Please note: Although I will correct one detail in the account presented in Our Heritage, this post is not in any sense a negative criticism of either the story or its use in the current Sunday School curriculum. Anyone accusing me of accusing an apostle of preaching false doctrine will do well to save the keystrokes – you will be mocked for your lack of critical skills, and your comment will likely be deleted. Or maybe left visible as a permanent testament to your dimwittedness.

Regular readers and courteous first-time commenters need not fear such treatment, ever.


Gospel Doctrine Lesson 39, “The Hearts of the Children Shall Turn to Their Fathers,” suggests that the teacher have a class member report on this incident contained in the supplemental text Our Heritage:

The following incident emphasizes the importance of the work the Saints were performing for the dead. In May 1884, Bishop Henry Ballard of the Logan Second Ward was signing temple recommends at his home. Henry’s nine-year-old daughter, who was talking with friends on the sidewalk near her home, saw two elderly men approaching. They called to her, handed her a newspaper, and told her to take it to her father.

The girl did as she was asked. Bishop Ballard saw that the paper, the Newbury Weekly News, published in England, contained the names of more than 60 of his and his father’s acquaintances, along with genealogical information. This newspaper, dated 15 May 1884, had been given to him only three days after it was printed. In a time long before air transportation, when mail took several weeks to get from England to western America, this was a miracle.

The next day, Bishop Ballard took the newspaper to the temple and told the story of its arrival to Marriner W. Merrill, the temple president. President Merrill declared, “Brother Ballard, someone on the other side is anxious for their work to be done and they knew that you would do it if this paper got into your hands.” This newspaper is preserved in the Church Historical Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.

A longer, more detailed account is found in a 1966 biography of Henry Ballard, which includes an account of the 1948 visit by missionary M. Russell Ballard to the newspaper office at Newbury to collection information in support of the family story. That experience, told in Elder Ballard’s words, also appears in “Missionary Journal, Ensign, July 1987:

In England, I was able to verify some details of an event that has become one of the great genealogy stories in the Church. As the Logan Temple was being dedicated on 18 May 1884, Bishop Henry Ballard, my great-grandfather, was at home writing temple recommends. His little daughter brought him an English newspaper that had been handed to her by two strangers in the street. It was the Newbury Weekly News – of May fifteenth! A story in the paper contained names and other genealogical data for more than sixty people, then deceased, from Henry Ballard’s birthplace, Thatcham, England. Later, after their temple work was done, it was learned that many of these people are related to the Ballards.

I visited the Newbury Weekly News and verified that the newspaper had never been postdated or mailed out early. I held the issue of 15 May 1884, in my hands and photographed it. There is no mortal way that, in 1884, it could have reached Logan from Newbury within three days.

I don’t doubt that this incident happened, as reported. (I do wonder, though, granting that President Merrill’s interpretation of the event was accurate, what was so urgent about the work for those particular people, or any one of them, that called for the involvement of other-worldly messengers in the mortal world in so dramatic a fashion. But that’s another post.) Odd things are par for the course to anyone deeply involved in genealogical research, and I have no reason to question the basic honesty of the Ballard family.

When he was a missionary in the British Mission in 1948, Elder Ballard attempted to verify parts of the family story by visiting Newbury. He confirmed that there was such a newspaper as the Newbury Weekly News, that it had printed an issue dated 15 May 1884, and that said issue did contain genealogical material. The images below are of that issue’s first page, the page where the genealogical material appears (second column), and a small part of that column enlarged enough for you to get a general idea of the kind of material printed there. (My scans had to be made at too low a resolution to make it worthwhile to enlarge this enough for you to read easily.) 

 newbury weekly - 1 - low res  newbury weekly - 2 - low res

 newbury weekly - closeup

Elder Ballard also photographed the English publisher’s copy of that issue, and, the 1966 biographer claims, those photographs were later compared to the very copy delivered to Henry Ballard and found to be identical.

Elder Ballard attempted one other act of verification which is less useful: He obtained a certificate from the current (1948) publisher that “the newspaper had never been postdated or mailed out early.” It is not possible that the 1948 publisher could be an eyewitness of the newspaper’s practices of 64 years earlier, or, even had he been a very young office boy in 1884 and a very elderly publisher in 1948, that he would have any direct memory of the printing and mailing of the relevant issue. I suppose it is barely possible that he may have consulted an 1884 daybook or office ledger, but Elder Ballard doesn’t say that.

If this were my family story, there are two more details I would want to confirm and which are well within the realm of mundane researchers:

First, I would want to know how and in what way the names in the 1884 newspaper connected with the family genealogy. Because I do believe in other-worldly assistance where genealogical research is concerned, knowing that connection would suggest to me who it was whose work was urgent enough to warrant such an unusual intervention. But none of the multiple accounts I have searched out give any clue to that. The absence of what, to me, is such an obvious avenue of investigation and such a crucial clue to understanding a miraculous event raises caution flags in my brain: until proven otherwise, I will have to wonder if this isn’t an embellishment of the account, added by someone who sensed, even subconsciously, the importance of that missing link.

The second detail I would follow up is the preservation in the Church History Library of the very copy of the newspaper miraculously delivered to Henry Ballard. Really, if you had an opportunity to look at, even hold, a tangible object that you suspected had been handled by angelic personages, wouldn’t you jump at the chance?

Our Heritage says “This newspaper is preserved in the Church Historical Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.” The 1966 biography said the newspaper “now rests in the Church Historian’s Library in Salt Lake City.” The Newbury Weekly News itself was proud to report in 2005 that “an original copy of the Newbury Weekly News, dated May 15, 1884, is preserved in the church headquarters’ archive in Salt Lake City, Utah – as the Mormon equivalent of a holy relic.”

I’m far from the only one, it turns out, who would like to see this artifact (I refuse to call it “a holy relic,” though). Apparently quite a few Gospel Doctrine teachers have trekked to the Library and asked to see it – so many, in fact, that Library staff obtained and printed the scans I’ve used above (their copies are better; I had to lower the resolution to squeeze them through my connection) to hand out to inquirers.

The thing is, though, that Henry Ballard’s copy of the paper is not housed in the Church History Library (which is now the umbrella label for the library and archives) – or at least it cannot be so identified at this time. It’s possible that it was not donated as reported. It may be there, but filed in one of the collections of Ballard family papers, or in another collection where it is not catalogued individually. It may have been pasted into a scrap book, or a record of temple work, or some other book, and lost its identity. It may have been discarded at some point by someone not recognizing its significance (it does not, after all, contain any overtly Mormon material).

It’s a trivial point compared to the purpose of the story, but if you have yet to reach this lesson in your ward, you would do well to omit that detail in your teaching. In fact, I omitted the entire story when I taught this lesson, or, rather, I substituted other stories – I have my own tales of miraculous assistance while doing genealogical research and temple work, to which I can bear a direct testimony, more powerful than the impressive value of bearing someone else’s testimony.

I wonder whether constantly telling the same few and ancient stories – I’ve heard the Ballard incident over and over as long as I can remember – doesn’t give the false impression that it was a unique event, and that the age of miracles is past.

Continue reading at the original source →