by James W. Petty, AG, CGRS, BS(Genealogy)

Whenever I hear the word “tradition” I think of the theme song from the musical Fiddler On The Roof-“TRADITION!” This is the story of a poor Jewish farmer named Tevya in Czarist Russia in the first decade of the twentieth century, whose life was controlled and conflicted by the changing times around him. His society was founded on cultural practices and religious beliefs handed down from his fathers, generation upon generation.

The song passionately and forcefully describes how tradition infiltrated all aspects of their lives-how to dress, how to work, how to eat, how to worship, how to think, and how and who to marry. Tradition was the mortar that held their community together, but it also stifled and smothered change and growth in the face of a dynamic new century. This was a story of the eternal clash between new and old, and the consequences of adhering to and breaking away from…”Tradition!”

A Key to Family History
In genealogy, “traditions” are a key element in every family history. Family traditions are the heart of almost every family gathering. Stories are shared and passed down from generation to generation, defining for each new hearer, what it is that makes them and their family “special.”

Stories of pioneer ancestors crossing the plains; a celebrated grandfather who served with distinction in one capacity or another; the rumor of the arrival in America of a distant ancestor who “stowed away,” or the patriotic reminder of someone in the past who fought for his country and freedom in a great war. Stories like these abound in families throughout our society, and the emotional need to connect with others and feel a part of history leads many individuals to search for their own traditions.

If we were to ask ten average people if family traditions were important to genealogy research, the majority would quickly agree. However, if we asked ten genealogy researchers about family traditions, the majority of them would recommend tossing the traditions out the window. The reason is that some traditions, no matter how well-founded in family lore they may be, tend to be false. In some cases they are outright lies.

A notable event takes place in history and it is remembered, but seldom written down. It is shared from memory and is embellished, perhaps not purposely, but it still changes with each telling. Eventually, only a kernel of the original truth remains, coated with layers of imagination handed down by each teller of the story. However well-intentioned, the telling of a truth has become a fairy tale, and many experienced genealogists would prefer to not even have the traditions around to confuse them.

How Traditions Become “Gospel Truth”
I believe that traditions have their place and value. Like a nugget of gold located deep in a mass of ore, a family tradition has to be “mined” to remove the impurities and discover the treasure contained in it. Many years ago I penned the following rule about traditions:

An Idea is just a Possibility.

Written down, It becomes a Probability.

Published, It becomes a Fact.

Quoted, It becomes Gospel Truth.

Traditions are like simple ideas, except they don’t need to be published and quoted to become gospel truth. It’s all in the telling. These are accounts repeated by grandfathers and grandmothers, and are regarded as true because they were told by such exemplary people. True history changes into myth, and becomes truth again through the telling of the story by several generations of sincere, but uninformed family members. In other words, it becomes a lie that passed on by the honest, but unknowing, pillars of the family community.

A lie? That is strong terminology for stories that are often noble and inspiring. Aren’t some traditions good? The answer is yes; good traditions exist when true principles are followed. This means a family tradition can be true when a record of the event is kept, and documented, and the true record is shared and passed from generation to generation, rather than simply the telling of a story. The principle is explained in Doctrine and Covenants 93:36-40:

The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth.

Light and truth forsake that evil one.

Every spirit of man was innocent in the beginning; and God having redeemed man from the fall, men became again, in their infant state, innocent before God.

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.

But I have commanded you to bring up your children in light and truth. (Emphasis added)

That “wicked one” is Satan, the “Father of Lies”; and the scripture links the traditions of men to Satan’s removing light and truth through disobedience. In family history the removal of light and truth through poor record keeping and undocumented storytelling results in the loss of family memory. Family tradition is often regarded as the “gossip” of history, and modern day prophets have cautioned against such conversation, because of the damage it can do. In many families, the failure to keep correct and true records results in the almost complete forgetting of who ancestors really were.

Light Shed on an Incorrect Tradition
Recently, the descendants of Henry Jacob Faust and his wife Elsie Ann Akerley discovered their true history long hidden behind the mist of family tradition. Elsie Ann Akerley, according to the stories handed down from mothers and fathers to their children, was the daughter of John Akerley and Jane Robison, two early members of the Church.

The story was told that John and Jane were among the last people to receive their endowments in the Nauvoo Temple in 1846, just before the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were forced to leave their homes in Nauvoo, Illinois and move to Winter Quarters on the Missouri River in Nebraska.

John Akerley died at Winter Quarters in 1847, just two weeks after the birth of a daughter Emily by his wife Jane, who was left with two small children to care for. The family tradition stated that Elsie Ann was brought to Utah soon afterward, and was raised by the Robison family in Fillmore, Millard County, until she met and married Henry Jacob Faust.

Recently this tradition was met with a set of surprising facts. Genealogy researchers, studying early temple records as described in the January 2002 article in Meridian Magazine, “Baptisms for the Dead – A Forgotten Record for Finding Early LDS Ancestry,” uncovered the origins of John Akerley’s family which had been lost after his death. The research indicated that Jane Robinson was not the mother of Elsie Ann Akerley, but was instead her step mother. Elsie was born to Mary Elizabeth More, the first wife of John Akerley, who died in 1844, when Elsie was only two-years old. When her father died, it left Elsie Ann orphaned. She was taken in by a Robison family, but not by Jane Robison Akerley, who remarried and raised her own family.

As a result, Elsie didn’t know the background of her true parents and kept no record of what was known. Her children and grandchildren, not understanding the events of Elsie’s youth, assumed that Jane was the real mother and began passing along a tradition that was incorrect. The story of noble ancestors has been told and retold. President James E. Faust, a member of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has sincerely shared the story of his great grandmother Elsie Ann, the daughter of John and Jane Akerley, on a number of occasions, even in General Conference. President Faust was delighted to learn the truth about who Elsie’s mother actually was.

The loss of family memory resulting from these oft-told family traditions brought a halt to progress on their history and temple work that lasted for 150 years. Only through research, that documented the story of John Akerley and his family was the truth found. A family that has waited over a century and a half can now be sealed together, and a “good tradition” can be passed down to future generations.

Spelling of a Name
The Savior in a discussion over the traditions of men stated (Mark 7:9): “Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.”

I worked for a client once, who was very proud of his family, and expressed his pride by focusing on the spelling of his name. In this case, to avoid any offense, I will use my own name, Petty, in place of his. Therefore, he spelled his name Pettey, rather than the more common spelling of “Petty”, and he was so proud of that specific spelling that it had become an important aspect of his family identity. He asked us to pursue his genealogy, and was desirous of tracing his family and doing the temple work for his ancestors. Almost immediately after beginning the research, within two generations of family names, we found the name spelled several different ways, with the most common spelling, Petty, being the predominant spelling in his family as well. Research was completed, good progress was made, and the names of new family members were submitted for temple ordinance work. But at that time, the rules for submitting names to the temple required that the entries had to be spelled as they appeared in the records. Many of the names found in our research were submitted under the spelling Petty rather than his spelling of Pettey.

I presented a glowing and successful report of my findings to him. But upon learning that his family names had been submitted under the different spelling, he chose not to go further in the project. The disappointment and fear of having a favorite tradition threatened, turned him away from doing his genealogy, and from receiving the blessings that come with it.

An old axiom states: “Don’t confuse me with facts, my mind is made up.” Unfortunately, this is a condition that exists all to often in genealogy and family history research. People are comfortable with the status quo, even if the status quo is incorrect. The status quo, or tradition, is like a structured society, or proverbial box, where someone else has established the rules, and set the boundaries, and no one has to think for themselves. It is easier to accept tradition, because stepping out of that proverbial box requires a person to take on responsibilities, and to learn and teach others to do the same. Maybe that is why it was necessary for the Lord to command us to bring up our children in light and truth, because we would otherwise choose to stay in the box and avoid the responsibility.

When I am presented with a genealogy research problem, and it is apparent that progress has come to a halt on a given line; if it has not been for a lack of existing records, then invariably it is because of a glut of family tradition. When someone says “It can’t be found, because Grandpa said so”, then I begin searching even harder, because tradition is just robbing the family of its memory. If your family history is full of traditions, resolve to prove and document them, and give your children a “good tradition”, a true record… that can be passed on to the family for generations to come.

“…Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32)

2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.