4 Historical Records about Early Members of the Church

March 20, 2020  - by 

The bicentennial of the First Vision and the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ is currently underway! A variety of resources—including the Joseph Smith Papers, Saints, gospel essays, and podcasts—can help you understand the magnificent events of that time period.

But have you ever tried your hand at primary research? Among other things, primary research includes reading historical documents, observing details that stick out to you, and drawing your own conclusions.

Sometimes just seeing a person’s name on a census or tax record can be a powerful experience—evidence that this person you have read or heard so much about actually lived—that he or she was a real-life human being, just like you.

FamilySearch has a host of historical records that can help you in your research. Here are just a few records and what they can tell you about early members of the Church.

A Busy Town Called Kirtland

Consider, for example, an 1838 tax record for Kirtland, Ohio, a town several hundred miles southwest of Palmyra, New York. Joseph and Emma moved there shortly after the Church was organized.

1838 tax record for Kirtland, Ohio,

Take a look at the record. It shows that two men in Kirtland owned tracts of land larger than 100 acres. Several others owned parcels in the range of 25–50 acres. The prophet, by contrast, is listed as owning a single lot, three-fourths of an acre. His wife, Emma, is listed as owning 8 acres. Both Eliza and Lorenzo Snow are listed as owning property, as is Joseph Smith Sr., the prophet’s father.

Many of the Saints in Kirtland were poor, but they worked together to build their community and, eventually, a temple. “With very little capital,” Eliza later wrote, “except brain, bone and sinew, combined with unwavering trust in God, men, women, and even children, worked with their might.”

18-Person Household

Another interesting record to consider might be this United States census for the city of Nauvoo for the year 1840, which, like the record above, lists the prophet and several members of his family.

United States census for the city of Nauvoo

The census lists the head of every household in Nauvoo, followed by the number of people living with that person. If you look at the record closely, the prophet’s brother Hyrum appears on the census as the head of a household of 13.

Joseph, on the other hand, is listed as being head to a household of 18, a tally that must have included his wife, Emma, their children, and any servants, neighbors, or hired hands living with them at the time the census was taken. One can imagine what a busy home this must have been!

A Round Chin and an Oval Face

You won’t find many photographs in historical records from the 1800s. But in some cases—if you read carefully—you might discover a description of what a person looked like. Consider Eliza Snow’s 1872 passport application. In addition to providing her age (68), Eliza states that she is five feet, four inches tall; that she has brown eyes, a small mouth, and an oval-shaped face; that her chin is round and her hair black—among other details!

Eliza Snow’s 1872 passport application

Connecting the Dots

The marriage record of Oliver Cowdery, one of the Book of Mormon’s Three Witnesses, is another interesting document.

As the handwritten certificate shows, in 1832, Oliver married Elizabeth Ann Whitmer, sister to David Whitmer. This is the same David Whitmer whose name also appears at the front of the Book of Mormon as one of the Three Witnesses.

marriage record of Oliver Cowdery

In June 1829, an angel showed Oliver and David the gold plates, the sword of Laban, and the Urim and Thumim, one of the instruments used to translate the Book of Mormon.

The triangle would be complete if we could say that Oliver and Elizabeth were married by Martin Harris, the third of the Three Witnesses, but, no, they were married by Parley P. Pratt, one of the restored Church’s original Twelve Apostles.

Discoveries Are Waiting

With more than four billion images (and counting) to search, there’s no limit to what you can discover in FamilySearch’s vast repository of online, historical images. This is primary research at its best—remarkable, surprising, unpredictable, and most of all, fun! Your observations may not be earth-shattering, but these little details stick in your mind and make the heroic men and women of Church history easier to imagine and easier to relate to.

Don’t worry if you don’t consider yourself an experienced researcher or genealogist. There’s no right or wrong way to do things. Just pick a name from the past, someone you admire, enter your search terms (try a general research site such as Wikipedia for birth and death dates of famous people), and click Search.

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  1. I enjoyed seeing these documents kept by the church. In my study last week it talked about the sword of Laban being used in battle. Does the church have this sword or was it left with the angel Moroni? Maybe you can not answer this because it must be kept unknown.

  2. I am trying to find my dad who i never knew please help me find him dint k ow when he was born his name is clyde mcdonald born in colorado in the 50’s

  3. These are men and women , both present and past Saints,of the same faith in Jesus Christ designed to overcome all challenges both temporal and spiritual whomour Heavenly Father gave understanding when our Lord said CHEER UP!FOR I HAVE OVERCOME THE WORLD.They all replaced Fear and Anxiety with Prayer to our Heavenly Father.I’m strengthened

  4. I am much interested in historical reseach as well as genealogy reseach,in simple terms Temple and family history work but in some part of Nigeria where i fine myself it seem hard because of less interest by the leaders toward this sector and i found it difficult to succeed this goal,no computer to work on this,no light for it except for sacrament meeting,even no room for Temple and family history work and my little mobile phone cannot access the web-site,please what can i do under this situation?.

    1. It sounds like you have a quite a difficult situation to work with. I love, however, that you have a strong desire to continue doing Family History. Although you can’t explore records online, there are still many ways you can contribute to family history. Just some ideas that come to my mind are recording your own story by journaling. You can also focus on taking photographs and sharing them with loved ones. One more idea that is fun, is you can sit down with any of your elders and help them record their own story. Click here to read an article about different questions you can consider asking your elders. Hopefully some of these ideas will work for you!

  5. Thanks for including about this information,it gives me an additional knowledge and understanding about family historical work..