Creating religion in our image

We were listening to some old-time music during a drive last week, and up came a song by David “Stringbean” Akeman, a banjo player and singer who had been a star of the Grand Old Opry in the 1950s and the TV show Hee Haw in the 1970s.

Why do you bob your hair, girls? It is an awful shame
To rob the head God gave you and wear the flapper’s name.
You’ve taken off your covering, it is an awful sin.
Don’t ever bob your hair, girls, short hair belongs to men.

Jessica, my wife, is a lifelong Baptist, and she knows the Bible much better than her husband, a backslidden Methodist. She was able to quote pretty accurately the biblical authority for the prohibition on hair bobbing: “Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.” (I Corinthians 11:14-15)

Stringbean recorded “Don’t Bob Your Hair, Girls” in the early 1960s, but as the lyrics suggest (“wear the flapper’s name”), the song originated earlier. Alfred Reed, a Virginia musician, wrote and recorded it in 1927. The song was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek comment on women’s changing image and status in society.

Others took the “New Woman” more seriously. In 1941, John R. Rice, a Baptist minister from Texas, published Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers. (He was against all three.) On the bobbed hair issue, Rice wrote:

I remember a time when every good woman, that is every one who was not a harlot, received the utmost respect from practically every man….But today the masculine, rebellious woman has lost the reverence and respect good women once inspired in all men. Oh, women, what have you lost when you lost your femininity! When you bobbed your hair, you bobbed your character, too. Your rebellion against God’s authority as exercised by husband and father, has a tendency, at least, to lose you all the things that women value most. If you want reverence and respect from good men, if you want protection and a good home and love and steadfast devotion, then I beg you to take a woman’s place! Dress like a woman, not like a man. Have habits like a woman…. And if you want God to especially bless you when you pray, then have on your head a symbol of the meek and quiet spirit which in the sight of God is of such a great price.

Rice started his ministry in the 1920s as a member of the Southern Baptist Convention, but he broke with the SBC in 1927 over its openness to modernist ideas. Southern Baptists were too liberal for him! But this was well before the so-called conservative takeover of the SBC in the 1980s and 1990s, when the association boycotted Disney over its promotion of gay rights, changed from pro-choice to anti-abortion, and formally announced that wives should submit to their husbands. With J. Frank Norris and others, Rice founded the Independent Fundamentalist Baptists.

So anyway, we heard Stringbean telling women not to bob their hair, and it got me thinking.

I thought about Baptists. I ask students in my History of American religion course, “What do Baptists believe?” We finally conclude with the answer, “Darned near everything.” For example, some Baptists are Calvinists and believe in predestination (only those chosen by God at the beginning of time will go to heaven; there is nothing we can do about it). Some are Armenian and believe in free will (salvation is our choice and a result of our action and belief). It’s hard to imagine a broader spectrum than that—until you discover that some Baptists are Universalists, which means they believe everyone is going to heaven.

Some Baptists have tried to keep women out of the pulpit, and then there’s Oakhurst Baptist Church.

I thought about Methodists. I was raised Methodist (my father was a Methodist minister), and even though I haven’t been to a regular service in a long time, I still think of myself as a cultural Methodist.

Hearing a song that united the Bible with efforts to keep women in their place reminded me that a few weeks ago, leaders of the United Methodist Church met to discuss a possible change to the church’s policy that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Specifically, progressives in the church hoped to win acceptance of homosexual clergy and the ability to perform same-sex weddings.

Progressives lost; the church voted not only to keep the existing policy, but to strengthen its enforcement. “The Bible tells us that we need to stay faithful to the Word,” said one delegate at the conference; the church’s current policy “is God’s plan, it’s the will of God, it is the biblical way.”

David S. Williams, in From Mounds to Megachurches: Georgia’s Religious Heritage, wrote favorably about the role of Methodism and of people like Frances Pauley and Dorothy Tilly in the civil rights movement. He offered this snippet from the 1950s: “If you do not know what social action to take, watch the Methodist women, and where they lead, follow.” He quoted historian Alice G. Knotts, who wrote that Methodist women “adhered to a gospel message which some of them interpreted as transcending race, class, and gender.”

But Williams also wrote about how southern Methodists, like southern Baptists, split from their northern counterparts in the 1840s in defense of slavery.

If he publishes a second edition of the book in a few years, Williams will no doubt add a discussion of Methodists to the last chapter (“Culture and Worship Wars”).

Listening to Stringbean sing about women who bob their hair, I thought about how religious belief is intertwined with society and culture. Just as God created us in His image, we tend to create religion in ours.

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Image Credit: Doll with bobbed hair was created by Erika Wittlieb is a Pixabay free download; vintage bobbed and tattooed woman via PXHere (public domain).


David Parker

David Parker

David B. Parker, a native of North Carolina, is Professor of History at Kennesaw State University. He has written on humorist Bill Arp, evangelist Sam Jones, novelist Marian McCamy Sims, the history of the word "y'all," and other southern topics.