About a year into my service as Bishop, the Stake President paid a visit to my office. (The LDS Church is, for the most part, divided into wards, which are roughly the equivalent of Catholic parishes, and "stakes of Zion" -- the phrase is drawn from a line in Isaiah, and we'll leave it at that for now -- which are roughly equivalent to Catholic dioceses. Suffice to say that this guy was my boss.) This particular Stake President is a remarkably kind and decent man, the kind of leader who can stand up in front of a thousand people and say, "I love you," and every single person believes it, every single person knows he's speaking from his heart.
This was the Sunday before his release as stake president. Mormonism is the only religious order I know of that has term limits built into its theology: stake presidents generally serve for ten years; bishops generally serve for five or six. And when you are done being the big shot, your next assignment in this all-volunteer army might be something like providing piano accompaniment for the Primary children, or working as an assistant Scoutmaster. It's not a bad thing, not at all: the burden of leadership is spread across many backs; and it keeps everyone humble.
The stake president was being released, and he came to visit me. "Bishop," he said, "There is one thing you must know. There is not a family in this Church, not a family in this world, who has not been affected by adultery, or drink, or drugs, or some other awful thing. Whether it happened in the immediate family circle or in the extended family, there is not a family that is free of these things. There is not a family that is free from some grievous heartbreak. And the difference between the happy families and the unhappy ones is that the happy families face the problem, forgive one another, and move on, and the unhappy families never let go of anything."
He's a great man. And that is a sage observation, counsel that I used, to varying degrees of success, in countless counseling sessions with the members of my ward. Some hurts take years to heal, but they will heal. Some hurts can't heal without some outside help. But sooner or later, that help comes. You have to work at it.
Which leads me to the Pearce family.
I have never liked the Pearces. My grandmother, Gladys Mae Pearce, died when I was five. I remember her as a skinny, beetlebrowed woman, hollow-cheeked and twitchy, whose eyes always reflected anger and fear, never a hint of happiness. I was scared to death of her. In working on the Pearce line, I've uncovered aggravation after aggravation (Why does Abriam Milliman Pearce disappear between 1860 and 1870? Who is Benjamin Stanton Pearce's father? Was Philander Pearce really a Union soldier during the Civil War, and if so, why isn't he on any muster roll? What is the real story of "Crooked Sally"
Pearce?) They've been a massive pain in the neck, a mess of mysterious information and birth certificates bearing the entry "Father's Name: UNKNOWN", the frayed end of our family DNA strand.
Yesterday, I was poking around in Ancestry.com, and found some amazing things. "Poking around and finding amazing things" in family history research isn't like Indiana Jones turning over a few shovelfuls of dirt and then dropping himself into the center of Pharoah's Map Room. It's more like those guys drilling for natural gas in West Virginia: you spend months trying things that don't work, and then you almost by accident discover that drilling horizontally through the shale, then pumping in a highly pressurized jet of water, releases hydrocarbons trapped in the rock, giving you (wait for it) gas. It's a process.
And it's often a ragged process. This isn't some Goldberg Variation, each note impeccably placed, the counterpoints meticulously charted with painstaking care. It's a set of drums and three guitars. When everything works, it's the Beatles on the roof of Apple Records. When it doesn't, it's four slow-witted teenagers, thrashing away in somebody's garage.
So last night I'm poking around on Ancestry.com, and I discover a posting by a lady named Cheryl, who lives in St. Anthony, Idaho. Her research had uncovered the surname of Abriam M. Pearce's wife, a woman I knew only as "Rebecca Pearce." Rebecca's maiden name was Jacobs, and she was born in Niagara County, New York.
With this information, I scanned online census records for Niagara County. There, in the 1860 Census, was a listing for a 21 year old woman named "Rbecky" (you learn to work with the caprices of the census takers: spelling accuracy is not always their strong suit). She lived with her parents, Hiram and Charlotte Jacobs, and her siblings, William, age 17, Polly Ann, age 14, and Hiram, age 7. On the same census page are listed households headed by Henry Jacobs, Nancy Jacobs, and Stanford Jacobs, all surely relatives of Hiram.
Rebecca's birthplace is listed as New York. her brother Hiram was also born in New York. William was born in Illinois. Polly Ann was born in Iowa. An 1843 birth in Illinois, and an 1846 birth in Iowa: could these people have been Mormon converts, living in Nauvoo?
I dug deeper. A Hiram C. and Charlotte Jacobs are among the signers of the famous "Petition of Redress", an 1843 document sent to the United States Congress, asking for federal reparations on behalf of the Mormon victims of persecutions in Missouri. A visit to another site, the wonderful EarlyLDS.com, showed some staggering information.
Hiram C. Jacobs, born 1812, lived in the 800 block of Wells Street, about three blocks east of Mansion House, the home of Joseph Smith. The Nauvoo Temple was on the other end of Wells Street, less than a mile from the Jacobs home. Hiram and his wife Charlotte received their endowments and were sealed in the Nauvoo Temple on February 7, 1846, on the last day that the Temple was used for sacred ordinances. They would have been among the last of the 5,634 men and women who were endowed in the Nauvoo Temple. They would have been among the last citizens of Nauvoo to leave the city, crossing the icy Mississippi for a tent city in Iowa, and the uncertain future that awaited them in the West.
Hiram and Charlotte left their homes, and gathered with the Saints in Nauvoo. There is little doubt that they heard Joseph Smith preach, that they spoke with him, even if for a moment. They were certainly in Nauvoo at the end of June, 1844, when Joseph's body was carried back from Carthage Jail. They believed what I believe, made the covenants that I have made. And they determined to go with the Saints.
Something happened. The Jacobs family never made the westward trek. Several years separate the Iowa birth of Polly Ann, and the New York birth of Hiram. Are there lost children, babies buried at Winter Quarters or Far West? Was the journey too hard, the price too high? Did they get tired, or offended? Or did they simply lose interest? A Nauvoo cemetery record records the 1843 burial of "an infant child of Sanford Jacobs." Sanford's name also appears on the Nauvoo Temple endowment list. In 1860, he's Hiram's neighbor in Wheatfield, New York, another Saint who never saw the Salt Lake Valley. Did one brother influence the other? What happened?
Why did my father decide to join this Church? Why have I felt, since I was a boy, this fascination with Nauvoo, and the prophet who built the place? Am I called to heal very old wounds? Are "voices from the dust" asking me to help them "face the problems, forgive the problems, and move forward"?
I didn't sleep much last night.