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Salt Lake City Family History Conference: Family connections help create 'spirit of unity'

Family connects us: to each other, to the planet, to the ages. Family tells us who we are, how we belong.

So, of all the things to celebrate in this life, family history ranks very high on the list.

That was the message of a special program held Thursday night in the Conference Center as part of the National Genealogical Society 2010 Family History Conference being held in Salt Lake City.

"A Celebration of Family History," was organized by FamilySearch, a division of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and was a multimedia presentation featuring remarks by Henry B. Eyring, First Counselor in the First Presidency of the church; David McCullough, author, historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner; music by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir; and a series of video vignettes depicting the importance of family history.

"This is a remarkable community devoted to the knitting together of hearts that cross generations," President Eyring said, as he talked of his personal experiences with the community's "spirit of unity."

He talked of the "miraculous flowering of this work," and how truly prophetic were the words of a circular printed in 1846 by a fledgling society in New England that said "the minds of men are naturally moved to know something of their progenitors."

Eyring said he had a personal witness of how young people are drawn to forge family connections when he read the journal of his grandfather that has been transcribed by his mother. "I changed the way I thought of myself when I read that he thought his life was part of a great historical pattern that reached beyond himself. I thought my life might matter and I should live it as well as I could."

That same sense of history has been important to McCullough throughout his life as he has looked deeply into the lives of others.

"I've never known much about the subjects I've written about when I started. Each book was a journey, a hunt, a detective story. That has been the joy of it, the compulsion of it," he said, noting that everyone can share in that joy.

"Curiosity is a wonderful thing. It is accelerative. The more you know, the more you want to know. It's what separates us from the cabbages."

McCullough talked of phrases that should be excised from our vocabulary, such as "self-made man" — "we are all shaped by other people," he said; "foreseeable future" — "there's no such thing. People back then had no more idea how things would turn out than we do." And, "living in the past" — no one lived in the past; they lived in their present and to understand them we have to understand their times."

And, he added, "we should never say 'gone, but not forgotten.' If they are not forgotten, they are not gone. They created the society, the values, the experiences we all live by. We must not lose sight of them."

McCullough talked of visiting Normandy with a Jewish couple, who placed pebbles on the grave of a Jewish soldier. "They said it was their way of staying in touch. That's what we all should be doing. History — whether you call it history or local history or family history — transcends time, transcends nationality, transcends geography. It reminds us that we are all part of the human family. We must stay in touch."

The evening's program was skillfully woven together by video stories of searches for connections, including that of a soldier and prisoner of war in Estonia; a woman who died of leprosy in Hawaii, but not before giving birth and sending away six children; a young boy who found a bond with his Scottish ancestors in the music of bagpipes.

Music by the Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square, under the direction of Mack Wilberg, also added to the power and emotion of the evening, through such folk hymns as "Wayfarin' Stranger," "Morning Has Broken," "Amazing Grace," and the choir's signature "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

At a press conference earlier in the day, McCullough, FamilySearch CEO Jay Verkler, and Pam Sayre, director of education for the National Genealogical Society, talked about the importance of this kind of program.

"All history is family history," said McCullough, "it is through the family that we get to the vital nerve center of history. History is about life, one generation to another."

We have done an inadequate job of educating our children and grandchildren on the history of this country, McCullough said, "and that is primarily our fault. Enjoyment of history begins at home, at the dinnertable, with stories from our own families."

One of his ancestors was in the tannery business and specialized in making the finest harnesses and equipage for horses around. "And along came the automobile, and that was the end of his business. But instead of complaining and saying 'woe is me,' he decided to invest in electricity and started the McCullough Electric Company. It was because of the McCullough Electric Company that I got to go to Yale."

He also talked of his Scottish ancestors who were weavers — "I often think of them as I'm trying to weave together words" — and his Irish ancestors who were storytellers — "that's such a wonderful quality."

Sayre spoke of an ancestor who fought in the American Revolutionary War. "He was a poor, uneducated farmer. And he knew that if he and the others did not succeed they would be punished severely, even killed, but he believed in the cause. I am in awe of him and what he did. It is because of him that I get to enjoy all the freedoms that I have today."

There are lessons to be learned, people to know, stories to tell, said McCullough. "So, on we go, and aren't we lucky?"