Joseph F. Smith's Beard and the Public Image of the Latter-day Saints
Joseph F. Smith : Reflections on the Man and His Times
Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center, BYU; Deseret Book
Following the Civil War, it became common for American men to sport a “natural, dignified beard.” These men’s whiskers were rarely muttonchops or mustaches but rather long, bushy chin fur. Apparently this type of facial hair grew so popular during the American Gilded Age (1877–1893) that it became known as “the American beard.” Yet, by the early 1900s—seemingly overnight—this trend turned old-fashioned and out of style. In fact, by the time Joseph F. Smith became President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1901, shaggy beards graced only the “cheeks and chins of rustic sages.”
At this time in early twentieth-century America, Latter-day Saints were already experiencing negative public opinion. Outsiders believed that the Mormon headmen unlawfully practiced plural marriage, swore themselves to secret allegiances, and unethically used their ecclesiastical influence over other members. Thus, to non-Mormons, long beards, which were noticeably outdated and unpopular in American culture, could be seen as another subtle expression of nonconformity with the rest of the United States and as a reflection of the Latter-day Saints’ isolation in the Great Basin.
This chapter is not intended to criticize, tease, or lampoon any former Latter-day Saint leaders. Rather, this chapter is an attempt to understand the rise and fall of bushy beards in American fashion during the latter half of the nineteenth century and to provide context to the negative public perception of Joseph F. Smith and other seasoned Latter-day Saint leaders’ long beards when such facial hair was noticeably outmoded in the rest of the United States at the turn of the century. This chapter will also explore ways in which Reed Smoot and his clean-cut countenance helped improve the public image of the Latter-day Saints when the Church stood trial for the practice of plural marriage from 1903 to 1907. [From the text]