Material History of American Religion Project

Confirmation gowns

Confirmation gownsWe have commented elsewhere on how the institutionalization of the Sunday school paralleled the development of public secular education.  The Sunday school adopted mass-produced curricula, grade-divided classrooms, bureaucratic structures, and other aspects of the public school. It was an attempt to borrow the procedures—and perhaps the legitimacy—of the public school. This paralleling of form is called—to borrow a term from the sciences—isomorphism.

In this month’s object, isomorphism reaches parody level. It comes from the International Journal of Religious Education, a mainline Protestant publication, from 1962. The author, a church pastor, offered a new model of doing confirmation, the rite whereby young people—usually teenagers—confirm the faith commitment made on their behalf at baptism and "join the church." He wanted the experience to be a significant event for his students, rich in symbolism.

Look at the symbol that he chose. He attired his confirmands in academic garb, complete with mortarboard. Just as previous Christian educators borrowed elements from the educational establishment, this pastor borrowed a symbol of academic achievement from the world of higher education. As the picture’s caption put it, "Young people being received into membership on Reformation Sunday. This was a wonderful time to climax a period of enthusiastic study of the church’s development."

The idea of special costumes for young people confessing their faith is not new. In Lutheran and German Reformed churches people joining the church used to wear white robes for confirmation, similar to the gowns Catholic children might wear for first communion. The academic robe, however, has no ecclesiastical meaning; it symbolizes intellectual achievement rather than spiritual commitment. Some cynical Christian educators have argued that confirmation is often seen as "graduation from church"—concerned that teenagers march from confirmation right out of the church and are never seen again. These robes symbolize that graduation.

This picture raises a historographical question: How is the clothing we wear in religious settings determined by the surrounding culture? For further reflections on this, see Diane Winston’s interview about the uniform of the Salvation Army.

Robert S. Maseroni, "Full membership classes," International Journal of Religious Education 38:1 (July-August 1962), 19.

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