Question: Why does The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints strongly discourage their members from getting tattoos?

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Question: Why does The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints strongly discourage their members from getting tattoos?

Introduction to Question

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints strongly discourages its members from getting tattoos. Why is this?

In this article we will explore this question. We will present teachings from top leaders regarding tattoos. They will clearly explain their position and reasoning for it. Next, we will explore teachings from the official canon of scripture of the Church and the morals taught by it that might support the Church's discouragement of tattoos.

Teachings from Top Church Leaders

What follows represents an exhaustive listing of everything top general leaders of the Church have said regarding their strong discouragement of tattoos in official Church settings.

Vaughan J. Featherstone – October 1999

Aren’t you proud that the Church teaches us the truth? We don’t have to wonder about earrings for boys and men, tattoos, spiked hair, the four-letter words, and obscene gestures. We have prophets who model the standards.[1]

Gordon B. Hinckley – November 2000

The practice is growing among young people of tattooing and piercing their bodies. The time will come when they will regret it, but it will then be too late. The scriptures unequivocally declare:

“Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?

“If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are” (1 Cor. 3:16–17).

It is sad and regrettable that some young men and women have their bodies tattooed. What do they hope to gain by this painful process? Is there “anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy” (A of F 1:13) in having unseemly so-called art impregnated into the skin to be carried throughout life, all the way down to old age and death? They must be counseled to shun it. They must be warned to avoid it. The time will come that they will regret it but will have no escape from the constant reminder of their foolishness except through another costly and painful procedure…We—the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve—have taken the position, and I quote, that “the Church discourages tattoos.”[2]

Gordon B. Hinckley – November 2000

In a discourse on teaching children true Gospel principles, President Gordon B. Hinckley stated the following:

Teach your children self-respect. Teach them that their bodies are the creation of the Almighty. What a miraculous, wonderful, and beautiful thing is the human body.

As has been said here tonight, Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, declared: “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?

“If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are” (1 Cor. 3:16–17).

Now comes the craze of tattooing one’s body. I cannot understand why any young man—or young woman, for that matter—would wish to undergo the painful process of disfiguring the skin with various multicolored representations of people, animals, and various symbols. With tattoos, the process is permanent, unless there is another painful and costly undertaking to remove it. Fathers, caution your sons against having their bodies tattooed. They may resist your talk now, but the time will come when they will thank you. A tattoo is graffiti on the temple of the body.

Likewise[,] the piercing of the body for multiple rings in the ears, in the nose, even in the tongue. Can they possibly think that is beautiful? It is a passing fancy, but its effects can be permanent. Some have gone to such extremes that the ring had to be removed by surgery. The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve have declared that we discourage tattoos and also “the piercing of the body for other than medical purposes.” We do not, however, take any position “on the minimal piercing of the ears by women for one pair of earrings”—one pair.[3]

For the Strength of Youth – 2001

The youth pamphlet For the Strength of Youth, written and approved by the First Presidency in 2001, states that should "not disfigure [themselves] with tattoos or body piercings."[4]

Margaret D. Nadauld – April 2002

The kind of young woman who can be a terrific torchbearer has high standards all the time, not just in her prom dress, but every, ordinary day. There are so many of you who are like that, and I salute you tonight. You have made modesty your way of life. It is more than how you dress. It includes at least six things that I can think of: (1) your behavior is decent and modest, and yet you are very fun to be with; (2) your language is never crude but happy and interesting; (3) you are well groomed, and that is appealing; (4) you are focused on developing your talents and achieving your goals, not piercing and tattooing and flaunting your body; (5) you play sports with gusto but never lose control; (6) you don’t seem to care about what the latest pop star wears or does because you have a certain style of your own. In summary, you do not imitate the world’s standards because you know a higher standard. You know who you are, and that puts you at a real advantage. You know that you really are a daughter of Heavenly Father. You know that He knows you and that He loves you; you want to please Him and honor His love for you. You know that even if you make foolish mistakes, He will help you if you turn to Him.[5]

Henry B. Eyring – April 2004

So many these days disfigure their bodies with tattoos. How shortsighted. These markings last for life. Once in place, they can not be removed except through a difficult and costly process. I can not understand why any girl would subject herself to such a thing. I plead with you to avoid disfigurement of this kind.[6]

Earl C. Tingey – April 2004

In the For the Strength of Youth booklet, the following standards, among others, are like a North Star to you: choose friends with high standards, do not disfigure your body with tattoos or body piercings, avoid pornography, do not listen to music that contains offensive language, do not use profanity, date only those who have high standards, remain sexually pure, repent as necessary, be honest, keep the Sabbath day holy, pay tithing, keep the Word of Wisdom.[7]

Julie B. Beck – April 2006

When you know who you are and what you should be doing with your life, you don’t want to hide your light. For instance, you would not want to “hide your light” by wearing clothing that diminishes your royal potential. You would not use improper language or stories or mar your body with tattoos or other procedures debasing for a daughter of royal birth.[8]

Gordon B. Hinckley – April 2007

At the April 2007 General Conference of the Church, President Gordon B. Hinckley said to “[b]e clean in body and dress and manner. Do not permit yourself to be tattooed. If you do, someday you will regret it. Only a painful and costly procedure can remove the tattoo.”[9]

Elaine S. Dalton – April 2008

The precious gift of your body enables you to exercise your agency and put your faith and obedience into action. Have you ever noticed that nearly all of Satan’s attacks are directed at your body? Pornography, immodesty, tattoos, immorality, drug abuse, and addictions are all efforts to take possession of this precious gift. This was a gift that was denied Satan. Obedience to the commandments and standards enables each of you to be steadfast and immovable in protecting the precious gifts of your agency and your body.[10]

James J. Hamula – October 2008

So, as we enter the final climactic stages of the war against Satan, be sober, my young friends. Understand that you cannot partake of drugs, alcohol, or tobacco. You cannot participate in pornography or other immoral activity. You cannot lie, cheat, or steal. You cannot use false, demeaning, or dirty language. You cannot deface your body with tattoos and other piercings. You cannot do these things and be victorious in the battle for your own soul, let alone be a valiant warrior in the great struggle for the souls of all the rest of our Father’s children.[11]

Boyd K. Packer – April 2009

Do not decorate your body with tattoos or by piercing it to add jewels. Stay away from that.[12]

Thomas S. Monsen – April 2010

Servants of the Lord have always counseled us to dress appropriately to show respect for our Heavenly Father and for ourselves. The way you dress sends messages about yourself to others and often influences the way you and others act. Dress in such a way as to bring out the best in yourself and those around you. Avoid extremes in clothing and appearance, including tattoos and piercings.[13]

D. Todd Christofferson – October 2010

Acknowledging these truths and the direction of President Thomas S. Monson in last April’s general conference, we would certainly not deface our body, as with tattoos; or debilitate it, as with drugs; or defile it, as with fornication, adultery, or immodesty.4 As our body is the instrument of our spirit, it is vital that we care for it as best we can. We should consecrate its powers to serve and further the work of Christ. Said Paul, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God” (Romans 12:1).[14]

For the Strength of Youth – 2011

The 2011 edition of For the Strength of Youth, echoing the 2001 edition, clearly states that one one should "not disfigure [themselves] with tattoos or body piercings."[15]

Elaine S. Dalton – April 2013

When you came to the earth, you were given the precious gift of a body. Your body is the instrument of your mind and a divine gift with which you exercise your agency. This is a gift that Satan was denied, and thus he directs nearly all of his attacks on your body. He wants you to disdain, misuse, and abuse your body. Immodesty, pornography, immorality, tattoos and piercings, drug abuse, and addictions of all kinds are all efforts to take possession of this precious gift—your body—and to make it difficult for you to exercise your agency.[16]

Dallin H. Oaks – February 2019

The Deseret News reported on February 10, 2019 that President Dallin H. Oaks told 65,000 at a devotional to avoid "tattoos, piercings, immodesty and pornography, calling such things 'grafitti on your personal temple.'"[17]

The Scriptural Case Against Tattoos

The scriptural record does not have much to say explicitly about tattoos. That said, we can still defend the Church’s standard from them.

Leviticus 19:28

One of the most explicit references to markings on the skin comes from Leviticus 19:28 which tells us “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you: I am the Lord.” The New Revised Standard Version translated this verse as “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord.” While this prohibition is associated with the Mosaic Law which was done away with Christ's atonement, this scripture can still be instructive for why Church leaders have felt spiritually moved to strongly discourage modern Saints from participating in this practice.

The Catholic Study Bible notes that “[t]his prohibition probably refers only to the common ancient Near Eastern practice of branding a slave with its owner’s name as well as branding the devotees of a god with its name.”[18] The question would then become “Why would God not want the Israelites to tattoo themselves in devotion to Him?” It must have something to do with their collective identity as a people. This was a common practice in the ancient Near East and God asked the Israelites to stand apart from their contemporaries. This will be important moving forward in our examination. That God at one instance has cared about tattoos is telling.

This standard also likely had to do with merely disfiguring the body and corrupting the beautiful gift of God given to them. Regarding this scripture, the NKJV Study Bible notes that “[t]he human body was designed by God, who intended it to be whole and beautiful. Disfiguring the body dishonored God, in whose image the person was created. Cutting one’s flesh for the dead and tattooing (or perhaps painting) one’s body had religious significance among Israel’s pagan neighbors. In Israel, such practices were a sign of rebellion against God.”[19]

1 Corinthians 3:16–17; 6:19–20

Top general Church leaders (as can be seen above) have most often cited a pair of scriptures from 1 Corinthians about our bodies being temples of God.

1 Corinthians 3:16–17 reads:

16 Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?
17 If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.

This scripture isn’t the best to use when justifying a prohibition on tattoos since Paul is here speaking to the local Church in Corinth. The scripture is making a warning to those from outside the Church that bring violence or other harm against those in the Church. It’s only in 6:19-20 that the word “temple” actually refers to the individual believer.[20]

1 Corinthians 6:19–20 reads:

19 What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?
20 For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.

This is a much better scripture to use when justifying a discouragement from getting tattoos. It testifies that our individual bodies are temples of God where the Holy Spirit can reside. By disfiguring them with tattoos we are disfiguring the creation of God. We should do what we can to take care of our bodies.

Becoming a Peculiar People

The scriptures repeatedly testify that God’s covenant people should be a peculiar people (Deuteronomy 14:2; 26:18; Psalms 135:4; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 2:9) and that we should be unspotted from the world (James 1:27; Doctrine and Covenants 59:9). By being given and following a strong discouragement on tattoos, we can achieve the goal of being peculiar. Not having tattoos becomes a social identifier—signifying that we are the Lord’s people and wish to be separate from the world.

This separateness can be essential in moving missionary work forward. People are interested in the Church because of the Church’s prohibition on tattoos (and other things obviously). Thus, we can achieve more convert baptisms by doing things that go against cultural grain. We can also achieve greater member retention. Indeed, one of the concerns of those that leave the Church is that they perceive that the Church isn’t unique enough among the world’s organizations, and they go elsewhere seeking to be unique and to be seen. Not getting tattoos, while annoying for some at times, can have delayed and even unseen consequences that can be beneficial for us as a people.

Jesus said that we should be a light on a hill and show forth our good works among men and women (Matthew 5:16). This is one way we can do that.

Becoming Meek, Humble, Lowly of Heart, Easy to be Entreated

Obeying this standard gives us a chance to practice being meek/humble/lowly of heart/easy to be entreated—a virtue we are bound by scripture to practice.

Doctrine and Covenants 21:4–5

Doctrine and Covenants 21:4–5 reads:

4 Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me;
5 For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.

This scripture binds us to giving heed unto all of the prophets words and commandments. Not getting tattoos when the prophet asks us to is one way we can apply this scripture.

Doctrine and Covenants 58:27–29

Doctrine and Covenants 58:27–29 reads:

27 Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;
28 For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.
29 But he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned.

Lovingly accepting the prophet's challenges to not get tattoos without having to have a revelation bind us to keeping this particular counsel is an excellent way we can apply this scripture.

Responding to Objections

Cultural Tattoos

Some have said that the Church does not have a like discouragement for members of, for instance, Polynesian cultures that get tattoos as a symbol of rank and status among one’s tribe. As evidence of this, they point to the costumes and tattoos of performers at the Polynesian Cultural Center.

The director of the Polynesian Cultural Center, P. Alfred Grace, was asked about this topic in 2016. His reply was insightful:

The cultural tattoos are actually something that we discourage our employees to use, because while there’s a good cause for it, a good reason, we also feel that there is a higher law, which is to recognize our bodies as temples. And so we’re comfortable with that. For some cultures, it’s still a very significant part of their identification from a rank and status point. For example, in Samoa, the full body tattoo from the chest down to the top of the thigh is still a significant recognition of chiefly rank, so we’re sensitive to that. And while we don’t encourage employees to go away and get it and then return to the PCC, if they come with those kind of markings, we accept it as part of their culture.[21]

Thus, there’s no real allowance or exception of members to get these tattoos. There’s a strong discouragement as there is in other nations where the Church is founded. There is merely a question of not ostracizing those that do get tattoos and come into the Church with them.

Plastic Surgery

Some have protested that those that get plastic surgery on any part of their body are also “disfiguring” their bodies. It might be said that there’s a difference between disfiguring of the body that tattoos bring and the refiguring of it that corrective surgeries most often have.

That mentioned, Elder Holland has warned Latter-day Saint women to not get caught up in beauty fashions of the day that they feel that they have to change every part of themselves to fit in.[22]

Cosmetic Tattoos

Some have pointed to the existence of women who tattoo eyebrows for beauty and balding men that tattoo their heads to give the appearance of a hairline. The Church hasn’t mentioned this specifically in its literature; but a response similar to the one about plastic surgery may be given here.

Medical Tattoos

Some also point to the existence of medical tattoos and suggest that these might be acceptable should the person need it. However, bracelets are a good replacement and are the official recommendation, for instance, for the Church’s missionary force.

1 Samuel 16:6–7

Some have said that the Church's standard is against biblical teaching. These critics cite 1 Samuel 16:6–7. Samuel is being directed by the Lord to anoint a new king over Israel among the sons of Jesse: David. Samuel finds Jesse and sees one of his sons Eliab. Samuel then states while looking at Eliab "Surely the Lord’s anointed is before him." To this the Lord responds "Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart."

Those who criticize the Church on these scriptural grounds assume that the scripture is justifying getting tattoos because what is most important is that you don't judge other people for expressing themselves.

The scripture here does not justify making love only attitudinal. The Lord has sized up the heart of Eliab to see if Eliab will do whatever the Lord asks him to in the position of king. This stance taken by critics deemphasizes the need to show love to the Lord and the prophets by being meek and lowly of heart and respecting the gift of our bodies that God gave us. It deemphasizes love for the prophets by encouraging us to not receive all of their words and commandments in all patience and faith and, as we learn often in Church, faith is a principle of action. As Christ said in John 14:15, "If ye love me, keep my commandments." Love, to Jesus, is about action. I can say I love God and the prophets until I'm blue in the face but it won't actually mean anything until I do something to show my love for them.

While we should never withhold friendship or love from those that convert to the Church with tattoos already placed nor from those that are already members and still get tattoos, we also shouldn't be permissive of breaking prophetic counsel.

Doesn't Hurt Others

A final objection to the standard is "It doesn't hurt others, so why should it be so strongly discouraged?" This objection seems to assume that the only things that can be considered right or wrong must have immediate, obvious consequences. But there are many norms that we hold that have delayed, unobvious, and/or sometimes unseen consequences. We're pretty bad as humans at holding to the latter and being patient. Those who have this concern should seek to identify the delayed yet beneficial consequences not getting tattoos provides for us. The moral goods described by the scriptures above are a good place to start.

Other Reasons to Not Get Tattoos

There are some other reasons to not get tattoos.

Donating Blood and/or Blood Plasma

One is that you can't donate blood plasma for at least a year after you get your tattoo. That is if you get your tattoo at a parlor that is not state regulated. When getting them at a state regulated parlor, you may be able to donate blood and/or plasma immediately after.

Job Employer Trust

While stigma surrounding tattoos has decreased dramatically in recent years, it is still a common preference among employers for their employees to not have tattoos. Not having tattoos will enhance your likelihood of obtaining jobs among employers who do not prefer tattoos and those who are indifferent to them.

Conclusion

While we may occasionally get annoyed at certain standards that comes from the Church, when we humbly follow what the Lord’s prophets have asked us to do, it can bring feelings of peace and comfort as well as success in building Zion.

Further Reading

Notes

  1. Vaughan J. Featherstone, “One Link Still Holds,” Ensign 29, no. 11 (November 1999).
  2. Gordon B. Hinckley, “Your Greatest Challenge, Mother,” Ensign 30, no. 11 (November 2000).
  3. Gordon B. Hinckley, “‘Great Shall be the Peace of thy Children’,” Ensign 30, no. 11 (November 2000).
  4. For the Strength of Youth: Fulfilling Our Duty to God (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2001), 16.
  5. Margaret D. Nadauld, “Hold High the Torch,” Ensign 32, no. 5 (May 2002): 97.
  6. Henry B. Eyring, “In the Strength of the Lord,” Ensign 34, no. 5 (May 2004): 114.
  7. Earl C. Tingey, “For the Strength of Youth,” Ensign 34, no. 5 (May 2004): 50.
  8. Julie B. Beck, “You Have a Noble Birthright,” Ensign 36, no. 5 (May 2006): 107.
  9. Gordon B. Hinckley, “I Am Clean,” Ensign 37, no. 5 (May 2007): 62.
  10. Elaine S. Dalton, “At All Times, in All Things, and in All Places,” Ensign 38, no. 5 (May 2008): 107.
  11. James J. Hamula, “Winning the War Against Evil,” Ensign 38, no. 11 (November 2008): 51.
  12. Boyd K. Packer, “Counsel to Young Men,” Ensign 39, no. 5 (May 2009): 50.
  13. Thomas S. Monsen, “Preparation Brings Blessings,” Ensign 40, no. 5 (May 2010): 65.
  14. D. Todd Christofferson, “Reflections on a Consecrated Life,” Ensign 40, no. 11 (November 2010): 17.
  15. For the Strength of Youth (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2011), 7.
  16. Elaine S. Dalton, “Be Not Moved!Ensign 43, no. 5 (May 2013): 123.
  17. Tad Walch, "President Russell M. Nelson tells 65,000 of the faith's 'Arizona battalion' to strengthen themselves and others," Deseret News, February 19, 2019.
  18. Donald Senior, John J. Collins, and Mary Ann Getty, eds., The Catholic Study Bible, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 160.
  19. Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald B. Allen, and H. Wayne House, eds., NKJV Study Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 191.
  20. Ibid., 1801.
  21. Jannalee Sandau, “Why There Are Tattoos and Strapless Costumes at the Polynesian Cultural Center,” LDS Living, November 2, 2016, https://www.ldsliving.com/Why-There-Are-Tattoos-Strapless-Costumes-at-the-Polynesian-Cultural-Center/s/83359.
  22. Jeffrey R. Holland, “To Young Women,” Ensign 35, no. 11 (November 2005): 29–30.