“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage—to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning.”
|Henry Bigler, Stephen Courtright's great-great grandfather|
It was usually after we crossed the Wyoming border when my father—who each summer packed our family of seven into a mini-van to drive 1,400 miles from Wisconsin to Idaho to visit family—would begin telling his travel-weary children stories of their “western heritage.” There were stories told of ancestors like my great-great grandfather Charley Courtright, a young backwoods blacksmith in California who stole the heart of a beautiful, proper English woman in a love story which rivals that of any other in the Old West. Dad also told of ancestors like Henry Bigler, who after joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS Church) traversed nearly the entire western U.S. landscape as a member of the Mormon Battalion, an outfit in the Mexican-American War credited with undertaking the longest domestic military march in U.S. history.
At times, my father must have felt that such stories were falling on deaf, uninterested ears. Yet, year after year, on those long treks across the western wilderness, the storytelling persisted. Why would Dad continue telling us of our heritage, even while being uncertain that his children would actually appreciate the stories? Now as a young father myself, I can see why.
We live in a world where it is increasingly difficult for family members to create strong, lasting bonds. Moreover, youth and adults alike are increasingly being given mixed messages about their worth and where that worth comes from, resulting in less resilience to life’s challenges and undermined faith in Jesus Christ. Parents and others like myself are thus asking themselves, “How can we strengthen bonds in our family?”, “How can we help our children to be more self-confident and resilient?” and “How can we develop greater individual and collective faith in Jesus Christ?”
This is why I love family history—because, perhaps surprisingly, it helps families and individuals to address each of these questions. In particular, let me highlight two blessings that can come from discovering and sharing about our family heritage.
1. Discovering and sharing about our heritage strengthens family bonds and helps individuals to be more resilient to life’s challenges.
Recently, I was intrigued by a study discussed in the New York Times and conducted by a group of Emory University psychologists who showed that the single best predictor of children’s emotional well-being and happiness was the extent to which children knew about their family history. Moreover, the researchers found that the more children knew the history of their families, the more successfully they believed their families functioned. Finally, families who told family history narratives which emphasized both the “ups” and “downs” of life had the most resilient children. All of these findings were attributed to family members forming a strong “intergenerational self”, or a sense that they belonged to something greater than themselves.
The implications of this study are profound. They show that family history is more than just an activity for “old” people, or a ploy to keep children quiet in a crowded mini-van (as I used to think on those long treks from Wisconsin to Idaho). Moreover, it is not just a process of collecting birth and death dates, such as finding out that Charley Courtright lived from 1853-1921. Instead, family history is about discovering the dash that lies between those dates—the life stories of these ancestors. And it is in “discovering the dash” and weaving family stories into a narrative that the blessings of strong family bonds and greater resiliency become more attainable.
For that and other reasons, across the global LDS Church and well as in our College Station congregation, there has been an ongoing emphasis on helping members to discover their heritage. In turn, I have witnessed how “discovering the dash” has helped our members, particularly our youth, to build stronger family bonds and become more resilient.
For instance, during a recent activity on a Wednesday evening, the youth in our congregation each used laptops and other devices to look at their family tree and to input stories and pictures of their ancestors on the familysearch.org website, which is sponsored by the LDS Church. While standing in the background and observing the youth, I noticed that one youth, who was reading a story of a grandfather whom she had never met, began to weep. Just as I was about to ask her if everything was okay, a friend sitting nearby asked her that same question. In response, I overheard the youth tell her friend: “Sometimes, when I’m reading about my grandparents, I am just overwhelmed by how grateful I am for them. It’s amazing to see that they faced similar challenges as me, and I know I can be helped through my trials just like they were.”
2. Discovering our heritage can draw us nearer to the Savior Jesus Christ.
Yet, beyond even those blessings, I have found in my own life that discovering my heritage has drawn me closer to the Savior. I learned this lesson as a young LDS missionary in Chile.
Though my trials were not unique to what many young and inexperienced missionaries face, I struggled at first with learning a new language, the effects of food poisoning, and pangs of homesickness. I was admittedly doubtful as to how I could complete a two-year mission when the challenges I faced at the time seemed insurmountable. However, in the midst of those challenges, I remembered the stories about Henry Bigler that my father had shared all those years ago in our crowded mini-van.
Shortly after his service in the Mormon Battalion, Henry was part of the first group of LDS missionaries in Hawaii. Like me, Henry struggled with learning a new language and experienced bouts of homesickness and difficult adjustments to the new culture. However, unlike what I went through, Henry spent the nearly three years on his mission without a single pair of shoes, and he faced persecution and sicknesses to a degree that I could scarcely imagine.
Nevertheless, while I did not face nearly as dire of circumstances, I felt the presence of Henry Bigler encouraging me on in my missionary service. Indeed, thanks to the narratives shared by my father, I remembered how the Savior, through His grace, had strengthened Henry in his afflictions and how he had come to know the Lord through the sacrifices he made on his mission. I came to know that the Lord could do the same for me if, like Henry, I pressed on in His service.
In the end, my mission to Chile turned out to be the greatest adventure I could have ever experienced as a 19-21 year old young man. Though some will surely argue with me on this point, I believe that no young man was affected or changed more by an LDS mission than I was. I came to know the Savior and His mercy, a process that was aided by an ancestor who had died 100 years earlier but with whom I found a kinship as real as any earthly kinship. I continue to feel Henry Bigler’s presence in my life and feel nearer to Jesus Christ as a result.
And that is why I love family history.
“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage.” I invite all who read this post to respond to this hunger and “discover the dash” as it relates to their own heritage. In doing so, I pray that you will be able to strengthen family bonds, be more resilient to life’s challenges, and draw nearer to Jesus Christ, who I testify is the Savior and Redeemer of the world.
***For more information on doing family history, visit familysearch.org or, if you live in the B/CS area, visit our church’s Family History Center at 2500 Barak Lane in Bryan.***
Stephen Courtright is an assistant professor in the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University and currently serves as second counselor of the College Station 3rd Ward bishopric of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He grew up in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin and Kuna, Idaho and served a full-time mission for the Church in Concepcion, Chile from 2002-2004. He later graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho and the University of Iowa. He and his wife, Nicole, met when they were six years old and grew up together as close friends. They married in 2004 and are the proud parents of three children.