The Brotherhood of the Beard

[UPDATED 3/12/08: Check out this corresponding post over at The Posts of My House: The Sisterhood of the Slacks. I must confess some real sympathy for the sisters who would rather wear dress slacks than skirts.]

We had stake conference the Sunday before last. I attended all sessions (except the youth session), including both of the Sunday main sessions, largely because I was in the Stake choir. And I was amused to find that my eyes were drawn to every other bearded male I saw during all those sessions — and I saw a few them eyeballing me as well. No, we’re all straight (well, at least I can vouch for myself) — but bearded Mormons tend to check each other out, not out of competition but out of a sense of “well, at least I’m not the only guy with a beard here.”

OK, there’s some mental competition as well (“Y’know, if he would just trim up his beard right there, it would look so much better…”), but it’s minor and secondary.

I’ve had a beard most of my adult life. I started growing my first beard during my very last week at BYU (1978) — not so much as an act of defiance than as an act of convenience, since I spent that last week sleeping in my office in the Talmage Building while trying to finish my CS 480 final project (a multi-tasking kernel running on a Nova minicomputer). I alternated between bearded and clean-shaven for several years (including a mustache for a while), was clean-shaven during my two years of teaching at BYU (1985-87) and remained clean-shaven until we had a “Days of ’47” beard-growing contest in our ward in Santa Cruz (no, seriously) in 1988. The bishopric was reorganized during that contest, and the two of us who were called as counselors both had grown beards, which really gave the ward that pioneer feeling. I kept mine after the contest, and have had it pretty much ever since.

Every few years since then I shave it off, usually out of boredom or curiosity, or from a desire to somehow motivate myself. What I usually get is people (including — nay, especially — members of the Church) finding polite or roundabout ways of telling me how much better I looked with the beard. When I shaved it off a few years back while we were living in DC, my dog Deacon barked at me when I walked out of the bathroom, not recognizing me. The same thing pretty much happened at church (though the members, for the most part, refrained from barking at me). The real clincher, though, was when the Washington DC North Mission President told me that I “just didn’t look the same” without the beard. When a mission president hints that you looked better with the beard — and this while I was serving as the branch mission leader, within his mission — then the beard isn’t going to stay away for long.

Besides, my sweet wife Sandra really loves the beard (she says I kiss better when I have one; I know, TMI, but there you go). She’s always very sweet and supportive and stiff-upper-lippish when I shave it off, but is always so relieved when I grow it back. As am I.

I have this recurring fantasy that at some point the Church leadership will look back at all the bearded and mustachioed General Authorities (including every President from Brigham Young through Heber J. Grant) who served faithfully up through the middle of the 20th Century and decide that maybe facial hair isn’t all that bad. But I suspect that won’t happen until we get far enough into the Last Days that the general destruction and upheaval disrupts the razors-and-shaving-cream supply chain. At that point, we’ll all have more important things to worry about.

Which I guess is the point. ..bruce..

6 thoughts on “The Brotherhood of the Beard

  1. Bruce,

    Thanks for this post. One of the most curious things I found in the church is the aversion toward beards in the modern era. Given that the church history is so revered, you would think the beard, having played such an important role in that history would be as well.

    But it is not. Having served as a veil worker at the Oakland Temple for 7 years, with a beard, imagine my surprise, when moving to Colorado, the Temple President told me I’d have to shave off my beard. When I asked why, he said because “The Prophet said so.”

    I, like you, have served in most of my callings over the past 26 years with a beard. Except of a period of time while I was Ward Mission Leader for 18 months.

    Could the liberal beard policy been because we were in the SF Bay Area? (We were in San Jose)?

  2. Jeff:

    As far as I can tell from the current Church Almanac, the last General Authorities with facial hair (mustache and/or beard) died around 1952. I suspect this reflected changing social styles in the US, particularly for executives, professionals, and government leaders (e.g., William H. Taft was our last US President with facial hair, though it was quite common before then). It may also have reflected a desire to emulate the example of David O. McKay, who was the first clean-shaven LDS president since Joseph Smith, as well as a general desire to appear (to society at large) more modern and respectable and less like bearded polygamous fanatics (an image still resonating from the late 1800s and early 1900s — and, frankly, one that still finds play in the media).

    At BYU, beards were still allowed (‘tolerated’ might be a better word) as late as 1970, but Pres. Ernest L. Wilkinson had real issues with “hippies and surfers” and increasingly tightened screws on the student dress code all through the 1960s, including for hair length, beards, and mustaches. The strict prohibition on beards, however, was not put into the BYU Honor Code until just as I got to BYU in 1971, during the first year of Dallin H. Oaks’ presidency. Sigh…talk about bad timing. 🙂 (Cf.

    And, yes, the liberal beard policy may well have been because you were in the Bay Area. Having lived on both coasts (including a few years in the Bay Area myself), as well as in Utah, Colorado, and Texas, I find that beards tend to be far less of an issue on both coasts, though it can still vary from stake to stake.

    My bishop doesn’t seem at all bothered or concerned about my beard, even though he just called me to be the ward mission leader. On the other hand, he may feel a bit bad because he knew I really, really, really didn’t want to be released as Gospel Doctrine teacher, especially not as we were just starting the Book of Mormon (sigh). But I think he really just doesn’t care whether I have a beard or not. ..bruce..

  3. As a fellow brother with a beard most of my adult life, I can identify with your post. I live in the Northwet (not a miss spelling) and visit the Seattle Temple often where I notice that a veil worker can wear a beard, but not a Temple worker. Huh? Why the separation here? One day I would like to become a temple worker myself, but am looking for THE temple that allows members (male or female) to wear facial hair. I only have 119 more temples to visit.

  4. I don’t know if there is a hard and fast rule about beards among the temple workers. We had one up in Denver, but I don’t see him around anymore. Unless he shaved it off. 🙂

    It might vary from place to place. No one gave me any troulbe in Oakland for the 7 years I was a set apart veil worker.

    But, “The prophet said so” is not a good answer for me.

  5. Some thoughts from the Brethren that might help clarify a bit more than “The prophet said so.”

    “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, “Personal Priesthood Responsibility,” Ensign, Nov 2003, 44)

    From Elder Ballard’s raising the bar talk:

    ” . . . to those of you who have already served, please remember that you were released from your missions but not from the Church. You spent two years as a representative of the Lord Jesus Christ. We expect you to always look and act like one of His disciples. Look the part. Act the part. Don’t follow worldly trends and fashions. You are better than that.” (M. Russell Ballard, “The Greatest Generation of Missionaries,” Ensign, Nov 2002, 46)

    Those are a couple of the most recent comments as to the “whys” of being clean-shaven and looking like the Brethren.

    With that as a backdrop, a couple of comments now from canonized scripture:

    Doctrine & Covenants 1:38

    ” . . . whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.”

    From the Oath & Covenant of the Priesthood, Doctrine & Covenants 84:44

    “For you shall live by every word that proceedeth forth fromt he mouth of God.”

    Those of you that have served in the Temple remember the covenant of obedience made there. It doesn’t leave much room for the interpretation that the Lord’s counsel through his servants is a buffet for us to pick and choose from.

    When I receive counsel that is easy, but which ruffles my feathers nonetheless, it is helpful for me to think about the scriptural reference to the brazen serpent. I wonder if these types of things are the ones that I will let kill me (spiritually) because of the easiness of the way.

    Anyway, my two bits, which admittedly might not be worth much.

Leave a Reply