On Masks

A couple weeks ago, I was going to write a quick fun post asking whether, in a post-pandemic world, the church would start letting people wear masks to church Halloween parties.[fn1] After all, in the phased resumption of sacrament meeting, members can be encouraged to wear facemasks. And if at sacrament meeting, why not at Halloween?

To write the post, I did a quick Google search to see if the internet had any explanation of the origins of the church’s ban on masks. And you know what? If you Google “mormon no masks,” you get a lot of hits about the church’s mask-making activities and, right at the top, Elder Cook’s 2012 BYUI devotional titled, of all things, “Don’t Wear Masks.”

In his devotional, Elder Cook explains that masks allow us to disguise ourselves and to act out of character. He gives, as an example of why would shouldn’t wear masks (literal, of course, but I think his main point is more figurative), the hoods that members of the Ku Klux Klan wear. Those hoods allowed members of the KKK to hide their identities, and

hiding their identity and wearing a mask enabled them to participate in activities that they would normally have avoided. Their conduct had a terrible impact on American society.

Note that Elder Cook does not at any point argue that this is the origin of the church’s ban on masks. Like I said, while his example is literal, he seems to focus more on the figurative—mask as an excuse to act out of character. That hasn’t stopped some people from reading Elder Cook’s devotional as somehow an anachronistic explanation for a preexisting policy.

That’s clearly not why we don’t allow masks, and I don’t know the origins of the policy (though if you do, please feel free to mention it in the comments!), but 2020 provides some correctives to what we believed in 2012.

I mean, Elder Cook’s not wrong: masks allow us to disguise our identities and act out of character.[fn2] But that’s not all they do.

As we’ve learned over the last couple months, they allow us to protect and show our love for our neighbor. The masks we’ve been asked to wear provide very little protection for the wearer. But they protect people around us from our illness. And, to the extent enough of us wear masks, we can prevent exponential growth, avoiding future waves of disease even with less stringent lockdowns.

Masks—whether of the Spiderman costume type or the prevent-Covid-spread type—are uncomfortable and inconvenient. I get that. I agree. But they also allow us to show our love for neighbor—with the mildest personal inconvenience—and protect our economy and our homes.

So yes, Elder Cook was right in 2012 that one consequences of mask-wearing can be the ability to disguise ourselves and do things that we shouldn’t do. But 2020 has taught us that that’s an incomplete view of masks: they can also help us to follow the Second Great Commandment and show our love to our fellow people.


[fn1] Note that under the new Handbook, section 20.6.25 prohibits the church from sponsoring activities that “involve wearing masks, except in dramatic productions.”

[fn2] I’m actually researching the KKK right now for an article. Their hoods were meant to disguise them and to terrorize African Americans. They were also, however, performative, meant to send messages to Radical Republicans and Southern Democrats. And they also served as branding. They (the KKK and their hoods) were evil in every possible way, but they didn’t solely serve one purpose.

Comments

  1. Bob Dylan says only people that wear masks are the ones that can tell the truth. He also said this when he wasn’t wearing a mask.

  2. I always got the feeling that it was just a carry over from elementary school policies. The schools say no masks, so we should say no masks too.
    An other thought would be that older adults wouldn’t be able to identify the hoards of children when they all wear masks, and the people making the policies are older adults. So all it takes is the right Apostle to think during a ward party “Man, I’d rather see all of the kids faces. I wish they weren’t wearing masks.” and church wide policy is made.

  3. UTManMI says:

    Here’s a poem a good friend showed me once about wearing masks. I used it as the basis of a sacrament meeting talk I gave about being more real with each other at Church, something we are not very prone to do.

    We Wear the Mask
    BY PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR

    We wear the mask that grins and lies,
    It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
    This debt we pay to human guile;
    With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
    And mouth with myriad subtleties.

    Why should the world be over-wise,
    In counting all our tears and sighs?
    Nay, let them only see us, while
    We wear the mask.

    We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
    To thee from tortured souls arise.
    We sing, but oh the clay is vile
    Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
    But let the world dream otherwise,
    We wear the mask!

  4. Back in the 1960s when I was a teen, masks were not allowed at church for Halloween or drama activities such as roadshows. One year I was Froggie in a roadshow (sadly I still remember my lyrics for my big song, “I am known as Froggie throughout the kingdom fair, and tomorrow I will marry my froggy sweetheart Claire…”) I could have no mask, but lots and lots of green makeup.

  5. We should not wear masks because masks allow us to act out of character or engage in activities that we normally would avoid.

    Also: We should wear masks because masks allow us to act out of character or engage in activities that we normally would avoid.

    The moral valence of a mask depends on what we are trying to do.

  6. Rumor back in the 50s was that clear back to Nauvoo, when Joseph Smith had enemies, he didn’t want his enemies sneaking into costume parties.

    I don’t know if that is the actual origin of the policy, but that was what we were told as kids.

    But then enough make up and the right outfit and people can’t be recognized. I still remember one Halloween in the 50s when one of the neighborhood boys came in blackface, complete with a dress and his blond hair blackened and tied in little knotted rag pieces. Nobody recognized him the whole party, and he was making people down right nervous because they could not figure out which little girl from the ward “she” was. Today it would be terribly inappropriate, but in the 50s, in Provo where most of us had never even seen a real live black person….well I suppose it was still terribly inappropriate. But dressing in blackface was not seen as anything unusual back then, any more than dressing up as cowboys or Indians. What was scandalizing back then was that a boy would dress as a girl. That was what horrified the fuddy-duddies.

  7. Growing up, I was always taught that masks weren’t allowed because they covered our true countenances and yes, they give us anonymity to do things that are evil and not in good character. (Elder Cook was in my ward and was our stake president, too, when I was a kid, so this reasoning behind no masks was pretty much the standard thought where I was.)

    However, nowadays, we all need to wear masks!! To counteract the evil of hiding my face, I make sure my masks are super duper cute.

  8. Baby don't hurt me says:

    What is love? Interesting take there. Not so much interested in the utility of masks debate. But the concept of loving Christlike behavior being the motivator or even the sign behind the act. (If anything, I’d suggest it’s more one of humble submission to all things)

    I imagine when Christ said we should love others as he has loved us he meant much more than “hide the possibility of your germs getting aerosoled at the right moment of time, while someone is walking in the opposite direction who might ingest sufficient quantities of your germs, while you have a non-zero probability of being infected, and their immune system and genetic makeup respond in a way that causes sickness — this is how I have shown love unto you, that which you suppose I would do in the company of the asymptomatic, do ye also”.

    We don’t need to deal mask wearing in the mantle of Christ like love to get others to do it. Or if we do, we are really living far beneath our responsibility and privileges when it comes to teaching what is love.

    Indeed, Christ did nothing of the sort; he even, shared and encouraged activities where he and others shared germs as they made covenants in remembrance of him.

    While I understand that kind of interpretation encourages or potentially leads to a lot of uncomfortable traditional fundamentalism, I can see a progressive fundamentalism in the statement that wearing your mask is an act of Christlike love of neighbor.

    I suppose to the extent that standing at the crosswalk, blowing your nose into a Kleenex, and not speeding os Christian love, you have a point.

    But I feel it misses something important.

  9. Weirdly, I was unaware the church had a problem with masks (pre-covid). Not sure how I missed this one, maybe it’s not a Calif thing…?

  10. Geoff - Aus says:

    It will be interesting to see how many masks at the Trump rally later in the week with its racist overtones.

  11. It’s reputationally risky to commit to this before doing my homework, but I think the rule against masks at church parties is relatively recent, certainly within my lifetime and no earlier than the mid 1960s. And I think assigning the reason for that ban to experiences of Joseph Smith’s lifetime is, um, hogwash. Elder Cook isn’t the first to suggest that, but he’s the one to enshrine it in a Conference talk, where people can now read it back into the past as if it had always been a rule justified by those 1830s experiences. I think that’s presentist history.

    The Children’s Friend used to have covers for Halloween issues with [cartoon] children in masks, in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

    When my mother was a Cub Scout den mother in the ‘60s, one of the Cubs’ activities that I was so jealous of one year was the making of masks. Mom made huge amounts of salt dough which the boys used to model hideous faces. Then they laid papier-mache over that base to make a thin shell, and when it was dry they painted the masks and cut eye-holes and tied strings near the ears to tie the masks to their faces. This was in suburban Salt Lake, and my mother and at least some of the Cubs’ mothers were rule followers; they were all LDS. No ban then.

    As if 2020 could be any worse, I’m sitting up tonight with a beloved and dying cat. When I feel like it, I’ll see if I can at least find some CF covers to send to Sam for posting. In the meantime I’ll stick my neck out with this impression. Too bad the CF is not scanned and online — I’d bet we could even find some patterns or suggestions for making masks as an activity there in the early-mid 20th century.

  12. Kristine N says:

    Ardis, I’m so sorry. It’s so hard when a beloved pet dies. I’m still sad about a couple of the cats my family had when I was a kid.

  13. Thanks, Kristine. CJ made it through the night, and a few minutes ago she drank a little water. Not enough, but she’s interested so I’ll keep offering it to her.

    On masks, I’ve found one Halloween cover from the Chiildren’s Friend, October 1960, showing cartoon children wearing masks over their eyes and heads (not their lower faces). I also found a reference in a 1957 Te Kerare (the mission magazine of New Zealand), where the “Primary Page” instructs local people on how to adapt materials from Salt Lake to local conditions: “Although we do not celebrate Halloween here in this country the children can have a lot of fun. Follow instructions for mask-making from the teacher’s kit. You could divide your class …” which demands some follow-up when CHL is open again in the lesson manuals for the ’50s and ’60s for mask-making activities.

    Probably more interesting is what I am not finding: I can find no discussion in the Improvement Era or Relief Society Magazine about the wearing of masks (lots of “dropping the mask of hypocrisy” metaphorical uses, and a regular advertisement for a Salt Lake costume company that includes masks prominent in their advertising) — you’d think with the much heavier social calendar at Church in the 20th century that if masks were a problem, there would have been some discussion about not wearing them and why. Absolute silence, though.

  14. Thank you, Ardis! That’s absolutely fascinating!

    And I’m so sorry about CJ. I hope both of you can be well.

  15. We wore masks when I was a very young boy in Eastern Tennessee in the early 70’s. We were a District soon to become a Stake at the time.

    I figured Ardis or J. Stapley might have some insight here from old manuals and magazines.

    I think Halloween has long been problematic for certain members of our Church who look upon it as having too close of a relationship with the occult and the dark forces in the world. For me I perceive this has long had a connection to the discomfort with masks. Both the anonymity that comes with masks and the potential to encourage dark misbehavior. A Bishop in one Ward I attended refused to allow us to call it a Halloween party but instead would only allow an Autumn celebration.

    This is also part of the reason why I believe this ban on masks has a much later genesis (60’s into the 70’s) as the Church grappled with social changes of great enormity including the change of Halloween from being a simple affair of child’s play.

  16. Benjamin says:

    Strangely, I never assumed there was any doctrinal or cultural meaning behind the policy. It just made good security sense. How do you secure the safety of children if you can identify neither them not the parents*?

    As far back as I can remember, this policy has always been limited to church sponsored activities. The recommendation has never, so far as I recall, been suggested for personal practice.

    * Yeah, parental responsibility. But I’d say this is a policy that operates in reality instead of idealism.

  17. nobody, really says:

    Halloween – I’ve been told that the prohibition on masks at church events is because the people there should be able to recognize others, identify people who are visiting, and have a good idea if someone is there who shouldn’t be – people on the sex offender registry come to mind.

    Our state health department has published guidelines that flat-out require masks from the time you enter the building until the time you leave, with only a quick removal for the elements of communion.

  18. I must have been three or four so it would have been in the late 60s that the junior Sunday School in our ward put on a presentation for the senior Sunday School (aka our moms and dads). My class was supposed to sing “If you chance to meet a frown.” Our teacher made us all paper plate masks, with holes for the eyes, and a frown cut from construction paper, which was then attached to the plate with a brad, so that at the appropriate moment we could all “turn the frown upside-down” and change it into a smile, as directed by the song. Even if we hadn’t been far more interested in playing with our smile/frowns than in singing, I doubt that our words would have been comprehensible through the masks, but I definitely remember standing in a row with a bunch of other kids in the chapel, paper plates tied over our faces.

  19. Buom Tran says:

    Happy Wheels

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