Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles addressed members of the Church in Africa in his landmark talk, “The Gospel Culture”[i]in November of 2010. In that address he explained, “Many African traditions are consistent with the gospel culture and help our members keep the commandments of God.” He praised Africans for their strong family culture and their tradition of modesty, “…another African strength.” However, he also warned members that “…some cultural traditions in parts of Africa are negative when measured against gospel culture and values. Several of these concern family relationships—what is done at birth, at marriage, and upon death.”
In response to that talk, the Area Presidency, under the direction of Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve, is hosting a series of special adult meetings in stakes and districts to help people deal with those traditions that might lead us away from fully participating in gospel ordinances. These meetings will also help those who have already participated in ordinances to stay on the strait path.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines tradition as “A way of thinking, behaving, or doing something …by the people in a particular group, family, or society for a long time.” Some things that have been done “for a long time” have no rhyme or reason to them, but people continue with the excuse, “It’s always been done that way; it’s tradition!” However, traditions are subject to change, since they are man’s creation, whereas the commandments of God are eternal.
That is why Church leaders encourage us to review all traditions against eternal Church standards. In Matthew 15:3-6, the scribes and Pharisees accused Jesus, asking, “Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they wash not their hands when they eat bread.”
The Savior countered that they themselves had violated the eternal commandment to honor their father and mother saying, “Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.“ He made it clear which kind of tradition can be discarded, and which must be followed.
My own history is a case in point. I was born and raised in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. In this corner of our country, the majority of the people speak Zulu and practice a number of traditions associated with being Zulu speakers. These traditions gave me a great sense of pride as a boy.
I joined the Church in my early teens, and at nineteen years old I accepted a mission call to England. Right after my mission I spend six years of college study in United States. In those eight years away from my homeland, I associated closely with Church members. My experiences with them challenged some of the traditions I held dear as a young boy. However, the Gospel of Jesus Christ informed my life. I asked myself repeatedly if old traditions reconciled with the doctrines of the restored gospel.
For example, when my mother died, all members of the family were expected to wear a blue cloth on their sleeves as a sign of mourning. At that time I was a branch president. I remember the Sunday following my mother’s death; I got dressed for Church and looked in the mirror. Looking back at me was a priesthood leader wearing a white shirt and tie with a dark suit--- that had a blue cloth on the sleeve. It looked strangely out of place. Although it didn’t meet Elder Oaks’ definition of a negative tradition as “one that interfered with me keeping the commandments of God,” it was somehow unseemly as the priesthood leader I was supposed to be. Despite all the respect I had for my mother, I removed it.
Ten years later, my father died. Since I was the eldest surviving male, I was expected to provide direction to the family. I asked everyone if they felt a need to wear the blue cloth. To my surprise, everyone supported the idea of not wearing it. Family members decided that this long-held tradition had run its course. Even when a tradition appears harmless, it deserves a second look.
The experience of today’s African Latter-day Saints is similar to those who were converted in the days of Joseph Smith. According to the Doctrine and Covenants Institute Manual, “Many of the early converts came from a Congregationalist background, that is from churches in which anyone had the right to proclaim doctrine if the rest of the congregation concurred.[ii] Doctrine and Covenants 28:11-13 refers to Hiram Page, who had found a stone through which he claimed to be receiving revelation for the entire Church. The Lord directs Joseph Smith to “take thy brother, Hiram Page, between him and thee alone, and tell him that those things which he hath written from that stone are not of me and that Satan deceiveth him; for behold, these things have not been appointed unto him, neither shall anything be appointed unto any of this church contrary to the church covenants. For all things must be done in order, and by common consent in the church, by the prayer of faith.” Today, many converts with traditions from their previous lives are joining the Church, and the Church responds by correcting these traditions as it did with Hiram Page.
The Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants are replete with warnings about the traditions that separate us from God and His ordinances. Our living prophets are like unto Moses, who gave the children of Israel the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20), or Jesus Christ, who gave the Saints of His time the Beatitudes (see Matthew 5). Both of these directives were given to people with a tendency to return to evil traditions. The Proclamation on the Family is a warning to us in our day from modern prophets who saw traditions developing that attacked the family.
The Holy Ghost can help us discern and then discard unwholesome traditions. If we are faithful, we are promised that the still small voice will whisper truth unto our hearts. It is not easy to move away from those things that once defined us in our family or other group, but a testimony of living prophets and a still small voice from the Holy Ghost can return us safely home.