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A mission in microfilm

Mormons archive family records
Tuesday, May 18, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:03 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Charlie and Eleonore Fox were enjoying their retirement in Alpine, Utah, a town with a population of about 7,000. With their four children, 18 grandchildren and two horses close by, life was a daily joy.

But as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Foxes had something else on their minds besides the pursuit of leisure. They decided to give up a couple of years and join about 60,000 other church members who are serving as short-term missionaries around the world.

“We’re not getting any younger,” Charlie Fox said. “We just felt it was time that we could serve.”

Their mission site is the Missouri State Archives in Jefferson City, a division of the Office of the Secretary of State. For the next 22 months, the Foxes will photograph records from the 1890s and turn them into microfilm for the genealogical resources of the Mormon church.

“We believe we were assigned to this place by more than chance, that there’s some direct intervention that helps to get us here where we can serve,” Charlie Fox said. “If we didn’t have a strong religious feeling or testimony that it’s where we should be, we would probably still be home with our children and grandchildren.”

Perhaps the pursuit of genealogy seems an unusual job for a missionary, but for members of the LDS church, knowing one’s family history is important.

“We believe that families are eternal, and through sacred ordinances in our temples we believe we can be ‘sealed’ to loved ones in eternity,” said Paul Nauta, manager of communications for the Family and Church History Department of the LDS church.

This priesthood ordinance of “baptism for the dead” is performed in church temples, and church members are baptized by proxy on behalf of people who have died.

“Paul mentioned baptisms for the dead in the Bible,” said Richard Houseman, bishop of the Bear Creek Ward of the LDS church in Columbia, where the Foxes attend.

The verse I Corinthians 15:29 says, “Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?” The LDS explanation of this verse is one of several interpretations.

Said Houseman: “Members of the church who are worthy to enter the temple can be baptized on behalf of those who did not have the opportunity to hear about the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ while on earth.”

According to the Church’s Web site, lds.org, a person who is considered worthy to enter the temple “is morally clean and is keeping the Word of Wisdom, paying a full tithing, living in harmony with the teachings of the Church and not maintaining any affiliation or sympathy with apostate groups.”

Through LDS church members’ special interest in genealogy and family history, records are made available for people of all backgrounds to find out about their ancestors.

Church missionaries have served at the Missouri State Archives for more than 10 years. The church in Utah supplies the microfilm, camera and labor, and it provides a master copy of the microfilm for both the state of Missouri and the Mormon church in Utah.

“It saves the taxpayers of Missouri hundreds of thousands of dollars to do this,” said state archivist Kenneth Winn. “The Foxes are the latest in the line of people who have come and actually helped us be better stewards of Missouri history.”

[photo]

Charlie Fox puts a new roll of 35 mm microfilm into a 1938 Kodak E camera that he uses to document genealogy records.

The Mormon church’s master copies of the microfilm are stored in Little Cottonwood Canyon, a huge granite storage vault near Salt Lake City. The records are kept at constant temperature and humidity to preserve their condition. The Missouri State Archives keeps a master copy in a refrigerated vault in Jefferson City and a second master copy in caves underneath Swope Park in Kansas City.

Many of the microfilmed records are placed online for free genealogical research. Winn said in 2003 there were 6.2 million page requests on the Web site of the Missouri State Archives, sos.mo.gov/archives.

Winn said he also gets a large number of research requests via mail, e-mail, phone calls, faxes and personal visits.

“We have more than twice the number of research requests for information than the state archives of California gets,” Winn said. He explained that many LDS church members trace their family history back to Missouri — a place where Mormons were once not welcomed.

In 1831, Joseph Smith, the first president of the LDS church, designated Independence as the gathering spot for the church. As people arrived, area settlers became concerned and ordered the 1,200 members to leave. They found refuge in Clay, Caldwell and Daviess counties, but violence erupted in 1838 when church members were prevented from voting.

The result was an extermination order issued by Missouri Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs in 1838, which called for all Mormons to leave Missouri. Between 8,000 and 10,000 church members fled to western Illinois and established the city of Nauvoo on the Mississippi River. Most people moved on to Omaha, Neb., or Council Bluffs, Iowa. Beginning in 1847, church members settled in the Great Salt Lake Valley in Utah. Missouri Gov. Christopher S. Bond rescinded the extermination order in June 1976.

As missionaries for the LDS church, the Foxes pay for all their own living expenses and donate all their time.

“They’re (the Foxes) definitely doing a labor of love for the people of Missouri,” Nauta said.

Charlie and Eleonore Fox said the most challenging thing about their job has been learning how to photograph the fragile documents with the correct light settings to avoid over or underexposure. They must also measure the density of the microfilm and make sure it always meets a standard.

“Because I recognize the permanency of these records, I want to make sure that what we’re doing is right,” Charlie Fox said. “Once it’s on film, you can’t see it until it’s developed and somebody looks at it.”

The Foxes usually get between 1,500 and 1,600 exposures on each roll of microfilm, and their goal is to shoot one roll of film per day. The rolls are mailed weekly to Utah, where they are developed.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has more than 4,500 family history centers worldwide. These centers contain 2.3 million rolls of microfilm from 110 countries, and access to the centers is free. Church members are microfilming in more than 40 countries.

“The interest in genealogy transcends any particular culture or religious affiliation,” Nauta said. He said most of the library’s patrons are not church members but just people interested in family history.

The LDS church’s genealogical Web site, familysearch.org, averages 15 million hits a day. At this site, individuals can download free personal family history (genealogy) management software, search over a billion names in online databases or search millions of rolls of microfilm in the LDS church’s library catalog. The site also includes links for other Web sites that can be used to research family history.

Older couples such as the Foxes make up about 7 percent of LDS missionaries in the world.

“We’re just part of a growing army of seniors that the church is calling on,” Charlie Fox said. “We’re encouraged to put our golf clubs away and get out and do something meaningful with our time. And that’s OK with me because I’m not that good of a golfer anyway.”

Missouri now has about 51,000 LDS members and 121 total congregations.


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