Religious Records: Researching Latter-day Saints

Religious Records: Researching Latter-day Saints

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an international church today, but it was born and raised in the United States. Learn about founder Joseph Smith Jr., a New Yorker, and how many Mormons eventually found their way to Utah and beyond.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) is an international church today, but it was born and raised in the United States. Founder Joseph Smith Jr. was a rural New Yorker who felt divinely authorized to restore a lost version of Christianity. He founded the LDS church in 1830, the same year he published the Book of Mormon, a scriptural text that gave Latter-day Saints the nickname Mormons.
 
The faith spread quickly. Under Smith’s leadership, converts gathered and migrated successively further West to Kirtland, Ohio (1831-1838); Jackson, Clay and Caldwell counties, Mo. (1831-1838); and Nauvoo, Ill. (1839-1846). After religious tensions led to Smith’s murder in 1844, Brigham Young led a group of adherents to the Utah wilderness. From there, settlers fanned out through the Intermountain West and into Mexico and Canada.
 
LDS missions spread the faith in England starting in 1837, the South Pacific (1840s), Denmark (1850) and elsewhere. Through the 1890s, roughly 90,000 British, Irish, Scandinavian, German and other immigrants had trekked to Utah, many assisted by the church’s Perpetual Emigration Fund between 1849 and 1887.
 
By 1880, a third of US Mormons were immigrants. In the 1930s, half of the world’s Mormons lived in Utah, but about 90 percent lived in the United States. Today, that demographic has shifted again: Most of the 14.4 million worldwide Mormons live outside the United States.
 

Not all Mormons accepted Young’s leadership in 1844. Some of them supported Smith’s son, Joseph Smith III, in founding the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (RLDS) in 1860, which became strongest in the Midwest. In 2001, the RLDS church was renamed Community of Christ. Today, RLDS claims a quarter-million members.

Search for Saints

The LDS church’s FamilySearch division runs the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City; you can find most LDS records there or at the nearby Church History Library and Archives (CHLA). The Brigham Young University (BYU) Center for Family History and Genealogy has copies of many FHL records.
 
Local congregations across the country, called wards or branches, create some records. Geographic boundaries determine ward or branch membership. Some records exist at the regional level, known as a stake. Here are the records to look for:
  • Individual religious rites: Rites, documented in church membership records at the local level, include infant blessing, baptism and confirmation at age 8 or later, and endowment (temple covenant ceremony) for adults. Men are ordained to offices in a lay priesthood (deacon, teacher, priest, elder, high priest, seventy) beginning at the age of 12. Look for certificates in home sources and research priesthood ordinations in stake-level quorum records at the CHLA.
  • Church marriages: Marriage may take place in an LDS temple or elsewhere. Temple weddings, restricted to Latter-day Saints in good standing, are called sealings.

    Look for marriage records at the FHL and CHLA; one source is the Sealing Index (1846-1913) on FHL microfilm. Until about 1890, when the historical practice of polygamy was banned, you may find multiple marriage records for LDS men.

  • Patriarchal blessings: Given verbally and documented in writing, these are considered God’s counsel for an individual’s life course.

    Mormons can request copies of their deceased ancestors’ patriarchal blessings at www.lds.org (under Tools, select Patriarchal Blessing). The public can access the Patriarchal Blessing Index, which contains some genealogical information, at the CHLA, FHL and BYU. The index covers 1833 to 1993, or to the present at CHLA.

  • Church membership records: These may document an ancestor’s birth date, home congregation, rites received, death and other details. Early records vary in format and content, sometimes taking the form of annual reports. Records were standardized in 1877.

    Membership records at CHLA and on microfilm at the FHL are organized by local unit (ward or branch). Look up units in the 1967 Alphabetical Index to Ward and Branch Organization on FHL microfilm, or look for church records in the FHL catalog (search by location).

    The Early Church Information File, on microfilm at the FHL, CHLA and BYU, indexes more than 1.5 million early Latter-day Saints. The 50-volume Membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1848 by Susan Easton Black is at major genealogy libraries and indexed at subscription site World Vital Records.

    More than 30,000 names are in the LDS Member Name Index (1830-1845), searchable on subscription site Ancestry.com. FamilySearch.org has lineage-linked pedigree information submitted by Latter-day Saints; click on Trees and check Ancestral File. Read about additional indexes in Kip Sperry’s A Guide to Mormon Family History Sources (Ancestry).

  • Diaries and personal histories: These are relatively abundant because Latter-day Saints consider keeping them a religious duty. Collections are at the CHLA, BYU, and other archives such as the Godfrey Memorial Library. BYU has digitized traveling
missionaries’ diaries at lib.byu.edu/digital/mmd; browse them by region or surname. Also consult Davis Bitton’s Guide to Mormon Diaries and Autobiographies, which can be found digitized at books.familysearch.org.
  • Compiled biographies and local histories: Look for family in indexes to biographies, including Andrew Jenson’s LDS Biographical Encyclopedia (on Ancestry.com); the Daughters of Utah Pioneers’ Utah, Our Pioneer Heritage; Frank Elwood Esshom’s Utah Pioneers and Prominent Men; and Noble Warrum’s multivolume Utah Since Statehood. Marvin E. Wiggins’ 200-volume Mormons and Their Neighbors, with 100,000 biographical sketches of residents of the Intermountain West, is indexed here.

    Search the FHL, CHLA and BYU catalogs for histories of LDS settlements, wards, branches and stakes. Research Nauvoo residents (1839-1846) at the Lands and Records Office and in an 1842 Nauvoo tax list on Ancestry.com.

    Learn more about Winter Quarters, Neb., a makeshift headquarters on the trail to Utah, at Early Latter-day Saints and the Winter Quarters Project.

  • Vital records indexes: Look for vital records data in the LDS Vital Records Library on LDS Family History Suite 2 on CD at the FHL and other libraries; it includes an index to Utah deaths outside Salt Lake City from 1898 to 1905. The Obituary Card Index, available on microfilm at the FHL, CHLA and BYU, covers deaths mentioned in Salt Lake and LDS newspapers from 1848 to 1970. The Journal History Index references news clippings and other sources beginning in 1830.
  • Military records: Search a roster of the Nauvoo Legion, an all-LDS unit of the Illinois Militia, at Ancestry.com. Hundreds of LDS men enlisted in the Mexican War in the Mormon Battalion. Find an index to their pension applications at Family-Search.org (look for the database United States, Mormon Battalion Pension Applications, 1846-1923); originals are at the National Archives and Records Administration.
  • Immigration: Start with passenger and departure lists; most LDS European immigrants departed through Liverpool. The FHL has Copenhagen “Mormon” passenger lists on microfilm. Emigration records kept by Scandinavian, British and Netherlands Missions are on microfilm at the FHL and CHLA (Scandinavian records are transcribed at aurelia-clemons.dk). Research debtor lists and other records of the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Co. at the FHL and CHLA; Persons and Sureties Indebted to the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company from 1850 to 1877 Inclusive is searchable at Internet Archive. You can read about LDS immigrant ancestors at mormonmigration.lib.byu.edu.
  • Church censuses: In 1852 and 1853, local bishops (ward leaders) in Utah took head-of-household censuses. These records are available at the FHL and BYU, and indexed in the Early Church Information File. Between 1914 and 1960, church censuses captured rich genealogical data and are on microfilm at the CHLA, FHL and BYU.
  • RLDS/Community of Christ records: The Deceased Members Card File (1877-1995) at the Community of Christ Library and Archives is on microfilm at the FHL. The archives also has an index to its church newspaper, The Saints Herald, first published in 1860. Susan Easton Black’s Early Members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is available in libraries and searchable at World Vital Records.

From the March/April 2013 issue of Family Tree Magazine
 

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