If Brigham Young wanted to enroll at his namesake university, he’d have to shave his beard. A number of other former Latter-day Saint prophets would have to do the same.
Warner Woodworth, an emeritus professor from Brigham Young University, argues that’s just wrong. So he launched a Change.org petition (with nearly 1,000 signatures) urging the flagship school of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to end its prohibition on whiskers.
Others have tried before to overturn the decades-old beard ban but failed. Still, Woodworth is confident this push will succeed. In these edited excerpts from The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast, Woodworth talks about his bid to “bring back the beard” at BYU.
Why did you think it was important to do this now?
During COVID, we had hundreds of male faculty on campus and thousands ... of male students wearing beards because they weren’t in class. They were doing stuff on Zoom or on their computer somehow or other. And they said how liberating and how wonderful it was. I’ve been the beard club adviser — we’ve had four beard clubs over the last 15 to 20 years — and about every four or five years, a bunch of students would come and say, “Warner, we want to change the policy. We grew beards this summer or we grow beards every week, but we have to shave them to go to the testing center or an absurd thing happens.” And so we’ve tried this a few times and had some petitions ... but I was not directly involved in any of those. Now, I’m saying this seems like the perfect time because of the last year and the fact that the university keeps evolving.
Have you heard from BYU administrators on the petition?
No, they usually don’t respond to me until I’m starting to get real radical and verbal. So far, it’s low-key, because I want a lot of people to sign, not fearing for their futures. Students were already afraid that they might lose their position on campus if they sign it. I’m confident that when we get a couple of thousand, we’ll be going over and have a meeting with my good friend Kevin Worthen, the president of BYU.
How long have you had your beard?
Since the day I left BYU. And, like many faculty, when summer came, if we weren’t teaching, we grew beards or mustaches or both. I worked around the world every year or so. Whenever I would travel to the refugee camps in Jordan or [or to those] fighting poverty in Brazil or Mozambique, Africa, or whatever, the beard would start out, and then it was tough to come back and shave it.
Why do you think the school should lift the ban on beards?
Having a beard is a matter of personal choice. It’s not a matter of religion. The beard ban grew out of some cultural, power mongers in BYU history who wanted to get rid of the beard because in the ‘60s, believing if you had a beard, you were anti-Vietnam War, you were a protester, you were a rabble-rouser, and certainly that was true for myself, who was a student then with a beard. And we marched down the streets of Provo and in Salt Lake and on campus … against the war. And that disturbed a certain former president so he manipulated things to have beards banned. We’re saying, “Well, that was then.” Now, many CEOs, many officials in government in Washington and state governments across the country have beards. So do most of our cultural icons, a lot of them anyway, whether it’s Hollywood or the NFL or the NBA or whatever. We’re saying, let’s ban that crazy idea and let students live lives where there’s no ethical or moral or LDS principle being violated.
Sometimes BYU’s rules are seen as Mormonism on steroids, reaching way beyond what the church itself teaches. Is the beard ban an example of that?
Some women who happen to like beards signed the petition saying, “I want my husband to have a beard.” And guys who have said, “I won’t go to BYU until I can have a beard.” So I agree that the school’s Mormonism on steroids. It’s pretty similar to some ancient religious practices by the Pharisees and Sadducees who focused on outward aspects of living righteously that have zero to do with love and charity and service and blessing the poor and praying to God but are just outward symbols trying, I think, to suggest, “We’re good people.”