Middlesex, Vermont - For decades the Mormon Church has been compiling one of the largest genealogical databases in the world. This collection of billions of names is rooted in a common church ritual, little understood by non-church members. Vermont, with its unique open records laws, has been at the forefront of their research.
Eight hours a day, five days a week, month after month, you can find Joan and Garth Gunter busy copying century old Vermont probate records in the depths of the state archives building in Middlesex. "We're digitizing these records for the County and the State," Gunter said. "They're fairly old records and if somebody doesn't preserve them, they're going to be gone."
The Gunters aren't state employees. They're not even from Vermont. The retired couple moved from Eastern Washington to volunteer for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, taking part in a decades old mission to collect genealogy from here and around the world. "Family is very important to the LDS Church. We feel it is the basis of everything that is important," Gunter said.
What the Gunter's gather will eventually be made available online for anyone to research their family ancestry. But the Salt Lake City based Church's primary reason for this epic undertaking is to help members take part in one of their core beliefs known as Temple Baptism, or baptism of the dead. Where living church members stand in -- by proxy -- to baptize a dead relative and ensuring their eternal salvation.
Over the years the baptisms have at times been controversial. Names of Jewish Holocaust victims were included. Catholics and members of other faiths have also been upset. Just last year President Barack Obama's dead mother made it onto the list. While church officials discourage misuse of the names, they believe that the dead can make a decision to opt out. "Just as anyone could not coerce me to be a member of any other church, I can't coerce them to be a member of my church," said David Rencher, who runs Familysearch, the church group that compiles the records. "But we also believe the person is the one who chooses. It's a simple yes or no question," he said.
Vermont's records are of great interest to the church, not only because Joseph Smith, it's first prophet and author of the book of Mormon was born here, but also because it's one of only a half dozen states with open record laws. "I can not ask motive -- 'why do you want look at my records' -- they're archives not 'my chives,' said Vt. State archivist, Greg Sanford. "So there is case law in Vermont and other restrictions that prevent me from weighing how somebody is going to use the records."
The Mormons keep a copy of the records they digitize. They also donate a digitized copy to the Vermont state archives at no cost. "There are massive amounts of court records," Sanford said. "Any partnership we can explore that will expand our ability to better serve the public we will pursue."
While the Gunter families 18 month mission at the archives will end next Fall, Mormon church officials say it will take many more years to the complete their gathering of names.