Genealogy – Its Continued Significance to One Post-Mormon

One constant for me throughout my recent changes in religious belief has been an interest in genealogy, although even that has changed in its meaning and purpose. When I was Mormon, I participated in genealogy to extend the blessings of the restoration to my dead ancestors and because I was fascinated by the lives and experiences of those who went before me. My immediate and extended family is very small; I often felt like a “stranger in a strange land” and like I did not quite belong. That feeling was exacerbated when my mom, the emotional glue of our family, passed away when I was only 14. Getting to know who my ancestors were and a little about their lives helped me feel that I did have earthly kin and that I did belong here. And since, as a Mormon, I believed that these dead relatives of mine continued to live on and could observe me, I imagined that they were so grateful when they received great blessings in the temple as a result of my efforts. It was richly satisfying and addictive.

Now, as a non-believer, I still enjoy imagining the lives and circumstances of my ancestors’ humble lives. They may not have thought their lives were of much importance, but their lives are very important to me, for their choices and struggles helped to create me and my unique features. But, the bigger picture has changed from a focus on spiritual salvation and the hereafter to the marvelous history of the world and life on it and my small role in its continuation. I am in awe of being such a small part of this massive movement. It is spiritually satisfying to me to contemplate being part of this greater whole. My appreciation of the earthy physicality of it all has expanded as I no longer believe that the real reality lies in the unseen spiritual realm. I am amazed by the process of cultural and genetic evolution especially in my line. I now believe that my ancestors extend beyond the human race and that among my relatives are all living things – from the grass to the apes.

One of the newest lines of research that has attracted my interest is genetic genealogy. I was introduced to this field through Dr. Woodward, my former BYU bishop, who heads the Sorenson Molecular Genealogical Foundation ( Note: this is not a commercial site, but a research site). I have had my Y-DNA tested and have learned that my patriarchal DNA comes from the Scandinavian areas of Europe some 10,000 years ago ( ). The paper trail on my patriarchal line only goes back to 1560 in southern Germany. I can’t tell you how thrilling it is to know where some of my ancestors (and basis of the genetic code of my Y chromosome) were 10,000 years ago. And through National Geographic’s Genographic Project ( ), I can see how my ancestors got to Scandinavia from Africa. I am also looking into my mtDNA to find out the deep history of my maternal line.

Since I no longer believe in personal spirits, I believe that I am my body and the blueprint of my body is my DNA. I am very interested in the history of that DNA and how that code came to be and what role my genes play in who I am. I am a product of this majestic earth and am related to all terrestrial life; my DNA is evidence of that. Since the awe I feel when I contemplate the history of my creation is a spiritual experience for me, both traditional and genetic genealogy have become an elevating sacrament to me. Genealogy is piece of common ground some Mormons and non-Mormons can use to build bridges of understanding.


Post-Mormon, atheist, who currently attends at a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Interested in spirituality, purpose, and ethics for the naturalist, and in teaching my children the same.

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16 Responses

  1. Hellmut says:

    Sorry to hear about your mother, Hueffenhardt. I like family history as well. It is amazing to see how choices and experiences generations ago continue to shape our socialization.

    My wife is a family historian. I must admit that initially I did not quite take that major seriously. I considered a goofy Mormon thing. I quickly changed my mind realizing that family historians get to work with primary sources from the first semester while everyone else in history had to settle for secondary literature.

    For this reason, I think that every historian should begin as a family historian, at least for the first two years in college. That way, they get to do real research projects from the very beginning. There could not be a better way to start out.

  2. chanson says:

    I’m excited about the possibilities that arise through genetics too.

    In my family, my mother’s mother’s mother is apparently part Native American (my mother’s mother’s father probably is as well). However, it’s the sort of thing that’s a little difficult to document precisely because of how records were kept (or not) on the American frontier.

    I keep wanting to have my mitochondrial DNA done because it think it would be cool if it turned out that my mother-to-daughter line traced back to Native Americans. I hesitate, though, because it’s more likely that it will turn up that its just one of the typical European mtDNA lines and I’ll be disappointed. Still, even then, it would be cool to learn what is known about the migrations of my distant ancestors.

  3. Hueffenhardt says:

    Hellmut –
    I suppose like any historian working with original sources, it is like detective work. I am so excited when I find the next piece of the puzzle or a marriage certificate that lists the parents of the bride and groom. Since I don’t believe in an afterlife, these documents (and a few genes) are all that is left of the lives of many of my ancestors. Seeing their handwriting or the handwriting of a priest that knew them is a tangible way I can connect with the past. I have also had the priviledge of holding a few heirlooms. I remember how I felt when I tried on my great-great-grandfather’s eyeglasses. Just amazing.

  4. John Hamer says:

    I think family history is a great avenue into personalizing history and broadening one’s historical understanding. In the case of early Mormon history, folks are often focussed like a laser-beam on the Joseph Smith story. I think that misses the richness of the story. One way to move beyond Joseph Smith is to find out about your own early Mormon ancestors and learn what they were doing in Kirtland, in Missouri, in Nauvoo, in Council Bluffs, etc.

    PS: Chanson — a mother-mother-mother-mother chain isn’t going to get you Lamanite paydirt. The Indian line is from Grandpa Greer, not Grandma Greer.

  5. Hueffenhardt says:

    chanson –
    Yes, I had rumors of Native American blood in my veins as well, although I have not been able to prove it and I am beginning to doubt that it is true, although it may be true of my Philyaw line.

    I’d encourage you to go ahead and test your mtDNA. I don’t think you will be disappointed however it turns out. You will likely take pride in your heritage whatever it may be.

  6. chanson says:

    John — true Grandpa’s Indian ancestry is better documented, but Mom once mentioned some evidence (oral history from distant relatives) that there might be some on Grandma’s line as well….

  7. Robert says:

    Not to throw wet blankets or anything, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find a white American family that didn’t have an oral history of vague Native American ancestry in their pedigree. 95% of the time, it’s a Cherokee (why always Cherokee?) princess somewhere back there.

  8. chanson says:

    That doesn’t mean it’s not true!!! I hear those Cherokee princesses had lots of kids!!! 😉

    But seriously, the fact that Native American ancestry is a common claim in Americans’ oral history may very well be because this type of intermarriage wasn’t that uncommon on the frontier. And just looking at it mathematically, you can be certain that your ancestry traces back to some sort of royalty on multiple lines.

    The evidence for Native American ancestry on my great-grandpa’s side is strong, and on my great-grandma’s side… Well, that’s what I was hoping the mtDNA might show… 😉

  9. NFlanders says:

    I’ve become much more interested in my family history since I lost my faith, too. Now I know that this is my only chance to find out about the people who are responsible for my genetic code.

    I suffer from a problem that I imagine is common to lots of Mormons: the grandparents who have supposedly already done all the genealogy. Unfortunately, they’ve now passed and I have no idea if their genealogy work was saved or where it may be. It’s a little discouraging.

    I wonder if genealogy is predominantly an American concern. I know that as an American of no obvious national origin, I am far more interested in my ancestors than my wife, who is a child of immigrants. She already has a national identity, but I do not.

  10. Hellmut says:

    Ned, have you checked Your grandparents would have submitted everything to the LDS Church. All that information is now on the Internet.

    The one caveat that one has to add is buyer beware. Amateurs have collected the data on Hence the quality is uneven but it is a great place to start out.

  11. Hueffenhardt says:


    Might your parents know who inherited the genealogy files. Surely, someone (one or more of their children) cleaned out their house and would know where the files went.

    As far as genealogy being an American concern, I have no idea.

  12. chanson says:

    I don’t think it’s just an American thing. My husband has a cousin who’s really into it, and sent the whole extended family (including us) an elaborate family tree covering many generations of my husband’s grandparents’ ancestors.

  13. When my non-member husband got excited about his genealogy and started looking into it a lot, I was still a believing Mormon, and I took his excitement as a sign that he was getting closer to gospel truth.

    The real truth is, some people are fascinated by history, whether it’s their own family or world history. He’s one of those.

    Personally, I have never tried doing any of it. I was afraid of the words in my patriarchal blessing:

    “I bless you with the spirit of Elyjah, so that you can help to open the doors for your righteous ancestors who are dead, so that they can progress back to the presence of our Heavenly Father. I bless you that you will not be content with some of the records that you see. Do not hold back.”

    Um. Yikes. Plus, my dad does genealogy religiously (pun intended!) and I’m not so sure he hasn’t already done it for my husband’s family already as well.

  14. Hueffenhardt says:


    For me, one’s genealogy has never “all been done”. After all available names and dates have been collected, there is still a story to tell. Finding and visiting the lands that your ancestor’s owned, understanding the times that they lived in and the beliefs that they had, etc, are all parts of the story of your creation.

    I understand that genealogy is not everyone’s cup of tea (so to speak), but please don’t let your interests be guided by what you now believe to be nothing more than the well-wishes of an old man (your patriarchal blessing).

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