Friday, March 29, 2013

Dear Randy - Why Does LDS Church Exert So Much Control over Genealogy?

I get some interesting email is a recent one from E:

"I am not Mormon, no one on either side of the family is Mormon nor has anyone ever been Mormon as far back as the family has been traced.  For that reason, I fail to understand why the LDS church can exert so much control [over] something like genealogy. 

"I am a novice at this and have been trying to research my husband's family to complete the family tree for the children and potential grandchildren.  Online records which appear to me should be public knowledge or that the public should at least have free access to are not completely shackled by the LDS Church.  No matter what website I find to work with, up pops Ancestry,com,, or any one of countless sites owned, controlled or partnered with the LDS Church.

"Do they own and control every credible website that will help me in my search?  If not, can you point me toward some websites before they have a chance to buy them up, too?"

Dear E,

I don't think that the LDS Church exerts "control" over the genealogy world.  The church is certainly a presence, and, in my humble opinion, a force for good in genealogy.  I am not a member of the LDS Church.  I'll try to respond to all of your assertions in the list below:

*  The LDS Church has been collecting genealogical records from all over the world since 1894, and continue to do so.  They have a massive Family History Library in Salt Lake City (which anyone can visit for FREE) with over 300,000 books, manuscripts and periodicals, over 2.5 million microfilms, over 700,000 microfiche sets (all available to access for FREE, you do have to pay for copies), and the website with over 1,500 record collections (almost all available for FREE anywhere you can access it).  Many of those digitized record collections have been indexed by volunteers - both LDS members and non-LDS persons alike, out of the goodness of their heart, without remuneration.  The volunteers indexed the 1940 U.S. census records in five months, and the index and images are available for FREE on FamilySearch and several other providers.  

*  If you cannot visit the FHL in Salt Lake City, you can visit a local FamilySearch Center, can rent microfilms or microfiche there, and read them at the local FSC.  The FHL and the FSCs provide FREE access to many commercial subscription sites in their facilities.  In 26 years of visiting these wonderful repositories, I have been helped by very patient and knowledgeable people, and have never been asked to join the church or attend any briefings about the church.  Frankly, they do all of this to honor all of our ancestors.  I greatly appreciate the LDS Church and FamilySearch for their dedication to preserving genealogy and family history records, and providing records and education freely.

*,,,,, and are websites owned by the private company,  They are not owned by the LDS Church, and do not follow any directive of the LDS Church, although many employees and some principals of the companies are members of the LDS Church.  To my knowledge, having studied this for over ten years, the LDS Church does not exert undue influence over these companies.  In fact, they have been and will be competitors to in many cases.  In some cases, the commercial companies have partnered with FamilySearch and other entities, like the National Archives, to bring genealogy records to their customers.  For example, FamilySearch may have the images of a collection on microfilm, Ancestry might create an index of the collection, and both parties use the digitized images and index on their sites.

*  Private or public genealogy companies like Ancestry, MyHeritage, FindMyPast, and hundreds of other companies (family tree software, chartmakers, photosavers, storytellers, etc.) are in business to provide a product or a service.  They have expenses and employee salaries to meet, and their operation depends on profits, so they often charge for their product or services.  If they didn't charge, or didn't have ads on their websites, they would quickly go out of business.  You get what you pay for. costs me $155.40 every year (that's 42 cents a day...I use it every day of the year).  It's a bargain for me - I couldn't do my research quickly without it!  Each person determines what they want to buy or subscribe to, whether it's a website, a magazine, software, an app, etc.  Free market competition is good for everybody - it keeps prices low, prevents monopolies, stimulates creativity, drives companies to add content and new features, etc.

*  Commercial genealogy providers like charge you and me to access the records that they have contracted to obtain, have put in digital format, have indexed many fields so that we can find them (in many cases), even without a name, have saved and hosted on their servers so that when you request to look at the image it can be provided in a second or two.  All of that costs money to provide, and is why the companies charge for subscribers to use their service or buy their product.  You can print the record or capture it and save it to your computer files, can attach it to a person in your family tree, can send it to someone in email. has a feature that leads you to other records for persons in your Ancestry Member Tree - the green shaky leaves.  It's about 90% accurate!  I can access it online on the website, on my smart phone and tablet mobile devices, and can add content from them.  It's like magic, isn't it?  

*  Government agencies have many of the records that are offered by FamilySearch, Ancestry and other subscription sites.  They charge you to obtain a vital record (birth, marriage, death), a land deed, a probate record, a military pension file, a military service record, a Social Security application, etc.  You can go to a National Archives branch and access any of the federal government records they hold for FREE, but you will have to pay copy costs.  This is not convenient for me (I'm 90 miles away from the nearest Archives branch, and Washington DC is 2300 miles away for me), and I can access many, but not all, of the records at my local FamilySearch Center or through genealogy subscription sites.  

*  Have you heard of TANSTAAFL?  There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch?  It applies to genealogy!  Frankly,, and the Family History Library, are the closest thing to a Free Lunch that the genealogy community can enjoy and feast on.  To me, commercial sites like are almost free - I spend more than 42 cents a day on relatively useless things that are soon discarded or forgotten - a print newspaper, cable TV, coffee, soft drinks, fast food, a movie, eating out, adult beverages, etc.  It all depends on your perspective.

*  I hope that you appreciate the many wonderful things that FamilySearch, and other genealogy companies provide for you - at a minimal cost, often freely - to use to pursue your genealogical studies.  It's an excellent hobby and profession, full of beautiful people willing to share their knowledge and skills.  

*  To answer your last question:  There are many websites that offer genealogical records, education and information for free.  Check out,,,,,,, the Library of Congress Chronicling America site, and many others.  I have a list of many genealogy websites at (both FREE and commercial).

*  Thanks for reading and listening, and I hope that you find information about your family on FamilySearch and other genealogy websites, and in repositories also, and create a wonderful family tree.  I also hope that you will find it in your heart and mind to appreciate what FamilySearch, and the LDS Church, have done for the genealogical community, and researchers like you and me, over the years.  

copyright (c) 2013, Randall J. Seaver


Diane said...

Incredibly complete and very well said Randy. Ditto to ALL of it. We are very fortunate to have the records available to us.

Randy said...

Not sure the question deserved any response let alone one so thorough. I do need to take exception to one point and it concerns TANSTAAFL. Before it closed a restaurant which I regularly frequented would on occasion offer me a free lunch.

Susan said...

I agree with Diane. Very well said.

Unknown said...

Thank you Randy for such a complete and balanced review. I appreciate your fairness and impartiality.

TheLadyClaire said...

Awesome response, thanks!

Heather Wilkinson Rojo said...

You have an excellent and thoughtful answer, Randy, to a tough question I have heard many time time before. I don't think anyone has answered it better.

Jana Iverson Last said...

Excellent response Randy!

Leah Kleylein said...

Great response!

Just last night I spent a couple hours at a local FHC looking at microfilm. I don't view the church as "controlling" that microfilm - in fact, I'm incredibly grateful that they preserved the information I found on it, and let me look at it at their facility for only a few dollars shipping fee.

Jen Baldwin said...

Well said, Randy. I have often fielded questions regarding the LDS interest in genealogy, and since I am not a member, I do my best to leave a positive perspective on their collections and contributions as a whole. I'll probably be using this post as an example from now on.
My reaction to TANSTAAFL? We're not just getting a free (or close to free) lunch with these sites, we're sitting at a 24/7 buffet that never ends. Looking forward to my next little tidbit already!

ConnieG said...

I too am not a church member, but am very grateful for what they provide and am amazed at the record collection the have for us. And to provide it free when you consider what it takes to maintain databases online and the technical people it takes to main a system to handle the traffic, I am very grateful and instead of complaining I say thank you.

James Tanner said...

Well said. Well written. I get this question from time to time in different variations and that is one reason I keep writing about who owns the genealogy companies. I guess it is time to go through that again.

Carol said...

I need to save this article/link.

Perfectly stated, factual.

Nicely written, thank you.

CarmenMJ said...

The only thing that I would add over your excellent explanation is that family research is part of the Mormon religion...I've never experienced any problems when going to a FHL center or the SLC library...they don't see a Mormon but rather someone interested in genealogical research.

Becky Jamison said...

Thank you for this post, Randy. You explained it well and need to keep it handy for those who are mistaken over time. Quite often a lot of people need the correct information! You said it perfectly.

Jean Hibben said...

Great explanation, Randy. And, not that anything needs to be added, I am always overwhelmed by the chairs at the Salt Lake FHL. They have to have cost at least $200 each....and each floor Is filled with them. Whenever I am asked about the cost to rent a film at FHC, I mention that they have to pay for the chairs! ( joking, if course)....but the LDS library sure makes it comfortable to work there for hours. Wish we could get some of those chairs in our center...but we'll make up for it in friendliness!
Jean Hibben, Director, Corona FHC

Kim said...

Randy, you wrote an excellent description of the industry, the LDS connection and their support for everyone's family history. And people obviously need to be informed how the genealogical resources of the LDS are available, free of charge with no prosthelytizing allowed.
That said, I have to defend your reader just a bit. No, we can't expect that every record will be digitized, indexed and available for free and are thankful for what the LDS church has done to preserve these records which may have been lost without such action.
BUT (and it's a big BUT), the LDS church's actions relating to genealogy or politics are not beyond reproach. One only has to look at the number of times Anne Frank has been baptized posthumously or the church's funding of Prop 8 in our state of California (which many of us have been vocal about this week in hopes of seeing it reversed) to see why someone might be hesitant to trust their motives as purely benevolent. I wonder how many people like "E" have found their own ancestors posthumously baptized despite having no relation to the LDS Church.
You are right that There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. In which case, I ask, what are we giving the LDS for all they give for free? When we discuss Google or Facebook's free services, we are quickly reminded that if you aren't paying, you aren't the customer. Why should we blindly believe the LDS to be any different without at least asking the question?
I know many in the genealogical community who are/may be LDS, and I hope not to offend them, for they are kind, welcoming people and often excellent genealogists. But as many Catholics will tell you, church management does not always represent the hearts of the flock. I can't blame "E" for being suspicious.

Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

Awesome response, Randy. Thank you, so much. I agree right down the the end, and appreciated all the reminders. Very well done, as usual. This is why we read what you write, every day! ;-)

Christine Woodcock said...

Amen! And no, I'm not Mormon either, but I love all that FamilySearch has to offer and I appreciate you sharing your wisdom of the many sites available for others in such an informative way.

Jacqi Stevens said...

Randy, I wanted to add my thanks to the many above this note. While I, too, do not belong to the LDS church, I have certainly benefited from their diligence in being an advocate for genealogy research--first and foremost through their collection and preservation of historic records.

One thing your reader might not have realized--and I haven't seen addressed here--is the operational facts of life, not of LDS or FamilySearch, but of ad-driven organizations such as Google. Your reader, "E," most likely does a lot of online searching using keywords related to genealogy. Thus, Google is built to serve up ads related to that stated interest. If, however, "E" had spent a lot of time searching online for, say, "cherry flavored backscratchers," that is what would show up in the ad feeds on "E's" computer. No sinister plot on behalf of FamilySearch or the LDS. Just the automated way Google and other ad sellers are rigged to work.

Andy said...

Some good info, but you didn't say anything about *why* the LDS is dedicated to genealogy.

Would have been good to include something like a link to this:

Lori Lyn said...

Thank you Randy for such a well-thought out post.

cmbhbg said...

Thank you for writing the response that you have. We would be so challenged to find data that has been generously made available to us by LDS.
And like you, I feel we get incredible return for our fee.
Thank you again for stating all the needed insight so clearly and fairly : )

Michele Simmons Lewis said...

Excellent post, Randy! I am very grateful for everything the LDS church has done.

Michele Lewis
Ancestoring's Ask a Genealogist

Ancestoring's Orphan Photos

Linda said...

Totally agree with you Randy, well said.

Jana Iverson Last said...


Again, thank you for your wonderful response.

I want to let you know that this post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

Have a great weekend!

Karl-Michael Sala said...

Karl-Michael Sala replies: As I am fiercely wont to say: There are stunningly good reasons why The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the ONLY church which has spent MILLIONS of $ & MILLIONS of hours of service for people who are NOT EVEN OF THEIR FAITH. They charge ABSOLUTELY NOTHING for the use of their facilities. In 2012, I, personally, gave away NO LESS THAN $20,000 worth of my time in the analysis, researching & the CRACKING of NUMEROUS cases! Why, yes, there are also stunningly good reasons for that! The Church is attempting to work with private entities & grant--as a COURTESY--links to websites, both subscription & non-subscription! Now then, whoever wishes to blast my church, I insist that you look at this with a different set of glasses. While I have different beefs with the bureaucracy of it all, I still look forward to an apology from the naysayer{:>)

Aaron said...

No one has mentioned that the
is reason for Morman dominance in genealogical material and research is their practice of baptism of the dead. Genealogical research would most likely not be where it is today if not for the Mormons, and the cost and futility of research would be far greater. I see a bargain.

Robin said...

Back in the good old days when my local regular library had a free link to LDS genealogical records I was stunned to find how many of my close ancestors had been sealed in one form or another, to the LDS church. They would be rolling, and probably still are, in their very Anglican graves to know that they had been hijacked by Mormon individuals who were not by any stretch "researchers" and the errors on their parts po'ed me to no end. The Church has made very good efforts to correct errors, but they still remain. And I would like to know if there is a process whereby I can get them "unsealed". The Anne Frank scandal and the Catholic churches bans on letting, I'm sure, well intentioned Mormons doing their "missionary" work in Catholic records has probably cut down on some of this nonsense, but Jewish leaders are still finding church members Baptizing Jews to the LDS church. I try to avoid "Family Search" when I can and would rather pay for non church information. I still find inaccurate family structures in those LDS records. So, they do some good and some damage to family genealogies. And the tithing requirements pay for those nice chairs in FHL facilities. Watta ya gonna do?

T said...

My English ancestors who came over on the Mayflower could just as well have stayed home if they could so easily be converted to Mormonism without their knowledge.

English Alan said...

ysessmr vaultedInteresting to see the comments about baptism for the dead. The people are Baptised, and not "baptised into the Mormon Church."

If the Mormon church is right, then they perform a very necessary ordinance. If they are wrong, the ordinance will not be efficaceous, and therefore they do no harm whatsoever. The person being baptised (if there is life after death) will still have the choice to either accept it or reject it. Where, then, is the harm being done.

As for someone's ancestors who came over on the Mayflower being upset at being baptised by the Mormon Church, they came across to the States in 1620, and would have no knowledge of the Mormon Church, which was not founded until 1830. Please take a look at history before making biased comments.

Brian Caudill said...

I am not a LDS member but I have studied their beliefs of baptism of the dead. They believe that the dead person has to accept the baptism so if your ancestor is rolling in their grave that is probably them just rejecting the offer of baptism.

German Genealogist since 1979! Karl-Michael Sala! said...

If the principle of baptism for the deceased is not true, then you have no worries. However, if it is true, I recommend you stand back & let all make their own choices & let them "turn in their graves" to something they just might want. And, no, you do not get to make that decision for them. You do not own your ancestors.

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Unknown said...

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