When I was studying at Newbold College in England in the 1960’s students were not allowed to grow beards. I do not remember whether there was any clear rationale for this rule. It was simply how it was. A little later I spent just over a year studying at Andrews University in the United States, to earn a masters degree in theology. One of the most memorable classes (Introduction to the New Testament) was team-taught by three professors: Dr. Sakae Kubo, Dr. Earl Hilgert and Dr. Herold Weiss. Professor Weiss was the youngest of the trio and was just starting his academic career. He came under heavy criticism from some members of the university staff because his comportment supposedly lacked in dignity. He not only had a red sports car, but also grew a beard! Imagine: a theology professor with a beard!
The beard has an interesting history in some Christian circles, including Adventism. Once upon a time most Christian leaders had beards. Just look at pictures of the Adventist pioneers and you only see heavily bearded men. Many actually believed that wearing a beard was a God-given symbol of masculinity and that there were a number of Bible texts that were explicit about not shaving off one’s beard. But times (and ideas) changed and gradually the faces of the denominational leaders became clean-shaven. However, dear reader, we now once again seem to have reached a turning point. Turn to the Adventist Review or to some other Adventist media and find a recent picture of the world president of the church, and you will find that pastor Ted Wilson has grown a substantial beard.
What do we make of this? Did brother Ted get up one morning, look in the mirror and conclude that a beard would make him look more impressive? Or did his wife Nancy suggest a change in his appearance? No, there is more to it.
This year’s Annual Council of the Seventh-day Adventist Church will be held in the city of Battle Creek, Michigan, the cereal capital of the United States and the headquarters of the large Kellogg corporation. But until a little more than a century ago it was also the headquarters of the Adventist movement. A historic village is an educational reminder of the denominational past. Many Adventists who visit Battle Creek make sure to also go to the Oak Hill Cemetery and pass by the graves of Ellen White and her family and of many of the early Adventist leaders. The General Conference decided that its most important annual meeting of 2018 was to be held in this city that has so much Adventist history. And Wilson suggested that it would be fitting for the men who would attend this meeting to enter into the atmosphere of the past by growing a beard and even by wearing some period costumes. (I have no idea how many of the participants will actually comply with this suggestion.)
When I first heard of this plan I could hardly believe it. I just hope the secular media will not find out about this, for they might well poke fun at a church that combines a costume party with serious church business. The whole idea, it seems to me, reflects a nostalgic desire to relive the past, as if the hope of our church is a return to the Battle Creek era. Unfortunately, there is on the part of many fellow-Adventist believers a strong feeling that early Adventism represents true Adventism and that the church must go back to its beginnings. I just hope that during the upcoming Battle Creek meetings the delegates will not only be reminded of the positive aspects of our beginnings, but will also hear about all the things that went wrong and why it was necessary to leave Battle Creek and make a new start elsewhere. And perhaps the top leadership should also be reminded that it was in Battle Creek that the erstwhile leaders were sharply criticized for their tendency to exert ‘kingly power’ rather than servant leadership. A repeat of that criticism would seem very timely in the present phase of our denominational existence.