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Road to Atlanta: To Beard or Not to Beard

At the 1866 General Conference Session on May 17 a series of resolutions passed by the Battle Creek Church were read. These resolutions included the following statement:

We hold that in the matter of shaving and coloring the beard, some of our brethren display a species of vanity equally censurable with that of certain of the sisters in dressing the hair; and that in all cases should they discard every style which will betoken the air of the fop; but while we have no objections to a growth of beard on all parts of the face, as nature designed it, yet where any portion of the beard is removed, we think the brethren greatly err from the sobriety of the Christian in donning the mustache or goatee.

These resolutions were amended by the delegates by adding “Point 12” as follows:

While we condemn pride and vanity, as set forth in the foregoing resolutions, we equally abhor and abominate everything that is slovenly, slack, untidy, and uncleanly in dress or manners.

Point 7 was then amended by substituting the word “wearing” for “donning,” in the expression, “We think the brethren greatly err from the sobriety of the Christian, in donning the moustache or goatee,” so that as amended, it should read, “We think the brethren greatly err from the sobriety of the Christian in wearing the moustache or goatee.”

Interesting. According to that session I would be erring “from the sobriety of the Christian” by wearing my goatee.

This was not the only occasion that such an issue was raised at the Church’s highest levels.

A century ago the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, not only included articles on theological or other topics being discussed by church members, but also answered questions sent in by subscribers. One topic that came up for discussion several times was whether or not it was proper for a man to wear a beard. Editor Uriah Smith responded to one query:

In view of the feeling which is growing up on this subject throughout the country as evinced by the many unshaven faces which one everywhere meets, and considering moreover that some of our correspondents have expressed themselves quite warmly in favor of this reform, if reform it may be called, it may be proper for us to say a word on the subject at this time. We would say then that we must beg to be excused from taking any interest in the question, or discussing its merits or demerits in the REVIEW, we cannot look upon it as Bible question.

Like that restriction which would exclude swine’s flesh from the list of our eatables, whatever other plea may be urged in its favor, we think it cannot be made to rest upon Bible ground. We do not regard that book as imposing upon mankind at the preset time any restriction on these subjects. Then let every one be fully persuaded in his own mind.

If a person is fully assured that shaving is incompatible with health, we would not of course have him do anything to injure his constitution; and if he thinks that the sympathy between his eyes and his upper lip is such that he cannot shave the latter without injuring the former, we see no other way but that a mustache must develop itself. Though in our opinion the views which many take on these points stand much in need of confirmation.

Again, as to its looks, and the plea that has been advanced, that to shave was to mar the divine beauty of the human visage as God designed it, we must remember that all have not the same ideas of beauty, and that in the eyes of many a projecting mustache and flowing beard, are as apt to make a man look like a rough goat as a venerable patriarch, and perhaps more so. We only say, let every one endeavour to form correct views of propriety and abide by them; and if under these circumstances they can feel free to make a meal of pork steak, or brandish a razor, we have no objections to offer. Upon these subjects, until they shall assume more importance than we can at present attach to them, we design to be neutral; and neutrality, now-a-days, is silence.

(Review and Herald June 25, 1857, p. 64)

Apparently Elder Smith’s only real concern was with those who wanted to make a religious test out of something that the Bible was silent on, not whether or not a man grew a beard. Another time he wrote, “We care not whether a man wears a beard or not. The Bible says nothing against it and it says nothing for it” (Quoted in Eugene Durand, Yours in the Blessed Hope p. 120-121).

During the 1970’s at Helderberg College, much time was spent discussing the critical issue of hair styles (and I would suspect that this was the reality at many other Seventh-day Adventist colleges).

At the January 11, 1973 Helderberg College staff meeting, it was voted that the following guidelines for a conservative hairstyle be presented to all college students:

  • Side-burns – well-trimmed and not lower than the ear-lobe.
  • Hair must not reach the collar, or have a bushy appearance.
  • Ears must be clear, and foreheads clean.

Further, it was voted that College students be “permitted to grow short, neat moustaches” and that students in their third or fourth year of study or who were 24 years of age or over, “be permitted to wear short neat beards.”

On August 7, 1973 at a meeting of the five member “Men’s Dress Committee” it was voted that a sketch of the “prescribed high school hair style” be provided to the College’s official barber, and that he be requested to “strictly adhere to it.” At the time both the primary school and high school were included under the label “Helderberg College”.

Less than a year later, there were still problems: a memorandum issued by the college principal to “all Department Heads” pointed out that “some students are apparently not abiding by the dress and grooming regulations of the College.” One specific problem was “Non-regulation hairstyles by men.”

By 1975, the rules had relaxed ever so slightly. College students were permitted:

  • “Well trimmed” sideburns,
  • Hair that does not “overhang the collar or have a bushy appearance,”
  • To have “Part of the ear…covered”, (What a radical step forward!)
  • “short neat moustaches”.
  • Students who were in their third or fourth year/over the age of 24, were permitted “short neat beards”.

Obviously at some stage, these rules were relaxed—the current Student Handbook (2005) makes no mention of any specific hairstyle: “Helderberg College students are expected to develop a personal philosophy of dress and grooming that exhibits simplicity and cultural refinement and eschews that which draws undue attention to oneself.” (It should be noted that considerable time is spent detailing the specifics of “modest” and “appropriate”.)

Perhaps we’ve learned something after all. . . .

Brad Strahan in his landmark study: Parents, Adolescents and Religion (Avondale Academic Press, 1994) used data gathered in the 1993 Valuegenesis survey of Seventh-day Adventist young people in Australia and New Zealand to show that:

optimal development may not consist of adolescents simply conforming to a set of traditional Seventh-day Adventist beliefs and practices. In fact those adolescents who can clearly distinguish between central [such as using tobacco, alcohol, illegal drugs] and peripheral values [such as attending movie theatres, dancing, consuming caffeinated beverages, listening to rock music] are most likely to be most supportive of the central values of Adventism and least likely to participate in at-risk behaviour. (p. 116-117)

In other words if you want youth to internalize Seventh-day Adventist core lifestyle practices, you must teach them to distinguish between core and peripheral values. Failure to do so actually increases the likelihood that they will participate in at-risk behaviours.

Interestingly, Malcolm Bull & Keith Lockhart in their brilliant new edition of Seeking a Sanctuary (Indiana University Press, 2007) note that the 1991 Valuegenesis data from the United States found that support for such “traditional” peripheral Seventh-day Adventist practices is extremely low—only 18% of grade-school students survey agreed with the church’s position on jewelery. Furthermore, they note that according to Roger Dudley, a number of these standards—specifically cosmetics, the cinema, dancing, and rock music—“ will not hold in the near future of the church.”

It would seem to me that at least one of these—the cinema—has already been lost (and very few Seventh-day Adventists appear to be in mourning).


Jeff Crocombe is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Theology at Helderberg College, South Africa. He specializes in church history and this post originally appeared on his blog, H0bbes’ Place and a version of it was printed in LEAD magazine.

Photo: Dr. J. S. Gibbs, courtesy of the Loma Linda University Ellen G. White Estate Branch Office

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