About an hour ago (I’m writing this late on Tuesday evening), in a Facebook discussion about whether “Mormon studies is a one way slog to desolation,” a friend wrote:
I mean Ardis said at sunstone that books fall from shelves in front of her and she miraculously finds answers to research she is looking for and attributes that to supernatural help. I’m not making fun of that but that isn’t my experience nor would it be the experience of the majority of the folks I know. We are left with just raw facts to determine if something is true or happened the way it is said to happen.
My friend was recalling a few words from my 2011 Pillars of My Faith talk, where I said:
I began to have odd experiences, the kind that all genealogists recognize and that all non-genealogists laugh at. Books fell off of shelves and fell open to pages that showed where a missing family member had moved …
Whether that kind of thing is within my friend’s experience or not, I stand by my statement. I can report two such instances:
The first was a then-new publication, Fred Q. Bowman, 10,000 Vital Records of Western New York, 1809-1850 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1985), which, when I picked it up off the floor, was open to page 197, where my eye fell on this line: “7772. Saunders, John m 5/13/30 Nancy Gage in Gorham, Ont. Co. (5-5/14).” That indicates an issue of the Wayne Sentinel of Palmyra, New York, noticing the 13 May 1830 marriage of an ancestral couple. What struck me at the time was less that the book had fallen open to that page, but more the awareness of John Saunders’ amusement at bringing that record to my notice. He wasn’t at all embarrassed that this wedding date was waaaay too close for virtue’s sake to the birth of his and Nancy’s first child.
The other was a typescript of records for the rural cemetery of Prattsburg, New York, compiled by the Steuben County Clerk’s Office, where I unexpectedly found the burials of one of John and Nancy Saunders’s sons and that son’s family, in a place where I had not yet traced them.
I don’t expect any disbeliever to be persuaded that “supernatural help” is responsible. I certainly don’t expect any reader to care about the specific books or the information they contained. I post this because those uncanny experiences were real, and are not at all rare among genealogists (and not only among LDS genealogists: the uncomfortably titled book Psychic Roots and its sequel detail scores of such instances, few interpreted by Latter-day Saints). When I claim to have had such experiences, I do not speak generally or vaguely. These are specific, memorable events. If I had easy access to my paper files with my original research logs (those logs were not transcribed when I converted my genealogical records into electronic files), I could tell you the exact dates when these things happened.
But of course documenting dates and page numbers does not prove that I correctly interpret the events as, in my friend’s word, “supernatural” ones. For that I can offer only my impressions at the time, which remain unchanged today: Books do not naturally fall from shelves as I walk down rows of bookcases. When books fall off shelves for any reason, they do not normally fall open to records I am interested in. When I pick up books filled with dense text that I am not deliberately searching, my eye does not routinely fall on the one line relevant to me. And I most definitely do not usually have the impression that someone is standing near me whom I cannot see, but whose amusement I can sense as clearly as if I heard laughter from someone I could see.
These experiences are not typical of my religious life. They are certainly not representative of my professional research methodology.
But they happen, and this is how I interpret them. I am not in the least ashamed to report that.
And Tom, my friend, you who are so kind and generous despite our religious differences, I am sorry that you found Mormon studies “a one way slog to desolation.” That is as alien to my experience as my uncanny genealogical experiences are to yours.