There’s a quote floating around the internet that is attributed to R. C. Sproul which encapsulates one of the problems with the modern “head covering movement”:
The wearing of fabric head coverings in worship was universally the practice of Christian women until the twentieth century. What happened? Did we suddenly find some biblical truth to which the saints for thousands of years were blind? Or were our biblical views of women gradually eroded by the modern feminist movement that has infiltrated the Church.
This quote is all over the place. It’s been posted on Facebook. It’s on “A-Z Quotes.” It’s been featured on a number of blogposts, and at one point, it was apparently featured on the front page of headcoveringmovement.com (“Ladies: R. C. Sproul Says COVER YOUR HEADS!!!!!!!!!!”). The lead article at the Head Covering Movement Website right now is a link to a Youtube video that includes this quote (“What About Head Coverings?” [32:43]). It’s even been published in a book (Jeremy Gardiner, Head Covering: A Forgotten Christian Practice for Modern Times (2016)).
Here’s the problem: I’m pretty sure R. C. Sproul never said that quote, and more substantively, the claim at the heart of the quote itself is historically inaccurate.
Did R. C. Sproul Really Say That?
Let’s start with the genuineness of the quote. I’ve scoured the internet, and I can’t find an actual original source anywhere showing that Sproul said this. It is no secret that R. C. Sproul held that women should wear head-coverings. He wrote about it in multiple books, he broadcast it on his radio program, and he spoke about it at Q&A’s. But in all of those places, I’ve never seen him connect this to “the feminist movement” or make broad brush historical claims like this, because I think Sproul knew the Reformed tradition better than that.
Jeremy Gardiner, “founder emeritus of the Head Covering Movement” and author of the book Head Covering: A Forgotten Christian Practice, wrote a blogpost featuring the quote, but interestingly admitted that “I haven’t been able to track down the original source of this statement. It is a heavily quoted statement and one such quotation appear’s [sic] in Greg Price’s article ‘Head Coverings in Scripture’” (“Why Head Coverings? Reason #4: Church Practice”). In his book, he footnotes the quote with a (now defunct) internet link to Greg Price’s article.
I’ve found two versions of the Price article online: here and here. Both posts include 37 quotes from church history, and the last quote is from R. C. Sproul. Then the article closes with a concluding paragraph, which includes the reference to the feminist movement. That paragraph begins like this: “Though the many authors cited above differ on various issues associated with headcoverings…” As Sproul is one of the “authors cited above” these appear to be Price’s words, not a continuation of Sproul’s. Unfortunately, the article does not give a citation even for the Sproul quote that it does include.
The way this spurious quote has been used over the years is sloppy, it’s poor scholarship—“don’t believe everything you read on the internet!” But it fits a “culture wars” narrative that is compelling to some streams of conservative Christians, and it features an easy bogey[wo]man–“The Feminist Movement”–which makes this kind of historical claim powerful to those feeling embattled, and eager to go to war with the culture over “biblical principles.” If the quote isn’t genuinely attributable to R. C. Sproul, it voices the kind of claim that some groups want to believe is true about America’s “cultural decline” from Biblical values.
The Reformed Tradition
However, the deeper problem with the quote is not just that R. C. Sproul most likely didn’t say it, but that it just isn’t true. The narrative goes like this: the church simply “believed the Bible” for 1000, 900, and 60 years after Christ, until the influence of The Feminist Movement eroded Christians’ confidence in Biblical truth. When they read 1 Corinthians 11:5 (“every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head”), they simply believed it and obeyed it, and they put a cloth on their heads. Since the 1960s, however, “liberal” Bible commentators have started coming up with “new” ways of interpreting Bible passages like 1 Corinthians 11, and have come up with the argument that head coverings were a “cultural practice” that made sense in the cultural context of 1st century Corinth, but since our 21st century culture is different, head-coverings don’t apply to us anymore. The answer, on this telling, is to get back to the “universal practice” of the church before Feminism ruined everything. For some drinking from the waters of “anti-wokeness” headcoverings are even be viewed as a way to push back against the “wokeness” of the culture around us by showing our commitment to the “old paths.”
Unfortunately for this narrative, it falls flat on its face as soon as you start reading some Reformed interpreters, starting in the 16th and 17th centuries, a good 400 years before The Feminists “ruined” Biblical hermeneutics.
Let’s start with Theodore Beza (1519–1605), successor of Calvin in Geneva. In his brief “study Bible” notes on 1 Corinthians 11, he said this:
It appeareth that this was a politike law serving onely for the circumstances of the time that Paul lived in, by this reason, because in these our daye, for a man to speake bare-headed in an assembly, is a signe of subiection.The New Testament of our Lord Iesus Christ : translated out of Greeke by Theod. Beza ; with brief summaries and expositions upon the hard places by the said authour, (1599), 74.
Is it a “universal principle” that men should uncover their heads, and women should cover them? Beza thought this was “onely for the circumstances of the time that Paul lived in.” In Paul’s day, the way to show authority was to uncover your head. In Beza’s day, uncovering your head showed “subiection,” so men kept their heads covered. Whether one covered or uncovered was dictated by what that act symbolized in a particular culture. And in Beza’s culture, men wore hats (check out the picture!).
It’s fascinating to look at the debates between 16th century Catholics and Protestants over how to interpret scripture. William Whitaker (1548–1595) was an English reformer, and published a “disputation” with Catholic Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. According to Richard Muller, Whitakers’s work was “representative” of Protestant interpretation of the 16th century, and became “a point of reference for sound doctrine throughout the seventeenth century” as well (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, 482). Whitaker was debating the role of human traditions in Catholic interpretation versus Protestant integration, and used head coverings as an example, calling it an “indifferent ceremony”:
…of indifferent ceremonies, it is even farther from touching us… He [Paul] desires men to pray with uncovered, women with covered heads: which injunctions are not of a perpetual obligation; for they are not now observed even by the papists themselves; so as to make it plain that all churches are not bound to the same ceremonies.A Disputation on Holy Scripture, Against the Papists, Especially Bellarmine and Stapleton (1588), 549.
One of the most influential English Reformers believed that headcoverings was an example of the difference between a Roman Catholic approach to “traditions and ceremonies” and a Protestant approach to Scripture and practice.
The Geneva Bible
Interestingly, the notes to the Geneva Bible echo the same interpretation. The Geneva Bible “is one of the most historically significant translations of the Bible into English, preceding the King James Version by 51 years,” published in 1560, and “was one of the Bibles taken to America on the Mayflower” (“The Geneva Bible”). The brief notes in the Geneva Bible on 1 Corinthians 11 include this:
This tradition was observed according to the time and place that all things might be done in comelines and edification.The Bible. Translated according to the Hebrew and Greeke, and conferred with the best translations in diuers languages, 514 
“According to the time and place”–the same sort language that used to explain “meat sacrificed to idols” in 1 Corinthians 10:25 (on the same page).
The Westminster Assembly
The Westminster Assembly met from 1643 to 1653 and wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith, an enormously influential confession in the Reformed tradition. There were a number of men who were members of the assembly, and several of them made their views of head coverings very clear. In his book The Keys of the Kingdom, Daniel Cawdry (1588–1644) explored what kinds of things a Synod could rightfully require of its ministers in worship? Can it require them to do things that Scripture doesn’t teach, like wear a special robe when preaching? Cawdry brings up head coverings in his answer:
Question: “Whether the Synod has power to enjoy things both in their nature and use indifferent.” …I answer: that for men to pray or prophesy with their heads covered, or with long hair, and women uncovered, were things in their own nature indifferent (unless you make it necessary, as a moral duty for men to pray or prophesy uncovered, and women contra; which no interpreters upon that text do)…Vindiciae clavium: or, A vindication of The keyes of the kingdome of heaven, into the hands of the right owners (1645), 57.
Apparently, in Cawdry’s day, “no interpreters upon that text” required head coverings, or not, one way or the other.
Cawdry teamed up with fellow Westminster Divine Herbert Palmer (1601–1647) to write a book on the Sabbath. Was the Sabbath a universal command for today? Cawdry and Palmer thought so, and they used head coverings as a contrast to demonstrate the distinction between Bible passages that were “variable, or temporary” and those that were “invariable and perpetual”:
Divine Apostolicall Institutions (that we may draw to our purpose) were again of two sorts: First, variable, or temporary, which were such injunctions as were prescribed, either for some speciall ends, as that law for abstaining from blood, and things strangled, Acts 15.1, for avoiding offence to the Jews, or to some special nations, or persons, as agreeable to the customs of those places and times, as that of women being vailed in the congregations, and some other the like. Secondly, invariable and perpetual: such as concerned the whole Church…Sabbatum Redivivum: or, The Christian Sabbath Vindicated (1645). 463.
So, when the Westminster Confession of Faith said that “there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed” and they footnoted 1 Corinthians 11:13–14 on that point, we should interpret the confession in light of the published statements of the Divines (Westminster Confession of Faith, I.6).
Matthew Poole (1624–1679) wrote a commentary on the whole Bible, of which Charles Spurgeon said “On the whole, if I must have only one commentary, and had read Matthew Henry, as I have, I do not know but what I should choose Poole” (Commenting and Commentaries, 6). Here’s what Poole’s commentary says on 1 Corinthians 11:
Interpreters rightly agree, that this and the following verses are to be interpreted from the customs of countries… Nothing in this is a further rule to christians, than that it is the duty of ministers, in praying and preaching, to use postures and habits that are not naturally, nor according to the custom of the place where they live, uncomely and irreverent, and so looked upon.Annotations Upon the Holy Bible, 577.
Poole notes a variety of cultural practices among Romans, Greeks, Jews, and even Muslims. He notes that even in his own day, when it comes to men and women and covered and uncovered heads, some male ministers preach with their heads uncovered, but “in France the Reformed ministers preach with their heads covered.”
Finally, I’ll mention Francis Turretin (1623–1687). Turretin was an influential reformed theologian, both in his own time, but also for 19th century American Presbyterians, as his Institutes of Elenctic Theology was the main theology textbook at Princeton Theological Seminary (in the North) and Union Presbyterian Seminary (in the South). In the section of his Institutes on The Lord’s Day he compares what he considers the “temporary” nature of an ordinance like headcoverings with the “invariable and perpetual” institutions, like the Lord’s Day:
XIV. Although certain ordinations of the apostles (which referred to the rites and circumstances of divine worship) were variable and instituted only for a time (as the sanction concerning the not eating of blood and of things strangled [Acts 15:20]; concerning the woman’s head being covered and the man’s being uncovered when they prophesy [1 Cor. 11:4, 5]) because there was a special cause and reason for them and (this ceasing) the institution itself ought to cease also; still there were others invariable and of perpetual observance in the church, none of which were founded upon any special occasion to last only for a time by which they might be rendered temporary (such as the imposition of hands in the setting apart of ministers and the distinction between the offices of deacon and pastor). Since the institution of the Lord’s day was of this kind, from this we infer that the Intention of the founders was that the observance of this day should be of perpetual and immutable right.“The Lord’s Day”
So is it true that the church has always held that head coverings were a “universal” and “perpetual” commandment for the church until The Feminist Movement of the 1960s ruined everything? I hope this brief survey of some of the leading Reformed interpreters shows that this statement is false on its face. I quote all of these white, European, Reformed men, not because I think they are the be-all and end-all of Biblical interpretation, but simply to show that even on its own terms, the conservative Reformed tradition has never held “universally” that head coverings are a perpetually binding obligation for Christians today. This post didn’t trace the “cultural” view of head coverings into the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, but it is interesting to note that R. C. Sproul acknowledged that even his own mentor, John Gerstner, held that head coverings were “customary” (“What RC Sproul Believes About Head Covering,” [4:46]).
I personally don’t have strong feelings about head coverings. As I looked around my own church this past Sunday I saw a wide variety of practice: some women wearing hats, some wearing head wraps, some women wearing other coverings, many with their heads completely uncovered. If someone reads 1 Corinthians 11 and comes to the conclusion that they feel led to wear a covering in church, great! Just don’t turn this into yet another weapon in the American culture wars, part of a never ending rampage against “the woke” the “feminists” and the “liberals,” and above all, don’t make false claims about history to try to make a catchy point. The receipts will always find you out…