I am a man, teeming with testosterone, evidenced by my extremely hairy body. Oh, I am not exaggerating. You name the body part, and I have hair growing there: back, shoulders, toes, neck. I used to loathe it, but now I embrace it. It makes for some diverse looks, especially since I can grow a pretty thick beard. I’m talking five-o’clock-shadow by lunch time. The only real problem I have is with shaving. Don’t misunderstand. I actually prefer to be clean shaven, but it hurts. Shaving is never comfortable for me, though it is sometimes less painful. Allowing my stubble to flourish for two to three days is preferable for me.

Figure 1: Case in point.

If I had my way, I would shave two or three times a week at most, with the occasional minor beard growth or goatee. Unfortunately, I have a serious problem as far as stubble is concerned. My employer doesn’t allow facial hair except for “trimmed moustaches.” Few people, very few,
can pull off the “trimmed moustache” look without looking like a pedophile or porn star (see Figure 1). The reason for the standard? My best guess is that it stems from a tradition, which began in the LDS church and exploded onto the campuses of its schools.

First, I should explain. I do not teach at an LDS-church-owned or church-sponsored university. My issue is directly related to a policy adapted as a result of deep-seeded traditions that no one has questioned for so long, many people begin to think that it is standard church practice or official church policy, and, for some, even doctrine. Here, obviously, I address the false notion that beards are not allowed in positions of church leadership, a tradition that has trickled down to the most irrelevant of settings, situations, and locales, most notably, LDS-church-school campuses. In my years of attending the LDS church (almost all of my years, aside from some inactive periods) I have seen dozens of men called to positions of leadership while wearing an attractive beard. These are men whom I had never seen clean-shaven, men not one ward member could imagine as anything but bearded. Sadly, in every case, immediately after their calling, the beard disappears. This, of course, begs the question: “What has facial hair to do with a man’s spirituality or ability to successfully oversee his church responsibilities?”

Let’s digress for a moment to talk about another strangely controversial topic by comparison: earrings. This is a relatively new “controversy.” Several years ago, in a General Relief Society broadcast, President Hinckley suggested the need for women not to wear more than one set of earrings.[1] The following April (2001), M. Russell Ballard reemphasized this counsel: “Have we studied his [the prophet’s] counsel and identified the things we need to avoid or to do differently? I know a 17-year-old who, just prior to the prophet’s talk, had pierced her ears a second time. She came home from the fireside, took off the second set of earrings, and simply said to her parents, ‘If President Hinckley says we should only wear one set of earrings, that’s good enough for me.’”[2] No doubt, Elder Ballard meant to share this story as an example of faithfulness. He continues: “Wearing two pair of earrings may or may not have eternal consequences for this young woman, but her willingness to obey the prophet will. And if she will obey him now, on something relatively simple, how much easier it will be to follow him when greater issues are at stake.” I am not afraid to say that I disagree in some ways with this sentiment. Elder Ballard follows this example with a brief reference to the “pride and stubbornness” of Naaman. What does not wearing an extra set of earrings have to do with cleansing leprosy in the Jordan River? This is the case of an extreme, not quite relevant example to support a suggestion.

I will counter that Biblical reference with an example of my own, which focuses on the idea of what makes an example relevant. While serving as a district leader on my mission, I had to interview a lot of people preparing for baptism. The importance of that interview cannot be overstated. Do you have a testimony of the gospel? Do you understand the gospel? Do you commit to living certain commandments you are not accustomed to living? Joining the LDS Church is a serious commitment and lifestyle change. One question that always hung up interviewees was asking them for clarification of what they understood to be the Word of Wisdom. Almost no one remembered what that was until I started to explain it, except for one young woman, approximately 12 years old. She nailed everything in the interview, including the Word of Wisdom: “No coffee, no alcohol, no drugs, no tobacco.” Silence filled the air as I waited for her to finish, but she never did.

“And no tea,” I said.

“What! I can’t drink tea?”

The girl absolutely loved iced tea, and how that escaped her clearly well-tuned senses during the teaching process boggled my mind. I had to make sure this girl would commit to living the Word of Wisdom or I couldn’t allow her to be baptized. Yeah, I was hardcore.

“Well, I might have to drink iced tea once in a while, like once a year,” she said, after I tried to get her to commit.

“Would you kill someone once a year?” Yeah, I did go there.

“No.” Her face crinkled and she sat upright.

“Well, it’s the same thing. It’s still a sin.” Yes, I had a problem.

“I will never drink tea again.” Her voice quivered a little.

I was the product of the culture I grew up in, the culture in which I was taught what was right and wrong and how the Lord “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance.”[3]

I use this illustration because I think it’s ridiculous. I use this illustration because, while Mormons might consider drinking tea a sin, it still does not equate to murder—or any other sin for that matter. While a once living prophet, a recent one at that, suggested women not wear more than one set of earrings, there is no official church doctrine on the subject, which brings us back to facial hair: there is no official church doctrine on that subject either. Bishops and stake presidents alike are not forbidden from growing a beard. People have simply embraced the tradition to such a degree that they expect newly called church leaders to shave, and those newly called leaders believe they need to shave.

In order to show how deeply Mormons have ingrained this custom into their religion, I would like to provide some examples. First, the following material, published as a long excerpt in the December 1971, New Era, this is from an address Dallin H. Oaks gave the student body of BYU He prefaced his remarks on beards with the following: “The ban on long hair and beards … [at BYU] is a question of symbolism and propriety.” He eventually gets to the following statement: “Unlike modesty, which is an eternal value in the sense of rightness or wrongness in the eyes of God, our rules against beards and long hair are contemporary and pragmatic. They are responsive to conditions and attitudes in our own society at this particular point in time. Historical precedents are worthless in this area.” President Oaks flat out admits that it is not an edict from God. However, that has not kept the cultural confusion from persisting more than 40 years later. Of course, Oaks had plenty more to say to justify this ban:

There is nothing inherently wrong about long hair or beards, any more than there is anything inherently wrong with possessing an empty liquor bottle. But a person with a beard or an empty liquor bottle is susceptible of being misunderstood. Either of these articles may reduce a person’s effectiveness and promote misunderstanding because of what people may reasonably conclude when they view them in proximity to what these articles stand for in our society today.

In the minds of most people at this time, the beard and long hair are associated with protest, revolution, and rebellion against authority. They are also symbols of the hippie and drug culture. Persons who wear beards or long hair, whether they desire it or not, may identify themselves with or emulate and honor the drug culture or the extreme practices of those who have made slovenly appearance a badge of protest and dissent. In addition, unkemptness—which is often (though not always) associated with beards and long hair—is a mark of indifference toward the best in life. As Elder Sterling W. Sill has observed:

“A let-down in personal appearance has far more than physical significance, for when ugliness gets its roots into one part of our lives it may soon spread to every other part.” (The Quest for Excellence, Bookcraft, p. 38.)

Now we are responsible for how others perceive us. This is no different than any other victim blaming.  And I am sure I don’t need to point out the serious problem judging a beard or long hair as part of an “unkempt appearance” or “a let-down in personal appearance.” Growing a beard and growing out ones hair are both meticulously hard work.

Of course, it doesn’t end with official statements. In Jack Weyland’s short fiction “Punch and Cookies Forever,” published in March 1972, New Era, fictional Debbie says to fictional Greg Jefferys (the long inactive son of a prominent counselor in a stake presidency): “You’re not, Greg. You’re just playing a part. The hair, the beard—it’s a costume. Underneath waiting to get out is a man like your father who will be an effective leader in the Church.” Apparently, long hair and a beard preclude someone from effective leadership.

I can go on and on, but I will conclude this section with a more generalized statement about appearance, offered by Kathie Johnston Brough:

So ask yourself what messages others might receive from the tie you do or do not wear, the makeup you apply, the hairstyle you select, or the kinds of clothes you wear for church, school, and work? Through small decisions like these you may choose which messages you send with your second language, but you cannot send the messages of God and the messages of mammon at the same time. What is your message? How are you sending it?” (“About ‘Reading’ and Righting,” January 1976, New Era)

We cannot be responsible for the way others interpret our dress. Have the scriptures taught us nothing on this issue? Consider the Lord’s own words to the prophet Samuel: “The Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”[4] The words of President Oaks to the student body of BYU were just as out of touch then as they are now. By all means, dictate that dress and grooming be “neat in appearance,” but there is no reason to dictate beyond that. We should ever adhere to the words of Brigham Young in this great out-of-context piece: “Create your own fashions and make your clothing to please yourselves, independent of outside influences” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 12:202). Thank you, Brother Brigham. You had some flaws, my man, but when you spoke truth, you knew how to bring it with “the tongue of seven thunders.”

As for me, well, I’m a rebel in many ways, but my rebellion has a focus. I prefer to target injustice. I prefer to stand up to customs and traditions that mean little to nothing in the eternities. I have served on a stake high council, and I have served in the primary, and one thing is for sure, regardless of where I serve in the future, I can guarantee, always, my face will be as stubble.


[1] “Your Greatest Challenge, Mother,” October 2000.

[2] “His Word Shall Ye Receive.”

[3] Doctrine & Covenants 131:6.

[4] 1 Samuel 16:7.

WJS is a professor of English Literature. He is the current vice president for Mormon Scholars in the Humanities. He is also a fitness fanatic who used to weigh over 400 pounds, but traded his addiction to eating for an addiction to working out and training for the next race. He loves to discuss literature, film, politics, and food. He is married, with three children.

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