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To Mask or Not to Mask? Lessons from the 16th Century

June 20th, 2020 | 5 min read

By Brad Littlejohn

Here in my native Virginia, our governor issued an executive order effective May 29, requiring the wearing of masks in any public indoor setting, including church services. My own congregation, and most that I am acquainted with, cheerfully complied, but I know of others in the state that have defied the order as an intolerable violation of their religious liberty. Now, as coronavirus cases are spiking again in states that have refused to require masks, more cities and states are introducing similar ordinances, which is likely to provoke conflict among more restive churches.

Setting aside entirely the question of what one personally thinks of mask-wearing and its use as a preferred tool of virus containment, the task of church leaders is simply to determine whether they should deem themselves bound to obey decrees from civil authorities about what to wear in worship. Is this a violation of Christian liberty in some way?

Thankfully, this is one question where we don’t even have to stretch to draw wisdom from the past. The Protestant Reformers faced this exact question–not about masks, to be sure, but about whether civil authorities can command something to be worn in worship services. The most famous such controversy took place in the 1560s and was known as the Second Vestiarian Controversy.

Early on in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, a fierce controversy rocked her young Protestant church, threatening to pit some of her most passionately Protestant ministers against their Protestant monarch.  The conflict surrounded the use of certain clerical vestments–distinctive garments worn by the priests during worship services–that were carry-overs from the medieval Catholic past. Although most of the Catholic garments had been dispensed with, for many of the more zealous reformers in her Church, those that remained were “popish rags,” “relics of the Amorites,” that no Protestant minister should be caught dead in. For Elizabeth, however, they ensured dignity and uniformity in a church that had seen more than its fair share of conflict and upheaval in recent decades; more importantly, the outward similarity to Catholic liturgical garb was intentional: it helped reassure restive Catholics at home and abroad, reducing the risks of rebellion and invasion–two threats that bedeviled England throughout Elizabeth’s long reign.

Desperate for allies in their struggle against the Queen and her bishops, who dutifully enforced her orders, several of these protesting ministers sought advice from famous Protestant leaders on the Continent, hoping that they would lend the immense weight of their reputations to the ministers’ noble struggle for the liberty of the church. They were sorely disappointed. The most important leader of all, Heinrich Bullinger in Zurich, who had considerable influence over the English bishops and was known to personally detest vestments and ceremonial of any kind, wrote a long letter effectively admonishing them to get over themselves and get in line.

Several passages of it remain exceptionally relevant and instructive today, especially to conflicts in churches over mask-wearing orders.

Whether these men, which hitherto have used their liberty, may now with safe conscience bring themselves and their Church into bondage, through the commandment of the prince?

I answer thus. I think they ought to take heed, lest by odious disputing, exclaiming, and striving for apparel, and by this importunate dealing, occasion be offered to the prince’s Majesty, not to leave the matter any longer in their choice, who have hitherto used this liberty, and that she being incensed with necessary clamors, command them either to wear that apparel, or to give over their charges. Truly it seemeth very strange unto me (be it spoken, my worshipful and dear brethren, without your offence) that you so persuade yourselves, that you can by no means with a safe conscience submit yourselves and your congregations to the bondage of apparel, and do not rather weigh with yourselves, if ye refuse to wear a thing mere politic and indifferent, and odiously content always, unto what manner of bondage you submit yourselves and your churches to wolves, or at the least wise to unfit teachers, who are not so able to edify the people, as ye yourselves are. Do you set your churches at liberty, when you minister the occasion to oppress them with more and with greater burdens?

Here we find Bullinger making an important prudential point: those who abuse their liberty may soon have it taken from them. In the Elizabethan context, this was a very real threat. Elizabeth did not welcome disagreement, to say the least, and ministers who refused to comply on the issue of vestments were liable to end up deprived of their pastorates and replaced with more pliable priests. In our own context, the threat is not quite so near and clear; in most jurisdictions, mask violations have so far gone largely unenforced, and it’s hard to imagine any spineless governor having the gumption to lock up a defiant pastor over this issue. But in the larger and longer view, Bullinger’s warning is startlingly apropos. The church faces urgent and growing threats to religious liberty. We have to pick our battles very carefully. And churches that insist on their religious liberty to defy public health mandates can hardly be surprised if folks become less sympathetic to them when they insist on their religious liberty to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

Whether the apparel of the clergy, be a thing indifferent?

Surely it seemeth to be an indifferent thing, in so much as it is a mere civil thing, appointed for decency, seemliness, and for order, wherein is put no religion.

Whether the prescribing of apparel, be agreeable with Christian liberty?

I answer. That indifferent things may sometimes be prescribed, yea, and also constrained to, as I may term it, as touching the use, but not as of necessity, that is, that any indifferent thing of his own nature should be forced to a man’s conscience, and thereby a kind of religion charged to his conscience. The times and places of holy assemblies, are rightly accounted to be indifferent: and yet if there be no order prescribed therein, I pray you what confusion and mis-order would ryse hereby?

Whether that any constitution of men, are to be tolerated in the Church, which albeit they are not wicked of their own nature, yet do help to edification never a whit?

I answer. That if the constitutions, which the prince’s Majesty would enjoin you to be without impiety, you must rather bear with them, than forsake your churches. For if edifying the church, be chiefly to be considered in this behalf: surely then in leaving the Church, we shall more destroy it, than in wearing apparel. And where there is no impiety, nor the conscience is not offended, there ought we to give over our vocations, although there be some kind of servitude thereby laid upon us. And in the mean time, it may be a question, whether we may rightly comprehend the matter of apparel under the name of bondage, in respect that it serveth for comeliness and order.”

In these excerpts, Bullinger makes the case that Christian liberty is not violated by mere legal constraint–clearly not, otherwise there would be no room for civil laws at all, as Richard Hooker would later point out. In things that are in themselves “indifferent,” that is, neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture, we can be required in particular circumstances to do them or not to do them, and that’s fine so long as no one makes them a matter of spiritual necessity, the way the Catholic church had done with many ceremonies, including vestments.

In his situation, the argument for the vestments was comparatively weak (“comeliness and order”), compared with the argument for mask-wearing (protecting your neighbor and community from deadly infection), and yet even so, he questioned whether it was reasonable to think of this requirement as a form of servitude. And even if it were a form of servitude, it was one worth bearing with for the time, rather than bringing the church into reproach.

My hope is that most Christian leaders will recognize the wisdom in this classic understanding of Christian liberty, love of neighbor, and civil obedience.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (PhD University of Edinburgh, 2013) is a Senior Fellow with the Edmund Burke Foundation and President of the Davenant Institute, author in the fields of Reformation studies, Christian ethics, and political theology.