Christianity and Dress

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The Mennonite church is today confronted with the question. Shall simplicity of dress be maintained? In the final test only one foundation is strong enough to guarantee the perpetuation of this distinctive Christian witness: that foundation is the personal conviction that Christian simplicity of dress is a Biblical truth. Ministers may plead, and conferences may pass resolutions, but the battle against worldliness will not have been won until each believer has decided for himself to live the non-conformed life.

The purpose of this (article) is to deepen the conviction of Mennonite youth that the Christian life involves a resolute break with the world, and that this break finds application even in one's dress. It is also an attempt to show the reasonable and scriptural right of the church to furnish guidance to its members on this aspect of daily life.
John C. Wenger Goshen, Indiana July 1943

INTRODUCTION (By Harold S. Bender Goshen College)
For over four hundred years the Mennonite church has sought to follow Christ in all things, believing that obedience to our Lord's teachings and to the whole counsel of God as revealed in His Word is the true test of salvation. From this commitment has come the great vision of the Christian's life as one brought so completely under the sovereignty of Christ that every outward expression of the inward life is perfectly conformed to Him. This vision has been held in full awareness of the inevitable conflict which it involves with the spirit of this world, and with a consciousness of the futility of mere outward nonconformity apart from the renewed mind within. Such a vision of the conformity of all of life to Christ calls for the Christian conquest of larger and more significant areas of living than that of outward attire, but it does call for the Christian conquest of attire. The history of human costume contains many an illustration of the tragic conquest of the human spirit by pride, lust, and greed, through what is put on or left off the body, and it cannot be denied that the problems of spiritual life and attire are related.

Mennonites have sincerely and seriously tried to Christianize this area also, though they have not always succeeded. The modern world, with its increase in wealth, and its rapid and universal distribution of commercially manufactured and exploited fashions, has brought the greatest challenge in history to the Mennonite church on this principle. Will we find the ways and means to maintain Christian simplicity, or will we surrender our vision, after four centuries of endeavor?

John C. Wenger's clear and pointed discussion on Christianity and Dress is a timely and useful contribution to our present need. Intelligent and convincing presentations of this type are certainly a part of what the 1941 General conference had in mind in its call to "give more teaching, to inspire more conviction, ... to accomplish something constructive... to maintain our simplicity of faith and practice."

First presented as a series of chapel addresses to Goshen college students in March 1943, then published in the June 1943 doctrinal supplement (Christian Doctrine) of the Gospel Herald, it is now sent forth as a booklet for convenient distribution. It is a message primarily to our young people, for it is they who will ultimately decide whether the Mennonite church will continue to practice as well as teach Christian attire.


The doctrine of nonconformity to the world is broad and pervasive, but the present discussion will be limited to but one aspect of the subject, namely, to the appearance of the Christian. at the outset, it should be made clear that the writer does not believe in a clothes- religion. Christianity is a matter of repentance and faith and holiness, not a mere change of outer garments. Yet the Mennonite church has for many years been much concerned with the problem of Scriptural attire for its members. In spite of this concern it is perhaps true that too little attention has been given to an intelligent study of the problem. It is hoped that the following discussion will help Mennonite youth in particular to a more intelligent and sympathetic understanding of the position of the Church on dress. Let us first of all survey the present standards of the Mennonite church and see whether they are historically good Mennonitism.

1. The various district conferences of the Mennonite church have specific regulations on dress. The standards include such regulations as the following: (a) No jewelry of any kind shall be worn by brethren or sisters. (b) The sisters shall wear their hair long. (c) all sisters shall wear a prayer veiling when participating in worship. (d) Plain headdress shall be worn by both brethren and sisters. (e) The entire appearance of the Christian shall be free from conformity to the foolish and sinful fads of the world.

2. All through their life in America, Mennonites have witnessed against worldly conformity in dress. All one needs to do is to get out the district conference regulations of the nineteenth century to be impressed with the earnest concern of our fathers to maintain the practice of non-conformity to the world in attire. Part of the tension between John H. Oberholtzer and the bulk of the ministry of the Franconia conference one hundred years ago was due to his unwillingness to conform to the requirements of conference for the attire of the ministry. In the observations on the American Mennonites written by Minister Jacob Krehbiel in 1841 (published in The Mennonite Quarterly Review, January 1932, see pp.52-54) one can see that the church was in that era interested in keeping aloof from the broad stream of American culture; our forefathers wished to preserve Christian simplicity in dress. In 1770 Morgan Edwards wrote (Materials Towards a History of the Baptists in Pennsylvania, p 95);

They, like the Tunkers, use great plainness of speech and dress. This last is so capital a point with them that some have been expelled from their societies for having buckles to their shoes and pocket holes to their coats.

While Edwards writes with a certain prejudice against the Mennonites, yet he is witness to the fact that the eighteenth century Mennonites believed that Christianity found application even in one's dress.

3. The early European Mennonites also maintained a witness against worldliness in dress. In the book, Glimpses of Mennonite History, there is a photograph of a South German Mennonite family taken about the year 1865. The man's hat is apparently black, with a broad brim. His coat and vest are both plain. His wife wears a large white prayer veiling and a plain dress. It was only in the life span of people still living that the South German Mennonites lost the practice of plain dress.

Dr. D Henry Smith's most recent book, The Story of the Mennonites, tells (p 266) of the regulations on dress which the Mennonites of Crefeld, Germany had in the year 1760; shoe-strings were worn in place of buckles; rings were strictly prohibited; and there was a prescribed form of clothing. Dr. Smith also tells (p. 221) of the observations of the Dutch Mennonites made in the year 1743; there was a coat regulation for men and dress regulation for women; the men were expected to wear beards; the church also objected to the wearing of wigs.

Already in the sixteenth century the Anabaptists had lifted their voices against worldly conformity in dress. at the famous Strasburg conference of 1568, regulation 20 read (The Mennonite Quarterly Review, January 1927, p 65):
Tailors and seamstresses shall hold to the plain and simple style and shall make nothing at all for pride's sake.
Regulation 21 stated:
Brethren and sisters shall stay by the present form of our regulation condemning apparel and make nothing for pride's sake.

In a most remarkable way the recent volume of the Lutheran scholar, Dr. Gustav Bossert, Quellen zur Geschichte der Wiedertaeufer. I. Band, Herzog-tum Wuerttemberg, Leipzig, 1930 (Sources on the History of the Anabaptists, Vol. I, Duchy of Wurttemberg) corroborates the content of the Strasburg discipline. Here are some illustrations from the great source book published by Dr. Bossert: (1) In the year 1617 a case is cited of a son named Christopher Reichlin who became an Anabaptist. He often wrote to his parents, trying to mislead them. "Last Candlemas Day" he came home in Anabaptist clothes (p. 881) (2) A certain man came from the land of Moravia in the year 1608. He was not regarded as an Anabaptist for neither his clothing nor his speech were Anabaptist (p. 806). (3) In the year 1598, a certain man named Konrad Wertz was still an Anabaptist for he still wore their clothing (p. 741). (4) In the year 1598, less than seventy-five years after the Swiss Brethren organized their first congregation, a certain man named Matthew Kappel was regarded by another party as an Anabaptist on account of his clothing (p 691).

John Kesssler (1502-74), the Swiss chronicler, ways that the Anabaptists avoided costly clothing, wore coarse cloth, wore broad felt hats and carried no weapons (Mennonitsches Lexikon, Bd. I., p 228).

The greatest leader the Mennonite church ever had was probably Menno Simons (1496-1561). Menno is vigorous in his condemnation of conformity to the world in attire. In explaining that the kingdom of which Christians are members is not an earthly one, Menno says (Complete Works, I, pp.95f.):

It is an eternal, spiritual and abiding kingdom, where there is no eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost. There no king reigns, but the true King of Zion, Christ Jesus. He is the King of righteousness, the King of peace, the King of kings, who has all power in heaven above, and on earth beneath... Neither the King nor His servants bear any sword but the sword of the Spirit...

This is not a kingdom in which a display is made of gold, silver, pearls, silk, velvet and costly finery, as is done by the proud wicked world...

Menno also makes the following protest (Ibid, I, p. 144):
They say that they believe, and yet there are no limits nor bounds to their accursed wantonness, foolish pomp, show of silks, velvet costly clothes, gold rings, chains, silver belts, pins, buttons, curiously adorned shirts, handkerchiefs, collars, veils, aprons, velvet shoes, slippers and such like foolish finery; never regarding that the enlightened apostles, Peter and Paul, have in plain and express words forbidden this to all Christian women. If this is forbidden to women how much more then should men abstain from it, who are the leaders and heads of their women. Notwithstanding all this they still want to be called the Christian church.

It would not be correct to conclude from the evidence cited above that all Mennonites all through their history, or even at any given time, looked exactly alike: the Krehbiel observations (referred to above) are clear on this point. There always have been variations in the applications by individuals of the doctrine of nonconformity. It is clear, on the other hand, that those who maintain that all dress regulations among the Mennonites are of recent American origin, are grossly mistaken.

Those who recognize the Biblical character of the doctrine of nonconformity in attire will not be surprised to find numerous sections on dress in the early fathers of the Christian church. One of the great men of the early church was Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, who was martyred for his faith in Jesus in the year 258. The following quotation (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Roberts and Donaldson, Scribner's 1925, Vol. V, pp. 275 f.) is a touching account of his conversion and his new life in Christ:

While I was still lying in darkness and gloomy night, wavering hither and thither, tossed about on the foam of this boastful age, and uncertain of my wandering steps, knowing nothing of my real life, and remote from truth and light, I used to regard it as a difficult matter, and especially as difficult in respect of my character at that time, that a man should be capable of being born again — a truth which the divine mercy had announced for my salvation — and that a man quickened to a new life in the laver of saving water should be able to put off what he had previously been; and, although retaining all his bodily structure, should be himself changed in heart and soul... When does he learn thrift who has been used to liberal banquets and sumptuous feasts? And who has been glittering in gold and purple, and has been celebrated for his costly attire, when does he reduce himself to ordinary and simple clothing??...

But after that, by the help of the water of new birth, the stain of former years had been washed away, and all filth from above serene and pure, had been infused into my reconciled heart — after that, by the agency of the Spirit breathed from heaven, a second birth had restored me to a new man — then, in a wondrous manner, doubtful things at once began to assure themselves to me,... what before had seemed difficult began to suggest a means of accomplishment, what had been thought impossible, to be capable of being achieved. Epistle I, 3, 4.

4. What about a definite church standard of dress? Everyone ought to give serious consideration to the reasons which lead many thoughtful pastors and scholars to emphasize the value of uniformity in the expression of nonconformity to the world in attire. Here are some of them:
(a) If one person expresses separation from the world on one item of clothing, and others each choose their peculiar symbols of the doctrine, the witness of the group is not nearly so strong as if there is a shared symbol.
(b) A church standard makes for a more radical break with the world. The judgment of the group tends to be more adequate and full than the private opinions of various individuals.
(c) A church standard simplifies the choice of one's clothing. The person who is wearing the garb prescribed by the church knows beforehand, when a purchase is to be made, what cut of clothing is desired. He is not involved in a continual struggle to keep up with the latest fads.
(d) A church standard helps to foster a group consciousness; the members have a sense of being different, of not belonging to the world. This is well stated by a Holland Mennonite minister, J. M. Leendertz, who visited the Mennonites of America about twenty years ago. Of the dress restrictions of the American Mennonites (quoted in Horsch: Worldly Conformity in Dress, pp. 41 f.) Leendertz wrote:

But these Mennonite peculiarities are not without spiritual value. The young people who are brought up under these strict rules have a very real feeling that the Christian life imposes special obligations...
I doubt that it was to the benefit of the spiritual life of the Mennonites of Holland that during the last century they were spared these difficulties and that the dividing line between them and the worldly life has been well-nigh obliterated. I found among the American Mennonites a deep-rooted feeling of obligation toward God, a great moral and religious fervor, which is continually nourished and kept alive by their attitude of separation from the world (Doopsgezind Pioniersleven in Amerika, Amsterdam, c. 1921, p. 11).

Those who have read the writings of Tertullian (c-150 -c220) will recall his little treatise On the Pallium, which is a plea for the wearing of the mantle rather than the gown (Toga). Tertullian speaks of the Pallium (mantle) as having "begun to be a Christian's vesture" (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Roberts and Donaldson, Scribner's, 1925, Vol. IV p. 12).

5. Summary. The general truths pertaining to nonconformity in attire may be summarized under five heads:

(a) The Bible dares to be specific in giving instructions on the dress and appearance of the Christian. In 1 Timothy 2:8-10, Paul writes:
"I will therefore that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting. In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness [modesty] and sobriety [or discretion]; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works."
and Peter, in his First Epistle (3:3,4) writes:
"Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair,and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price."

The teaching and practice of nonconformity in clothing is part of an effort to bring all of life into complete obedience to Jesus Christ, the Lord and Master of the saints.
(b) European and American Mennonites, from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, have sought to conform all of life to the demands of the Word of God, and have tried to obey all the Scriptures including those portions which deal with the Christian's external appearance.
(c) The early fathers of the Christian church also protested vigorously against the wearing of gold, costly clothing, cosmetics, and the like.
(d) As Mennonites have moved from one culture to another and as customs and conventions have changed, so the content of their discipline has also changed. Regulations on the wearing of the beard are an example.
(e) Mennonite leaders throughout the church are as a whole convinced that certain symbols of nonconformity are needed to keep alive the doctrine and to serve as barriers against the world. District conferences and General conference try to establish church standards and interpret the principle of nonconformity on a biblical basis.

1. Negatively. Before attempting to point out some practical expression of the general principles discussed above, it will be well to make clear what the doctrine of nonconformity in attire does not mean. Let it therefore be kept in mind that the doctrine of separation does not mean the following:
A. That Christians shall accept the dress of any past era as being the expression of God’s will for His people all through time.
B. That all God asks of Christians is to lag some years or decades behind the styles of the world.
C. That Christians, from generation to generation, are never allowed to change the form of their clothing.
D. That it is the obligation of the Church to specify every detail of the wardrobe, leaving no room for individual taste and adaptation.
E. That slovenliness and ugliness are virtues.
F. That Christians of all ages and cultures must wear identical forms of clothing.

2. Positively. Turning to the more important, the positive, side of the question. What DOES the doctrine of separation from the world in attire and appearance mean? The following are some of the things which the Mennonite Church does ask of its members:
A. That Christians make their external appearance conform to the divine nature which the Holy Spirit has placed on them.
B. That the Christian’s main emphasis fall on the cultivation of Christian piety and on service, not on external adornment.
C. That in their appearance Christians manifest such qualities as self-respect, proper reserve, purity, humility, neatness, and that attractiveness which springs from Christian simplicity.
D. That Christians give a clear testimony against the wearing of gold, jewelry, and anything that offends good taste or is otherwise unbecoming for the child of God.
E. That men worship with the head uncovered, but that women be veiled during prophesying and prayer. (1 Cor. 11:2-16)
F. That each Christian should obey his own denomination, district conference, and congregation, meeting all requirements cheerfully and giving loyal support to the overseers of the Church.

3. Detailed Applications. There are a number of applications which the Mennonite Church needs to maintain, or the doctrine will yet be lost:
A. That Christian women wear long hair, inasmuch as the Scriptures declare short hair on women to be a shame (1 Cor 11:6) and state that even nature teaches women to wear long hair (11:13-15).
B. That the hair be put up in such a way as to appear becoming to the Christian woman and appropriate to accompany the prayer veiling.
C. That Christian women remember that their real adornment is to be beauty of character, enhanced by neatness and simplicity of clothing, not by creating an appearance of artificiality through the use of paint and powder.
D. That both brethren and sisters refrain from the wearing of jewelry in any form whatever; pearls, rings of all kinds, lockets, bracelets, and the like.
E. That the bodies of both men and women who profess Christianity be adequately and becomingly clothed, neither offending good taste nor adding to the problem o purity of thought for others. This means that skirts will not be short nor will bosoms be exposed.

There are certain objections to the doctrine of nonconformity in attire which are raised with varying degrees of intelligence and sincerity. Let us look at a few of them honestly and carefully.

1. "Why so much ado over a little thing like clothes?" Because one's appearance can either enhance or weaken one's Christian testimony.

2. "Why have not the Christian leaders of non-Mennonite religious bodies seen the truth of nonconformity?" The same question could as well be raised on such issues as membership in secret and oath-bound fraternities, participation in warfare and violence and baptizing infants.

As a matter of fact, some outstanding Christian leaders actually have made remarkable statements. Here are a few examples:
John Calvin (1509-64), in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV Chapter XIII, Section V says (Allen translation):

If any one be convinced that this or the other ornament of dress is dangerous to him, and yet feel excessive desire for it, he cannot do better than restrain himself by imposing a necessity of abstinence, in order to free himself from all hesitation.

In Book III, Chapter XIX, Section X of The Institutes, in defending the view that although Christians are entirely free to do certain things they after all must not feel obligated to parade their freedom before men, Calvin says,

Therefore, though they abstain from flesh, and wear but one color, during all the rest of their lives, this is no diminution of their freedom. Nay, because they are free, they therefore abstain with a free conscience.

The wearing of a church standard of clothing should not be an unwilling slavery to men; it ought to be the intelligent and consecrated acceptance of the symbol adopted by one's church as its witness against worldliness.

John Wesley (1703-91) was another saint who awakened, though rather late, to the value of a church standard of dress. in his sermon on "Causes of Inefficacy of Christianity," based on Jeremiah 8:22, he said (Dublin, July 2, 1789):

I am distressed. I know not what to do. I see what I might have done once. I might have said peremptorily and expressly, "Here I am: I and my Bible. I will not, I dare not vary from this book, either in great things or small. I have no power to dispense with one jot or tittle of what is contained therein. I am determined to be a Bible Christian, not almost but altogether. Who will meet me on this ground? Join me on this or not at all." With regard to dress in particular, I might have been as firm (and I now see it would have been far better,) as either the people called Quakers, or the Moravian brethren, — I might have said, "This is our manner of dress which we know is both Scriptural and rational. if you join us, you are to dress as we do; but you need not join us unless you please." But, alas! The time is now past; and what I can do now, I cannot tell. (Sermons, Volume 2, The Works of the Rev. John Wesley. A.M. Cincinnati and New York, p 439).

In his sermon, "On Dress," based on 1 Peter 3:3,4, he cries pathetically:

Let me see, before I die, a Methodist congregation, full as plain dressed as a Quaker congregation (ibid., p 264).

President Charles G. Finney (1792-1875) of Oberlin College, wrote:

It is your duty to dress so plainly as to show to the world that you place no sort of reliance on the things of fashion and set no value at all upon them, but despise and neglect them altogether. There is no way by which you can bear a proper testimony by your lives against the fashions of the world, but by dressing plainly (Quoted in Horsch: op. cit., p 25).

Let us return to the Mennonite Church and note the earnest testimony of the late John S. Coffman (1848-99), who wrote (Herald of Truth, February 13, 1882, p. 55):

Unless the Church, like zealous Menno Simons, pious John Wesley and his co-laborers, and many others, takes the responsibility to say what is plain and becoming apparel for disciples of Jesus, she will soon be led by the gaudy votaries of fashion to her shame and the dishonor of her humble Master.

3. Another objection sometimes heard is this, "Whose concern is it what I wear?" The choice of your clothing is fundamentally yours, but the Church does have the responsibility of teaching the Word of God, and it also has the right to create and uphold specific standards which it believes to be essential to its life and testimony. Compare the doctrine of nonresistance. It is not enough for the Church to quote the Sermon on the Mount: it was also legitimate, wise and fortunate that the Mennonite General Conference adopted in 1937 the statement, "Peace, War, and Military Service," which interprets carefully and in detail what the Sermon on the Mount and kindred passages shall mean in the lives of Christians.

4. "Why always be picking on the girls and women?" The Word of God reflects a perfect understanding of human nature. The Lord knows that men are more apt to be guilty of violence, bloodshed, carnality, and anger, and in His Word, He warns Christian men against those sins. The Lord also knows that women desire to be attractive and He therefore has given special instruction in His Word on the attire of Christian women. As noted above, God does not ask women to make themselves unattractive, but He points them to a beauty which surpasses that of outward adornment (1 Peter 3:3,4).

This word, however, must be added at this point: Unless the brethren in the Church are willing to support the church standards for the sisters, THEY CAN SABOTAGE THE ENTIRE NONCONFORMITY PROGRAM OF THE CHURCH. They do this by their attitudes toward those sisters who do and those who do not exemplify Christian standards in their apparel.

5."Is it not true that if the heart is right, the outside will take care of itself?" No, that is not true. The indispensable foundation of Christian life and character is of course regeneration. But the content of conscience is largely a matter of teaching. Each Christian needs to know the "whole counsel of God" so that he may obey the Lord in all things. This will not happen by accident; it requires faithful indoctrination.

6. "Is there not a danger of formalism?" It may be that there is or has been a danger in some localities. But the danger facing most sections and congregations in the Church is to surrender to worldliness, undiluted and fatal. May the Lord forbid! IT IS NOT ENOUGH TO BE AGAINST RADICALS AND LEGALISTS: THE SUPREMELY IMPORTANT THING IN NONCONFORMITY IS TO BE AGAINST THE WORlD.

It takes courage, Christian courage, to stand against the world. There will be unconverted people who will ridicule the Christian for giving his testimony against the world on such points as warfare, un-Christian apparel, worldly amusements, sexual impurity and the like, but the finest people, Christians and non-Christians, always respect a consistent Christian life. Consider, for example the following testimony by Editor Wilson of the Kitchener, Ontario, Daily record, written some years ago:

The Mennonite Church may change the style of her headgear for her women, but she'll have a long way to go to get anything more becoming than the present bonnet worn by her ladies and girls.

Regardless of popular approval or of general persecution, the Christian will live his life unto God, bringing all his thoughts, attitudes, words, and deeds into full conformity with Jesus Christ, the great Head of the eternal Church.