Tevye says….

A guest submission by B. Bowen, a good friend of BCC.

Should traditions be followed? What fidelity do we owe, if any, to our forebears to pass on the heritage(s) they have bestowed upon us?

It is no great insight to note that depending on one’s perspective, traditions can be either good or bad. The Book of Mormon, for instance, discusses traditions in at least forty different verses I can identify (or, more properly, different verses the search function at lds.org can identify): some verses extol the virtues of fidelity to the (correct) traditions of the righteous fathers, while others bemoan the blind fidelity of the “wicked” to the (incorrect) traditions of their fathers. The repeated use of the term seems to bespeak some importance, but as for me, I can’t discern a guiding principle anywhere in the text, apart from an obligation to follow good traditions and reject bad ones, which, so far as I can tell, doesn’t answer the question.

Faithfulness is a much-praised virtue, particularly in Mormon circles. I just can’t figure out, though, to what I should be faithful. The heritage I’ve received (unless I’m a “Lamanite,” in which case I should be humble and reject the incorrect traditions of my fathers)? The Church (unless the Church is wrong, which of course it can’t be . . . can it?)? Or to some quieter tradition of searching and scrutiny?

Jesus’ ministry was in large measure aimed at the rejection of damnable traditions. Mormonism is marked by a similarly radical mission. And yet, so much of the institutional religiosity that has emerged from Christianity and Mormonism’s early incarnations bears little of the radical spirit from which it derives. Much of this institutionalization is likely praiseworthy; much of it is not. Certainly, collective wisdom has its place. But unchallenged and unscrutinized, it becomes oppressive and dogmatic.

Given that not all traditions are created equal, is there any inherent value in following a tradition, simply because it exists? What does Mormonism have to say about the value of traditions? And if something can be said about traditions, what, then, can be said about radicalism?


  1. Brigham – a very traditional name! Great question. This is a Tevye time in the process of cultural development, both in Mormonism and in the world. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said “an obligation to follow good doctrines and reject bad ones.” And how do we make that distinction?

    I study theology formally now, but I have studied it informally for decades in an attempt to disentangle theory from application. It seems to me the key lies here, in a deep and clear understanding of our foundational doctrines as a comprehensive and cohesive system of thought (“systematic theology”). This entails a study of cultures, of history, “the perplexities of the nations, and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms,” etc. – not a quick process! It seems we have to see how tradition derives from thought, from underlying assumptions.

    Let me give an example. One tradition I don’t follow is leg shaving. (This came up on another thread, and I got labeled as a Hippie Woman – LOL!) In my culture, women who shave are whores. Historically, the tradition got started when European prostitutes wanted to rid themselves of fleas and body lice and prove to their customers that they were “clean.” Yet if I show up at Church with unshaven legs, or worse, at the swimming pool with unshaven armpits, I get the “gross!!!” response. I have asked people why they think it’s gross. “It’s dirty!” “Well, see that guy swimming over there, the one with hair all over his body? Is he dirty?” “No, but that’s just normal.” “Then why isn’t it normal for me? God made this hair grow, not me.”

    We are blessed in Mormonism to have a deeper theological well to draw from than many other religions. We believe in the holiness of the physical body. We believe in a female deity in whose image females are made. We believe in gender as an eternal characteristic. We believe the genders to be equal partners in exaltation. We believe sexuality to be a part of that exaltation. How well does the leg-shaving tradition exemplify our doctrine?

    To what extent do LDS traditions derive from LDS doctrine, and to what extent from the philosophies of men? What would a society look like that was based purely on true doctrine? Well, it would be Zion, and we would all be translated. The Church as an historical entity has necessarily accrued a crust of inaccurate tradition (not all as benign as the infamous green jello!) It is an evolving entity with a limited lifespan – the Church will not exist in the CK. I don’t believe that diminishes its ability to serve as a repository for truth. I just think it’s up to the individual members to access that truth through study and faith, and actively involve themselves in the process of discernment – and in so doing, move us toward Zion.

    For an attempt at delineating Mormon sexual theology in this regard, see my treatise in an upcoming issue of Dialogue – which I must now go edit! And any of you out there considering your college major – it’s time for some good theologians!

  2. Elisabeth says:

    Very interesting questions, Brigham. I guess I’ve always been a bit suspicious of the exhortation to follow the “traditions” of our “fathers” for more than a few reasons. First, what exactly, ARE these traditions, and who came up with them in the first place? Long held, yet unexamined, traditions can be based on a flimsy foundation.
    As you say in your post, we need to be very careful about assuming everything our ancestors did was correct, but then, how do you change tradition? I really like your idea of a “quieter tradition of searching and scrutiny”, and for me, personally, this works. The trick is how do we influence a positive change in “tradition” on a broader scale (assuming the tradition should be changed in the first place, of course)?

  3. a random John says:

    I like the tradition of frowning on mentioning movies in sacrament meetings but also mentioning Fiddler on the Roof at every opportunity.

  4. What does Mormonism have to say about the value of traditions?
    I can think of three separate times where a YW leader brought fiddler on the roof into class and had us watch the the “Tradition” song. I never understood the point at the time, and understood it even less after I watched the whole movie years later. My leaders made it sound like we should cling desperately to our traditions, and this song from this movie shows why! Even as a young woman I could see that among the traditions extolled in the opening number in Fiddler on the roof, were many examples of incorrect practices, and unfair treatment. I don’t care what mormonism has to say about tradition. I care what the Holy Ghost has testified to me about growing in righteousness and rejecting all sin, no matter who taught it to me.

  5. There is also the classic Joseph Smith (WoJS pg. 394 – Woodruff account):

    Even the Saints are slow to understand I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God, but we frequently see some of them after suffering all they have for the work of God will fly to peaces like glass as soon as any thing Comes that is Contrary to their traditions, they Cannot stand the fire at all, How many will be able to abide a Celestial law & go through & receive their exhaltation I am unable to say but many are Called & few are Chosen.

  6. Brigham: Given that not all traditions are created equal, is there any inherent value in following a tradition, simply because it exists?

    No, I don’t think so. But maybe we are physically wired to follow traditions and that is why the scripures talk about them so much (both bad and good). My favorite scripture on traditions is this one:

    And that wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men, and because of the tradition of their fathers.(D&C 93:39)

    Obviously there isn’t inherent value in following a practice solely because it is a tradition — but we seem to be drawn to traditions in general whether they are good ones or not. Since that is the case, I think the Mormon message is that traditions are an unavoidable part of mortality but free will gives us power to choose our traditions.

  7. “Tradition” is a nasty code word, in that we never truly define what we mean. We generalize a whole slew of things as a “tradition”.

    In the Church, we make a point to label traditions as “good” or “bad”. I think that 90% of the time, traditions are “neutral” and have nothing to do the Church (wife changing name upon marriage, opening gifts on Christmas eve vs. Christmas, the infallibility of BYU religion professors, attending midnight mass, etc. are issues I’ve seen recently amongst friends).

    Most Church members, however, don’t have the maturity to accept that someone else’s traditions might just fall into the 90%-neutral category.

    Then again, there’s always the group who tries to put the “good” traditions into the “neutral” category and labels them as “bad”, and vice versa.

    Following the Brethren is not a “neutral” tradition, in my opinion, in that it has eternal consequences. Blindly rooting for BYU sports is.

  8. Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought. ~Matsuo Basho

  9. Following tradition seems to be the lazy man’s way of living – following without having to decide issues for yourself. If we are to search, ponder and pray, and lay hold upon every good thing, then we need to look at beliefs and traditions and follow the ones we have come to know for ourselves are correct, not follow blindly because our parents did.

  10. I would disagree with #9, if only because you don’t include the word “blindly” in the first phrase.

    There is an undercurrent in many parts of the Church that orthodoxy is a bad thing, and so extra effort is given to seeking out “justifications” not to have to follow the good traditions.

    [Of course, now I’m getting into my own circular argument about what is good and bad, anyway.]

    I think, for me, the Mason-Dixon line is between the doctrinal traditions and the ethno-Mormon traditions. I am more less likely to question (e.g., willing to pray for “validation” of) so-called doctrinal traditions and more willing to “question” (via study and prayer) the so-called cultural ones. I can seek and receive a testimony of doctrines I don’t fully understand, but I’m less likely to blindly follow the cultural ones.

    Heavenly Mother? I’m much more willing to go along with the idea that the Church doesn’t talk about her as a sign of respect. Overloaded funding for Boy Scouts in ward budgets because “they have to camp more than YW”? I’ll to the mattresses for proportional budgeting. For me, July 24th is a state holiday, not a Church one. :)

    I’m odd anyway. I grew up in the midwest with parents who were very “Utahn”. There’s this perception that outside Utah, members are stuck trying to recreate Utah with all its strange traditions. I think that’s largely overblown. Where I live in TGSOT, most of the cultural arguments I see on the Bloggernacle just don’t exist. Maybe that’s further proof of the truth that the New Jerusalem won’t bein Utah, anyway. You don’t see many of the cultural apostates outside of Utah, because our here, people move on with their lives and focus on the important, doctrinal traditions. Oops, there’s that word again.

  11. 4th paragraph, 2nd sentence in #10 should read “less likely”, not “more less likely”. It made sense when I wrote it.

  12. I’m interested in how often ‘blindly’ finds its way next to ‘follow,’ especially when talking about traditions. I know blindness is an infirmity that Jesus could and did heal, suggesting that it’s better not to be blind than to be blind.

    If we have eyes, we should use them, and if we have ears, we should use them, but as Jesus knew, blindness happens in a variety of ways. I feel like we tend to pity or excuse or love the physically blind, yet blindness in the context of tradition gets little sympathy.

    Jesus healed victims of both the physically blind and those blinded by tradition and false practices (yes, these labels are vague). I often wonder if I should try to assume the role of the Savior and try to heal likewise, or if I should recognize that I, just like everyone else, am blind in so many ways and need to be healed (motes, eyes, etc. in Matt. 7). Both, I suppose.

  13. The following is from President Hinckley in 1989. I think it also appeared in his book Standing for Something.

    Listen to the conclusion of renowned historians Will and Ariel Durrant. Out of the vast experience of writing a thousand years of history, they wrote:

    “No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history. A youth boiling with hormones will wonder why he should not give full freedom to his sexual desires; and if he is unchecked by custom, morals, or laws, he may ruin his life before he matures sufficiently to understand that sex is a river of fire that must be banked and cooled by a hundred restraints if it is not to consume in chaos both the individual and the group.” (The Lessons of History, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968, pp. 35–36.)

  14. Institutional religion seems to me to be the safeguard of traditions, both good and bad–it provides stability, inertia. While it may preserve ancient wisdom, it also helped prolong traditions like slavery, racism, sexism. It makes me wonder how much something like withholding the Priesthood from the blacks was a tradition that Heavenly Father wanted us to move past.

  15. Thanks Bradley!!! I really like that quote.

  16. Levi Peterson says:

    I think most Latter-day Saints who call themselves ethnic rather than believing Mormons retain their Mormon identity because of tradition. Your childhood has a lot to do with your tradition.

  17. I agree wholeheartedly with Sally #9. I’m speaking as a convert, meaning someone who had to break away from the tradition of the fathers to accept the Restored Gospel. There are good traditions in the Church, primarily doctrinal ones. They are good to follow, in most cases essential to follow, but we must do so because we have a Spirit-borne testimony. Sometimes that takes a while and that’s understandable.

    Listening to this past General Conference I concluded that one of the underlying themes was, “Do what God wants you to do, because you know it’s what He wants you to do.” My family did not want me to join the LDS Church. But God did, and as much as I love my family I need to obey my maker, He had me first ;).

    I’m also speaking as a returned missionary. I wonder how many people are not members of the Church even when they have received a witness from the Spirit of the Lord of its truthfulness, all because of “tradition.”

    I think the biggest tradition we should follow as Latter-day Saints is seeking the witness of the Spirit for our own testimony. It’s the one major rite of passage every individual should go through, born in the Church or out of it. Then we know that we are on the Lord’s true path.

    This is why Nephi was obedient while Laman and Lemuel were not. We quote 1 Nephi 3:7 extensively, “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded” but let’s not the previous chapter where Nephi sought and obtained a personal testimony of the Lord and his father’s prophetic calling.

    A testimony of the gospel, don’t leave Earth without it.