PROVO — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is still fighting rampant misperceptions about its unseemly historical relationship with facial hair—and ground zero is on the campus of their flagship university.
Fundamentalist LDS students at Brigham Young University are lobbying for laxer guidelines regulating beard grooming, saying the church’s progressive movement away from chin gardens has gone too far.
Shane Pittson, founder of Bike for Beards, is committed to reversing the church’s course on the issue.
“So many times in the history of Mormon beards, the outside world thought it had the movement on the ropes only to see it flourish anew. The Mormon beard is divinely justified, and we will lurk in the shadows of a wayward institution no longer.”
But BYU spokesperson Carri Jenkins says fringe groups like Bike for Beards damage the school’s—and the faith’s—reputation.
“Many women, myself especially included, find the church’s history with beards deeply troubling,” Jenkins said. “But the practices of our 19th-century ancestors don’t do much to affect the day to day of our 21st-century lives, so we deal with it, trusting God to sort everything out in the end.”
The Mormon church has a well-documented and sordid legacy of facial hair enthusiasts. BYU’s namesake, former church leader Brigham Young, is notorious for growing a prodigious beard. Church founder Joseph Smith is widely known to have experimented with an array of facial hair styles. However, it wasn’t until later this year that LDS officials openly admitted Smith wore as many as 38 distinct beard varieties. Smith is still portrayed as clean-shaven in official church portraits.
It’s an embarrassing past for a young, burgeoning religion, a past that church leaders have been reluctant to address. But activists like Pittson may be forcing their hand.
“We are believers in the principles of beard-begetting,” Pittson said. “As a principle revealed by God, underlying our every hope of eternal salvation and happiness in heaven, we cannot view beards in any other light than as a vital principle of our religion.”
But the LDS church is expected to be unwavering in their position on beards. In a statement regarding beards on the church’s website, an uncredited author explains why facial hair is nothing more than a relic of a bygone era.
“Today, any person who practices facial follicle proliferation cannot become or remain a member of the church.”
Still, the statement wouldn’t go so far as to condemn previously-sanctioned beard-growers.
“Accounts left by men and women who practiced facial follicle proliferation attest to the challenges and difficulties they experienced, such as financial difficulty, interpersonal strife, and some wives’ longing for the sustained companionship of their clean-shaven husbands. But accounts also record the love and joy many found within their bearded families. They believed it was a commandment of God at that time and that obedience would bring great blessings to them and their posterity, both on earth and in the life to come,” the statement said.
While BYU is unlikely to reintroduce beards to campus, the LDS church has changed its position on other issues before, such as polygamy, gay people, black people, dead people, women, and whatever else the rest of humanity has also changed its mind about.