into the baptismal font, which is returned when the entry has been made in the register.
This religious fervor is evoked by expectation of the end of time. The return of the Lord will soon be upon us. In accordance with the revelations of John, they anticipate a victory over the Beast, followed by the Millennium. This will see the first resurrection from the dead. But not for everyone. The first round will become priests of God and Christ and rule with him as kings. Many will still have not accepted the truth, despite the missionary work done among the dead. The most important activity of the chosen in the Millennium will be Temple work. After Christ's return, the baptism of the dead will be continued with even greater intensity, in order to re-unite the ten tribes of Israel and allow humanity to accomplish the definitive resurrection from the dead.
Before the establishment of the Millennium, tribulations, terrors and plagues of the final struggle will be visited on us. The so-carefully collected data will be in slight danger of being lost in these troubled times. This would make it impossible for the living after the second coming to work for the salvation of the dead. To avoid this risk, the Mormons' genealogical data has been stored in a series of corridors hewn out of solid rock. The safes with the microfilms are located twelve miles from Salt Lake City under hundreds of meters of granite. This tunnel system is said to be nuclear safe, has an autonomous energy supply and is equipped with an air purification system. Three large steel doors protect what may be called the world's greatest documentation effort from unexpected destruction.
Temple Work or Belief as Production
A mysterious thing about the Mormon religion is the attachment of a theological fixation on genealogical structures to the execution of a highly rational documentation program. The significance attributed to family relations in Mormon metaphysics can easily be derived from countless theological scriptures. However, this cannot account for the mystery of this church's success. And partial evidence of this success is to be found in the immense volume of the documentation collected by the church in one century. The secret of the Mormon church is that it has found a multiplier of religious activity in genealogical theology.
The collection of a very specific kind of data is one of the things that constitutes the religious community. One cannot interpret the Mormon church as a genealogical society. Many besides the Mormons are interested in genealogy. But these laymen's interest is purely individual. It is rarely expressed in collective projects like the Mormons' mega-databank. Mormons trace their own family tree first, exactly like laymen. But their ultimate goal is the restoration of the unity of humanity and the salvation of all of Adam's descendants.
It is a unique feature of the Mormons that they have found a formula to relate the processing of this enormous task to individual religious activity. This data collection is a key element in a motivating and mobilising mechanism that distinguishes the Mormons from the traditional christian churches. Mormon metaphysics is a special composite of elements from the Catholic, Protestant, prophetic and spiritualistic traditions. It is an American 19th century synthesis that solves specific religious questions posed by the New World, such as those raised by contact with native American beliefs and practices. But the Mormons' main challenge is to control the mechanism they created to contain the centrifugal forces of protestantism, the American religion par excellence. The task of collecting individual genealogical data and accomplishment of the rites related to it disciplines individual religious responsibilities.
The Mormons are fixated on our common descendancy from Adam, but do not accept the doctrine of the original sin. This is how the Mormon church avoided the paralysis of Calvinism. They have no need for the doctrine of predestination and a tediously derived morality of labor. The Mormons are re-ritualising christianity by the introduction of posthumous, surrogate baptism. It externalises belief, creates certainty and allows calculable progress. The task of creating a transcendental family bond functions to motivate the expansion of ritual in the church. Bareboned church services of the Word with an unclear function have been turned into altruistic rites that cumulatively contribute to the salvation of humanity. The Mormon rituals are a form of production. Temple work for the benefit of the dead is the expression of a purely religious ethic.
To an outsider, this religious practice may seem based on absurd assumptions, but the Mormons' metaphysics makes a very logical impression. The most convincing element of this metaphysics is that it succeeds in offering a kind of action to the believer within a completely individual realm. It removes the uncertainty and lack of accountability of protestantism by giving believers something to do. A pressing task that is at once comprehensible and impossible to accomplish, selfless and a duty, alien to the world and involved with one's own body. The capacity to create a basis for the re-ritualisation of christianity is the greatest power of Mormon theology. It is a harbinger of the postmodern counter-reformation. This rapidly growing movement's capacity for mobilisation is anchored in a maniacal bent for collecting genealogical data.
translation JIM BOEKBINDER