“Watchmen on the Tower”

I’ve been noticing this phrase a lot lately. I think it has been used for a while, but it seems to be kind of trendy at the moment. It seems to come up most often in contexts where personal revelation or mere human reasoning are being disparaged as less useful than prophetic counsel.

So where did this usage come from? Why is it popular right now? If you use this phrase in talking about General Authorities, when did you start using it? Do you remember where you first heard/read it? Also, does it have specific content, i.e. does it refer only to the Quorum of the 12, only to the President of the church?

Documentation is appreciated, but ungrounded speculation is also welcomed!


  1. I think it’s Jimi Hendrix.

  2. Um, it comes from here. I’ve heard it since 1998 when I joined the church. It has typically been used in my experience to refer to Home Teaching as a priesthood responsibility.

  3. Steve Evans says:

    GST you idiot, it’s Dylan.

  4. Here is a list of usages in General Conference.

  5. Thanks for that, John C. Little known fact that Helvécio Martins was actually briefly part of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

    Evans: Cram it.

  6. Actually, the first time I remember it was about 10 years ago when I was in a YW pres. The youth were learning a song for Ward Conference (oh, the days in which I lived in a ward with enough youth to form a choir…) that had a line saying “We will serve the Lord… we will stand as watchmen.” I think it was called “Chosen Generation.”

  7. This is the reference that I remember, from Ezekiel 33:

    6 But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman’s hand.
    7 So thou, O son of man, I have set thee a a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore thou shalt hear the word at my mouth, and warn them from me.

    I remember this being taught that all of us are watchmen, and all of us have a responsibility for watching over Zion, and recollect a gospel doctrine lesson to that end. I have not thought of it as exclusively the responsibility of the GA’s, although they certainly have a particular share in the process. I have always felt that every calling carries some sort of Watchman requirements.

  8. When I hear or read the phrase, I typically think of Boyd K. Packer. (Lucile Tate’s biography created the association in my mind.)

    I recall hearing it used in H. Ross Workman’s October 2001 Conference address and M. Russell Ballard’s October 1999 address.

  9. I thought we got it from the Jay Dubs.

  10. Kristine says:

    Matt W., I am aware of the usage in the scriptures, and figured everyone else would be, too.

    The home teaching context is interesting; I haven’t heard it used that way. But then again, I don’t get lectured about home teaching all that much.

    Also, it looks from the list of GC references like you joined the church just at the right time to start hearing it more. And that list would also explain why I don’t recall hearing it much growing up.

  11. Adam Greenwood says:

    J-Dub infiltration.

  12. Kristine says:

    I have always felt that every calling carries some sort of Watchman requirements.

    Are these watchperson requirements, or is this an exclusively masculine job?

    I’m kind of serious.

  13. Kristine, re # 12

    Wow, I was all ready to make some Bixarro Kevin flippant remark, when I read your final line,

    I’m kind of serious.

    So I will take off the cape and tights, and give you the best serious answer that I can.


    To expand my thoughts, we already know that our translations of the bible are notoriously slanted towards the male gender, and the BOM as well (only 3 women named by actual name). However, 2 NE 26:33 pretty much tells us that all the things we view from a limited cultural, gender, or racial perspective are not how the Lord views us. So I do believe that watchperson is an appropriate term, and that as used, watchman/watchmen, is not limited to males only.

    You yourself are an efficient and careful watchperson for calling me out on this.

  14. All Along the Watchtower..Dylan

    “There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief,
    “There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.
    Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
    None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”

    “No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke,
    “There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
    But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate,
    So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”

    All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
    While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.

    Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,
    Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

  15. I’ve always combined the image of a watchman on the tower (and I see no reason it shouldn’t be watchperson) with the definition of a seer in Mosiah 8:17 (“But a seer can know of things which are past, and also of things which are to come”)and Moses 6:36 (“he beheld also things which were not visible to the natural eye”).

    It seems to me that a person on a tower watching to warn us would be doing the things a seer does. So any of us can be a watchperson to the extent we have and use that spiritual gift. Obviously, as prophets, seers, and revelators, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve would be watchmen. But that doesn’t exclude us from using that gift in our stewardship.

  16. Kristine says:


    I’m generally in favor of reading inclusivity into the scriptures, but this is one case where I’m not sure it’s appropriate. All of the GC talks that use the phrase seem to apply to priesthood callings or offices. So maybe the masculine language is intentional or should be in this case.

    Not to mention that “watchperson” is aesthetically offensive!

  17. Kristine,

    Just like “Waitperson”.

    Serious again, I have to say that the heaviest usage in modern church times relate specifically to the General Authorities, but I have also always believed likening all scriptures to ourselves. Both views can be equally supported, I think, as I need to be a watchman for my family, as does my wife also.

    However, Dylan points to “Princes” keeping the view, and who am I to argue with him or Hendrix?

  18. I think there’s a Seminary video where the Watchmen are dramatised. How about that for exact?!

    There’s also Alan Moore’s comic book.

  19. Curses! I was just going to bring up the Watchmen book.

  20. We had an EQ teacher that was overly fond of the phrase, and applied it to almost anything. Once he ran over a few minutes, and this old guy stood up and said, ‘I think you need to be more of a watch-man,’ pointing to his wrist. Best. Quorum. Joke. Ever.

    Seriously, I’m not surprised this has caught on; it’s the kind of vigorous metaphor Mormons love. (Will ‘A Watchman on the Tower’ be the next self-righteous member of ther bloggernacle?) If you think about the concrete image, of a guard on the tower, it has a masculine implication that is difficult to read as gender-neutral.

  21. NoCoolName_Tom says:

    I think there’s a Seminary video where the Watchmen are dramatised.

    You are correct – it’s on the D&C Gospel Doctrine DVD – Chapter 37, to be exact (I work at the Distribution Center). It’s a simple dramatization of an old man watching for enemies at night from atop a short, stone tower. It’s use to help illustrate how the GAs warn us of problems; President Hinckley and Elder Eyring speak about things the youth need to do like fellowshipping and avoiding pornography. It’s a fun one.

    I have always found the perceived differences between personal revelation and prophetic counsel to be interesting; I personally feel that there is little difference. Isn’t the prophetic counsel usually the result of personal revelation I’ve always been under the impression that the Church is usually led by the still, small voice and rarely by the Technicolor IMAX Pillar of Fire(TM). Thus, I’d feel that the term “Watchmen on the Tower” would be best applied to ourselves: if we live worthy of the guidance of the Spirit, then we’re on our own tower and can keep ourselves, and those we are responsible for, safe from harm.

  22. Julie M. Smith says:


    I’m picking up a subtext that maybe you don’t like this image? Is that what you intended to convey?

    I think it can be a very good metaphor: the watchdude generally has better vision than the citydwellers, but not perfect vision. The watcher is limited to one tower and other watchers will see things that s/he can’t see. The tower is privileged but not perfect (weather, smoke, etc. might obstruct the view). It is entirely possible that the citydweller will know something the watcher doesn’t (ie., intel) –although generally the watcher will see more.

    In other words, I think it well-encapsulates the tension between our belief that our leaders are inspired, but at the same time not perfect.

  23. Kristine says:

    Julie, there’s no subtext. I’m genuinely curious about whether/how this usage has become more common, and how people use the phrase. That is all.

  24. Julie, just as a way of highjacking this conversation, I’m curious what led you to ask whether Kristine’s remarks had a negative subtext. I can’t find evidence of one, myself, although that may be a sign of my failed hermeneutic, rather than anything else. Kristine seems to be mostly asking questions, and I might have missed the link between the questions and a possible subtext. But, in any case, I’m interested in your reasoning on this.

  25. Julie M. Smith says:

    Re #24,

    Apparently I was over-reading, so never mind. But I guess calling it “trendy” and associating it with “the disparagement of personal revelation” made me think that Kristine was also criticizing it.

    But she’s corrected me, so we can move on.

  26. Isaiah 56:10 “His watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; sleeping, lying down, loving to slumber.”

  27. Apparently, Graham Doxey was once called by the church to be the “Watchman on the Tower”

    This was a quasi-official calling involving the monitoring of lands in Missouri, etc.

  28. @14 – I just thought it was a U2 song reference, because darned if anyone can understand Dylan.

  29. “watchmen, what of the night.” As ETB has said. When people (whoever in the church) use that as a phrase they must realize that if something bad happens while you were supposed to be watching, yet you said nothing, then people will quickly lose confidence in that person’s ability to be a watchman.

  30. Kristine,

    If you were looking for why there may have been a rise in popular (more than just GA) usage, personally I would point the finger at the Packer biography (as Justin noted before). I think the biography is reasonably well-known and so probably helped bring the image forward for many people.

    Judging from scriptures.byu.edu, Mark E. Peterson liked to quote the relevant passages decades ago in conference.

  31. The question is who are the watchmen watching?

    Are they protectors or prison guards?

    All the discussion about white shirts has me wondering.


  32. Scheherazade says:

    I really don’t mean to threadjack, but it’s impossible for me to read the phrase “watchmen on the tower” without thinking of Foucault.

    Foucault argued that the architectural design of the modern prison with its panoptical design created the maximum exposure of inmates to visibility in order to produce in them the sense of being constantly watched. Permanent exposure and visibility to authorities, being watched all the time, is the condition of inmates in the Panopticon. Strategies of discipline occupy the prisoner, categorize and locate her, and inscribe the authorization of this control within the subject herself. Foucault argued that being watched and the internalization of the knowledge that one is watched is the most effective way to create docile subjects. The subjects become their own disciplinarians. They police themselves.

    Ancient watchmen were able to warn of impending danger since they could see the advancing armies from their lofty perches above the city. Employing the metaphor for church leadership suggests that modern prophets have a unique perspective on the church and the dangers facing its members which allows them to advise, caution, and discipline.

    Is there an analogy between what Foucault says about disciplinary power over prison inmates and LDS understandings/experiences of watchmen on the tower?

  33. Kristine says:


    Yeah, Foucault pretty much colonized all imagery related to prisons and towers, didn’t he? It *is* impossible not to think “panopticon” when one hears “watchman on the tower.” That said, I think any analogy of Foucault to the way the phrase is deployed in church is way too sinister. It’s interesting to me that most official usages are focused on the responsibility of the watchmen, whereas most popular uses I’ve seen lean toward justifying abdication of one’s own responsibility to be vigilant in favor of trusting the watchmen.

  34. Kristine says:

    Frank, thanks. I’ll have to start paying attention to whether people I hear use the phrase have the Packer bio on their shelves. (Maybe I should put it on my shelf, too).

  35. Elder Oaks recently referred to it during an interview in the Mormons documentary on PBS. It was during the section discussing intellectualism.

  36. Had I been listening at the time, I’m quite confident that Mark E. Petersen’s paraphrase of D&C 101:44-54 in his October 1953 Conference address would have stayed with me.

  37. John C.’s list of recent (30yr) General Conference usage has quotes from:

    Gordon B Hinckley
    Howard W Hunter
    Ezra Taft Benson
    Spencer Kimball
    Harold B. Lee

    It gets used in reference to prophets, home teachers, Bishops, and probably others I didn’t notice.

    “whereas most popular uses I’ve seen lean toward justifying abdication of one’s own responsibility to be vigilant in favor of trusting the watchmen.”

    I am not sure what this means– do you mean people not willing to be anxiously engaged or not willing to accept views that plausibly go against Church counsel? The original passage itself in the D&C is, frankly, rather disparaging of the decision-making ability of mortals, and at the same time disparaging of those who prefer to talk rather than work.

    And while they were yet laying the foundation thereof, they began to say among themselves: And what need hath my lord of this tower? And consulted for a long time, saying among themselves: What need hath my lord of this tower, seeing this is a time of peace? Might not this money be given to the exchangers? For there is no need of these things.And while they were at variance one with another they became very slothful, and they hearkened not unto the commandments of their lord.

    “(Maybe I should put it on my shelf, too).”

    You can add it it to your list of required reading that nobody else has done.

  38. Kristine says:

    Ouch! I guess I asked for that…

  39. Kristine says:

    Frank, we’re saying the same thing about who the quotation is applied to in official sources. You don’t always have to disagree with *everything* I say. (stopped clock right twice a day, and all)

  40. I think there has been a change in emphasis on this Watchman principle. When I last taught the OT in gospel doctrine, about 12 years ago, I recall the manual specifically referring to Ezekiel 33 and that all of us had a responsibility to be watchmen.

    The current manual does not address Ezekiel 33, but instead uses Ezekiel 34, and the symbol of Shepherds over the flock. I excerpted this item from the teachers manual for Gospel Doctine:

    In what ways can each of us be considered a shepherd of Israel? (We are to watch over and strengthen each other as family members, Church members, neighbors, home teachers and visiting teachers, and members of quorums and classes.)

    Elder Bruce R. McConkie said: “Anyone serving in any capacity in the Church in which he is responsible for the spiritual or temporal well-being of any of the Lord’s children is a shepherd to those sheep. The Lord holds his shepherds accountable for the safety (salvation) of his sheep” (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. [1966], 710).

    While I see the current usage of Watchman referring more to the GAs, I personally don’t see it as abdicating my responsibility for personal revelation, or my role as a watchman in my particular stewardship, whatever that might be.

  41. Kristine says:

    kevinf, that’s a neat observation, especially about the switch from Ezekiel 33 to 34. It doesn’t necessarily tell us anything; could be just an attempt to cycle through more of the chapters, but it’s interesting nonetheless. It would be fascinating to do a comparison of uses of shepherd imagery vs. watchman on the tower. I wonder if we’d find patterns in the talks of particular GAs–it would be interesting to see who uses which metaphors.

  42. Kristine says:

    I promise this is my last comment, and I’ll shut up (on this thread, anyway).

    I just finished reading all the talks in John C.’s list. Justin, no linkety goodness for the Peterson one?

    It’s striking that almost all of the post-ETB references have to do with the watchmen warning about how to protect families. (Except for Elder Wirthlin, who notes their warnings about the media. How could I have forgotten that talk? “Revelation superhighway”!!! So great.) I don’t know what to make of that, really, just interesting that it’s relatively consistent.

  43. One will find some additional talks by changing “watchmen” to “watchman” in the search page.

    October 1953

    October 1954

  44. Sorry, the second link should say “October 1944.”

  45. Kristine says:

    Good grief!! No wonder you said it was memorable, Justin!

  46. “You don’t always have to disagree with *everything* I say.”

    I disagree with you that I was trying to disagree with you in my comment. I further disagree with you about… ummm… the roundness of the earth. Also, socks.

  47. Kristine says:

    Socks? How can you question my authority on the question of socks?!!

    (Actually, I just spent the better part of an hour trying to empty the gigantic basket of mismatched socks my washing machine seems to generate relentlessly, so I think I may be something of an expert. Wanna fight :) ??)

  48. You were wrong to do it.

  49. Did my big sister just say “linkety goodness”?!?!?

    I’m scarred for life.

  50. Kristine,

    I came across a BYU devotional by Earl Tingey on this subject from June 2007.

    The Watchman on the Tower

  51. I was always concerned about the phrase being misunderstood by non-members of the Church. That is, to confuse this phrase with the “Watchtower” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.