Thursday, January 19, 2012

Apostolic counsel on beards

I really enjoyed reading a blog at my blogging-friend Middle-Aged Mormon Man's site the other day. The link is here. (Go ahead. It’s a quick read.)

MMM deals with two subjects: dress and grooming. And he got me thinking because he explained at least one of the reasons why he does not have a beard. He posted this quotation from a talk by Elder Russell M. Nelson:

To bear the priesthood means you have a personal responsibility to magnify your calling. Let each opportunity to serve help to develop your power in the priesthood. In your personal grooming, follow the example of the living prophets. Doing so gives silent expression that you truly comprehend the importance of “the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God.” Russell M. Nelson, October Conference, 2003.
He listed some other reasons, but they don’t matter to me at all.

I have from time to time reflected on why I have a beard. I’ve worn a beard off and on (several years on, several years off) since grad school over 25 years ago. And when anyone has asked me why I have a beard, my answer (thought, not always spoken) is, “Why not?”

I’ve only been asked to shave my beard once in all those years, and that was a few years ago when I was called to serve as an ordinance worker in the Taipei Taiwan Temple. I happily shaved. (As I told a young friend who thought it unfair that I had to shave, I would have gladly shaved my head to work in the temple.)

I’ve worn my beard while serving as a bishop (twice). The first time was in Latin America and I had a beard at the time of my call. It never occurred to me to ask if I could keep the beard. I just kept it. And no one said anything about it – not my stake president, not the area authority seventy who lived in our stake, not even Elder Hales, whom I chauffeured during his visit for a regional conference.

The second time was in the US, and I specifically asked my stake president at the time he extended the call. He said it was my choice. There was another bishop serving in our stake at that time who also had a full beard.

No one at work has ever asked me to shave, either. I’ve had a beard while working far from our home office in foreign assignments and also while working in the world headquarters of our Fortune 10 company.

My family likes my beard (although my youngest daughter doesn’t like it when I’m growing a new one; it’s too scratchy). My wife likes my beard, but has never pressured me to keep it.

I have no issue recognizing that in certain callings (for instance, temple service and full time missionary work) the church asks men to shave. That is the church’s prerogative, and I feel no need to justify that choice or to have an explanation. But except for Elder Nelson’s counsel as quoted by MMM, and the specific guidelines for temple workers and full time missionaries, I have seen nothing official that suggests a restriction on beards for men. (Yeah, I went to BYU, so I know they also have restrictive grooming standards, but BYU is not the church.)

And since reading MMM’s blog the other day, I’ve looked. Searching the last ten years’ worth of conference addresses and church magazines, I found lots of discussions about dress and grooming. The “dress” part is almost always around modesty for women (with a perfunctory nod toward men, also) and proper attire for blessing and passing the sacrament for young men (white shirts and ties preferred, but not required). And the grooming comments, also directed primarily at the youth, are summarized by the words “neat and clean.”

So what to do with Elder Nelson’s counsel? I could:

1. Ignore it, assuming this is one man’s opinion.

2. Interpret it as a dictum against beards and shave mine in obedience to the counsel of an apostle.

3. Assume I am following it. After all, I do look to the Brethren for guidance in my dress and grooming: I wear white shirts and ties (if not always a suit; sometimes I wear a sport coat and dress slacks) to church. My hair and beard are neatly trimmed and are quite conservative in their appearance.

Some background on how I feel about this sort of thing:

1. I dig obedience. Nephi was obedient and was blessed. Joshua was obedient and blessed. (Those are the two prophets I’m reading about right now as I’m reading for Sunday School and trying to keep up with my son’s Old Testament reading for seminary.) And I do sustain the apostles and first presidency as prophets, seers and revelators, so I’m anxious to be obedient. To obey is better than to sacrifice (see 1 Samuel 15). Blessings are predicated upon obedience (see D&C 130).

2. My mission president taught us an interesting lesson from his experience. Although of German descent, he lived in Idaho prior to his call as a mission president. He used to drive to Salt Lake for conference, and then home again. He liked to drive fast. In one particular conference, President Kimball reminded people in his concluding remarks to obey all traffic laws on the way home, and my mission president was crushed. The 55 mph speed limit was in force in those days on interstates, and he felt compelled to drive that speed because President Kimball asked him to. (Don’t start a discussion about why he wouldn’t obey traffic laws without the prophet’s specific request; that’s not the point.) So, obeying prophetic direction is a good thing.

3. Also on my mission I heard Elder Theodore M. Burton speak. He was a Seventy and was the Area Administrator (a predecessor to area presidents) for the area that included our mission. He taught a valuable principle for scripture study: the most important lessons are repeated in the scriptures. It’s more reliable, he taught us, to focus on doctrine that is found in multiple passages than in one half of one obscure verse. The most important truths are taught regularly.

4. I believe that we can often receive counsel specific to our situation and our circumstance in conference. The revelation that comes through the Holy Ghost may or may not be directly related to the message we’re hearing. President Eyring visited our stake and talked about this once. He said he’s learned not to disagree with someone who thanks him for speaking on a specific subject that the listener needed to hear, even if he did not specifically address that topic. He said he’s learned that sometimes the spirit will augment what he says so that a listener may get the message he or she needs. Similarly, I’ve noticed for myself that some messages in conference bear more weight based on my needs or questions at a particular time.
So with that background, what do I do?

1. Apparently when Elder Nelson made this particular comment it didn’t strike me enough to make an impression – at least not the impression that I shouldn’t have a beard. Many conference messages do strike me, by the way. I take notes in conference and I note specifically messages of importance to me.

2. It seems a no-beard reading of Elder Nelson’s comment has not been corroborated specifically in other conference addresses. I’ve heard no one else speak in those terms in other conference addresses, in other leadership meetings, or even in our post conference discussions of Elder Nelson’s talk.

3. I do not like the notion that whether I wear a beard or a white shirt (or whether a sister wears a particular style of dress) is a tacit indicator of my righteousness. And I don’t think Elder Nelson would be happy with that idea, either. (Elder Nelson has given plenty of talks suggesting that all of God’s children can qualify for his blessings, and plenty of the Brethren have reminded us that we should be accepting of diversity among us, encouraging all to come unto Christ.) I do my best to honor my covenants and to keep the commandments. I frankly wouldn’t enjoy looking at my fellow saints and wondering why they do or don’t shave or wear the same clothing as I do or have some number of piercings or tattoos. That said, I completely agree that we ought to dress and groom carefully for church to honor God (not to show off – remember those nasty Zoramites?).

As for me and my beard, what will I do? I don’t know. Probably nothing for now. But I’ll keep thinking about it. And you can bet if my wife or my bishop or my stake president asks me to shave it, I will.

PS: As I did some research for this post, I found a number of commenters on other related posts who claimed that President Hinckley taught "some years ago" that all priesthood holders should be clean shaven. If someone can provide me an accurate reference for that quote, maybe I'll provide a prize!


  1. Paul: Thanks for letting us have an opportunity to peek inside your head for a minute!

    Personally, my goal is to try to figure out how to incorporate counsel into my life - even if it is only given once. (Quick to observe) But, sadly, I must admit that there is some counsel - like "be a member missionary" - that I have heard 1,000 times, but I still struggle with it.

  2. You are right about that. The "Be" commandments are often tougher than the "Do" commandments (Be a better missionary vs. Give away a Book of Mormon this week; Be a better husband vs. Donate fast offerings, etc.) in part, perhaps because they're harder to measure, and in part just because they're harder.

    And yet, it's perfect we are to be...

  3. Paul,
    There was a time in the church when beards were actively discouraged. This happened during the so called hippie movements in the sixties and seventies when long and mostly unkempt beards behan to abound.
    The U.S. culture at that time was mostly clean cut and clean shaven. People called to leadership roles were usually encouraged to be clean cut and clean shaven. It was explained to me that the leadership of the church did not wish for its members in the various callings to be compared or associated with the hippie movement.
    This was a voluntary thing. I know of no person who was ever chastized for growing a beard.
    Things have changed quote a bit since that period of time. I know of many people who have been called to leadership positions in various wards and branches who wore beards. It just is no longer much of a deal.
    Maybe sometimes we over think on the words we hear from the General Authorities. Maybe we are a bit too paranoid that we are not understanding exactly what they were meaning in this and that talk.
    I really feel that you have approached the question with the right spirit from what I have read in your post.


    1. Thank you Glenn. I have a beard and somewhat long hair and I love the Savior and strive to keep his commandments. The beard doesnt make the man. The man makes the beard.

  4. I was a part of an interesting debate when I went to a Bible study a few weeks ago. There were several denominations there and the topic of how we should dress for church came up. Some of them thought that wearing holey jean shorts and a t-shirt was totally fine and I had to politely disagree. They argued that some people aren't able to feel close to the Lord if they feel uncomfortable all dressed up. I think what you summarize in your last point 3 is the point I was trying to make, and most likely just epically failed at.

  5. Glenn, I remember those days. That's why I confined my search to the last ten years. Clearly the beard issue is a time-bound one (since many of the early prophets and apostles had beards), and the social pressures that existed in the 60's are not the same today. My sense is that the public speech has been considerably less restrictive as I've described.

  6. And Annie, I'll bet you did just fine! It's an interesting question regarding dress -- do we accommodate all who want to attend, allowing them to be comfortable? Or do we dress to honor God? Since we are a missionary church, and (hopefully) we have new visitors all the time, I think we probably need to do the second, but allow for the first.

  7. I respect the bretheren but I often wish they would leave this issue alone. Men wear beards for different reasons. Some because they are losing their hair, some because it makes their facial shape more aesthetically pleasing, some because of skin conditions. Several men in my ward have beards and they are all very devoted members. Heck, I might wear one once in a while, but it makes me look older than I already am. I just wish we could give this issue a rest.

  8. Anon, thanks for your comment. Part of my point is that I think they are giving this a rest. Except for an oblique reference eight years ago, I think they've been pretty silent.

  9. "And you can bet if my wife or my bishop or my stake president asks me to shave it, I will."

    The wife I can't argue against, or would not have the courage to at least. However, my question is, why would, or more importantly, should a bishop or stake president ask you to shave? If I am worthy enough to receive a calling, why should I be asked to change to accept that calling? Does having a beard change my worthiness, testimony, or willingness to observe and live the gospel? This is where I have such issue. My brother works for the church and though I have not seen it, he stated that beards are specifically referenced in the employee manual. Is my Masters degree and experience less valid because I have a beard? The policies, whether written or not are fully observed and frankly are silly.

  10. Chris, I don't disagree that if you're worthy, you should serve. An employer, of course, has the right to impose a dress code, and the church is not the only one who has a no-beard rule for employees. And there's clearly a dress code for temple workers and full time missionaries, and I have no problem with that. If my bishop or stake president ask me to do something, I generally try to follow their counsel because I sustain them.

  11. In cases where I am unsure, I try and err on the side of obedience. I would rather be a little conformist by shaving my beard when I'm not certain it's necessary, rather than risking being disobedient, rebellious or prideful. Having a beard or not is not going to make the difference between heaven and hell, but it may make a miniscule difference in my ability to feel the spirit and I need all the help I can get. I have a beard by the way.

  12. Christopher, I'd encourage you to have a further conversation with the person who asked you to shave your beard, and to ask whether this is a condition of your serving. I'd explain your point of view and see what he says. I think this is a matter that varies from stake to stake, and some of the Brethren may give more direct counsel than others. I've only been asked to shave to serve in the temple, and I did that happily.

  13. Here in my stake (Vermont) our stake president has made the "Mormons and beards question" an obedience issue. We have had stake conference talks which were quite pointed, complete with bad jokes. When priesthood leaders are called they are almost always asked to shave. Although I am a very faithful and worthy member (with four children who are planning on missions) I'm unwilling to shave for several reasons:

    First, my skin is sensitive and shaving is uncomfortable.

    Second, I have a large scar on my lip which is hidden by the beard.

    Third, a beard ages me, and as a young school teacher this was critical to being treated with respect by teachers twice my age. The endless razzing about being a 'newbie' stopped as soon as I switched policies and grew a beard!

    Fourth, my beard is clean (washed daily), well trimmed, and conservative. There is no reason to see it as an act of rebellion. Beards should be taken as part of the whole display a person creates. If the beard combines with other elements to indicate rebellion, than it is rebellion, but a beard can be professional and conservative as well.

    Fifth, I like it. I've had a beard now for several years and it has become a part of my identity.

    Sixth, if it is vanity then we should reach far beyond beards. What about stake leaders in suits that cost $1000 or more, or women who visit the hairdresser weekly? We should not really try to extend our influence as a church into such personal matters and decisions. We are just as allowed to wear snappy suits and dye our hair to remove the gray as we are to wear beards.

    Seventh, it is none of the stake president's business (allow me to clarify that, as it sounds more rebellious than it is intended to). Priesthood leaders have a mandate from the Lord to fill certain responsibilities, and within that sphere of responsibility we are expected to sustain them in their efforts. However, if a priesthood leader seeks to expand their influence beyond their priesthood mandate I can find no particular scriptural or doctrinal reason to regard that as being from the Lord. I would certainly entertain advice on personal matters from my priesthood leaders, but I also reserve the right to pray, reflect, and find my own answers to those things that are reserved for me to decide. We are not, after all, believers in absolutism.

    Eighth, I'll shave when I serve another mission with my wife someday, and I will definitely serve that second (or even third) mission! There are many years between then and now, though, so perhaps the church will change its mind between now and then!