Thursday, August 28, 2008

Brother to a Fu Manchu

While visiting family in Massachusetts, I was the only individual lucky enough to capture my brother Aaron's experiment with facial hair on film. As you can see, it would have been tragic for his Bruce Willis in 16 Blocks-esque 'stache to go without preserving it for posterity.

I liked Aaron's mustache--but apparently I was the only one. From what I heard, not even Aaron was particularly fond of the look, despite the fact that his mustache would allow him to intimidate witnesses in court without speaking a word. My mother, in particular, objected to Aaron's mustache for religious reasons; she believes that we should all emulate the example of the prophets and apostles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who are clean shaven. She also served a three year mission for the church with my father in Tampa, Florida, making sure that all of the missionaries under her supervision remained clean shaven (a requirement)--so you can imagine that she feels strongly about the issue.

Well, my mother's thoughts on the subject of facial hair made me wonder--When did the church transition from "facial hair is ok" to "facial hair is unacceptable for official church representatives such as missionaries and apostles"?

The answer is complicated and as yet incomplete.

Joseph Smith never wore a beard, but after his death, Brigham Young became the president of the church; he wore a beard for most of his life and all of his tenure as the president of the church. After Brigham Young, every single prophet wore a beard until (do you know?) David O. McKay. When George Albert Smith died in 1951, the beard-as-prophetic-fashion-statement died with him. But President McKay's ascension cannot have been the occasion for the Church's change in policy; I'm sure there were other members of the Twelve who had facial hair at the time, and I seriously doubt that President McKay would have asked them to shave.

The earliest statement I have found requesting missionaries to forego facial hair is from an April 1971 issue of the Priesthood Bulletin, a publication the first presidency frequently used to issue istructions:

"With increasing frequency the Missionary Executive Committee receives missionary recommendations accompanied by photographs of young men with beards, moustaches, long sideburns, and long hair.

Bishops and stake presidents are requested to advise young men who may be considered for missions that the nature of the missionary calling is such that we must insist that those who are called and who serve in the field shall be clean-shaven and that their hair shall be neatly trimmed. The photographs that are sent in with missionary recommendations are to reflect this appearance; accordingly, the photographs are to be updated if necessary. Stake presidents may properly take note of the appearance of missionaries when they are set apart prior to reporting to the Missionary Home." (3)

But this instruction is for missionaries--not the general membership of the church--and so would not apply to Aaron's case or support my mother's position. For that, you have to go two years later, to a September 1973 BYU devotional talk given by church president Harold B. Lee. He tells the following story:

"Now may I make a personal reference, which I’ll try to treat in such a way as to preserve the confidentiality. It involved a beautiful, young wife and mother from a prominent family. She had gone away from her home and was now in the East. She had gone out into an area where she and her husband had taken up with those in the ghetto, and she wrote me a rather interesting letter, and I quote only a paragraph: ‘Tomorrow my husband will shave off his long, full beard. Because of the request of the stake president and your direction in the Priesthood Bulletin, he must not have the appearance of evil or rebellion if he is to get a recommend to go to the temple. I have wept anguished tears; the faces of Moses and Jacob were bearded, and to me the wisdom and spirituality of the old prophets reflected from the face of my own spiritual husband. It was like cutting out for me a symbol of the good things my generation has learned.’ Then the letter concluded with a challenge to me: ‘We are prepared for clear, specific, hard-line direction as youth. Wishy-washy implications are not heard very well here. We look to you to tell it straight.’

"I don’t know whether she knew just what she was asking for when she asked me to tell it straight, but these are some things I wrote to her: ‘In your letter you address me as, “Dear President Lee,” and in your first sentence you refer to me as the Lord’s prophet. Now, in your letter you tell me that you are saddened because with the shaving off of the beard and the cutting of the hair, which, to you, made your husband appear as the prophets Moses and Jacob, he would no longer bear that resemblance. I wonder if you might not be wiser to think of following the appearance of the prophets of today. President David O. McKay had no beard or long hair; neither did President Joseph Fielding Smith; and neither does your humble servant whom you have acknowledged as the Lord’s prophet."

The implication of President Lee's talk is that just prior to September 1973, an issue of the
Priesthood Bulletin instructed brothers wishing to obtain a temple recommend that they should enter the Lord's house clean shaven. Now--because I do not personally own an archive of the Priesthood Bulletin and am in North Carolina, where large collections of Mormon history are rare, I cannot further document the Church's policy on facial hair at this time. But I'm still interested, and especially in this question: Who was the last apostle/member of the first presidency (if you'll recall, there were several non-apostle members of the first presidency in the mid twentieth century) who wore a beard during his service? It could be George Albert Smith--but I suspect that it was someone else. A prize will be awarded for pictorial proof of the last whisker to grace the chin of an apostle.

NOTE: I received help in my research from the BYU 100 Hour Board, an organization of undergraduate students who will attempt to answer any question within 100 hours of your submitting it. For questions that require significant research (as mine did--I asked them to find the
Priesthood Bulletin reference for me, and they were unable to do so, even in BYU's archives), they may take a longer time, but they're a great resource. Visit them and ask a question at:

UPDATE: I just discovered that when David O. McKay was called to be an apostle in 1906, he sported a mustache--so the gradual disappearance of facial hair that seems to start with him can't be marked down to any sort of personal prejudice. You can see the picture here:


Aaron H. said...

yes, it is unfortunate that there is no further photographic proof of my facial hair. that was one of the last steps in a decline from a full beard.

i'm not a fan of facial hair. and while i don't know the church's policy origin on it, i am glad that i live in a non-beard church world.

Becky said...

I really liked this post brings up some really intersting thoughts. I would say that for the most part I am anti-facial hair so I have no problem with the rule. As far as the picture of Aaron - I like him clean shaven much better, but thanks for sharing with those of us who did not get to see it in person.