Some Family: The Mormons and How Humanity Keeps Track of Itself
Donald Harman Akenson
Kristopher S. Wray
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007
The author of this volume, Dr. Donald Akenson, is currently a Professor of Canadian and Colonial History at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Knowledgeable in Irish and Canadian history, within the past decade he has written several articles and books on a variety of other topics as well, such as a study on the creation of the Bible and Talmuds, and another analyzing the teachings of Paul the Apostle.
In Some Family Akenson takes on the science of genealogy, and the role members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have taken in the pursuit of human history. The book is divided into three sections. The first part deals with Joseph Smith, the LDS Church he founded, and the preoccupation members have had with genealogy ever since Smith’s death. While relying heavily on the official, seven-volume History of the LDS Church, Fawn Brodie (No Man Knows My History), Richard Bushman (Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling), Klaus Hansen (Mormonism and the American Experience), and a handful of other works, Akenson rarely makes reference to original documents or primary sources. In addition, though promising to relay information as a “secular historian” who has “no interest in proving or disproving Mormon beliefs,” his choice of vocabulary while describing LDS faith and history will quickly frustrate anyone trying to get a serious grasp on why believers are so passionate about genealogy.
Akenson introduces ordinary Mormons as “outwardly modest people [who] are silently driven by a hubris that is well beyond that of the most megalomaniacal imperializers,” while at the same time affirming they are “something special” due to their being “so irritatingly nice and vexingly and smilingly optimistic.” (7) Unfortunately, the skeptical introduction covering Mormon theology from 1830 to 1980 that follows is simplistic and common in dozens of other works. I found nothing new presented. One ends the first section of Some Family with the clear understanding that in the opinion of Mr. Akenson, the Mormon dedication to detailing human history is not an act of love and salvation as they insist, but one of hubris and fear, all stemming from Joseph Smith’s “Big Con” claims. This is probably why at one point he interjects that “Maybe the Mormons are crazy,” and that they are “confident to the point of arrogance.” (13) Having personally done research in the LDS Family History Center in Salt Lake City hundreds of times, I’ve failed to notice any crazy, arrogant Mormons sweating over genealogy who are full of hubris and fear. Usually it’s just courteous, older folks who are more than willing to help with any genealogy questions I’ve had. In a moment of scholarly humility, Mr. Akenson does admit that when it comes to the multi-tiered Mormon heaven (essentially one of the lynchpins behind LDS genealogy and proxy work for the dead), “it is a theological construct that I have never seen explained in words that I can understand.” (67) I suspect that is the reason behind his lack of scholarly insight and professional explanations.
The second section of Some Family begins by addressing several of the plots, narratives, grammar, and terminology used within the genealogical field. An interesting discussion on matrilineal, patrilineal, unilineal, bilineal, etc., histories is included, raising the question of why many modern genealogists often choose to present family histories from a one-sided point of view. For instance, the awakening of feminist history in the past few decades has justifiably made Western thinkers, including genealogists, reconsider the male dominated tales that have shaped the way some cultures have portrayed themselves. Akenson declares, “one cannot retroactively impose the Standard Double system [husband and wife] on cultures that did not employ it.” (110) On that note he briefly examines polygamy, adoption, group marriage, fosterage, homosexuality, and concludes that human lineage should be presented in all its colors. According to Akenson, the placing of people within our ideological templates of man/woman relationships “is disrespectful, and ultimately truth-destroying.” (119)
Chapters 6 and 7 deals with genealogies presented within the Holy Bible. While pertinent points and nagging questions are raised in his summary of Biblical family history, again I was left to wonder why Akenson muddles the information by grinding his secularist ax on the religious texts he’s discussing. For example, in one distracting description of the Hebrew God, the author of Some Family judges the Bible to be good storytelling because of the “interaction of the amazing figure, the colossal pre-potent imp Yahweh and the genealogical scaffolding that permits him to cast pith and derision upon all worldly figures that scurry beneath him.” (127) He reduces the covenant between the Lord and the people of Israel as a pact “between an imperious god and an imperial sperm bank.” (129) Everyone knows there are tales in the Bible that can make a Sunday School teacher blush, yet there are at least as many stories involving family and lineage that inspire faith, hope, and a purpose for life. Those aspects are barely mentioned or analyzed in this study because Akenson is of the school that completely dismisses the historical veracity of Biblical narrative within the Hebrew Testament. And the Christian writers simply “stole much of the Old Testament when they were writing the “New” and, worse than that, tried to steal the covenant with Yahweh as well.” (134-135) While that may be true to some degree, many Biblical scholars agree that as opposed to being some sinister “bit of thievery,” many early followers of Christ sincerely believed he was Yahweh embodied, and that his story was actually a fulfillment of the Hebrew texts he often quoted to his disciples. I appreciate a good counter argument, but Akenson writes as though his perception, the only one he presents, is gospel truth. Such simplistic reasoning leads to him insisting that the Hebrew genealogical narratives are “seminal in the sense of semen, and what counted was sperm count.” I believe there are a number of other worldviews at play within the Bible, and even a brief exploration of these would have balanced Dr. Akenson’s one-sided arguments.
Part three of Some Family basically lays out the criticisms Akenson has for the grand genealogical project undertaken by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While his vernacular doesn’t improve much, this section of the book is the part I enjoyed most. Many Mormons involved in ancestral research will acknowledge there are areas in our procedures which need improvement, updating, scrutiny, technological advancement, and at times, outright abandonment. On the same token, there many ways of doing genealogical research yet to be embraced. I can’t count the number of times I have been frustrated with misinformation recorded in family records, but more often than not, that is a product of amateur genealogists and their donated works, not a concerted effort by the official Church. I’m sure anyone looks forward to the time when computer technology will correct many of these mistakes. DNA will also play a large role in connecting family ties. While I believe Akenson ought to give more respect to a system that provides an incredible amount of information, and has helped popularize the desire to find one’s roots, I heartily agree with him that we have a lot of work ahead of us.
The Appendixes included in the back of Some Family provide some great information. They address genealogical terminologies, inbreeding and incest, false-paternity and maternity, and genetics as evidence. I learned quite a bit from these sections.
In a nutshell, this book attempts to explain a number of aspects of the genealogical field, and how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints approaches family history and the proxy work for the dead which they perform in their temples. Akenson seems to believe that genealogy motivated by scripture, revelation, or the salvation of humanity is outdated and improper. Instead, people involved in the genealogical quest, particularly Mormons, ought to revise their thinking and get more in line with a scientific, non-theological type of genealogy. I applaud anyone who tackles the sophisticated maze of writing about genealogical research, especially the peculiar way in which we Mormons often do it. While Some Family will never be a hit with the LDS people, if one can look past the sarcasm and dogmatic thinking, there are some nuggets to be found therein. Serious LDS genealogists and family historians will not agree with everything Dr. Akenson has to say, but they will enjoy the book nonetheless. Skeptics of Biblical religions and Mormonism in particular, will probably find it refreshing.