Music and the Spoken Word

The Unfolding of Human Lives - Sunday, September 14, 2014

On New Year’s Day 1892, a ship of immigrants docked at Ellis Island in New York harbor. Annie Moore, a teenager from County Cork, Ireland, was the first immigrant registered at America’s new reception station. She and her two younger brothers, Anthony and Phillip, had sailed in steerage class for 12 days on the steamship Nevada to join their parents, who had arrived in the United States previously.

Over the next 62 years, 12 million people poured into this country of promise through Ellis Island. It is estimated that nearly 40 percent of American citizens today can trace their ancestry to someone who stood in line at that much-heralded entry point to a new life.

Ellis Island no longer registers new immigrants; its main building now houses an immigration museum. Visitors to the facility can search millions of arrival records to learn about their family history. But the real history lies behind the names, dates, and birthplaces, in the actual unfolding of peoples’ lives—the markers that set their course, their hopes and expectations, their joys, sorrows, disappointments, and sheer determination.

As we learn their stories, we are better prepared to push forward to a new era. In a profound way, history enlarges the experience of daily living. In the stories of people like young Annie Moore, we see ourselves. Pulitzer Prize–winning author David McCullough, a dear friend of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, said it this way: “History encourages, as nothing else does, a sense of proportion about life, gives us a sense of the relative scale of our own brief time on earth and how valuable that is.”

The stories of those who went before us, whether on the front page or in the footnotes, form the bedrock our lives. Whatever we may accomplish today, we build on great traditions of the past.

-Heidi S. Swinton

“Why History?” address at the 1995 National Book Awards,