Question: What does The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teach about modesty and what is its importance?

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Question: What does The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teach about modesty and what is its importance?

Introduction to Question

Questions about the Church’s standard of modesty have arisen in recent years. This article seeks to be an exposition of everything we should know about modesty and the reasons for practicing it as well as a response to certain criticisms that have arisen about it. There is a large amount of groundwork that needs to be laid down in order to have an organized and effective conversation about the Church's standards of modesty. We'll start with the definition of modesty, then discuss some cultural and historical facts about modesty in dress, then address the specific questions that have arisen.

Definition of Modesty

It will first be important to define what modesty is. The Church defines modesty on their website as "an attitude of propriety and decency in dress, grooming, language, and behavior. If we are modest, we do not draw undue attention to ourselves. Instead, we seek to “glorify God in [our] body, and in [our] spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:20; see also 1 Corinthians 6:19)." This definition is echoed True to the Faith: the doctrinal reference for all Church members approved by the First Presidency.[1]

Two important things jump out at us as we examine this definition of modesty:

  1. Modesty is more than just standards about dress. It is also about grooming, language, and behavior. We sometimes reduce discussions of modesty to dress too often. It's not entirely certain if this is due to infractions of modesty in dress being more common than any other infraction of modesty. Though it seems that infractions of modesty with, say, swearing, coarse humor, and gossiping are just as common. We do well to be vigilant about being modest in all things and not just dress.
  2. Modesty standards apply to both men and women. Some women have complained that discussions of modesty too often focus on them and not men. This may be true. We do well to remember that standards of modesty apply to both men and women equally.

This definition is important for our discussion moving forward. We're going to turn our attention specifically to modesty in dress, but that should not be taken as an indication that the author believes that modesty in dress is all there is to modesty. The author will also discuss complaints from women about the Church's standards of modesty. But that should not be taken as indication that the author means to single them out in discussion of modesty.

Modesty in Dress

We're going to be discussing modesty in dress most specifically throughout the rest of this article so it's good to have the Church's current definition of it quoted to draw from and discuss. True to the Faith, approved by top general leaders of the Church and intended for a general audience, defines modesty in dress this way:

Prophets have always counseled us to dress modestly. This counsel is founded on the truth that the human body is God’s sacred creation. Respect your body as a gift from God. Through your dress and appearance, you can show the Lord that you know how precious your body is. Your clothing expresses who you are. It sends messages about you, and it influences the way you and others act. When you are well groomed and modestly dressed, you can invite the companionship of the Spirit and exercise a good influence on those around you. Central to the command to be modest is an understanding of the sacred power of procreation, the ability to bring children into the world. This power is to be used only between husband and wife. Revealing and sexually suggestive clothing, which includes short shorts and skirts, tight clothing, and shirts that do not cover the stomach, can stimulate desires and actions that violate the Lord’s law of chastity. In addition to avoiding clothing that is revealing, you should avoid extremes in clothing, appearance, and hairstyle. In dress, grooming, and manners, always be neat and clean, never sloppy or inappropriately casual. Do not disfigure yourself with tattoos or body piercings. If you are a woman and you desire to have your ears pierced, wear only one pair of modest earrings. Maintain high standards of modesty for all occasions. Do not lower your standards to draw attention to your body or to seek approval from others. True disciples of Jesus Christ maintain the Lord’s standard regardless of current fashions or pressure from others.[2]

This standard focuses more on behavior rather than the principles behind modesty. But this behavior does prepare one to wear the temple garment in the future. The garment is designed to be covered by clothing that is consistent with standards listed here in the pamphlet. Indeed, as the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet itself teaches, "[y]our dress and appearance now will help you prepare for the time when you will go to the temple to make sacred covenants with God."[3]

The Scriptural Case For Modesty in Dress

The scriptures are the law to govern the behavior and beliefs of the whole Church.[4] The scriptures include injunctions for modesty in dress that are more direct and some that are more indirect.

The first scriptures that may be important for considerations about modesty are the creation narratives. Subsequently to partaking of the forbidden fruit and just before casting Adam and Eve from the Garden, God made Adam and Eve coats of skin. Perhaps this had to do with the fact that the eyes of Adam and Eve were opened after partaking of the fruit and they knew that they were naked. An injunction to be modest in how we dress may be extracted from these passages.[5] Book of Mormon prophets see "costly apparel" very negatively—always framing it as a manifestation of pride.[6] In contrast to costly apparel, the prophet Alma looks positively on those that dress and groom themselves in a way that is "neat and comely."[7] The author of Timothy directs women to "adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided [meaning "braided"] hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; [b]ut (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works."[8] A nearly identical injunction is found in 1 Peter 3:3-4.[9] A revelation given to Joseph Smith in 1831 known as "The Law" commands members to "let all [their] garments be plain, and [the garments'] beauty the work of [their] own hands[.]"[10] A revelation given to Joseph Smith in 1830 told missionaries to “[cry] repentance, saying: Save yourselves from this untoward generation, and come forth out of the fire, hating even the garments spotted with the flesh.”[11] That revelation echoes the words of Jude who similarly argues that evangelists should "others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh."[12]

Other scriptural injunctions that support practicing the virtue of modesty in dress include being a peculiar people so as to encourage member retention as well as interest in the Church and thus success in missionary work,[13] keeping unspotted from the world,[14] abstaining from all appearance of evil,[15] practicing meekness/lowliness of heart/easiness to be entreated before the prophets who have asked us to practice modesty,[16] following the commandment to receive all the words and commandments of the prophet as he receives them as if from the mouth of God in all patience and faith,[17] and being anxiously engaged in a good cause.[18]

The scriptures also contain a constellation of words and terms that give us injunctions to cultivate certain virtues and avoid certain vices. These words and terms include those such as "carnal" "easy to be entreated," "humility", "lasciviousness", "lewdness", "lust", "lowly of heart", "meekness", "pride", "puffed up", "stiffneckedness", “sobriety", and "temperateness". The practice of modesty in dress but also in other facets of life such as grooming, language, and behavior would be included in the definitions or the penumbras of the definitions of these words and terms. One can search occurrences of these words, including their derivatives (like "sober", "soberness", etc. for 'sobriety') in the scriptures on the Church's website. Since the scriptures are the law to govern the behavior and beliefs of the whole Church, we are obligated to cultivate these virtues and avoid these vices through modesty.

So why should we be modest? What are the principles behind it? Let's review the main principles as laid out in the scriptures and other official Church publications.

The Principles Behind Modesty: Humility, Chastity, and Loving Obedience

  1. An Element of Humility: Being modest in dress, grooming, and behavior helps us to not have opportunities to puff ourselves up with pride over our spiritual brothers and sisters.
  2. An Element of Chastity: Modesty helps both men and women to remain spiritually and mentally chaste. In the Church, things that get covered are sacred from the sacrament table to the rooms we pass through during the endowment ceremony. In a similar way, modesty helps us to keep the body sacred and make the marital union between husband and wife that much more sacred since it uncovers something for someone that has made a deep emotional commitment to you.
  3. An Element of Loving Obedience: Modesty helps us to learn meekness and easiness to be entreated before the Lord's servants who have implored us to be such. It helps to condition us for a life of sobriety as encouraged by the scriptures. Not sobriety in terms to alcohol or other addictions, but sobriety in terms of solemnity and centering our minds on obtaining the mind of Christ and always acting like a dignified servant of Him.


Are There Ways We Can Better Advocate for Modesty?

Are there ways we can better advocate for modesty? Certainly. What are the harmful ways?

We might all agree that a direct, face-to-face confrontation with someone that is not following standards of modesty is the least effective way of defending modesty and encouraging others to be modest in dress.

The most effective ways of defending modesty are these:

  1. Be modest in dress in your own life: as President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, using a quote often-attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, taught, “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.”[19]
  2. Advocate for modesty in your Sunday school lessons and sacrament meeting talks: Oftentimes the most effective way of defending any particular standard is to quote the standard from the Church's publications and teach them in your Sunday school lessons and sacrament meeting talks. Those that hear you in your audience can be given an indirect but still-clear reminder of what the standards are and why they are important. They cause a lot less discomfort for the individual who has been caught not following the standards.
  3. Defend modesty to friends: One of the most compelling reasons to be modest can be found in those that are courageous enough to stand up for the Church in their personal life such that they defend the Church's standards to friends.

All of these approaches create a culture of modesty within the Church. That, in the end, is one of the most important things behind being modest: Latter-day Saints creating a shared identity and culture of prophet-following and prophet-defending. Creating that shared identity and culture helps us to be more "of one heart and one mind".

Four More Good Reasons for Modesty

Let's wrap up with four more good reasons for modesty.

First, when a man or woman (whether old or young) over-relies on their appearance to get their (legitimate) needs met they often don't have to develop any other part of their personality or intellect. The attention they get from their appearance is enough to reinforce their attention back on to how they look. A modest person is actively putting themself in a place where they have to work on themselves in more than just looks. They have to develop their personality, interests, intellect, emotional intelligence and more. It's a fantastic gift a person can give to themself.

Second, there’s a lot of symbolic value to be found in covering our bodies appropriately. A person’s access to another is limited based on what the relationship is. To not cover appropriately would be bereft of boundaries and to maybe inspire someone to walk up to a stranger and tell them their life story. It would also be a sign of no boundaries for someone to show "too much" (as defined the person showing) of my physical body to someone with whom I'm not in a relationship of that kind of trust.

Third, any attitude like “women are not responsible for men’s thoughts at all and therefore they can wear what they want” hurts women because pretending that women don't dress in ways intended to provoke a response from men will not allow us to ask thoughtful questions about why our girls and young women look to male approval for a sense of self worth. If you don't believe that women are constantly being pummeled by messages about their bodies that eventually show up in how they dress, you are doing them a huge disservice. You are shutting your eyes to a major problem women face that will not be fixed by blithely ignoring the connection between how women dress and how men sexually respond to them by viewing them.

Fourth, failing to make the connection between women's bodies and how men operate has problems for men as well. When the husband of a friend of the author was a missionary in Seoul, South Korea, he lived near a red light district that he had to walk through in order to get to his bus stop. These women had observed the connection between how they dressed and how men responded and they used it, obviously (we’re not suggesting these women were devious--prostitution is a horrible evil perpetrated against women). Now, had the husband been taught that the way women dress has absolutely no impact on the way he thinks, then the sexually inappropriate thoughts that he had in response to this unexpected and immediate submersion in public near-nudity would have created a lot of unnecessary torment and shame. However, he had been taught to understand that it's normal for men to experience a sexual response to women's bodies. And because he understood that was normal, he was not crippled with shame and was better able to take steps that would allow him to stay in control of his thoughts. It was by recognizing--not ignoring--the connection between his thoughts and what he was seeing that he was able to make changes that kept him in control of his own thoughts.

In essence: "I am not responsible for others' thoughts and can therefore dress how I want without consequence" blinds us to the (meaningful and beautiful) connection between bodies and sexuality, which disempowers both men and women to make choices that are good for both their self worth and sexuality.

Conclusion

We often think that morality should be based on the immediate, obvious consequences of our actions; but the Church's standards invite us to think more about how the morals we adhere to can be based on the less obvious, unseen, and/or delayed consequences of our actions. One thing that will help to calibrate our minds and spirits with those of our Church leaders is to think about how we can better adhere to these types of norms that aren't based on the immediate, obvious consequences of our actions. While these standards may be annoying for us at times, they can bring great benefits for us as a people as we build Zion and prepare for the Second Coming of the Savior.


Notes

  1. True to the Faith (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004), 106.
  2. Ibid., 107.
  3. Ibid., 8.
  4. Doctrine & Covenants 42:56-60
  5. Genesis 3:21; Moses 4:27
  6. Alma 1:6, 27, 32; 4:6; 5:53; 31:28; Helaman 13:28; 4 Nephi 1:24
  7. Alma 1:27
  8. 1 Timothy 2:9. The author says "the author" of Timothy because modern biblical scholarship is united in affirming that Paul did not write Timothy. See Raymond F. Collins, 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus: A Commentary (Nashville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 4.
  9. 1 Peter 3:3-4
  10. Doctrine & Covenants 42:40
  11. Doctrine & Covenants 36:6
  12. Jude 1:23
  13. Deuteronomy 14:2; 26:18; Psalms 135:4; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 2:9
  14. James 1:27; Doctrine & Covenants 59:9
  15. 1 Thessalonians 5:22
  16. Moroni 7:44
  17. Doctrine & Covenants 21:4–5
  18. Doctrine & Covenants 58:27–29
  19. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, "A Word for the Hesistant Missionary," Liahona 36, no. 2 (February 2013): 4. Quoting St. Francis of Assisi in William Fay and Linda Evans Shepherd, Share Jesus without Fear (1999), 22.