On Tradition

This letter appears in the diary of a man who served in the Mormon Batallion and pioneered in Utah and Nevada. 

He had written to the First Presidency to request clarification of a practice that he perceived to be out of harmony with scriptural injunctions.  He received this letter in reply:

Elder Warren Foote, Glendale, Kane County.

Dear Brother: President Geo. Q. Cannon has handed me your letter of 3rd inst. With regard to the question you there raise, I believe I can best answer it by repeating a maximum [sic] of the Roman Catholic church on disputed points, that, “The practice of the Saints is the best interpretation of Scripture.” So in this case……….Your brother, Geo. Reynolds 

What interests me about this letter is that everybody involved was a contemporary of Joseph Smith. It is hard for me to imagine him citing “the way we’ve always done it” as an authoritative source for doctrine or practice. And yet, within a few decades of his death, the notion of traditional practice had taken root.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I think it can often be a very good thing. There is certainly no reason for each generation to have to re-invent the wheel.  But it still seems odd for a church that was barely 50 years old to attempt to emulate the practice of a faith that has been around for centuries and had enough time to actually develop traditions.  The restoration began as a repudiation of false traditions, and with the promise of new revelation.  Whenever we see the word *tradition* in our restoration scriptures, it is almost always preceded by either *vain* or *foolish*, which leads me to believe that our relationship with the way things have always been might be more contentious that it is for some others.

Among other Christians, claims to authority take different paths.  For most Protestants, scripture is supreme.  Catholics honor precedent and have a strong respect for church tradition.  For LDS people, we claim both scripture and tradition, and also add ongoing revelation.  It is an interesting balancing act. 


  1. a practice that he perceived to be out of harmony

    I am burning with curiosity for details.

    I actually think it is really cool that a fp response quoted a catholic idea.

  2. Is there a date with the letter?

  3. #1–Yeah seriously, Mark. You can’t leave us hanging like that!

    Very interesting observations though. Right now I’m thinking about how there is next to nil chance all this would have occurred to me in reading that letter.

  4. Mark Brown says:


    Oops, sorry. The letter is dated Apr 11, 1895.

    Matt W.

    This is the question to which this letter is a reply:

    [H]ow can a widow be sealed to another man without breaking her covenant between her and her husband who is dead, insamuch as this covenant is made without any proviso with regard to the disolution of the body? If the husband’s death releases her from this covenant during the rest of her mortal life, why did the Lord not make this proviso in the revelation?

  5. Is the Catholic maxim talking about the practice of canonized Saints, or ordinary saints like we Mormons use the word? I’m not familiar with the maxim.

    I would suggest Bro. Reynolds is not defending tradition over scripture, but instead experience over scripture. In other words, scripture cannot be read apart from real lived experience. If that is what he’s saying, his response could be read as more an attack on tradition than a defense of it.

  6. Mark Brown says:


    That is very insightful. Thanks.

  7. iguacufalls says:

    Whenever we see the word *tradition* in our restoration scriptures, it is almost always preceded by either *vain* or *foolish*

    Yes, but more often than not, it’s the Lamanites saying that about the Nephites’ belief in Christ.

  8. W’s #5 question is important. Catholic Saints would be akin our prophets and apostles, not to the run-of-the-mill Catholic or Mormon. From this interpretation, Elder Foote is being told to follow the example of the most consecrated members.

    If, instead, Brother Reynolds/Cannon was directing Elder Foote to follow the practice of LDS saints in general then I would take that to portend more of a “least common denominator” or “regression to the mean” approach to the gospel. That is, church leaders say one thing, but the day-to-day lives and sins of the members reflect the realist doctrine.

    Regardless of interpretation, I’m not sure that it really answers Elder Foote’s question.

  9. John Mansfield says:

    Bruce McConkie expressed this idea also in one of his more famous BYU devotionals:

    The proper course for all of us is to stay in the mainstream of the Church. This is the Lord’s Church, and it is led by the spirit of inspiration, and the practice of the Church constitutes the interpretation of the scripture.

    In these teachings, I don’t see “practice” as being the same thing as “tradition.”

  10. This is a fascinating post, Mark, and I am particuarly struck by the tension you point out between our rejection of and acceptance of tradition and the fact that we balance scripture, tradition, and revelation. That seems right, and it leaves me to wonder what purposes these three sometimes incomptible categories of authority serve. I understand that new revelation trumps old scripture, but where does tradition fit in our hierarchy?

    However, what really interests me is that he is drawing upon the Catholic Church to solve an administrative matter. Are there many other records that might indicate how early leaders borrowed from other religious groups in setting up Zion?

  11. I’ve thought about this recently in thinking about raising children. I value many traditions and “rituals” that both the Church and world have provided. I think societal dysfunction is largely due to the rejection of certain tradition in many cases, but I digress.

    True, restoration scripture often refer to traditions as “vain” and “foolish” but mostly from the side of the anti-Christs (nehor, korihor). The Christ followers usually refer to others’ traditions as “wicked”.

    “Vain” and “foolish” could more easily be determined to denote the uselessness of traditions, where “wicked” opens the possibility of valuing traditions to the point of shunning inappropriate traditions.

    Our society, even within the Church, is terribly interesting in that we love to reject traditions. The value of traditions comes second to our personal revelation or agency.

    Traditions are often reduced to “hoops” to jump through in order to be a credible member.

    In many ways I think that this is sad, because it points to the disintegration of a community moral fabric and points in some ways towards moral relativism stemming from personal pride.

    And if there is a strait and narrow path based on the “mainstream” Church, we may be in more trouble than we think. Of course that requires a definition of “the mainstream Church”.

  12. Mark,

    Elder Packer’s “the Unwritten Order of Things” came to mind as I read this. Certainly, tradition plays a part, and regardless of your feelings about this particular talk, it certainly highlights the balancing act of scripture, tradition, and revelation.

  13. Great point, kevinf – and those who completely reject that talk tend to be those who want clear, black-and-white delineations – not the balancing act that this post describes.

  14. I’m not sure how to start a new thread, but my question is related.

    The temple covenants when my spouse and I took our endowments differ from the current covenants. When we are asked in an interview if we keep our temple covenants, does this refer to the covenants as they were for our endowments, or the covenants as they are today? Since subsequent endowment work is vicarious, I would think the covenants we took for ourselves would be in effect. Thanks.

  15. Lawrence,

    I suspect that what you are referring to that have changed are the forms and ritual of the ceremony, but not the covenants themselves. However, you are correct that you are bound by the covenants that you made when you went to the temple for yourselves. Subsequent visits help to remind us of what those covenants are.

  16. Lawrence,

    I should have included this in my # 15, but this is a perfect example of changing traditions, as the form of the endowment and other temple ordinances have changed many times over the years, but not the covenants that are made. Certainly some of these changed elements represent traditions that either came to included, or later excluded, from the endowment ceremony.

  17. This reminds me of the how we ended up with the issue of Blacks and the priesthood. As I’ve understood the hypothesis, Joseph Smith had followed Masonic tradition in not extending temple rites to Blacks, but that he hadn’t intended the same for priesthood authority. However, this difference was not expressly described and when the mantle was passed, Brigham Young made his better interpretation as to “the practice of the saints” representing the Gospel.

    It was just the way it had been done.

  18. kevinf 15 and 16: One of the temple covenants, about hearkening to God and spouse, has changed in recent years.

  19. Randall,

    Your example of the priesthood ban is a good example of how the balance can be lost. When it became obvious that there were no scriptural proscriptions, it finally became recognized as tradition. Edward Kimball gives a good glimpse into how difficult it was for his father to overcome that tradition of a hundred years plus in his recent article in BYU Studies (actually, if I recall, it is an amplification of a chapter from his biography of Spencer W. Kimball). Makes a good read, and an appreciation for how hard Pres. Kimball worked to get consensus and agreement before the final revelation was received.

    I am not sure, however, that there is any evidence that JS had anything to do with the exclusions either from the priesthood or temple ordinances. Stapley or someone else may be able to back me up on this, but there is nothing that I recall that links Joseph Smith to the ban that is verifiable. He did discourage missionary work to black slaves in the South, and made a statement or two about Mormons not being abolitionists during the Missouri difficulties, but I would need to consult my copy of RSR or other books I don’t have access to right now.

  20. W,

    Now that I think about it, that may be right. I was thinking of other things, but that may be because I am older, and remember some things that thank goodness, have changed about the ceremony.

  21. Larry the cable guy says:

    Observation #1:

    If I traveled back in time and experienced a full year of Mormonism from each of the years 1973, 1933, 1902, 1881, 1849, 1833 (picking #s out of the air), could I recognize the common doctrinal threads and rituals that compose my spiritual identity? Those six decades between JS and the Foote letter were quite the roller coaster.

    Observation #2:

    Questions like Elder Foote’s are now directed towards local authorities rather than SLC. I wonder how the variety of age, experience, and the international culture of local leadership shapes the appeal to tradition as interpretation.

  22. Mark, you’re taking a bit of a Protestant view of the matter here. In point of fact, I think JSJ was very interested in creating an authority center within the church, and in many respects he adopted approaches that would have fit well within a broadly Catholic worldview. You have to constrain independent spiritual encounters and doctrinal investigations somehow or to some extent to maintain a coherent ecclesiastical structure, and for all his complexity, I think JSJ was somewhat comfortable with it. he of course had the seeric role in a way that allowed him to perform binding exegesis of scripture as well. With that playing a less significant role, the authority of church tradition had some room to expand.

  23. I believe that Sam is absolutely correct (# 22) about a growing role of tradition in the Church, in the wake of Joseph Smith’s more charismatically aggressive (my words) approach to scriptural and doctrinal development and interpretation. This happens in many movements and organizations, where exuberantly innovative origins are preserved or mellowed by more plodding administrators of the second and third generations. As a striking illustration of this phenomenon, consider a weary-sounding Mormon retreat to basics in no less crucial a matter than the nature of Godhead. Here is Wilford Woodruff speaking at General Conference only four days before George Reynolds wrote that letter to Warren Foote (which Mark quotes in his post above) . . .

    Before I sit down I want to say a word to the Elders of Israel on another subject. . . . Cease troubling yourselves about who God is; who Adam is, who Christ is, who Jehovah is. For heaven’s sake, let these things alone. Why trouble yourselves about these things? . . . God is God. Christ is Christ. The Holy Ghost is the Holy Ghost. That should be enough for you and me to know. I say this because we are troubled every little while with inquiries from Elders anxious to know who God is, who Christ is, and who Adam is. I say to the Elders of Israel, stop this. . . . We have had letter after letter from Elders abroad wanting to know concerning these things. Adam is the first man. He was placed in the Garden of Eden, and is our great progenitor. God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are the same yesterday, today, and forever, that should be sufficient for us to know. [Millennial Star 57 (June 6, 1895), 355-56, as quoted and cited in Boyd Kirkland, “Jehovah as the Father: The Development of the Mormon Jehovah Doctrine.” Sunstone: Mormon Experience, Scholarship, Issues & Art 9 (Autumn 1984), 40, 44 n. 57 (all ellipses in the quote are Kirkland’s)]

  24. #15, 16

    Both the liturgy and the covenants have changed over the years. The liturgical change of 1990 is well known. The chastity covenant has changed; in the late ’60s, its only prohibition was intercourse with someone of the opposite sex other than one’s legal and lawful spouse.

    Homosexual activity of all kinds may have been thought of as an “unholy and impure practice,” but it did not violate the chastity covenant.

    Sexual activity that did not include intercourse may have been unholy, but it did not violate the chastity covenant.

    Perhaps because greater light and knowledge has been revealed concerning the myriad ways that sexual activity can be accomplished, all “sexual activity” – other than with one’s spouse – is interdicted by the present wording of the covenant.

  25. Will Bagley says:

    Sorry, Warren Foote was a great pioneer, but he never served in the Mormon Battalion. Rut nut George Ivory has portrayed Foote in many pioneer re-enactments, and I think Sam Passey may be working on an edition of his papers.

    Will Bagley,
    Editor, with David L. Bigler, “Army of Israel: Mormon Battalion Narratives.”

  26. Mark Brown says:

    Will, thanks for the correction.

    I’ve amended the original post so it is now accurate.

  27. #24: I believe that “intercourse” had a broader meaning until relatively recently. If I am right, then “sexual intercourse” previously included more sexual activities than it now does. Thus, the 60s change would be a clarification rather than a change.

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