I want to share the story of someone who probably none of you know and not many (if any of you) have heard his name. His name is Michael Cowan. Michael was a young man when the First World War ravaged many areas of Europe and threatened many countries in becoming battlefields. As the number of casualties that had affected the Great British army were far outweighing the number of volunteers, an unpopular but seemingly necessary decision was made – to introduce conscription, compulsory active duty. All males between the ages of 18-41 were given three options when the Bill became enforced:
- Enlist at once
2. Attest the decision at once (publicly refuse)
3. Or on 2 March (just two months later) be automatically enlisted.
Michael Cowan was about 17 years old when the conscription act was enforced. However, like many other young men at that age, he went to sign up. Of course, he was not old enough. Therefore, he went to a different parish and lied about his age, making him 18 years old. Now, whilst I am not condoning lying on official government documents, what is inspiring about Michael Cowan was his desire to defend his family and his country. He was dedicated and showed a strong desire to serve others.
What makes Michael Cowan’s experience even more remarkable to me, is that he is my great-grandfather. This is part of the blessings of active family history. If it were not for the blessing we have in this day and age to have access to all the genealogical records we do, then I would not even know about Michael Cowan’s existence…
We did not know much about my Dad’s family – only his mother and his brother and sister. My Dad was always told that his father passed away and never had any reason to question this. However, as the months rolled into years and then to decades, my Grandma passed away in 2005. My uncle decided to do a little research and look for the grave of their father, to find their roots. Whilst he was looking in a graveyard close to the supposed area where he grew up, a lady approached him and asked if he was looking for anyone’s grave in particular. When my uncle gave my Grandfather’s name she apologised and said that she thought my uncle was looking for a grave…not a living person…this of course completely threw my uncle. For their whole life, my Dad and his siblings had thought that their father was dead, when it turns out he was alive. Unfortunately, he was battling cancer and died a few years later and in this time he wasn’t up to meeting a whole other family he wasn’t aware of. As such we didn’t learn a lot of information but we were able to gather a few bits and pieces about both my Grandfather’s family and Grandma’s family. This led us to Michael Cowan.
We have learnt from scripture and many modern day leaders about the need to discover our ancestors.
Elder Russell M Nelson: While temple and family history work has the power to bless those beyond the veil, it has an equal power to bless the living. It has a refining influence on those who are engaged in it. They are literally helping to exalt their families.
Elder William R. Walker: It would be a wonderful thing if every Latter-day Saint knew the conversion stories of their forefathers.
President Boyd K Packer: No work is more of a protection to this Church than temple work and the family history research that supports it. No work is more spiritually refining. No work we do gives us more power. No work requires a higher standard of righteousness. Our labors in the temple cover us with a shield and a protection, both individually and as a people.
President Packer’s comments are particularly powerful – this family history principle is not being pushed so we can try and fulfil numerical targets. It is not so we as members can be kept busy in a world which constantly tries to pull our attention away from things that matter most. It is life-saving, not only for the deceased, not but also for those who engage in it with their energy of heart because it provides power.
How can we not be a part of this great work? We are blessed, our families are blessed and those who previously had no hope, are blessed. So what is stopping you?
There may be many reasons – I mentioned in a talk recently that I received my Patriarchal Blessing when I had just turned 16 years old. I had been prepared, I was ready to receive, yet I wanted one thing not to be included – that I would seek out my ancestors. At the time, I suppose it was because I viewed family history as something that wasn’t for me at the time (I am reluctant to say I thought it was for the older generation – but that may be true). Sure enough, I went to receive my blessing and it was indeed revealed that I would be blessed with the Spirit of Elijah and seek out my ancestors. I then went on my mission two years after and it was forgotten about for a while.
So, some do not feel it is for them – some feel ill-equipped to be able to do it themselves. To those, please just try and if you struggled the first time, try again. You will get there, the Lord will provide a way.
My active involvement in searching out my family history begun in the extra-long summer I got as a student, just before our first child, Joshua, was born. Maybe it was coincidence that I began to catch the fire around the time I was about to become a father myself? However, the need to look towards my ancestors became stronger. Perhaps I hoped that, as I wanted my children to learn from me and develop a strong bond, I recognised more than ever that I needed that bond with those that had gone before me. This is a literal fulfilment of what we read in the well-known verses in Malachi 4, the hearts of the children must be turned to the fathers and the fathers to the children.
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.”
Due to the sanctified work that followed – Michael Cowan and others were discovered and have received life-saving ordinances. What’s more, I have been privileged to witness and been a part of a number of faith-building experiences. I have witnessed live members of mine and Chrissie’s family be sealed to their parents. These are treasured moments that the temple are all about. As I now have engaged in family history work, I am in a position where I can share with others how to take part in this vital work, which is part of the Work of Salvation. This has been a great opportunity I’ve been able to have with some YSA in our Stake but even more so with my Dad.
One Sunday afternoon recently, my Dad came to me and said that he should probably begin trying to take part in searching ancestors. I said I was more than willing to help. As we sat down together to begin, I mentioned to my Dad that my wife and I over time had managed to make a number of discoveries, but we had been still struggling to make a breakthrough with his father’s parents. We felt impressed that we should focus there despite the fact that my wife and I had occasionally looked for the past three and a half years in this branch but had no success. So, I showed my Dad how to use FamilySearch and link up with the popular site, Ancestry, to search a multitudes of records. Then the miracle occurred. We found a link! We then realised that my Dad’s grandparents were called David Edward Roberts and Mary Ann Jones. We found a number of pieces of information, including more children, who in turn had children of their own (aunts and uncles and relatives my Dad never knew existed). We didn’t stop there! We went another generation further and found my Dad’s great-grandparents (and this is where things get even more remarkable). My Dad’s great-grandparents were called Peter Roberts and Mary Elizabeth Hughes…and the family links became apparent. My Dad’s middle name is Peter and his sister is called Elizabeth. We were truly finding generations that could be linked with love. Half an hour of what was going to be a brief tutorial by me became over two hours of discovering new family links and family names.
As we finished (with many new names to bring unto Christ) I reflected on this experience. Yes, that evening the hearts of the children turned to the fathers. We learnt about our ancestry, we learnt more about where our family had come from and some of the heritage there. However, I learnt a different aspect to the promise found in Malachi. My heart and the heart of my father had been turned toward each other in a unifying goal – to seek out our loved ones and bring them on our shoulders together. Exaltation is a family matter. And that is the major motivator in those who have caught the vision of this work – to be together for eternity with those they love.
This may seem like a trivial experience on the outside – a father and a son sitting together for a couple of hours on some research. However as we read in Alma 36 (small and simple things) – and it is those glorious moments that can stay with us for the rest of our lives.