When the gospel was new and pure, Christian women covered themselves with long robes and veils, like many Muslim women today.
This is evidenced by all early Christian writers that commented on the subject.
There was a controversy whether the forerunners of nuns needed to veil themselves during church services, but there was no dispute that Christian women, especially married women, ought to conceal bodily features when in other public places.
The earliest reference is Paul, who wrote, “But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered” (1Corinthians 11:5-6).
To emphasize the indecency of an uncovered female head, Paul added in verse 13: “Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?” In verse 16, he also drew from the universal practice of all Christendom: “we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.”
Clement of Alexandria wrote when dean between A.D. 192 and 202 of Christianity’s foremost institution of learning. He stated it is unseemly for clothes to end above the knee, “nor is it becoming for any part of a woman to be exposed.”
A Christian woman was to be “entirely covered, unless she happen to be at home. For that style of dress is grave, and protects from being gazed at. And she will never fall, who puts before her eyes modesty, and her shawl; nor will she invite another to fall into sin by uncovering her face.”
Clement also pointed out that “it is prohibited to expose the ankle … it has also been enjoined that the head should be veiled and the face covered; for it is a wicked thing for beauty to be a snare to men.”
He considered as improper clothing for women anything that did not cover the eyes, or hide the shape of the body.
The Didascalia was a comprehensive manual of Christian corporate and private life compiled in the early third century.
After discountenancing otherwise honorable women adopting the clothing, footwear and hairstyles of streetwalkers, it instructed: “Thou therefore that art a Christian, do not imitate such women; but if thou wouldst be a faithful woman, please thy husband only. And when thou walkest in the street, cover thy head with thy robe, that by reason of thy veil thy great beauty may be hidden. And adorn not thy natural face; but walk with downcast looks, being veiled.”
In reference to the Roman practice of public nude bathing, it asked Christian women how they could appear naked in such circumstances even though they covered their faces and bodies in the street.
Between the times of Clement and the Didascalia came the church father Tertullian.
His treatise “On Prayer” presented a long dissertation on whether women were free to be unveiled in church when all Christian women wore veils outside it.
There was a controversy over whether “woman” in 1 Corinthians 11:5-16 applied to (1) every post-pubescent female or (2) only an adult female who was sexually experienced, i.e., not a virgin.
He had been a prominent Roman lawyer and became champion of the cause that “woman” included sexually inexperienced adult females.
Tertullian spoke of concealing the face in public as universal among Christian females. He spoke of outdoor veiling as a law of nature and called on proto-nuns to be consistent by veiling at public worship as well.
He rhetorically queried: “Why do you denude before God what you cover before men? Will you be more modest in public than in the church?”
Part of his reasoning was that, as brides of Christ, nuns ought to be covered because “He bids the brides of others to be veiled, His own, of course, much more.”
Years later, Tertullian noted that women veiled their heads in public, in the presence of heathen men, with the implication that all adult Christian females wore “burqas” or at least ample veils outside home and church.
No author in the first two centuries of the Christian church whose writings have survived disputed that married women must be veiled in church or that all believing adult females must cover their features when outside it or their home.
DavidW. T. Brattston is a retired lawyer residing in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada.