Tonsorial Jihad

Recent anecdotal evidence suggests that someone in the bowels of Church headquarters has launched yet another installment in the periodic holy war against masculine facial hair. A new member of our stake presidency was instructed by a visiting Area Authority Seventy to shave his beard. He was told by the Seventy that there was no scriptural or doctrinal basis for this instruction, but that it is currently an “unwritten policy.”

At about the same time, several acquaintances of mine who volunteered to serve as veil workers at, respectively, the Oakland and Saint Paul temples were informed that they could do so only by becoming clean-shaven. While no one has yet quite dared denude the temple representations of the Father and the Son of facial hair, given that Moroni seems to have lost his beard in Church art representations over the past hundred years, perhaps it is only a matter of time.

Coming from a profession where beards are relatively common, the contrast in attitude is rather striking. Several years ago, an acquaintance of mine accepted an academic position at a university in Ohio; at the time he was clean shaven. But when I next saw him after a year of teaching, he sported a very dapper goatee. After complimenting him on his new appearance, I asked what had prompted the change.

He confessed that he had felt rather uncomfortable teaching, as he realized that he was not much older than his students; indeed, some of his students were older than he, and he feared that he would not be take seriously as an instructor.

“Then,” he said, “I remembered a scene I had watched from Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound.” Hitchcock fans will recall that Spellbound, starring Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman, employs Freudian psychoanalysis as a plot device (and includes a memorable dream sequence with sets designed by Salvador Dali).

My friend continued: “In a scene where Gregory Peck is being psychoanalyzed, he describes a recurring dream in which he sees a man with a beard. ‘Ah yes,’ says the analyst knowingly. ‘The man with the beard is always the authority figure.'”

So, wanting to become an authority figure, my friend grew a beard.

My wife and I decided to test the “Spellbound” beard hypothesis at our recent ward conference, where the newly-shaven stake counselor taught one of the sessions. Gauging as best we could our own mental responses, we concluded that we did in fact instinctively give his pronouncements less weight now that he resembles all the Church’s other dark-suited general authority clones, than we had previously when he spoke as a Freudian authority figure.

Which leads us to speculate that the current tonsorial jihad is perhaps a deeply thoughtful stratagem out of Salt Lake to deter the membership from placing undue credence in the statements of Church leaders, doubtless designed to motivate us to seek our own inspiration from the Lord.

Or, perhaps not.

49 comments for “Tonsorial Jihad

  1. Kristine
    June 20, 2004 at 8:24 pm


  2. Kevin Barney
    June 20, 2004 at 9:00 pm

    I’m waiting for the day when the Church will place all Church callings off limits to men with beards. Then I won’t have to do anything at all, but show up, sing and partake of the sacrament.

    If someone calls me to some high position and expects me to shave as a sign of deference to unwritten Church policy, he is going to be surprised. My wife strongly prefers me with a beard, and since she is the one who has to be attracted to me, I give her opinion more weight than all of the apostles and prophets combined. If she ever tells me to shave my beard off, I will do so, but not before.

  3. Dan Burk
    June 20, 2004 at 9:04 pm

    BTW, in the interests of full disclosure, for those who may not have checked my web site, I am an authority figure.

  4. Jack
    June 21, 2004 at 12:42 am

    If a GA approached you with an offer to star in a churched produced movie as a beardless character you would refuse?

  5. Ben S.
    June 21, 2004 at 1:52 am

    This is kinda funny. I went through the same thing, though unconsciously. I have several pictures of goatee’d me on my bio page, one of which bears the caption “I’d decided that for graduate students, intellectual prowess is directly proportional to facial hair, and that, Samson-like, shaving will deprive one of all such power.
    However, now that I am now clean-shaven with a Master’s Degree, the theory needs to be rethunk.)”

  6. June 21, 2004 at 2:00 am

    This is clearly a cultural thing. Islamists wear beards to show their religiosity and in the meantime we shave our faces to show ours. If I were capable of growing a handsome beard I’d probably go for it… but unfortunately it’s not a look that works for me. I guess I don’t have the slightest change of exuding authority. Sigh. :)

    I have to wonder though if there will be a switch at any point … where beards will return to a position of grace in the Church’s eyes and might be encouraged.

  7. Dan Burk
    June 21, 2004 at 2:31 am

    “If a GA approached you with an offer to star in a churched produced movie as a beardless character you would refuse?”

    If a GA approached me with an offer to star in a church-produced movie as ANY kind of character, I would refuse.

    Especially if it were one of those borderline blasphemous ones where the actors pretend to bear their testimonies. And cry.

  8. Julien
    June 21, 2004 at 2:41 am

    After a bishop somewhere in UT told a person I know that they were supposed to shave their beard, that person had an interview with a GA (which was printed in the Deseret News – he was a reporter for it), and in it that GA stated there is no such law or rule, and that it was completely fine to wear one. They tried to get the article to the bishop, but somehow it didn’t quite work….;) – maybe the rule didn’t apply for presidency members…

  9. June 21, 2004 at 11:32 am

    “I’m waiting for the day when the Church will place all Church callings off limits to men with beards.”

    Move to Lethbridge. One ward here released a brother from a Primary calling he had held for years because he refused to follow their counsel to shave his beard. Despite the fact that he was an elementary school teacher with an education degree didn’t seem to make a difference.

    He was subsequently released as a ward chorister (his next calling) for the same reason. I have no idea if he holds any calling now.

  10. June 21, 2004 at 11:36 am

    I grew my beard while getting my M.A. at BYU. I did this for several reasons: 1) We had an upstairs neighbor (Bob Ahlander, founder of the BYU acappella group Vocal Point) who grew a beard, after having obtained a beard card through a rather dubious process; he looked good in it, and I thought I ought to grow one as well. 2) I have no chin (see here); a beard allows people to know where my neck ends and my head begins. 3) I knew, having shaved for several years by that point, that I could. 4) Melissa thinks beards are sexy. 5) Like more than a few BYU students, by the time my admittedly wonderful years in Provo were coming to an end, I felt an overwhelming desire to stick it to The Man.

    As for the church’s anti-tonsorial jihad more generally, I have an uncle (who had a nice, Amish-style beard at the time) who was at one point informed that bearded men cannot be chosen with their wives to be a witness couple in the temple. I know from experience that this is not, in fact, definitively the case, but no doubt it is in the minds of at least some temple presidents and matrons. (I mean, if you can’t wear a beard and do ordinance work at the veil–which I have been told by several sources that you cannot–then it’s an easy leap to assuming that you can’t wear a beard and approach the altar either.) That’s what “unwritten policies” get you.

  11. June 21, 2004 at 11:58 am

    So, any ideas *why* the sentiments against beards?

  12. obi-wan
    June 21, 2004 at 12:23 pm

    The short answer is that I have never heard a credible explanation.

    The longer answer: fogeyism. I understand why beards of a certain style might have been an issue in 1974, but that battle is long over.

    This is the same issue that worries me when I see that the youth dance guidelines warn against “psychedelic” lighting, or when general authorities warn us in general conference about the world’s temptation to “do your own thing,” or against “the new morality.” All perfectly good advice, but I don’t think anyone has used that terminology since the late 1970s. It suggests to me that there are a bunch of folks on the Wasatch Front who are still desparately shadow-boxing the same bogeymen that they were fighting thirty years ago. It’s a bit like fighting over whether we should be allowed to waltz, or whether women should wear brassiers (both of which were condemned by general authorities at one time).

    I am reminded of the old joke that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, one should move to Utah, since it is lagging thirty years behind the rest of the world. You get the idea.

  13. Julie in Austin
    June 21, 2004 at 12:31 pm

    obi-wan, may I be the first to ask you for evidence comfirming the anti-bra jihad?

    In general, I don’t have a bone to pick over beards any more than I do over earrings, but I am disturbed by the idea of an unwritten policy.

  14. Kaimi
    June 21, 2004 at 12:36 pm

    Anti-beard, anti-hair culture in the church is so wierd. I recall several years back — at the MTC, I think — hearing a fireside (?) where the speaker cited to an unnamed general authority, who had apparently confirmed that Christ looks just like the “red” painting used in the church — except that “now he has a missionary haircut”!

    The primacy of hair orthodoxy — let’s give Christ a haircut! — is a little disturbing.

  15. Jeremiah J.
    June 21, 2004 at 12:36 pm

    Grasshopper: The anti-beardism started in the 1960s at BYU, as an attempt to pre-empt student activism. BYU people can explain this in greater detail.

    I have had a beard for years, though I recently shaved it in order to teach a May term course at Southern Virginia University, which prohibits facial hair. And I would almost certainly shave it in order to work in the temple. How I dress, as well as how I wear my hair, whether it be on the top of my head or my face, is a matter of personal preference and taste for me, not principle (perhaps this has to do with the fact that I did not attend BYU–I am not well aquainted with this “Man” to which Russell wanted to stick it).

    Two things, though:

    Though I might well feel pleased to one day see a temple worker being allowed to wear a beard, it rubs me the wrong way that Corzine of New Jersey wears a beard in the Senate (I’m not the only beltway person who feels this way, either). I’m not sure how I square these two feelings.

    Facial hair, especially among young people, has become very tacky in some cases. Perhaps in the 1960s untrimmed beards gave facial hair in general a bad name, but today you see an almost obsessive-compulsive trimming and shaping, whether it’s a pencil-thin line running from one ear, around the chin to the other ear, or the single-square-inch patch under the lip or chin. Perhaps if everyone were wearing either a trimmed, full beard or a trimmed, full goatee then these beard policies would have less steam than they do.

  16. obi-wan
    June 21, 2004 at 12:43 pm

    Julie — I will try to find the precise reference on bras. I have in mind a diatribe by Brigham Young against the wearing of bras, with a good deal of harangue about worldliness and Parisian prostitutes.

  17. Kaimi
    June 21, 2004 at 12:45 pm

    It’s time to crack down on those subversives in the curriculum department — they keep giving us lesson manuals with (gasp!) beards on the covers!

    Let’s toss our bearded past onto the dust heap of history! No more Brigham Young, Lorenzo Snow, or Heber J. Grant! We can learn all that we need to learn from people who were sensible enough not to wear beards, like Joseph Smith and Spencer W. Kimball.

    In fact, maybe we should replace the Brigham Young manual with an Eliza R. Snow manual, and the Lorenzo Snow manual with an Emma Hale Smith manual, and so forth. Sure, they’re women, there’s that whole priesthood thing, and so on. On the other hand, let’s focus on what’s important. Do they have beards? No. That decides it, right?

  18. June 21, 2004 at 1:05 pm


    I’m familiar with the BYU beard thing, but how did it migrate into the Church itself?

  19. June 21, 2004 at 1:32 pm

    Obi-wan and Julie,

    I didn’t have any idea that brassieres had been condemned by church leaders at some point long ago. What I do recall is the BYU Honor Code used to state (back in 1989) that the “no-bra look” was forbidden. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought but when I showed the written BYU honor code to some Ncurious ew Jersey high-school female friends they couldn’t stop laughing about that particular line in the code.

    I recently re-read the on-line version of the BYU honor code (when reading the “ web-site” and saw that line wasn’t there anymore.

  20. wendy
    June 21, 2004 at 1:50 pm

    Brigham Young no fan of the “smooth-faced” and “beardless”:

    “In these and all other branches of science and education we should know as much as any people in the world. We have them within our reach, for we have as good teachers as can be found on the face of the earth, if our Bishops would only employ and pay them, but they will not. Let a miserable little, smooth-faced, beardless, good-for-nothing Gentile come along, without regard for either truth or honesty, and they will pay him when they will not pay a Latter-day Saint. Think of these things.”

  21. June 21, 2004 at 1:54 pm

    Perhaps the BYU success in defining deviancy up is simply being tried out on the rest of the Church. As this sight suggests, even among adults there is a significant amount of iconclastic energy that needs to be sublimated somehow. Afterall, Russell seems to have had issues with “The Man” well into middle age.

    If you want to know what I am talking about, check out my earlier post about the REAL purpose of the BYU Dress and Grooming Code.

  22. lyle
    June 21, 2004 at 2:37 pm

    i wear a beard. i wore a beard when i graduated from BYU the first two times (as a favor to one of the Deans, I shaved for the law school graduation).

    If you are asked to do something by a Church leader; it’s our duty to do it.

    However, if I’m asked to shave myself…um…we’ll see if the bullet hits or misses the bone.

    Personally, I fight my own one-man war against this…encouraging those in my ward & elsewhere with Beards to keep them…esp. if they get callings. :)

  23. lyle
    June 21, 2004 at 2:42 pm

    Oh…and perhaps you can get Ben Huff (former T&S Guest blogger) to talk about _why_ he shaved his “full-on made brother brigham look like a teenage boy” beard. I suspect it had to due with his desire to teach at BYU.

  24. Carlton
    June 21, 2004 at 2:59 pm

    The Honor Code, facial hair, costly apparel? We got nothing on these Godly folks. I don’t know the neat way to link a site so here it is, enjoy:

  25. diogenes
    June 21, 2004 at 3:10 pm

    “If you are asked to do something by a Church leader; it’s our duty to do it.”

    Well, no, not exactly.

    I have an obligation to the Lord, not to Church leaders. As long as a Church leader is speaking on behalf of the Lord, I have an obligation to comply. If the leader is speaking on his own, then he’s on his own — no promise.

    Fortunately, we have a direct line to the Lord to check if we’re uncertain whether a Church official is speaking on the Lord’s behalf or on his own. We probably need to use that line more than we do.

  26. lyle
    June 21, 2004 at 3:15 pm

    actually D,

    We probably need to use that line [less] than we do.

    While I’m somewhat of a simpleton, and in the military, so I have a somewhat basic understanding of hierarchy, but:

    God – JC – Prophet – 12 – 70 – Area Authority 70 – Stake President – Bishop.

    Now, what part of that is unclear. While I intensely hate that the AA70 made such a request, if the individual involved didn’t want to comply, he could:
    a. avail himself of the personal prayer line; or
    b. ask the area presidency.

    Of course, there are many who feel free to turn down church callings, for various reasons, rather than accpeting the call to serve.

  27. diogenes
    June 21, 2004 at 3:30 pm

    I think Lyle has clearly been in the military far too long if he believes there is something improper about approaching the Lord in prayer to confirm whether instructions from a Church official are in fact the word of the Lord.

    I will spare you the very, very long list of prophetic statements that comfirmation is exactly what we ought to do, and that we do so far less often than we should. Including when we’re called to serve.

    There is particularly no reason to bother the area presidency since 1) I assume they have other things to do and 2) you’d just need a confirmation from the Lord about whatever they told you, so all you’ve done is added a step.

  28. Dr. Tarr
    June 21, 2004 at 3:32 pm

    Actually, if some of the soldiers in our military had spent a little more time confirming the legitimacy of their orders, we might be much less embarssed about their conduct than we now are.

  29. lyle
    June 21, 2004 at 3:35 pm

    yes, we’ve been asked to pray about callings. however, these talks make it clear that this is about confirmation, not questioning, which is what you are, presumably, promoting. note, i didn’t say it improper…just not very faith promoting to go and ask God to tell you whether or not the people he has already chosen really told you what he wanted said. that sounds like adding an unnecessary step.

  30. diogenes
    June 21, 2004 at 3:44 pm

    Perhaps Lyle would like to explain how you can get a confirmation without asking a question.

    And the fact that someone has been chosen by the Lord does not mean that they necessarily tell you what he wants said. They know that, I (having served in Church callings) know that, and if you have ever served in a Church calling, you should know that. Presidents of the Church have repeatedly told us that. Failure to get confirmation is not only foolish, but contrary to Gospel order. Our Father is disappointed when we don’t. Prayer is there to be used.

  31. lyle
    June 21, 2004 at 3:50 pm

    D: That was a ringer. your point. :)

    However, I note that we both agree that confirmation of callings, or anything else, via, prayer is a good thing. The difference is only the respect we give to the only church on earth which which God is well pleased. You think it more respectful to question, in the sense of saying “i’m right & i’d rather do it my way.” I think it more respectful to submit one’s will & do as asked (even if I don’t usually do this myself. :)

  32. Jack
    June 21, 2004 at 3:58 pm

    “If a GA approached me with an offer to star in a church-produced movie as ANY kind of character, I would refuse”

    Ah but, if you lived during the “long as I can grow it–my hair” sixties and David Lean offered you the part of clean shaven Lawrence, you would refuse?

  33. D. Fletcher
    June 21, 2004 at 4:06 pm

    A little bit off the subject, a little bit on:

    I thought I was being punished, when I was fired from the organist job for the Jubilee at Radio City Music Hall (temple celebrations here in NYC) for not having a Temple Recommend.

    But apparently, a number of people had problems of a similar nature, including one friend who volunteered to be a tourguide/usher at the temple open house, but was told he would have to cut his hair (which has a ponytail at the back) and another friend who was asked not to wear his handmade clothes to the temple dedication.

  34. diogenes
    June 21, 2004 at 4:08 pm

    “You think it more respectful to question, in the sense of saying “i’m right & i’d rather do it my way.” I think it more respectful to submit one’s will & do as asked (even if I don’t usually do this myself. :)”

    But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard.

    He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went.

    And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not.

    Whether of them twain did the will of his father?

    (Matthew 21:28-31)

  35. lyle
    June 21, 2004 at 4:14 pm

    D: I reached out an olive branch. Don’t _twist_ scripture to throw it back in my face. Not nice.

    Yes, the scriptur points out that both get the same reward. However, she who obeys first receives the blessings of obedience (hm…something about the first law of heaven?) first. So…question, critique, etc.

    I’m just saying that those who obey first do a better job of it; even if both end up with the same reward (assuming that he who criticizes-questions rather than she who obeys-questions actually does change their mind & then goes to work in the Kingdom…)

  36. Thom
    June 21, 2004 at 4:15 pm

    Its getting a little snarky in here folks.

  37. Dan Burk
    June 21, 2004 at 7:21 pm

    Like Julie, I have to say that the “unwritten policy” part bothers me the most. It sounds far too much like the Pharisees’ “oral law.”

  38. mike
    June 22, 2004 at 10:33 pm

    well- I think that it is definitely important to seek personal confirmation of instruction from church leaders and that we shouldn’t just blindly follow-
    however I also think that some things don’t really matter.
    I was asked to shave in an interview with my Bishop- he interpreted general conference statements as asking return missionaries to shave- I didn’t but I felt like it didn’t really matter. so I shaved

  39. June 22, 2004 at 11:31 pm

    I think the facial hair problem is here to stay, unfortunately. When I was in grad school I had long hair and a beard. One day the first counselor in the stake presidency interviewed me. He wanted to call me to be the ward mission leader, he said, “but if you accept you’ll have to shave and get a haircut and I’ll certainly understand if that is a problem for you. We don’t want to make it difficult for you in your department at the university.” I thanked him and accepted the call. I didn’t tell him that since the department had more than its share of Marxists, I was the only one with long hair and a beard. I don’t like the “rule” and I think it has long ago outlived its usefulness, but I don’t expect to see any change in my life time.

  40. greenfrog
    June 23, 2004 at 12:26 am

    Dan Burke wrote: “Like Julie, I have to say that the ‘unwritten policy’ part bothers me the most. It sounds far too much like the Pharisees’ ‘oral law.'”

    Are you familiar with this address by Elder Packer?

  41. June 23, 2004 at 12:30 am

    It seems to me that the oral law gets a bum rap in some ways. The Pharisees had a lot of problems, but the oral law wasn’t one of them.

  42. June 23, 2004 at 12:43 am

    How could there be a culture without an oral law, the interpretation of rules? Short of life by the Spirit, I don’t think it is possible.

  43. Greg
    June 23, 2004 at 12:54 am

    The comments reflecting concern about “unwritten policy” brought Elder Packer’s talk to my mind, too. But I think the beard policy, to the extent there is one, is a bit different than the kinds of things Elder Packer is talking about. His talk reflects a concern about decorum, respect, deference, and efficiency. These are the kinds of things that shouldn’t, or maybe couldn’t, be written out as rules. The beard issue, in contrast, seems to be a de facto policy on the local level that substantively affects who gets what kind of callings. I think such a policy has more need to be written down and publicized than the kinds of issues Elder Packer was discussing.

  44. Greg
    June 23, 2004 at 1:04 am

    I should add that from my observations, the wards and branches that I’ve been in have not had a no-facial-hair policy. I can think of several bishop’s counselors who have had goatees or more, not to mention ward mission leaders, elders quorum presidencies, and others. So it would seem to me that it is something left to the discretion of individual stake and ward leaders, and, as such, is not really a church policy at all.

  45. Dan Burk
    June 23, 2004 at 2:05 am

    “How could there be a culture without an oral law, the interpretation of rules? Short of life by the Spirit, I don’t think it is possible.”

    As I indicated in a previous thread, ex post interpretation of rules is nearly impossible to avoid — in the gospel context, what I have in the past called the aluminum scaffolding around the Iron Rod. That’s Elder Packers “unwritten order of things.”

    But problems occur when there is a failure to distinguish the Iron Rod from the scaffolding. Packer’s “unwritten order” is useful, but not eternal and not immutable; there are plenty of other ways to get things done and no particular reason that parts of the “unwritten order” can’t be chucked if they don’t work.

    Case in point: when I lived in Iran, we held the Sabbath on Fridays, the second day of the Muslim weekend. Sundays were equivalent in the workweek to the western Tuesday, and so not an appropriate day to dedicate to the Lord. SLC approved the change; the point is to have a sabbath, not to have it on a certain day. I’m sure we can think of hundreds of other examples.

    A second, related problem might better be termed the gnosis problem: there is secret, unwritten policy, and if you’re part of the “in crowd,” we’ll let you in on it. Because it is unwritten, there is no way to police its accuracy or authority and a thousand variations bloom according to the whim of local officers. That’s potentially even more unhealthy than the ossified framework of the first problem.

  46. lyle
    June 23, 2004 at 9:40 am

    As Dan points out, the Sabbath is flexible.

    In Israel, LDS units meet on a Saturday Sabbath.

  47. Carlton
    June 23, 2004 at 12:17 pm

    At what point do these “unwritten laws” become stumbling blocks? I have an open-minded friend who is vigorously investigating the Church; he’s even reading, pondering, and praying about the BoM and Joseph Smith. Sadly, he sports a nicely groomed goatee, not an acceptable practice for the stake-callings brethren in our part of the vineyard (Norman, OK). He and his wife have expressed the usual concerns regarding our understanding of grace, works, atonement, etc. I believe some headway addressing his concerns, thus far, has been made. However, I find myself tiptoeing around “the unwritten rules.” The no-facial-hair-for-stake-callings rule is especially problematic because it seems so minuscule but I have a sneaking suspicion this will be just one more example (negative, of course) that he will cite for Mormons missing the mark. Keep in mind, he’s getting a lot of anti input because his other associates are typically Baptist, and feel it their duty to warn him. On a positive note, he recently admitted that many of our non-traditional views do make a lot of sense.

  48. Mike
    June 24, 2004 at 11:09 pm

    OK, this isn’t really related to unrwitten law, gnosis, or really anything this discussion has developed into-
    BUT as was early mentioned- beards come in and out of fashion- the most recent issue of GQ claims that beards are on an upswing.
    Think it will last? Think it may make it into the ranks of conservativism and thus be OK in the church? How many more years (if ever) before we see another member of the 12 with facial hair?

Comments are closed.