Why are so many bloggers talking about modesty recently? Prepare to know.
As a young man writing about human nature David Hume analyzed several common virtues. When he got to modesty and chastity he ran into a problem. On the one hand, society needs healthy families, but on the other, men have a lot of reasons to avoid being good husbands and fathers. What happens when a man finds out the child he thinks is his isn’t? That’s a problem. Hume saw that men won’t be good fathers if they don’t feel reasonably confident that their mouths-to-feed have a biological connection to them (leaving adoption aside). Men need a guarantee. So how do we rest their fears? Hume’s solution is modesty.
Well, chastity really solves the issue. If women stay virtuous, there won’t be any problems (since women always know who they gave birth to, unchaste men won’t cause them confusion). But Hume was a practical man. People have sex in private. He knew that society can’t constrain lascivious acts done behind closed doors. Hume advised that society should shame women into modesty so that they’ll be more chaste. As modesty increases men will feel more assured that their wives stay faithful. The men will then believe they sired the children the women produce, and the great wheel of social order will continue. No joke.
Let’s not crucify Hume for such an uneven approach to modesty. While blunt, Hume hardly broke new ground. In fact, some readers might applaud Hume’s insight. They shouldn’t. Using modesty to curtail chastity issues creates other serious problems, which I will come back to later. We can do better with both virtues by unhinging them and reimaging them. In this series I’ll present how.
This discussion couldn’t be timelier. Mormon modesty rhetoric has exploded in the last decade. In the 1990s only three General Conference speakers discussed modesty. In the 2000s that number shot up to twenty-one. The next highest decade after the 2000s was the 60s, with only eight speakers discussing modesty. BYU devotionals show the same trend. Nearly as many speakers discussed modesty in the last decade as the three previous decades combined (ten and eleven respectively). There are also more articles in the church magazines now more than ever before, especially The Friend. Almost every speaker focused on female modesty, and most of them linked it to sexual purity as Hume did.
Church leaders have connected female modesty to they way they dress for decades. Brigham Young may have been the first to link the two. Here is a selection of his that modern leaders sometimes quote:
It is displeasing to the Spirit of the Lord for persons to array themselves in any way whatever that is disgusting to the eye of the pure and the prudent…. If they were to see an angel, they would see a being beautifully but modestly dressed, white, comely and nice to look upon. (Young, 162)
Interestingly, though, here is the part of that talk they never quote:
The present custom of many is such that I would as soon see a squaw go through the streets with a very little on, as to see clothing piled up until it reaches, perhaps, the top of the hedge or fence its wearer is passing. (161)
Brigham goes on to complain about women wearing too much fabric.
Then another fashion is to wear their dresses short in front, walking through the streets, and a long train dragging in the dirt behind. How unbecoming! This is not modesty, gentility, or good taste.
For Brigham immodesty meant too much clothing.
Joseph F. Smith was the first speaker to discuss modesty as a way of dressing to protect against sexual immorality.
…never, I say, within the period of my life and experience have I seen such obscene, uncleanly, impure, and suggestive fashions of women’s dress as I see today. (October General Conference 1913)
He gave this sermon in 1913. I scoured the internet for the most risqué dress from the 1910s. I think I found it:
And here’s a scandalous swimming suit pic (caution, possibly NSFW):
(alas, not even the toes are uncovered)
Even with the fairly exposed chest from the dress, Joseph F. Smith’s position would come across as absurd today. Even so, Smith set the tone for modesty rhetoric that’s lasted for a century. (On a side note, Smith delivered this talk one year before the first commercial bra was invented.) In the next post I’ll discuss current modesty rhetoric and why it’s causing inadvertent harm.
Why has modesty rhetoric increased so dramatically in the last decade? Please speculate.
 For counting purposes, I only included talks that (a) made a substantive reference to modesty (e.g. if only mentioned as part of a list of virtues I didn’t count it), and (b) treated modesty as a doctrinal topic (e.g. if the speaker said something like, “he had a false modesty” I didn’t count it).