The keys of Elijah's work and ministry are extremely interesting. His coming was the fulfilling of the promise made through Malachi. It is the planting in the hearts of the children the promises made to their fathers, that in these last days, the children should do the work which was denied the fathers upon which their salvation depends. Many members of the Church have thought that the keys restored by Elijah were keys pertaining to the dead, and therefore Elijah practiced in his day ordinances in behalf of the dead. This is an error. There was no work performed for the dead by Elijah or any other prophet before the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The keys held by Elijah were the keys of the sealing power by which all ordinances are sanctioned and approved and upon which the eternal seal of authority is placed. These powers were exercised in early dispensations in behalf of the living. Elijah exercised such authority, and we learn from the Prophet Joseph Smith that he was the last of the prophets in old Israel to hold this divine authority in this fulness. It was for this reason that he was sent to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in April, 1836, to confer that authority. Since our Savior opened the door for the dead, this power becomes valid for the dead who accept the Gospel as well as for those who receive the Gospel in this mortal world. I will not go into details and quote scripture bearing on this point, but you will find the evidence recorded in the words of Isaiah, chapters 42:6-7 and 61:1-2; also in Moses 7:38-39; John 5:25-26; Luke 16:20-31; 1 Peter 3:18-21 and 2 Peter 4:6. The gulf spoken of by the Savior in the story of Lazarus he bridged when he went to the world of spirits. This is made very clear in the vision of the Redemption of the Dead given to President Joseph F. Smith. President Brigham Young has said this in relation to the preaching to the dead;
"Jesus was the first man that ever went to preach to the spirits in prison, holding the keys of the Gospel of salvation to them. Those keys were delivered to him in the day and hour that He went into the spirit world, and with them He opened the door of salvation to the spirits in prison." (Discourses-479.)
The significance of the restoration of the keys held by Elijah, embracing the turning of the hearts of the children to their fathers, is clearly defined and readily observable in the work that is being done today for the dead. Not only have the hearts of members of the Church turned to their dead fathers, but this same influence has taken hold of the hearts of people in various parts of the world. There are today thousands of individuals who are working in the preparation of their family genealogical records. This has come to pass since Elijah came, and is one of the most significant signs of the times. The Prophet Joseph Smith could not by any power vested in himself, force the people everywhere to take an interest in their dead and compile their records at great expense. Before the restoration of these keys April 3, 1836, there was no great interest in any part of the world among the professed believers in Christianity, in the compiling of genealogical records. A brief statement in relation to what has been done since is in order here.
The year following the coming of Elijah, Great Britain passed laws requiring the proper recording of vital records and filing them in a central place. In the year 1844, the New England Historical and Genealogical Society was organized in Boston, although some steps were taken previously in this direction. In 1869 the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society was incorporated in New York. Since that day many other societies have been organized in many of the other cities and states, principally in the older settlements along the Atlantic where the people first settled when they came to this country. In more recent years societies for the research and compilation of genealogical information have come into existence in most of the states from Maine to California. It is but natural that the first societies of this kind in this country would be formed in the New England and Atlantic states, for there is where the oldest settlements are found and the beginning of family history in this country. There have been also in several parts of the country special bequests provided in wills for the purpose of geneaogical research. Some of the older states have also set aside funds by legislative enactment for the gathering, compiling and publishing of vital records of their several towns. In the past fifty years organizations of this nature have been formed in most of the countries of Great Britain and the spirit of this work has crossed to the continent into all lands from whence have been gathered the scattered sheep of the House of Israel. Thousands of genealogical records have been compiled at enormous expense by individuals and family organizations. The compilers do not seem to know what force it is that impels them onward in this work. They think they are doing it as a matter of family pride and the desire to have some record of their ancestors, but back of it all is the inspiration which comes from the restoration of the keys of this turning of the hearts of the children to parents and parents to their children. A detailed report of this labor would prove very interesting but it cannot be given here.
One gentleman, a lawyer of Salem, Massachusetts, who was spending most of his time in the field of genealogical research at his own expense, and without hope of monetary remuneration, told me, in 1902, when I was seeking information along genealogical lines, that he was endeavoring to compile all the family histories of every family where the ancestor came to Essex County before the year 1700. He did not know whether he would ever get the work finished or not. He was spending more time in this labor than he was in his profession. When I said to him, "Why are you doing this great work?" he answered, "I do not know. I got started and now I cannot stop, something is impelling me to do it." This was on his part an unselfish work for he could not expect any financial returns for his labor. I said to him, "I can tell you why you are doing it, but if I do you will only laugh at me and will not believe it." He became curious to know what I had in mind, and when I told him of the restoration of the authority vested in Elijah, and that the time had come spoken of in Malachi that the hearts of the children should turn to their fathers and the hearts of the dead fathers to their children, he did laugh and said it was a very interesting story, but he could not accept it. As far as he was concerned he was doing this work because he got a great joy out of it. So it is with thousands of others.
They get started and cannot stop until the work they have in hand is finished. Then we collect these records and place them in the Library of the Genealogical Society of Utah for the benefit of thousands who are members of the Church so that they can find the records of their dead. We have in our archives and library today 25,000 volumes, pamphlets, etc., that have been compiled and gathered from many parts of the world, and are being used by the members of the Church in their preparation of their records of the dead.
Does anyone wish to tell me that this influence of the spirit of the Lord has not influenced these people to engage in this work? Is it not a very strange thing that such research was not being carried on except in a few individual cases where affairs of some estate were involved, and the search was for the purpose of laying claim to property? The research today is far from this thought and is done because of the joy and satisfaction people receive in preparing such records; and then back of all of this it is because the time has come and the keys of this power have been restored by divine manifestation and authority. The evidence all around us is so overwhelmingly clear on this point that it is marvelous that men shut their eyes to its truth.
(Joseph Fielding Smith, Signs of the Times [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1952], 150.)