The Traditions of Their Fathers


“Should I stand up when a girl my age comes into the room, Dad?”

“We’re supposed to take the sacrament with our right hands, aren’t we, Daddy?”

As the father of six children, I am constantly asked questions like these by my children. It is fascinating to observe how they learn about the rules of life and how the rules apply to them. Children learn very early that it is important for them to know and obey the rules of the social groups to which they belong.

These rules may be called customs, traditions, folkways, or norms, but in the Book of Mormon, they are usually spoken of as “the traditions of their fathers.”

Traditions or norms are the standards of behavior and the expectations shared by all the members of a group about how people are supposed to act. Some norms apply to all persons under all circumstances. Others apply only to certain persons or under special circumstances.

Traditions or norms are handed down from generation to generation and are taught to children by their parents, their teachers, their companions, and others with whom they come in contact. Every society places great emphasis on the importance of teaching children the rules of conduct and the standards of behavior of that society.

According to many social scientists, the traditions of a society are the major means by which (a) order is achieved and (b) an organized way of life is passed down from one generation to the next. The way of life of every society tends to be consistent from generation to generation—even if rapid social change is taking place—because traditions tend to resist change. If traditions do change, they usually change slowly.

I have found that our children come to accept many fundamental rules that we have not taught them directly but that they learn simply by watching what is done and who does it. My four-year-old son often comes to me now and tells me rules he has learned; he seems to want to check them out with me to see if he has them right.

No society or group could get along without rules and traditions. Their overall effect upon society is beneficial. God has given to the children of men a set of rules or commandments by which he expects us to order our lives. The revealed principles of the gospel are intended to serve as a total way of life. It is a practical religious system that can bring people happiness and, if fully subscribed to, exaltation.

The Book of Mormon teaches clearly that traditions that are in accordance with the gospel of Christ can have a profound influence on leading the children of men to truth. Righteous lives are influenced not only by the Spirit of the Lord but also by righteous men and women who teach their children correct principles.

It has become traditional to compile these commandments of God and the teachings of his prophets into books called scripture. One of the major reasons why Nephi and his brothers were sent back to obtain the plates of brass from Laban was to enable the descendants of Lehi to maintain their knowledge of the revelations of God and of the righteous traditions of their fathers.

Alma speaks of the commandments of God as the traditions of the Nephites, and he castigates the people of Ammonihah as wicked and perverse because they had forgotten the righteous traditions of their fathers.

The coming of Christ was a tradition believed in for many centuries by the righteous Nephites. Yet this tradition was challenged by wicked people immediately before the birth of the Savior. Those who believed in the coming of Christ were persecuted by unbelievers who characterized the belief in Christ as a wicked tradition. The persecution became so great that a day was appointed on which the believers would be put to death. They were willing to die “because of their faith in the tradition of their fathers.” (3 Ne. 1:11.) They were saved by the effect of the marvelous signs in the Western Hemisphere that accompanied the birth of Christ in the Eastern Hemisphere.

Prophets throughout the history of the Book of Mormon exhorted the people to believe in the righteous traditions that they had been taught by their parents. The marvelous teachings of King Benjamin became part of the righteous traditions of the Nephites. One of the major problems faced by Alma the Elder was that the rising generation of young people “could not understand the words of King Benjamin, being little children at the time he spake unto his people; and they did not believe the tradition of their fathers.” (Mosiah 26:1.)

Alma the Younger and the sons of Mosiah were among the younger generation who broke away from the traditions of their parents and caused dissension among the Nephites, until their eventual conversion and repentance.

A beautiful revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants on the nature and influence of the Spirit of Christ upon men is followed by this significant passage: “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.)

One of the most important means by which Satan can corrupt and deceive the children of men is through the traditions of their fathers. If these traditions are corrupt and lead to evil rather than righteousness, then the evil one has a powerful tool to corrupt the children, for they usually follow the traditions of their parents.

Because of their traditions, the Lamanites long remained in a state of ignorance. They knew little of Christ and of his teachings. What gospel truths had been retained by them were so encrusted with errors that they had great difficulty in recognizing the truth.

From time to time, missionary work among the Lamanites was carried out by the Nephites. These missionaries not only had to teach the Lamanites correct principles, they also had to convince them of the incorrectness of the traditions of their fathers. This, of course, is a difficult thing to do. Much of the lack of success of such missionary efforts was because the people wouldn’t give up their false traditions.

Perhaps the most inspiring examples of missionary work recorded in the Book of Mormon concern the preaching of the sons of Mosiah to the Lamanites. (See Alma 17–26.) Through the power of God they were able to convince thousands of the Lamanites of the wickedness of their traditions. Their conversion to the Church of Christ brought a direct change upon the people and upon their society. Their whole way of life was different. They gave up their evil traditions and their evil habits. They became peaceful and cooperative rather than bloodthirsty and adulterous.

It is easy to see how the sins of parents can have a profound effect upon their children. In the Ten Commandments, the Lord himself referred to the transmittal of the “iniquity of the fathers upon their children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” (Ex. 20:5.) This dramatically illustrates the difficulty of breaking the tradition syndrome.

Today, Latter-day Saints must learn to discern and choose between the righteous traditions of the gospel and the evil traditions that surround them. Church leaders for many years have given strong support to the family as a social institution capable of exerting strong influence upon the lives of children. They have counseled us to keep our families strong, to maintain the beautiful and traditional ties between parent and child. They have counseled us to read the scriptures and to keep ourselves in tune with the inspired teachings of both former and latter-day prophets.

In addition to the sacredness of the family, other righteous traditions fostered by the Church of Christ include modesty, chastity, honesty, moral responsibility, sacrifice, and Christian service to others. Behavioral practices such as family prayer, the payment of tithes, church attendance and activity, living the Word of Wisdom, genealogy and temple work, and many more have become institutionalized or traditionalized among many Church members.

The gospel places emphasis upon hard work, individual responsibility for working out our own salvation, personal initiative, and courteous behavior toward others. Further, the teachings of the Church support the traditions of political democracy and freedom, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom to worship as we please.

On the other hand, our leaders have warned us repeatedly against some of the evil traditions of men that have the power to corrupt us and to take away light and truth. These include contemporary challenges to traditional family life, including sexual permissiveness, immodesty, obscenity, adultery, perversion, abortion, and the use of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco.

Young people today recognize that not all the traditions of their fathers are righteous and beneficial. They have rightfully questioned the value of blindly following traditions that can be seen to lead to error and corruption. This does not mean, of course, that all of the traditions of one’s society must be challenged.

There are two things to consider when advocating change. First, all changes, however beneficial their long-range effect, bring with them dislocation, disruption of the usual way of life, and some frustrations. Any program of social change should also provide for dealing with the short-term problems brought by such changes. For example, persons converted to the Church are often faced with living a totally new way of life, with new friends, new expectations of behavior, new meetings to attend. The purpose of the fellowshiping program of the Church is to help overcome these short-term disruptions and to help new converts adjust to their new way of life.

Second, one should calculate very carefully the total effect of any change that is being advocated to determine if its total effect will be beneficial. Projections into the future are at best very difficult and lead some people to reject or oppose change of any kind. It behooves those who advocate changes to show as clearly as they can the future beneficial effects of these changes.

The challenge to each one of us, a challenge we came to the earth to experience, is to choose between good and evil. Many traditions in our societies lead us to sin, while others lead us to righteous conduct. If we place ourselves on the side of righteous traditions and if we allow them to have an influence in our lives, we can be strengthened in our testimonies and in our receptivity to the Spirit. If, however, we give ourselves over to the wicked influence of evil traditions, we make it more difficult for the Spirit to find a place in our hearts.

The Lord has given us the agency to choose for ourselves. The making of wise choices is easier when we recognize the influence of traditions upon our lives and place ourselves sufficiently under the influence of righteous traditions to allow the Spirit to exercise its power upon us.

Dr. Duke, professor of sociology at Brigham Young University, was named professor of the year in 1971. He is president of the BYU 55th Branch, BYU Fourth Stake.