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Barry Ewell: Prayer is the most important tool I have as a genealogist

When researching family history, prayer is one of the best tools that I have.
When researching family history, prayer is one of the best tools that I have.

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from Barry Ewell's book titled "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips, and Tricks for Discovering Your Family."

I have thought a lot about the topic of prayer and genealogy and just how to approach the concept without offending or preaching. Prayer is the most important tool I have as a genealogist. I remember one of my very first experiences as a genealogist, where I had chosen to work on one family line with very little success. I felt the need to include prayer but didn't. As time went on, I became more and more frustrated.

Finally one day, now at a dead end, I knelt in prayer and poured out my heart and pleaded for help. Within days, information began to pour in and has been almost continuous for 10 years.

Is it coincidence? No! I have had many personal experiences associated with genealogy that are divine in nature. I have felt like I have been guided to find information, meet people and soften hearts, making it possible to find what I needed. Prayer is the cornerstone upon which I build my genealogical research. I have spoken with many people who included prayer as part of their research, and they have had similar experiences.

It's hard for me to believe that genealogy work is anything but divine. Personal revelation is available to anyone who is willing to pray, serve and listen. Include prayer in your work; experience the difference it will make in your success and happiness in your genealogy research. Pray for which lines you should follow, for help in finding the information you seek, for help in softening the hearts of those who have information you need, and for guidance of where to search. Pray for anything and everything you do in research.

And be sure you show your gratitude for the blessings you receive. May you have the blessings of a loving Heavenly Father in your work and all else you pursue.

I would like to share one experience with you that I hope will help to explain my belief in the power of this work we call genealogy.

I had been researching my Danish ancestry for several months and had progressed several generations back to the early 1700s. But I had reached a brick wall and couldn't seem to locate a descendent who had been born and had raised a family in the area I was researching.

The family had lived in the community for generations and then they were suddenly gone, leaving no trace of where they might have gone. I searched the military, community and church records with no success. My next step was to systematically search all the neighboring communities and parishes in a 25-mile radius. After several weeks of research, I was down to the last several microfilms for the search area. I arrived at the family history library at 8 a.m. and began searching a rather large parish record carefully — line by line, page by page — for most of the day. As I finished the film and was on my way back to return it to its original location, I heard the words, "I'm here. Look again."

I knew I had to return and research the film the next day.

When I returned to the family history library, I anxiously retrieved the film to embark on what I hoped would be a successful search. Again I searched each line and page. I went through the film forward and backward. Sadly, at the end of the day I was no closer than I was the day before. As the library was closing, I was returning the film to its location and, again, I heard the words again, this time with greater force.

Were the words wishful thinking or actual direction to once again search the film?

I privately agreed to give it one more look the following day. As I had on the previous two days, I retrieved the film. This time I somehow knew that I would find the ancestor I had been searching for.

I spent several hours searching the same pages. This time, I searched every word, letter and line with focused precision. I was being very detailed in my research notes. I marked off page 56, decided to take a break, and rested my head to take a short nap. When I woke up 20 minutes later, before me on the screen was the name I had been searching for. The microfilm reel had been advanced more than 100 pages. I can't explain why or how the film had been advanced. I do know that I heard and obeyed the prompting I had received.

This, like so many other experiences, has taught me that my ancestors want to be found. I have come to believe, in my pursuit of researching each of my family lines, that my ancestors do take an active role in helping me join the generations.

Barry J. Ewell is the author of "Family Treasures: 15 Lessons, Tips, and Tricks for Discovering your Family History." He's also the founder of, an online educational website for genealogy and family history.