Prayer Veil

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1958 Article

The prayer veiling, also known as the devotional covering or worship veil, is worn in worship and prayer services by the women members of certain American Mennonite bodies, and formerly by most Mennonites of Europe as well. Indeed the principle that women should worship with veiled heads can be called a historic Christian practice. Catholic women are still generally not permitted to enter the church with uncovered head, as is largely also true of the Anglicans. In the 18th century the Reformed churches of Switzerland required women to wear a Tuechli, or head covering, when they attended church services. The ancient church father Tertullian (ca. 160-ca. 230) reports that it was customary in most of the churches founded by the apostles for the women to worship veiled, including the virgins. The Episcopalian Church Encyclopedia (1883) reports that in England as well as in some American parishes it was customary for women and girls who were confirmed to wear "a light veil." One of the last remnants of the worship veil in general Christendom is the wedding veil.

The Biblical basis for the worship veil is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. In the section in 1 Corinthians 11 dealing with the practice of the Lord's Supper in the church and the exercise of the gifts of the Spirit in the assembly, the apostle treats of the worship veil. He begins by commending the Christians of Corinth for obediently following his instructions (the Greek term does not mean ancient traditions, nor does it assign the status of a sacrament or ordinance to the veil). He then expounds the order of creation as to the headship of man; he likens this relationship of equal persons, the one of whom is to serve as "head," to the relationship which obtains between God and Christ (Paul does not make a four-level hierarchy: God, Christ, man, woman; he simply makes an illuminating comparison to clarify the meaning of man's headship). The symbol of man's administrative headship is his bared head as he worships. The symbol of woman's role in the order of creation is her veiled head. The apostle is evidently correcting the socially revolutionary practice of some Corinthian women who cast aside their veils in the mistaken notion that the equality of men and women in grace had destroyed the order of creation as to their relationship on earth. He says severely that if a woman wishes to abandon her true role as given her by the Creator when He made her nature, she might as well also abandon her true role as a Christian woman and shave and shear off her hair as the women of the street did in Corinth in that day. The woman ought therefore to wear a sign-veiling that she accepts man's leadership in the church. It should also be noted that Paul does not limit this veil to the married, for it is with man as male and with woman as female that he is concerned. The relationship has to do with the very nature of each sex, and is not confined to the home. Finally Paul appeals to the universal Christian practice in the churches; all of them, he declares, support him.

Although social propriety still generally calls for a covered head in worship in the Western culture of the mid-20th century,

American denominations generally make no point of requiring this, either by custom or regulation. The more conservative Mennonite groups, however, have clung to the traditional veil. This veil still resembles that portrayed by Rembrandt in his painting of 1641, "The Mennonite Minister Cornelis Claesz Anslo," which painting shows the preacher strengthening a veiled woman through the ministry of the Word. It is also similar to that shown in the painting of a Lancaster Mennonite Woman by Jacob Eichholtz about 1815. S. F. Rues reports (Aufrichtige Nachrichten, 1743, 50) observing a baptism among the Mennonites in Holland where the bishop pushed the cap (Haube) back from the woman's forehead before pouring the water. In Elbing c1869, according to an eyewitness report in Mitteilungen des Sippenverbandes (February 1937, p. 67), "every married woman had to wear a cap (Haube) on entering the church. Every unmarried woman, regardless of age, had to wear a hat."

In the mid-1950s the prayer veiling in the Mennonite Church (MC) and related groups had become a small light cap made of a fine organdy or similar material, usually white in color, but sometimes black. The form of the veil in the previous 150 years in America had always been that of a cap, not a true veil, formerly almost always tied with strings. The strings were seldom used in the 1950s except in the most conservative sections, and the cap was usually pinned lightly to the hair. In the Russian Mennonite groups the veil took the form of a kerchief or head-shawl, customarily black. In the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite and Evangelical Mennonites (Kleine Gemeinde) the kerchief was still black and had become quite small. In the Ohio (Mennonite Church) churches of Swiss extraction as well as in certain Amish Mennonite churches of Alsatian extraction (e.g., Central Illinois and Croghan, N.Y.) the cap was black (still worn by a few).

John A. Hostetler has shown that the Pennsylvania Mennonite veiling or cap was probably imported from Europe and was very similar to the cap worn by Palatinate women universally in the 18th century. The last Mennonite women of Europe to wear the prayer veiling (a black lace kerchief called a Fischelein from the French fichue) were those of the Badischer Verband in South Germany. The practice gradually disappeared there in the first quarter of the 20th century.

Historically the veil was also once worn (uniformly) by the women of certain Protestant denominations: the Society of Friends (note Whistler's painting, "My Mother"), the Church of the Brethren, the Brethren in Christ, and other denominations. The Mennonites of Russia had the veil for married women only. The North American Mennonite bodies which in the 1950s observed the wearing of the veil were the Mennonite Church (MC), the Old Order Amish, the Old Colony Mennonites, the Conservative Mennonites, the Holdeman Mennonites (CGC), the Evangelical Mennonite Conference (Kleine Gemeinde), the Hutterian Brethren, the Old Colony Mennonites, and related groups. In the Mennonite Church (MC) the leaders of the congregations east of Ohio after about 1900 taught the constant wearing of the veil throughout the day and this practice was fairly uniform in the Eastern United States in the 1950s. Elsewhere it was worn usually only in public worship, or in some places also at the table. -- John C. Wenger

1989 Update

The wearing of a headcovering was a nearly universal practice by women in Europe and North America before the middle of the 19th century. As long as it was a general practice, especially by the Lutherans, Reformed, and Quakers, Mennonites practiced it, but wrote very little about it as a biblical teaching. For instance, the Dordrecht Confession (1632) made no reference to it. It was accepted, however, as the teaching of the Scriptures and as the long-established custom of the people and the church. But when Protestant women ceased wearing it during religious services, Mennonites, especially those within what became the Mennonite Church (MC) and closely related groups, began to write more about it and stressed the biblical basis for the practice of the veiled head. This article focuses on the Mennonite Church (MC). (For Brethren in Christ, see Wittlinger.)

Bonnet and prayer veil styles.
Source: Mennonite Encyclopedia.

Before 1900, the practice was looked upon as the practical application of Paul's teaching that the woman's head should be covered (1 Corinthians 11). It was not until the turn of the century that it began to be referred to as an ordinance. Furthermore, as explained by Gingerich, when it was considered as more than a simple application of a covering, and was raised to the level of an ordinance, the names used were also gradually changed from "cap," or covering, to prayer headcovering or devotional covering. This thesis, of its elevation and name change, is supported by Beyler , Schlabach and others. Shetler and Shank do not address it specifically, but emphasize instead "the perennial and universal qualities of the entire passage and the need for the observance of all Christ's 'commands.' " They also suggest even broader names such as "prayer-and-prophesy veiling" and "headship veiling" as more accurate than prayer veiling or devotional covering.

In the Manual of Bible doctrines (1898) Daniel Kauffman referred to the practice of wearing the veiling as an ordinance. The designation may not have originated with him but his employment of it in an influential book was picked up and used by some of the Mennonite Church (MC) district conferences, and was shared by a majority at the adoption in 1921 of the Christian Fundamentals by Mennonite Church (MC) General conference at Garden City, Missouri. Article 14 is entitled, "Ordinances," and states among other things, "that Christian women praying or prophesying should have their heads covered." Forty years later, in 1963, the Mennonite Mennonite Confession of Faith (MC) was adopted at Kalona, Iowa. Article 8 includes the veiling of Christian women and identifies it as an ordinance.

It is significant that within 20 years of adopting the 1963 confession, there was a call (1983) by the moderator of the Mennonite Church (MC) General Assembly, Ross T. Bender, for a new and "less culture-specific confession." Among the specifics mentioned was the veiling. The two decades from 1963 to 1983 were regarded, by him, as representing the equivalent of time, in terms of the rapidity of cultural change, to the 40 years from 1921 to 1963.

Based on articles in Herald of truth and Gospel herald, there were three surges in number of contributions devoted to the veil. The first was a minor surge at the turn of the century, at the time the concept of the veiling as an ordinance was introduced. The second was just prior to and following the adoption of the Christian Fundamentals in 1921. The third occurred in the two decades prior to the adoption of the 1963 confession, apparently in an attempt to "stay the trend." The number of articles in Gospel Herald and the numerous booklets, leaflets, and official statement papers indicate that most leaders in the 1950s still held to the practice of the veiling, but at the same time, the conviction and practice had already been seriously eroded among the laity. From the 1960s to 1980s only a few articles appeared in Gospel Herald on the veiling. The question for the majority of Mennonites in the middle 1980s was no longer whether the veiling should be worn. Mennonites began to debate whether and in what ways women should exercise leadership, including the question of ordination.

The generation from 1955 to 1985 witnessed greater changes within the Mennonite Church (MC), in respect to the veiling, than any previous one. The 1921 Fundamentals and the 1963 Confession did not stem the trend. It appears that the conferences and fellowships which most staunchly maintain the position of the women wearing the veiling are the ones still subscribing to the Dordrecht Confession (1632), which has no reference to the veiling, either by name or Scripture reference (1 Corinthians 11:2-16).

There were many local variations in the style of the veiling. Gingerich states that nearly 100 different styles were handled by the plain clothes department of the Hager and Brother store in Lancaster, Pa. The adaptations, such as the Latin American mantilla transferred to North America, and the later use of doilies and other styles, did not stem the trend toward non-wearing. The most frequent wearing in the Mennonite Church (MC) in the 1980s is found in some localities east of the Allegheny Mountains.

It also appears that in most congregations and conferences, the change in practice took place by default, rather than by some deliberate course of action. Some individuals have openly acknowledged their change of understanding and position. Among them is Paul M. Miller, whose 1956 booklet is still used by conservative groups in support of the veiling. At the conference "Conversations on Faith" (Laurelville Conference Center, Pennsylvania, 1986), while relating his "pilgrimage with the Bible," he openly shared his change of understanding. The change represented by this leader is even more accelerated and broad among the laity.

On the other hand, some conservative Mennonites not affiliated with the Mennonite Church (MC) General Assembly, and still using the Dordrecht Confession, view the veiling as an ordinance, and as a keystone in the whole structure of nonconformity A Rod and Staff publication maintains that once this practice falls by the way, it is only a matter of time until all clear distinctions of nonconformity will disappear.

The change of the past generation was largely a response to societal trends and pressures, two of which deserve mention. One was the impact of the feminist movement, which was partially responsible for the ending in 1969 of the nearly 1900-year-old practice of the Roman Catholic Church, which had required women to cover their heads in church. Another factor was the shift in the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. From being understood and taught as an ordinance to be practiced literally by Christian women, the passage is viewed as teaching a principle, but having been a cultural accommodation to the Corinthian church, and not a binding practice for all times. -- Elmer S. Yoder

See also Bonnet; Hairdressing; Hat; Headcovering


Bender, Harold S. "An Exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11:1-16." Unpublished mss in Mennonite Historical Library, Goshen College, Goshen, IN.

Bender, Ross T., in Mennonite Church Yearbook (1983): 6-8.

Beyler, Clayton. "Meaning and Relevance of the Devotional Covering: a Study in the Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16." ThM thesis, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1954.

Climenhaga, Arthur M. "The Doctrine of the Veiling." Unpublished M.A. thesis, Taylor University, 1938.

Detweiler, Richard C. The Christian Woman's Head-veiling. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1964, 29 pp.

Erb, Paul. South Central Frontiers. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1974: 282, 312, 323, 352, 441, 467.

Gingerich, Melvin. Mennonite Attire Through Four Centuries, Publications of the Pennsylvania German Society 4. Breinigsville, Pa.: PGS, 1970: 109-38.

Hess, Mahlon M. "The Devotional Head-Covering." Unpublished Th.B. thesis, Eastern Mennonite School, 1941.

Kauffman, Daniel. "Christian Ordinances." Doctrines of the Bible. Scottdale, PA: 1928: 378-439

Kraus, C. Norman. "American Mennonites and the Bible, 1750-1950." Mennonite Quarterly Review 41 (1967): 309-29, reprinted in Essays on Biblical Interpretation (1984): 131-50.

Kraybill, Donald B. "Mennonite Woman's Prayer Veiling: the Rise and Fall of a Sacred Symbol." Mennonite Quarterly Review: 298-320.

Lehman, J. Irvin. A Study of the Ordinance of the Christian Woman's Veiling. Bishop Board of Lancaster Mennonite Conference, 1956, 12 pp.

Loewen, Howard John, ed. One Lord, One Church, One Hope, One God: Mennonite Confessions of Faith, Text-Reader series. Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1985.

McGrath, William B. Christian Woman's Veiling: a Biblical and Historical Review. East Rochester, Ohio: Amish Mennonite Pub., 1986: 33.

Miller, D. D. "The Devotional Covering." Bible Doctrine. Scottdale, PA: 1914: 416-427.

Miller, Paul M. The Prayer Veiling. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956, 24 pp.

Ruth, Merle. The Significance of the Christian Woman's Veiling. Crockett, KY: Rod and Staff Publishers, 1980, 23 pp.

Shetler, Sanford G. and J. Ward Shank. Symbols of Divine Order in the Church. Sword and Trumpet and Guidelines for Today, 1983, 109 pp.

The Christian Woman's Veiling. Conservative Mennonite Conference, 1979, 20 pp.

The Devotional Covering: the Biblical Basis for This Ordinance and Ten Reasons for Its Observance, prepared and distributed by the General Problems Committee of the Mennonite General Conference (MC). 1946, 6 pp.

"Veil, Religious." The Catholic Encyclopedia, v. 15.

We Consider 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Kitchener, ON: Executive Committee of Mennonite Conference of Ontario, 1965, 24 pp.

Wenger, John C. The Prayer Veil in Scripture and History. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1964, 29 pp.

Wenger, John C. Separated unto God. Scottdale, PA: 1955: 207-212.

Wieand, Albert C. "The Prayer Veil." Unpublished mss. in Mennonite Historical Library, Goshen College, Goshen, IN.

Wittlinger, Carlton O. Quest for Piety and Obedience: the Story of the Brethren in Christ. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978, index.

Author(s) John C. Wenger
Elmer S. Yoder
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Wenger, John C. and Elmer S. Yoder. "Prayer Veil." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 28 May 2022.

APA style

Wenger, John C. and Elmer S. Yoder. (1989). Prayer Veil. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 28 May 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 212-214; vol. 5, pp. 719-720. All rights reserved.

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