Head Coverings in Church History

A handy reference for all you people who want to know why Christians throughout history have required women to cover their heads.

A. Reasons given by Church leaders in Church History (all men) why women in the church should wear a head covering:

1.Because the Apostle Paul said so.

2. Modesty/Civil & Natural Decency

3. Slippery Slope

4. Because the Laws of Nature Dictate

5. As a symbol Subjection/Subservience/Dependence/Inferiority (To Men)

Since Paul used woman’s inferiority as his justification, number one is also number 5.

Since the slippery slope argument argues that uncovering a woman’s hair will lead to uncovering her breasts, this is only a problem is one thinks that women’s hair or breasts should not be seen. That is the same as modesty in number 2.

Modesty and Decency arguments claim that what is decent for men is indecent for women- it is based on visible differentiation based on sex which is the claim of number 4- that men and women should dress in a way that leaves no doubt that a person belongs to one group or the other.

Different head-gear is not only a sign of different genitalia, but of different roles assigned to those genders. In each of these quotes, it is obvious that the female role is inferior. Thus, numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 all end on number 5: head-coverings are a symbol of female inferiority.

 

Church leaders who supported the above reasons:

 

1. Because the Apostle Paul said so.

 

  1. Tertullian (150-225 a.d.)
  2. Jerome (345-429 a.d.)
  3. Augustine (354-430 a.d.)
  4. John Knox (1505-1572)
  5. John Calvin (1509-1564)

 

 

2. Modesty/Civil & Natural Decency

 

  1. Clement of Alexandria (153-217 a.d.)
  2. John Calvin (1509-1564)
  3. George Gillespie (1613-1648)
  4. Matthew Henry (in his Commentary on the Whole Bible, published in 1706)
  5. Henry Alford (1810-1871)
  6. Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898)
  7. A. R. Fausset (1821-1910)

 

 

3. Slippery Slope

 

  1. John Calvin (1509-1564)

     

 

4. Because the Laws of Nature Dictate

 

  1. John Chrysostom (340-407 a.d.)
  2. A. R. Fausset (1821-1910)
  3. Thomas Charles Edwards (A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians was published in 1885)
  4. John Murray (1898-1975)

 

 

5. As a symbol Subjection/Subserviance/Dependence/Inferiority (To Men)

 

  1. John Chrysostom (340-407 a.d.)
  2. John Knox (1505-1572)
  3. A Group of Presbyterian Ministers from London during the time of the Westminster Assembly (1646)
  4. Matthew Henry (in his Commentary on the Whole Bible, published in 1706)
  5. Henry Alford (1810-1871)
  6. Frederick Godet (1812-1900)
  7. Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898)
  8. A. R. Fausset (1821-1910)
  9. Thomas Charles Edwards (A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians was published in 1885)

  

 

 

 

 

References for Section A – Quotes From Church Leaders

 

1.1 In commenting on 1 Corinthians 11:4,5, Tertullian notes, “Behold two diverse names, Man and Woman ‘every one’ in each case: two laws, mutually distinctive; on the one hand (a law) of veiling, on the other (a law) of baring.”7

 7. Tertullian, On The Veiling Of Virgins, cited in The Ante-Nicene Fathers,  A. Cleveland Cox, ed., (U.S. A.: The Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885 ), IV:32. Emphasis his. http://www.users.on.net/~joeflorence/hc.htm

 

1.2 “It is usual in the monasteries of Egypt and Syria for virgins and widows who have vowed themselves to God and have renounced the world and have trodden under foot its pleasures, to ask the mothers of their communities to cut their hair; not that afterwards they go about with heads uncovered in defiance of the apostles command” [1 Corinthians 11:5].12

 12. Jerome, Letter CXLVII:5, cited in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 

Philip Schaff, ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co.), VI:292.

 

1.3 “We ought not therefore so to understand that made in the image of the Supreme Trinity, that is, in the image of God, as that same image should be understood to be in three human beings; specially when the apostle says that the man is the image of God, and on that account removes the covering from his head, which he warns the woman to use, speaking thus: ‘For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of the man.'”14 

14. Augustine, Of the Work of Monks, cited in The Nicene and Post-Nicene
Fathers, Philip Schaff, ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co.), III:158.

 1.4 See 5.1

 1.5 See 2.2.

 2.1 “And she will never fall, who puts before her eyes modesty, and her shawl; nor will she invite another to fall into sin by uncovering her face. For this is the wish of the Word, since it is becoming for her to pray veiled” [1 Corinthians 11:5 GLP].8 

8. Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, cited in The Ante-Nicene Fathers,
A. Cleveland Cox, ed., (U.S.A: The Christian Literature Publishing Co.,
1885), II:290.
http://www.users.on.net/~joeflorence/hc.htm

 

2.2 “When he says ‘her hair is for a covering [1 Corinthians 11:15 GLP],’ he does not mean that as long as a woman has hair, that should be enough for her. He rather teaches that our Lord is giving a directive that He desires to have observed and maintained. If a woman has long hair, this is equivalent to saying to her, ‘Use your head covering, use your hat, use your hood; do not expose yourself in that way!”18

 18. Seth Skolnitsky, trans., Men, Women and Order in the Church: Three Sermons by John Calvin, (Dallas, TX: Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1992), p. 53.

 http://www.users.on.net/~joeflorence/hc.htm
2.3 ‘That women which show themselves in public and ecclesiastical assemblies, without the sign nd token of their subjection, that is to say, uncovered, shame themselves.'”19

 19. George Gillespie, “A Treatise of Miscellany Questions,” The Works of George Gillespie, Edmonton,AB: Still Waters Revival Books, [1846] 1991), II:32.

 “As for the veils wherewith the Apostle would have women covered whilst they were praying (that is, in their hearts following the public and common prayer), or prophesying (that is, singing, 1 Sam. 10:10; 1 Chron. 25:1), they are worthy to be covered with shame as with a garment who allege this example for sacred significant ceremonies of human institution. This covering was a moral sign for that comely and orderly distinction of men and women which civil decency required in all their meetings. . . .”

 George Gillespie, A Dispute Against The English Poish Ceremonies Obtruded On The Church Of Scotland, (Dallas, TX: Naphtali Press, [1844] 1993), p. 254. http://www.users.on.net/~joeflorence/hc.htm

 

2.4 “It was the common usage of the churches for women to appear in public assemblies, and join in public worship, veiled; and it was manifestly decent that they should do so. Those must be very contentious indeed who would quarrel with this, or lay it aside” [1 Corinthians 11:16].24 

24. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, (McLean, VA: MacDonald Publishing Co.), VI:562.

 

2.5 See 5.5.

 

2.6 See 5.7.

 

2.7 See 5.8.

 

3.1 The great theologian of the Reformation preached three sermons from 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 from which the following excerpts are taken. “So if women are thus permitted to have their heads uncovered and to show their hair, they will eventually be allowed to expose their entire breasts, and they will come to make their exhibitions as if it were a tavern show; they will become so brazen that modesty and shame will be no more; in short they will forget the duty of nature. . . . So, when it is permissible for the women to uncover their heads, one will say, ‘Well, what harm in uncovering the stomach also?’ And then after that one will plead [for] something else: ‘Now if the women go bareheaded, why not also [bare] this and [bare] that?’ Then the men, for their part, will break loose too. In short, there will be no decency left, unless people contain themselves and respect what is proper and fitting, so as not to go headlong overboard.”17

 17. Seth Skolnitsky, trans., Men, Women and Order in the Church: Three Sermons by John Calvin, (Dallas, TX: Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1992), pp. 12,13.

 

4.1 “And if it be given her for a covering,’ say you, ‘wherefore need she add another covering?’ That not nature only, but also her own will may have part in her acknowledgment of subjection. For that thou oughtest to be covered nature herself by anticipation enacted a law. Add now, I pray, thine own part also, that thou mayest not seem to subvert the very laws of nature; a proof of most insolent rashness, to buffet not only with us, but with nature also.”11 

11. Chrysostom, Homily XXVI:2; cited in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Philip Schaff, ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co.), XIII:154.

 http://www.users.on.net/~joeflorence/hc.htm

 

 4.2 See 5.8. 

 

4.3 See 5.9.

 

4.4 “Since Paul appeals to the order of creation (Vss. 3b, vss 7ff), it is totally indefensible to suppose that what is in view and enjoined had only local or temporary relevance. The ordinance of creation is universally and perpetually applicable, as also are the implications for conduct arising therefrom.”46

 46. John Murray, A Letter To The Evangelical Presbyterian Church (Australia), Presbyteran Reformed Magazine, (Winter 1992).http://www.users.on.net/~joeflorence/hc.htm

 

5.1 See 4.1.

 

5.2 “First, I say, the woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man, not to rule and command him. As saint Paule doth reason in these wordes: ‘Man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man. And man was created for the cause of the woman, but the woman for the cause of man; and therfore oght the woman to have a power upon her head,’ (that is, a coverture in signe of subjection).”15

 

15. John Knox, “The First Blast Of The Trumpet Against The Monstrous Regiment Of Women,” Works of John Knox, David Laing, ed. (Edinburgh: Printed For The Bannatyne Club), IV:377. The antequated spelling of some of the words in this quote is taken directly from the text used.

 http://www.users.on.net/~joeflorence/hc.htm

 

 5.3 “The wife must have power (exousia) on her head, i.e., a veil is token of her husband’s power over her (1 Cor. 11:10) . . . .”21  

David W. Hall, ed., The Divine Right of Church Government, (Dallas, TX: Naphtali Press, [1646] 1995), p. 44.

 http://www.users.on.net/~joeflorence/hc.htm

 

5.4 “The woman, on the other hand, who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head [1 Corinthians 11:5-6 GLP], namely, the man, v.3. She appears in the dress of her superior, and throws off the token of her subjection. She might, with equal decency, cut her hair short, or cut it 

close, which was the custom of the man in that age. This would be in a manner to declare that she was desirous of changing sexes, a manifest affectation of that superiority which God had conferred on the other sex.”22

 22. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, (McLean, VA: MacDonald Publishing Co.), VI:561.

 

“She ought to have power on her head, because of the angels [1 Corinthians 11:10]. Power, that is, a veil, the token, not of her having the power or superiority, but being under the power of her husband, subjected to him, and inferior to the other sex.”23

 23. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, (McLean, VA: MacDonald Publishing Co.), VI:562.

 

5.5 “[1 Corinthians 11] 2-16. The law of subjection of the woman to the man (2-12), and natural decency itself (13-16), teach that women should be veiled in public religious assemblies.”25

 25. Henry Alford, Alford’s Greek New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Guardian Press, 1976), II:563.

 “The woman ought to have power (the sign of power or subjection; shewn by the context to mean a veil.”27

 27. Henry Alford, Alford’s Greek New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Guardian Press, 1976), II:566.

 5.6 “And since the woman does not naturally belong to public life, if it happen that in the spiritual domain she has to exercise a function which brings her into prominence, she ought to strive the more to put herself out of view by covering herself with the veil, which declares the dependence in which she remains relatively to her husband.”29 

28. Frederick Godet, Commentary on First Corinthians, (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1977), p. 542.

 http://www.users.on.net/~joeflorence/hc.htm

 

5.7 “Two principles, then, are laid down: first, verse 4, that the man should preach (or pray) with head uncovered, because he then stands forth a God’s herald and representative; and to assume at that time the emblem of subordination, a covered head, is a dishonor to the office and God it represents; secondly, verses 5,13, that, on the contrary, for a woman to appear or to perform any public religious function in the Christian assembly, unveiled, is a glaring impropriety. . . . The woman, then, has a 

right to the privileges of public worship and sacraments; she may join audibly in the praises and prayers of the public assembly, where the usages of the body encourage responsive prayer; but she must always do this veiled or covered.”30

 30. Robert Lewis Dabney, Discussions: Evangelical and Theological, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), II:104

 

5.8 “In putting away the veil, she puts away the badge of her subjection to man (which is her true ‘honor’), and of her connection with Christ, man’s Head. Moreover, the head covering was the emblem of maiden modesty before man (Gen. xxiv: 65), and chastity (Gen. xx: 16). By its unlawful excitement in assemblies is avoided, women not attracting attention. Scripture sanctions not the emancipation of woman from subjection: modesty is her true ornament. Man rules; woman ministers: the respective dress should accord. To uncover the head indicated withdrawal from the husband’s power; whence a suspected wife had her head uncovered by the priest (Num. v. 18). . . . As woman’s hair is given by nature as her covering (v. 15), to cut it off like a man would be palpably indecorous; therefore, to put away the head-covering like a man would be similarly indecorous. It is natural to her to have long hair for her covering: she ought, therefore, to add the other head-covering, to show that she does of her own will that which nature teaches she ought to do, in token of her subjection to man.”31

 

31. A.R. Fausset, A Commentary, Critical, Experimental, and Practical, on the Old and New Testaments, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), III:II:314.

 

5.9 “He proves [in 1 Corinthians 11:6 GLP] that a woman that uncovers her head is one and the same with a woman whose head is shorn or shaven. The proof is that woman’s long hair is intended by ature and understood by all nations to be a symbol of her subjection to the man. . . . This, the Apostle argues, shows the fitness of the veil to be a symbol of the same subjection in the Christian order. In the Church the veil is added to the symbol of long hair, because the subjection which nature has imposed upon the woman receives a special character when it enters into the Christian series of 

subordination’s.”34 

34. Thomas Charles Edwards, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Minneapolis: Klock & Klock Christian Publishers, 1979), p. 274. 

 

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B. Cultural Practices related to head coverings in historical secular culture:

 

1. 0-100 AD (Paul’s Time)

 

    1.1 Customary for women to wear head coverings in Roman Empire in Paul’s time.  Veils were a sign of class distinction among women.

1. 2. Jewish women wore head-coverings as a sign of their sexual status which conveyed their bride-price or economic worth.  Virgins did not cover their heads, married women always did.  This was important in cases of divorce when a man had to pay back some of the bride-price to the bride’s father and if she could prove her head was uncovered before marriage then she was worth more as compared to if she had been a widow or ‘put away’ by her first husband. 

  

  References for Section B –  Head Coverings in historical secular culture:

 

1.1 Robert H. Gundry (A Survey of the New Testament was published in 1970) 

a. “Paul’s instructions concerning the veiling of women also demand knowledge of prevailing ancient customs. It was proper in the Roman Empire for a respectable woman to veil herself in public. Tarsus, the home city of Paul, was noted for its strict adherence to this rule of propriety. The veil covered the head from view, but not the face. It was at once a symbol of subordination to the male and of the respect which a woman deserves. The Christian women at Corinth, however, were quite naturally following the custom of Greek women, who left their heads uncovered when they worshipped. Paul therefore states that it is disgraceful for Christian women to pray or to prophesy in church services unveiled. On the other hand, Paul goes against the practice of Jewish and Roman men, who prayed with heads covered, by commanding Christian men to pray and prophesy bareheaded as a sign of their authority.”53

 53. Robert H. Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970), p. 280. 

1.2 Weiss, S.  (2009). Under Cover: Demystification of Women’s Head Covering in Jewish Law.  Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues.

 

3 thoughts on “Head Coverings in Church History

  1. Ahab says:

    Good research here! Thanks for providing this.

    My region has a healthy Mennonite population, so it’s common to see women with Mennonite head coverings in public. An ex-Mennonite woman I talked to indicated that #1 and #5 were the reasons behind the headgear, but I should really look into it.

    • prairienymph says:

      I once read a Mennonite man who blamed rising divorce rates on women not wearing headcoverings. His reasoning was that women needed a constant reminder to submit or they would naturally rebel. I can think of a lot better reasons for staying in a marriage than a reminder that I’m inferior.

  2. Jon says:

    Why don’t we see more burkas in use among Mormons? Why wouldn’t it surprise me if we did? Excellent research!

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