WHY DID THE JW LEADERS BAN BEARDS?
(Investigator 192, 2020 May)
C.T. Russell and committee in 1912. Photo from: The Laodicean Messenger (1923)
C.T. Russell, founder of The Watch Tower
magazine, and many of his male followers were bearded. We can confirm
this from photos in the cult's old assembly reports, and a photo of a
committee who accompanied Russell on a trip around the world in 1912.
Of the seven in the photo, five or six appear bearded.
However, from 1925 onwards nearly all male members had smooth faces. Why this change in policy?
In 1925 the new leader, "Judge" Joseph F. Rutherford, began to oppose beards.
William Schnell (1971), a prominent activist for the cult, recalled Rutherford's visit to their German headquarters in 1925:
The Director of our
German branch, as had many before him, had grown a beard, patterned
after Charles T. Russell's beard. The Judge did not want anything at
all to remain which might remind him of Russell—not even the
cultivation of a beard. So, sitting at the table for dinner one night
within my earshot, the Director asked the Judge for one more large
rotary press. The Judge said nothing for a while, merely ate. Then
suddenly he looked up, his eyes pinned severely on the Director's huge
beard and said, "I will buy you the press if you take that thing off,"
pointing to the beard. It surely shocked the Director's sensibilities,
but he meekly heeded the warning and soon shamefacedly appeared minus
Jesus was thereafter depicted beardless in the cult's publications
(except for a few reproductions of old paintings) even though
he was a Jew "born under the law" (Galatians 4:4), and the "law"
required Jewish men to have beards. It's stated in the Old Testament at
Leviticus 19:27; 21:5.
When the Russellites became Jehovah's Witnesses (JWs) in 1931 Jesus in their publications continued beardless. The book The New World (1942 p. 97) is one of many that show a beardless Jesus.
To support this policy The Watchtower
(1954 August 15) referred to a 2nd century cup with a picture of Jesus
engraved, and a 2nd century catacomb painting of Jesus, both showing
Assuming these finds are genuine and the dates correct, the lack of beard might merely reflect Roman custom for men to shave.
The JW book Things In Which It Is Impossible For God To Lie (1965) has eight pictures on pages 84 to 93 depicting Jesus beardless.
Schnell's comment "The Judge did not want anything at all to remain which might remind him of Russell…" is correct.
Rutherford, in the 1920s, began to introduce hundreds of doctrinal and
organizational changes into the cult. This soon included the demotion
of everyone who held authority in the cult, including the editorial
committee of The Watch Tower, and the elders in all congregations, leaving Rutherford ruling like a dictator with unchallengeable power.
Beards projected an image of dignity, authority and maturity. The
anti-beard program thus attacked the image of the elders as a prelude
to the elimination of the elders themselves.
[After that the JW sect had no "elders", and ignored the Bible on that topic, until instituting a new elder system in 1972.]
A 1928 photo of the cult's dining room at their New York headquarters
with over 150 people present shows only a few beards.
Jesus gets a beard
Until about 1968 Jesus being beardless remained official teaching — an
error which no JWs had noticed or protested against, despite the sect
proclaiming that it alone out of all religions understands the Bible
and follows it in all details.
After the error was corrected, Watchtower pictures of Jesus show him bearded. JW males, nevertheless, continued beardless because:
In recent years in many
lands a beard or long hair on a man attracts immediate notice and may,
in the minds of the majority, classify such a person undesirably with
extremists or as rebels against society. God’s ministers want to avoid
making any impression that would take attention away from their
ministry or hinder anyone from listening to the truth. (The Watchtower
1968 May 1, pp 287-288)
The article noted that medieval pictures of Jesus and the apostles
"show Christ and his apostles with beards, having emaciated, sad, weak
and effeminate monastic countenances..." and "The dreary religious
pictures are products of the apostasy, which by the fourth century was
in full bloom..."
Such comment is typical Watchtower
double-standard in reasoning. The 1968 article does not admit that the
JW leaders had authorized a false portrayal of Jesus for 40 years, and
certainly doesn't describe the error as "a product of apostasy which
under Rutherford in 1925 was in full bloom". Instead they call their
followers "God's ministers" with "the truth". However, this is the
usual writing style, to use every opportunity to call other
denominations "false" or "apostate" (or words to that effect) while
simultaneously calling the JW sect "true" or "God's ministers" (or
other words to that effect).
Perhaps the sad faces of Jesus and the apostles in some paintings were
meant to convey sadness over sin, oppression, poverty, ignorance,
sickness and bigotry — things that aren't funny.
I attended a session at a JW convention in Adelaide in 1984 and
observed an authoritative looking, shaven man, apparently an elder, who
tugged at the beard of a small, timid looking man and said, "What's
this, brother? Are you trying to look older?"
Nowadays some male members of JWs have moustaches, but beards remain
few. Bearded "brothers" who keep their beard neat are not persecuted,
but are unlikely to qualify for a position of prominence such as elder,
or "pioneer" (a fulltime proselytiser), or higher.
Photos of JWs in the official publications all have beardless faces, at
least I've seen no exceptions, and conversion stories sometimes mention
that the new convert removed his beard, never that he retained it.
Although Jesus got his beard back around 1968, social pressure against beards remains.
Schnell, W. 1971 30 Years A WatchTower Slave, Baker Book House, p. 46
Schnell's account has support in Yearbook of Jehovah's Witnesses 1974, pp 97-98