October 22, 2007

Traditions: True and False

Heber C. Kimball
March 19, 1854

Commentary on "traditions" is a theme repeated throughout the Book of Mormon. We have examples of good traditions, bad traditions, and mocked traditions.[1]

In this sermon, Heber said false traditions often kept people from accepting the gospel, both now and during Christ's mortal ministry. Heber made an interesting clarification. "Traditions" doesn't necessarily always refer to teachings through regular education; they can be handed down simply and culturally:

Were the false traditions of past and present generations thrown off entirely, it would be much to the advantage of this people, and of the human family. Jesus Christ could not teach His disciples as freely, and as publicly as He otherwise would, had He not been bound from the same cause. There are many who think that because they are unlearned, they have not the same amount of tradition as those who are learned; but there is not much difference between the two classes in this respect. The inhabitants of the whole earth are coated over, as it were, with false traditions; which form an almost impenetrable barrier to the shafts of truth.

It seems no one can really escape being influenced by the traditions of their fathers. Strong adherence to these traditions can be a type of ethnocentrism.

Ethnocentrism is defined as:

...the tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of one's own culture. It is...the viewpoint that “one’s own group is the center of everything,” against which all other groups are judged. Ethnocentrism often entails the belief that one's own race or ethnic group is the most important and/or that some or all aspects of its culture are superior to those of other groups. Within this ideology, individuals will judge other groups in relation to their own particular ethnic group or culture, especially with concern to language, behavior, customs, and religion. These ethnic distinctions and sub-divisions serve to define each ethnicity's unique cultural identity (see Wikipedia).
We view the world through the lens of our own experience and try to classify everything accordingly, including religious beliefs. This is a natural way to make sense of the world, and carries some positive and negative side effects. We would be wise to keep in mind that God's ways are higher than man's ways, as Isaiah taught (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Heber C. Kimball and Brigham Young sometimes seemed a little self-conscious that they lacked the book learning of other people in and out of the Church. Both were in relative poverty through their youth, and were forced to work at early ages, thus missing out on the opportunities of education, much like Joseph Smith. Still, Heber valued his own experiences above the missed opportunities; through his experiences he achieved a certain education which was worth more to him than all the other education of the learned:

Let me tell you, gentlemen and ladies, if we had been brought up in palaces, and been sent to school all the days of our lives to get all the education of the world, and were practical men only in these things, would we be of any advantage to this people?

A man may pass through a course of education designed to fit him for a doctor, a minister, or a lawyer, and it is often the case that he comes out an ignoramus, or worse than useless member of society.

President Young and I were born of poor, but honest and industrious parents, in the State of Vermont, when it was new; and we have been in new regions of country from that day to the present time, except when we were in the British Isles preaching the Gospel of salvation to a perishing world. We have cleared and subdued the land at various points from Vermont to this place, so that we have had no opportunity for becoming what the world calls educated. But if it were possible for me to exchange my information for that of the most learned man upon the earth, I would not do it; it would be like exchanging a good substantial warm suit of clothing for a mess of filthy rags. He has not my experience; it cannot be purchased with money, nor can men by all their learning attain to it.

Although I have not education of a worldly nature, I have a spirit in me that knows right from wrong.
What is true education, and what is not? There is quite a difference between the true education that all men should have, and that which pertains merely to this life, though when coupled together they are both good.

He then encouraged parents not to slacken in education for their children, but that both spiritual and temporal things ought to be pursued, though priority should go to things eternal.

As a side note, Heber also said his enjoyment in the more transitory things of the world began to sink; he wanted the things of God most:
Life is just as sweet to me now as ever it was; but the world has lost its sweetness to me.
In addition to misplaced education, members of the Church should take care to differentiate between Church doctrine and mere tradition. A common example of false traditions in the Church is a quote circulated in wards, seminaries, and other places regarding "Generals" in the War in Heaven. The quote is often attributed to President Boyd K. Packer, and says:

You were generals in the War in Heaven and one day when you are in the spirit world, you will be enthralled by those you are associated with. You will ask someone in which time period they lived and you might hear, "I was with Moses when he parted the Red Sea ," or "I helped built the pyramids'" or "I fought with Captain Moroni."

And as you are standing there in amazement, someone will turn to you and ask you which of the
prophets' time did you live in? And when you say "Gordon B. Hinkley"[sic] a hush will fall over every hall and corridor in Heaven, and all in attendance will bow at your presence. You were held back six thousand years because you were the most talented, most obedient, most courageous, and most righteous.
Note the author couldn't spell President Hinckley's name correctly, for starters. Apparently, the quote became so widely circulated President Packer issued an official statement in the Church News saying the quote is false, and that he never said anything of the kind:
We continue to receive reports of the distribution of a quote attributed to me which begins, 'The youth of the Church today were generals in the war in heaven,' and ends with the statement that when they return to heaven 'all in attendance will bow in your presence.' I did not make that statement. I do not believe that statement. The statement, on occasion, has been attributed to others of the First Presidency and the Twelve. None of the Brethren made that statement.

President Packer has sent a letter to mission presidents requesting their help in clarifying this matter among missionaries and members, and has had posted on some Internet sites carrying the statement a notice that he did not make this declaration. (Church News, April 28, 2001)
False traditions like this have no place in the gospel, yet they are often widely known. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland called such teachings "doctrinal twinkies:"
In our search for further light and knowledge I pray we can avoid being blinded by our own ethnocentrism, by incorrect traditions, and anything else that would lead us to neglect the "weightier matters" of the law (see Matthew 23:23).
When crises come in our lives--and they will--the philosophies of men interlaced with a few scriptures and poems just won't do. Are we really nurturing our youth and our new members in a way that will sustain them when the stresses of life appear? Or are we giving them a kind of theological Twinkie--spiritually empty calories? President John Taylor once called such teaching "fried froth," the kind of thing you could eat all day and yet finish feeling totally unsatisfied (General Conference, April 1998).



Alma confronts a wicked people, telling them they have forgotten the righteous traditions of their fathers (Alma 9:8).

Korihor mocks believers in Christ, mocking the same traditions Alma praised, calling them frenzied, deranged, and foolish traditions (Alma 30:14-23).

The Lord, among others, lamented the false traditions of the Lamanites which led them to reject the gospel (Helaman 15:14).

Elsewhere, George A. Smith admonished the Saints to lay aside their false traditions:

The human mind is wonderfully susceptible and tenacious of traditions, and whatever may have been our traditions, it is an extremely difficult task for us, as human beings, to dispense with our traditions at once. They will hang about us, we will retain them, more or less, hence it often happens that, when you baptize a sectarian preacher into this Church, and a great many of them have been so baptized, in a little time his foolish traditions will become so apparent as to make him despise himself.

For this cause scores of them have turned away and joined the mob to destroy the Saints, rather than be stripped of their traditions, which they had so long hugged to their bosoms, and considered of so much value.

Incorrect traditions, though long followed, have to be surrendered, and we have to build up Zion (JD 3:281-282).

Brigham Young explained that God allows us to hold to some false ideas:

[God] would be glad to send angels to communicate further to this people, but there is no room to receive it, consequently, He cannot come and dwell with you. There is a further reason: we are not capacitated to throw off in one day all our traditions, and our prepossessed feelings and notions, but have to do it little by little. It is a gradual process, advancing from one step to another; and as we layoff our false traditions and foolish notions, we receive more and more light, and thus we grow in grace; and if we continue so to grow we shall be prepared eventually to receive the Son of Man, and that is what we are after.” (JD 2:309-318).

Upon becoming president of the Church, Harold B. Lee became the subject of rumors that his patriarchal blessing said he would be Prophet when the Savior returns. He spoke about the false rumor at General Conference, October 1972 in the General Priesthood Meeting:

The first [thing he wished to warn the Saints regarding] is the spread of rumor and gossip (we have mentioned this before) which, when once started, gains momentum as each telling becomes more fanciful, until unwittingly those who wish to dwell on the sensational repeat them in firesides, in classes, in Relief Society gatherings and priesthood quorum classes without first verifying the source before becoming a party to causing speculation and discussions that steal time away from the things that would be profitable and beneficial and enlightening to their souls.

Just an example: I understand that there is a widely circulated story that I was alleged to have had a patriarchal blessing (I don't know whether any of you have heard about that) that had to do with the coming of the Savior and the ten tribes of Israel.

In the first place, a patriarchal blessing is a sacred document to the person who has received it and is never given for publication and, as all patriarchal blessings, should be kept as a private possession to the one who has received it.

And second, with reference to that which I was alleged to have had, suffice it to say that such a quotation is incorrect and without foundation in fact.

There is one thing that shocks me: I have learned, in some instances, that those who have heard of these rumors are disappointed when I tell them they are not so. They seem to have enjoyed believing a rumor without substance of fact. I would earnestly urge that no such idle gossip be spread abroad without making certain as to whether or not it is true.

The First Presidency in August 1913 issued a warning to the members of the Church which could bear repeating today. Let me read you a few things that were said then:

To the officers and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

From the days of Hiram (Doc. and Cov., Sec. 28), at different periods there have been manifestations from delusive spirits to members of the Church. Sometimes these have come to men and women who because of transgression became easy prey to the Arch-Deceiver. At other times people who pride themselves on their strict observance of the rules and ordinances and ceremonies of the Church are led astray by false spirits, who exercise an influence so imitative of that which proceeds from at Divine source that even these persons, who think they are "the very elect," find it difficult to discern the essential difference. Satan himself has transformed himself to be apparently an angel of light.

When visions, dreams, tongues, prophecy, impressions or an extraordinary gift or inspiration convey something out of harmony with the accepted revelations of the Church or contrary to the decisions of its constituted authorities, Latter-day Saints may know that it is not of God, no matter how plausible it may appear. Also, they should understand that directions for the guidance of the Church will come, by revelation, through the head. All faithful members are entitled to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for themselves, their families, and for those over whom they are appointed and ordained to preside. But anything at discord with that which comes from God through the head of the Church is not to be received as authoritative or reliable. In secular as well as spiritual affairs, Saints may receive Divine guidance and revelation affecting themselves, but this does not convey authority to direct others, and is not to be accepted when contrary to Church covenants, doctrine or discipline, or to known facts, demonstrated truths, or good common sense. No person has the right to induce his fellow members of the Church to engage in speculations or take stock in ventures of any kind on the specious claim of Divine revelation or vision or dream, especially when it is in opposition to the voice of recognized authority, local or general. The Lord's Church is a house of order. It is not governed by individual gifts or manifestations, but by the order and power of the Holy Priesthood as sustained by the voice and vote of the Church in its appointed conferences.

The history of the Church records many pretended revelations claimed by impostors or zealots who believed in the manifestations they sought to lead other persons to accept, and in every instance, disappointment, sorrow and disaster have resulted therefrom. Financial loss and sometimes utter ruin have followed.

This is something that is recurring time and time again, and we call upon you holders of the priesthood to stamp out any such and to set to flight all such things as are creeping in, people rising up here and there who have had some "marvelous" kind of a manifestation, as they claim, and who try to lead the people in a course that has not been dictated from the heads of the Church.

As I say, it never ceases to amaze me how gullible some of our Church members are in broadcasting these sensational stories, or dreams, or visions, some alleged to have been given to Church leaders, past or present, supposedly from some person's private diary, without first verifying the report with proper Church authorities.

If our people want to be safely guided during these troublous times of deceit and false rumors, they must follow their leaders and seek for the guidance of the Spirit of the Lord in order to avoid falling prey to clever manipulators who, with cunning sophistry, seek to draw attention and gain a following to serve their own notions and sometimes sinister motives (CR, Oct. 1972, p. 125).

Andrew, from the blog Burning Bosom had this to say concerning Pres. Young's remarks:
President Young’s explanation goes beyond saying we need to learn spiritual arithmetic before we can learn spiritual algebra. What’s holding us back from from further light and knowledge is not just what we haven’t learned yet, it’s what we haven’t unlearned yet, i.e., “our false traditions and foolish notions.”

President Young’s quote has enduring relevance today considering the unending discussions about the priesthood ban that was initiated during his administration, which was subsequently lifted in 1978 during President Kimball’s leadership. A growing consensus among students of this issue is that President Young’s ban resulted from his mistaken adherence to common Protestant doctrines that thousands of “good Bible-believing, God-fearing Christians” used to justify slavery for centuries. In short, the theory is that President Young’s priesthood ban was the result of his bringing “Protestant baggage” along with him when he joined the Church, and that–despite his greatness and inspiration on so many other issues–he failed to recognize it. President Young’s quote above may lend credibility to this theory.

If we believe his words, it seems possible that what held back the 1978 priesthood revelation for so long was our collective failure to “layoff our false traditions and foolish notions” concerning that issue until that time. That possibility does not in any way weaken my testimony of President Young or the Church. Rather, it simply reflects an inescapable aspect of the human condition.


Mr. Grey Spaceman said...

People and their traditions are the biggest stumbling block when it comes to missionary work. I saw it first hand in Spain. We would teach people the Gospel, and invite them to be baptised, and they would say "What you are saying is true, and good, but I am too old to change. My parents were Catholic, my grandparents were catholic, and all the people before them were catholic, and so I'm just going to stay the way I am". We left behind many good people, who were just too afraid to change out of the comfortable rut they had worn themselves into. Was the most frustrating and disapointing part of being out there. Guess the verse "many are called, but few are chosen" was never more true.

LifeOnaPlate said...

For me it was largely Lutheran folks in Wisconsin, depending on the area. It goes to show an object at rest tends to stay at rest.

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