Much of Sister Kristen M. Oaks’ early religious training came from a grandfather she has never met in this life.
Growing up, she spent hours in the basement of her home poring over the journals and piles of family photos of her mother’s father — Joseph Stras Peery, who died a year before she was born.
“His thoughts, his faith, his stories of our family — their heartbreaks and victories, their persistence, and their love of our Savior — inspired me,” she said.
Her husband, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, shares his wife’s life-long interest in discovering the stories of ancestors. Through the years he has written many family histories, including the history of his father, Dr. Lloyd E. Oaks, and his mother, Stella Harris Oaks, as well as the history of his ancestors who crossed the plains by wagon and handcart.
On March 3, President and Sister Oaks sat side-by-side to deliver the keynote address of the closing session of the largest family history conference in the world.
In speaking at the 2018 RootsTech Family Discovery Day, they not only expressed their mutual love of family history, but also shared personal experiences from their ancestors' lives as examples of how individuals and families can discover, gather and connect with their ancestors.
“Our objective today is to share with you ideas you can use with your own families to influence them,” Sister Oaks explained. “Children love to participate, to learn, to take responsibility. With intentional parenting, we create opportunities for this to happen. ... Today we will show how to discover family members, gather their stories and connect with them as an eternal family.”
"We become connected to our ancestors through knowledge of their lives," President Oaks said. “We bond with them as we understand the circumstances and personal values that shaped them. They are real people to whom we owe our existence in this world and whom we will meet again in the hereafter. We learn better who we are, where we come from, and are blessed with a clearer vision of where we are going.”
Those who search out their ancestors’ actions and words will receive strength and direction in their own lives, President Oaks promised.
But in addition to gathering ancestors’ stories, individuals must share them again and again. Recognizing that their grandchildren would never know President Oaks’ mother, Stella Harris Oaks, who died before any of their grandchildren were born, President and Sister Oaks invited their family to a “Stella Party.” At the event, they gave out a copy of her personal history, read from it and displayed photos. All the tables were decorated in yellow — Stella’s favorite color — and attendees were encouraged to wear hats because Stella was never seen without one.
In a video segment, Ashley Boulter Schroeder, President and Sister Oaks’ granddaughter, described the effect on her of learning about her great-grandmother.
“Grandma Stella was a courageous and strong-willed woman and friend. Now as the mother of four children, I know I am standing on her shoulders, building on her legacy. As I try to establish traditions in my own family, I look to parents and grandparents as a model for establishing righteous traditions,” she said.
To teach the children and young parents in their family about the “great qualities” of many of their ancestors, President and Sister Oaks invited their grandchildren and Sister Oaks’ grandnieces and grandnephews to a gathering to introduce many of their ancestors. For the occasion, they created posters featuring photos and notable qualities of each ancestor. As children selected some of the qualities shown on the posters, their parents would remove a cover sheet and tell a story of how that individual demonstrated that quality in his or her life.
“Heaven came close to earth and we could feel warmth and inspiration as we participated in this activity,” Sister Oaks said.
In another video segment, Sister Joy D. Jones, Primary general president, said that children can be the instigators to family history work in their families. Parents and leaders can share stories and experiences with children in the car, at the dinner table, at bedtime and one-on-one. Resources such as the “Family and Temples” booklet, the “My Family” booklet, the Friend magazine and “Gathering the Family of God” workbook can also assist parents and leaders in helping teach children about the power of family history work, she said.
As parents and leaders guide youth to connect their “technological expertise” to discovering ancestors on FamilySearch, “a powerful spiritual journey begins,” Sister Oaks added. “They connect with real ancestors of great consequence to them, who may have waited years to have their saving ordinances performed. It is an explosive combination. Our logging on to FamilySearch is far more rewarding than logging on to Facebook.”
Calling FamilySearch “a sacred portal connected to heaven,” Sister Oaks testified that youth working in family history feel a transforming power. “Family history has eternal significance in the life of each person you serve, but it can also have very immediate blessings in the life of the person performing the work.”
President Oaks said youth participating in family history “experience almost instantaneous joy and increased confidence. They become more connected to their families. They no longer feel so alone. They begin to feel a celestial kinship. They learn what it means to feel the Spirit.
“Family history offers a healing influence and an assurance that each person is precious in the eyes of our Heavenly Father.”
Because President Oaks loves reading to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, he and his wife created a compilation of family experiences, spiritual promptings, and miracles called “Tell Me a Story.”
“We have learned that to be remembered family stories need to be retold again and again,” Sister Oaks said. “We recommend that every one create their own family history book.”
In discussing how discovering and gathering ancestors naturally leads to the temple, President and Sister Oaks shared the example of their great-granddaughter, Kaitlyn.
Kaitlyn’s Young Women leader in California, Melanie Burk, noticed that many of the youth in the ward were not engaged and were missing class. As she prayed for inspiration, she received the answer, “Involve them in family history.”
Burk reported that as she taught the already “tech-savvy” youth, “They just caught fire and came closer to their Savior.”
Included in that was Kaitlyn, who now often attends the temple to do baptisms, carrying a half-inch thick stack of temple family file cards. Kaitlyn joined her great-grandparents on the stage and shared how when she first started doing family history she believed the two greatest myths: First, that family history is only for old people. Second, that all the work has already been done.
To her surprise, however, she found that "it was fun." The stories of courage and faith of her ancestors have strengthened her, she said.
President Oaks encouraged listeners to join FamilySearch, "the largest living family gathering in all the world."
"As we unite in this sacred work, we discover the existence and great qualities of those who have gone before, we gather them into our hearts and the binding links of our family organizations, and we connect them into eternal families through the ordinances of the temple," he said.