Why do Anabaptists make rules about what the head covering should look like? Have they always done this or when did they start? Why did we start refusing certain types of head coverings as not being acceptable for our churches?
These are questions that have been rolling around in my mind the last few years. And I have found that when you ask questions, some Anabaptist church members and ministers get very defensive and angry. One minister said, “The only time anyone asks questions like this is because they are trying to find an excuse for the women to stop wearing it.
Statements like that do work well to keep the masses from questioning too much.
So I started studying history books instead to find answers. I am not a historian, but it’s been an interesting journey. I found that some of my theories, such as assuming the rules came because women in mid-twentieth century society weren’t wearing any type of head coverings anymore and the Anabaptists wanted to keep the practice, weren’t as accurate as I thought.
In the first half of the twentieth century, most American women still wore some type of head covering at least to church. But yet, Anabaptists began making rules for their coverings in the late 1800’s. So why did they start making the rules about the size, shape, and specific cloth?
Apparently, during the 1800’s, women wore prayer caps and bonnets both. But at some point throughout that century, women began to drop the prayer caps. But Mennonite women who were members of the church continued to wear them to church.1
It seems that when Daniel Kauffman’s book, Manual of Bible Doctrines, was published in 1898, he publicized and drew attention to a list of seven biblical instructions (compiled by J.S. Coffman) that were referred to as the Seven Ordinances. Although Kauffman wasn’t the one who came up with this list, because of his book, he is often credited for them. (For more information on the Seven Ordinances, check out Dwight Gingrich’s outstanding in-depth study on in it here . 2 )
The Seven Ordinances named “Sisters’ Prayer-head-covering” as one of the ordinances and suddenly drew all kinds of attention to a Biblical command that hadn’t been emphasized this publically before in Anabaptist congregations.
The ordinances came at a time when Anabaptist women, as well as other woman in North America, wore coverings mainly to church. Apparently “it was customary in some districts for women to leave their coverings hanging on pegs at church and not even bring them home after the service”. 3
Interestingly enough, even the wife of J.S. Coffman, who first penned the seven ordinance list that we use, “wore her cap only in church as was the practice of others in the community at that time”.4
However, The Mennonite Brethren group, in 1878, did issue a resolution “that instructed women to wear head coverings in church and family worship”.5 So apparently the beliefs of this group at this time seemed to be also more about wearing it during times of worship with other believers, whether that was in public or with family members.
Anabaptist history from previous centuries – regarding how much the head covering was worn and where all it was worn to–is unknown. It wasn’t a subject that was written about by the early Anabaptists because their beliefs regarding it apparently did not differ from other believers around them. While the head covering was practiced by the rest of the world, they did not bother giving much attention to Biblical arguments for the practice and application of the head covering. 6
Culture of the Period and Pattern of Ritualism
Throughout the nineteenth century, Anabaptists were doing a lot of good things but apparently had forgotten why. The culture around them had good morals and did a lot of good things. But when the culture around them began to erode, they had to base their values on something else. For many fundamentalists, the solution seemed to be to make specific rules to “lock in” the culture of that time. But in doing this, they then faced the danger of holding traditions and rules as the reason for their religiosity.7
J.S. Coffman taught his list of ordinances because there was a desperate need for Biblical teaching. His intention was to give the Biblical reason for our practices. For many, hearing 1Corinthians 11 expounded as the purpose for wearing the head covering was a wonderful revelation. For many people it was the first that they had heard it taught.8 However, in attempting to bring correct teaching to these seven areas, a perhaps unintentional, consequence was that it also caused an elevation of the importance of these specific commands over all other Biblical commands.
Coffman was aware of the dangers of ritualism and even cautioned about it in a journal entry, dated July 29, 1890, regarding a book (a minister’s manual) that his boss was publishing saying, “One danger of the book is that it may encourage ritualism.”9
Near the end of his life, Coffman gave more warning against making rules about outward nonconformity: “The Virginia church and conference has done much legislating to keep our people down out of the world in dress and other things, but in spite of all the keeping down they have done, their young men are now more conformed to the world than ours at Elkhart where we do not legislate much, but do some teaching on this point, and instead put our young people to work and have them contend for these principles…. They have tried too much to do by force of law what grace alone can do. What is it worth to keep people down in any sense if they submit only by constraint? We are in the dispensation of grace, and I shall never again help to legislate on outward forms as I did once in the Virginia conference when I did not know better. But I shall work harder in another way for the same principle.”10
As the doctrinal significance of the seven ordinances brought renewed interest in these specific commands, the wearing of the head covering was also highlighted, and women began wearing it more often. Many promoters of the ordinance began to push for woman to wear it at all times “if a woman was really to ‘pray without ceasing’”. (Interestingly enough, the men were not instructed to never wear a hat using the same Scripture.) Gradually, Anabaptist women began to wear it at meal times, family devotions, and then finally all the time.11
Melvin Gingerich describes how after Daniel Kauffman’s Manual of Bible Doctrines was published in 1898, the practice of head covering was then also referred to as an ordinance by district conferences. It has remained as that ever since. What we take for granted as a long established custom–although a biblical one–at this point took on a “hallowed meaning” and Mennonites began to view the symbolism as being almost in a same class as the Lord’s Supper. 12
The head covering then began to progressively be viewed as almost a mystical enigma among Anabaptists. It was thought to offer a woman physical protection from molestation, it was imagined to encourage virtuous behavior, it was thought to be a reminder to women of who they are “morally and ethically”.13 One group, the Manitoba based, Evangelical Mennonite Conference, called for women to wear them as a sign of humility. 14
Some Mennonite women began to view their head coverings as a banner of their religiosity and a symbol of status.15 Many groups began to employ the wearing of head coverings to signify other things as well. For some groups, different covering styles or colors were used to signify the availability of a woman for marriage (as old order Amish and some more conservative groups still do). For others, it signified the wearer had been baptized and was a member of the church.16
Mennonite church leader and Professor Harold S. Bender gave a more orthodox justification for it in 1922, when he wrote that the wearing of the covering was not of a moral or religious nature, but rather a social one. He felt it was to preserve social order and to enforce woman’s submission to man.17
As dress codes and specific directives regarding head coverings for Anabaptist women began making their appearance throughout the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Anabaptist women began to look more and more differently from the rest of society. 18 (Before this our female ancestors did not look much different from those around them.)
Responses to New Mandates
Fashion changes in the late 19th century included the demise of the Victorian-style bonnet and instead many women chose to wear a hat that was often decorated by feathers and flowers, etc.
This was alarming to Anabaptists who viewed the hat as being rather mannish and regarded them as being associated with and symbolic of women’s emancipation. The bonnet was then prescribed by church leaders as being the only acceptable head gear. Church leaders feared that if the bonnet was discarded by women, the covering would also be dropped. (Bonnet enforcement by American Mennonite churches occurred earlier and more rigidly than in Canada –which was soon influenced by visiting American Mennonite evangelists) 19
Interestingly enough, Anabaptists of this time seemed to have forgotten that before the bonnets were in style, their ancestors wore flat hats. Some of whom were very reluctant to accept bonnets.20
The enforcement of bonnet wearing caused much tension, angry debates, and conflict. In the early 1920’s, one of the most bitter conflicts occurred at First Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario, regarding the bonnet. The struggle became so angry that it resulted in a church split and the formation of Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church.
A large number of women in this area had quit wearing the prescribed bonnets in favor of a hat while working at their factory jobs in town. (Many single Mennonite women started working factory jobs that were vacated by the men because of the First World War.) As a result of this, the ministers and deacons in that area had a district meeting and passed a resolution that made wearing a bonnet a test of membership for women. When the district bishop refused to serve communion to anyone who did not agree with the resolution, a committee was assigned to investigate the situation. One minister who sided with the women argued that “making a certain cut of head gear the test of discipleship was …not borne out by the teaching of Jesus”.
This issue continued to be a source of contention for quite a number of years in this church and in 1924, resulted in three ordained ministers being excommunicated and about one-third of the members leaving the church. 21
When clothing stores no longer carried the out-of-fashion bonnet, women had to begin making their own. Many women gave resistance to the bonnets (and to the caps) through small acts of rebellion. Some would leave the strings hanging, rather than tying them, and some removed the strings altogether. Some girls delayed their commitment to becoming a member of the Mennonite church so that they could wear the hat longer. Some modified the hats to make them look more like a bonnet by adding strings that tied under the chin.
The historical periods of time when women were involved in non-farm occupations seemed to bring the most resistance to the bonnet. Many women chose to only wear the bonnet to church but refused to wear them to their jobs. 22
Today, mandates for coverings still exist in some form for most conservative Anabaptists, but for most, the “bonnet” is a prayer cap and each church/ conference has its own specific rules for their covering style. Many wear head coverings with strings attached, but hanging. Others no longer have strings attached at all. The hanging veil, in either black or white, has also been added to many circles as being an accepted form of the head covering.
Church membership is not granted for those who do not follow the specific practice of the church they are in. And baptism is usually denied to those who are not willing to become members. Members that dare differ from their established church prescripts are confronted and eventually excommunicated if they refused to wear the right style of covering.23
It seems the wearing of the head covering for Anabaptists continues to be a ritual with extra man-made rules that are still held as highly as Scriptural commands. This does not seem much unlike the Pharisees that Jesus was reprimanding in Mark 7 and Matthew 15.
We are often more grieved about the prescribed shape/size/color of the covering not being followed exactly than we are about women who are not living obediently within the headship order that her head covering is supposed to represent. It seems we teach “commandments of man” for “doctrines” as Jesus spoke of in Mark 7:7.
We regard the head covering as a mystical cloth that carries protective powers of angels for our women (using 1Cor. 11:10—and yet the word protection is never used in this verse) and empowers them to somehow live a more righteous life than those who do not wear it. It has become, in essence, an idol that seeks to take the place of grace (the only thing that can empower anyone to live above sin) and attempts to diminish the power of an omnipotent God who will not allow anything to come into your life without His permission–whether or not an angel is guarding those covered women who are deemed to have “extra protection”.
Wearing the head covering for praying women is a good thing; but the elevation of it, the extra commandments we’ve added, and the idolatry we’ve been allowing, needs to be repented of. If the seven ordinances are the root cause of this, then we need to go to the root.
The Catholics had their seven sacraments that caused ritualism and adding to Scripture. This is another area that the earliest Anabaptists strove to break free from. But we have unwittingly allowed a variant of the same type of thing (however well-meant its intentions may have been in the beginning). Is it not time we turn from ritualism and sacraments (or ordinances as we call them) and just teach all commands in Scripture as being equally important?
I’d like to publically thank Dwight Gingrich for all his help and patience with all the questions I’ve peppered him with the last while. Also for giving tips and editing advice with this blog post and for directing me to some additional resources. It was greatly appreciated!
- Melvin Gingerich, Mennonite Attire through Four Centuries (Breinigsville, PA: The Pennsylvania German Society, 1970, dist. by Herald Press, Scottdale, PA), pg. 126
- This essay is still in “draft” version with further revisions planned, but I have found it to be an excellent historical source with all the research he has done
- Marlene Epp, Mennonite Women in Canada: A History, pg.186
- Andrew C. Martin, “Creating A Timeless Tradition: The Effects of Fundamentalism on the Conservative Mennonite Movement” (MTS thesis, University of Waterloo and Conrad Grebel University College, 2007), 60-62; available from <http://uwspace.uwaterloo.ca/bitstream/10012/3441/1/Thesis%20The%20Effects%20of%20Fundamentalism.pdf>; accessed 31 December 2011.According to Martin, the information about Coffman’s wife came from Coffman’s son S. F. Coffman, recorded by Melvin Gingerich in “A History of Mennonite Costume” (n.p., n.d.), 40-41. Credited in Dwight Gingrich, 125 Years of Seven Ordinances: An Historical and Biblical Review, pg. 20
- Marlene Epp, pg. 196
- Melvin Gingerich, pg. 127
- Melvin Gingerich gives an example of this: “J. S. Hartzler (1857-1953), an Indiana school teacher, who was ordained as an Amish Mennonite minister in 1881 told J. C. Wenger that at that time he did not know there was ‘any Scripture’ for the cap.” pg. 127
- Melvin Gingerich, pg. 130
- Dwight Gingrich, pg.17
- (letter to brother-in-law Lewis J. Heatwole, December 12, 1893; recorded by Barbara F. Coffman, 254) credited to Dwight Gingrich, p.17
- Marlene Epp, p. 186
- Melvin Gingerich, pgs. 130-31
- Marlene Epp, pg. 186
- Marlene Epp, pg. 196
- Strangers at Home, Jane Pederson “She May Be Amish Now, but She Won’t Be Amish Long”: Anabaptist Women and Antimodernism, p.351
- Marlene Epp pg.197
- “The entire question is not one of moral or religious nature, but social…–it is a necessity to preserve the divinely ordained social order from disruption and to enforce the lesson of woman’s submission to man.” Harold S. Bender, “An Exegesis of I Cor. 11:1-16″ (paper, 1922), 19. Mennonite Historical Library, Goshen, IN
- Jane Pederson, pg. 352
- Marlene Epp, pg. 187-188
- Melvin Gingerich, pg. 112 records the story of a woman from Forks church community in Lagrange County, Indiana, who on her deathbed, begged her daughters to promise they would never wear a bonnet. She wanted them to always wear the flat hat.
- Marlene Epp pg.188-189
- Ibid pg.193-195
- I have personally observed this happen