by Joe Crews
No discussion of modest dress would be complete without touching on the touchy subject of mixed swimming. Only in this area is the miniskirt almost modest by comparison. Here, by the way, we also discover the blind spot in Adventist dress standards. For some strange reason very little has been said or written on this glaring inconsistency in dealing with our young people. While we take only a soft, role-book type of stand on miniskirts, we have taken no official stand at all on the matter of mixed swimming. And even the unofficial views of most of the ministry and members do not seem to bear any consistent correlation with the historic principles we have espoused as a church.
Although swimming is one of the finest kinds of recreational activity, the modem bathing suit covers much less of the body than the skimpiest micro miniskirt. In truth, very little is left to the imagination. If we condemn the miniskirt, if we endorse any kind of modest dress principle, no matter how vague, how could we by any stretch of the imagination condone a bathing suit as acceptable Christian apparel? Surely no one is so blind as to miss this point. Our young people are not blind, and this is one of the reasons they seem not to listen anymore when we talk to them about modesty. They see the double standard that is being practiced.
It is common practice in our academies to include admonitions in our handbook about modest dress. After that, there may be much or little said about the length of dresses, including low necks, bare backs, and sleevelessness. But in practically all our schools, sometime during the year, the students and teachers go out to some waterfront location, and spend the day playing together in less clothing than is worn by prostitutes who walk the city streets. In fact, if those students and teachers should walk down the main street of any small town wearing their bathing suits they would be refused admission to most business places. They would scandalize even the unconverted community, and risk possible arrest for indecent exposure. And yet we have blindly accepted this kind of dress as suitable for Seventh-day Adventist Christians to wear in mixed company. It is ironic that what the world calls indecent in one location, the church would call modest at another location. Does this make any kind of sense? The place has nothing to do with it--it is the principle. The principle against exposing the body applies on the street, the beach, or in the shopping center.
If you want a shocking example of how this creeping compromise has reduced us to the level of the world around us, take a census of the most popular public beaches in July and August. Thousands of Seventh-day Adventists will be mingling with the vulgar multitude. And by the way, you will find no way to identify them from the haft-clothed atheists, harlots, and thieves who frequent those resorts.
All the flesh looks the same. Does the ocean-front location make it modest to shed our clothes? Do we believe that principles of modesty should be applied only at certain times and places? Are male responses to female nudity somehow thrown out of gear during beach parties and swimming socials?
I have found many of our members who have asked themselves the same questions, but because no one else seemed to be questioning the activity they went along without saying anything. The general feeling seemed to be that the end probably justifies the means in this case. They are getting fine exercise and having a good time.
Others have rationalized that because everyone is in the same state of undress, no one is allowing a big bad thought to come into the head. Also, they get so accustomed to seeing one another half naked that they no longer respond to it. These arguments are not only shallow, but they are untrue. If they were true, then we would have a great case for joining the nudist colony.
My convictions against mixed swimming grew in me as I observed the fruits of the practice. As a young intern-minister in Florida, my assignment in one beach side city was to chaperone the youth at their swimming party. I was astounded to see how inhibitions were lowered by the promiscuous mingling of boys and girls in their bathing suits. Physical liberties were taken, and undue familiarities appeared during the games which were played both in and out of the water. I shall never forget one thing I saw that day. It shocked me into taking my first stand against mixed swimming. One of the lady chaperones climbed up on the shoulders of one of the men who was also helping to supervise the activities. She was one of the spiritual leaders in the church and he was a deacon. Her modesty on Sabbath morning was always exemplary. If a breeze should have lifted her skirt even slightly to expose a knee she would have been embarrassed. Yet, I watched in amazement as she sat astride the shoulders of a man who was not her husband, and rode him around in the water, shrieking with laughter, clad in a scanty bathing suit. She seemed to have no sense whatsoever of the impropriety of what she was doing.
Right then I decided that if this was the effect of mixed swimming I would have to take the position that it was wrong. During the thirty years since that day, I have seen nothing which has changed my feelings about its evil influence.
A while ago I was asked to present these principles of modest dress at a camp meeting. After the meeting, which had occupied two hours in the main auditorium, five young people were waiting to talk to me. The three girls and two boys, all college age, were quite upset by what I had said. The beautiful girl, who seemed to be speaking for all the others, was especially vehement. She said, "How can you say mixed swimming is wrong? We have spent this whole summer with a witnessing team on the Ocean City beach. We spent most of the time in bathing suits, giving Bible studies to other young people on the boardwalk. And this is Tom whom we met there, and he is to be baptized next Sabbath. How can you say we did wrong when we were able to win him for Christ on the beach?"
I expressed joy for the young man who was to be baptized, and commended them for leading him to Christ. Then I asked Tom this question: "Tom, in your association with these girls on the beach in their bathing suits, did you ever find evil or impure thoughts coming into your mind because of the way they were dressed?" Tom dropped his head for just a moment, and then answered, "Yes, of course I did." Immediately the girls chorused their dismay. "Why didn't you tell us then?" one of them asked. They seemed genuinely surprised that the boys had not come up to them at the beach to tell them their suits were provocative.
They went away that day wiser young women, but do you think they forthwith gave up their custom of mixed bathing? I have found that in most cases the ladies do not change their dress styles even after learning how detrimental their influence. The goddess of fashion is a tyrant ruler, and few are committed enough to yield their darling indulgences, especially when the attire caters to the serf nature. Dr. Harold Shryock gives this counsel to young dating couples:
"Avoid mixed swimming. Swimming of itself is a wholesome recreation. But when members of both sexes swim together there is introduced an element of personal display which, for any normal human being, directs the thoughts toward the physical characteristics peculiar to the opposite sex. The effort of mixed swimming is to make commonplace those considerations that, for the Christian, are sacred. Mixed swimming tends to lower personal standards of decorum, making physical familiarity seem less objectionable." The Youth's Instructor, July 19, 1960.
In the March 1971 issue of Ministry magazine a letter to the editor was printed which is worthy of wide distribution. The letter was written by Elder Don Hawley, editor of Life and Health magazine.
"In the January, 1970, issue of the Ministry, one of our ministers wrote concerning the matter of modesty. He pointed out that our criticism of the miniskirt did not seem to correlate with our complete lack of concern about mixed bathing. He, along with the editors, asked that others express their opinion on the subject, but there has followed a strange silence.
"Is it possible that we know intuitively that mixed bathing is not proper, but since it is so universally practiced by the church it seems best to ignore the situation? If so, this is a 'head in the sand' approach. No matter how universal some impropriety may be, we still have to answer individually in the judgment.
"Perhaps there were those who did have convictions, but who felt it would not be politically expedient to express them. I once heard a conference president downgrade a particular pastor because 'he's rather fanatical; he doesn't believe in mixed bathing.'
"We decry the wearing of shorts, the backless back, and plunging neckline, and the miniskirt, pointing out that such people are 'half naked.' But if that person switches to a condition of being three quarters naked (i.e. into swim wear), then all is well. Apparently if we want to do something badly enough, such as engage in mixed swimming, then the laws of modesty can be temporarily abrogated.
"Until a few years ago at least, a person leaving a public beach in swimming attire and walking a block to a shopping area, would risk arrest for' indecent exposure.' Isn't it a bit strange that what the world labels indecent, the church finds acceptable?
"In one conference the following regulations are in force during camp meeting: 'Swimmers are requested to use bathing caps and to be properly and modestly dressed going to and from the pool. Street clothes or bathing robes are required.' Think about this for a moment. The unavoidable inference is that once one gets to the pool, it will be all right to wear only bathing attire and be immodestly dressed .... "
Some have asked whether E. G. White spoke on the subject of mixed bathing. According to the White Estate there is no record of such counsel. Obviously, the wearing of bikinis and skimpy bathing suits was not any problem under the Victorian aura of the mid-1800s.
When I wrote for information on the subject from the White Estate, they sent me a copy of a letter which had been written to someone who had made a similar inquiry. The secretary of the Estate wrote the letter December 8, 1953:
"The question of mixed bathing about which you wrote sometime ago is certainly a most difficult one to deal with under present day conditions. Unfortunately we have not a single statement in the writings of Ellen G. White in which the subject is mentioned directly. Conclusions must be based on principles stated in the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy rather than on any specific bit of instruction. Of course, this is true of many other subjects concerning which we must make decisions regularly. You asked about my convictions on the matter, so I shall pass them on with some of the statements of principles involved in reaching the conclusions.
"In dealing with a good many hundreds of young people during the years of my teaching, I have discovered what you have also found--that, while it may be difficult to hold the line regarding some standards and activities, it is easier to hold than to back up after yielding to pressure to follow a course of action that is not clearly a right one. So far as I can learn, our colleges that have pools are still holding to separate periods for swimming. That is the position recommended by our Missionary Volunteer Department, and I believe the position is a sound one.
"You may be interested to know that the Missionary Volunteer Advisory Council, in its meeting just preceding the recent Autumn Council, emphatically reaffirmed its former position that we should not sponsor groups for mixed bathing. While the action does not specify all of the situations involved, the discussion centered in the church and M.V. Society, the school, and the camp. The men felt that circumstances warrant a strong reaffirmation of this point of view. Their observation has been that where some have not followed this course, most unfortunate results have obtained.
"You mentioned that our young people are beyond being shocked by anything they might see in connection with a swimming party. I believe that is true of many of them. One of my great questions is whether we as church leaders should sponsor things that will only serve to foster this tendency to be shock-proof. We must admit that repeated exposures to conscience-deadening influences have brought our young people to the condition in which we find them. Is it not our responsibility to do our best to avoid anything that will continue these influences? Rather than there being more reasons today for going ahead with mixed bathing than in the past, it seems that with the increased freedom of association and almost complete lack of inhibitions on the part of young people the reasons for avoiding more freedom are multiplying.
"So far as the argument is concerned that people are so used to seeing immodesty that immodest bathing suits mean nothing to them, I believe that it is entirely fallacious. The Bible instruction is that Christians should be modestly dressed no matter what anyone else does. The fact that many consciences are hardened does not alter basic principles. It would require a rather ingenious individual to invent arguments to prove that the modern version of the bathing suit is 'modest apparel.' While many refuse to admit it, for boys and men to be in close association with girls and women in the near state of nudity that the current bathing suit encourages is a very real source of temptation. All one needs to do is to take a glance at some of the advertising matter for women's bathing suits, to discover that it is the studied purpose of the manufacturers to focus male attention on the female form. For the church to encourage association on this basis is not a soul-winning endeavor.
"While it is true that many young people, especially the teenagers, consider us unrealistic in our approach to matters of this sort, that is not a new attitude. My contact with history has left me with the distinct impression that every generation of young people has considered its elders hopelessly out of date. As Christian parents and leaders, God has left it in our hands to teach our youth in such a way that, while they may not fully agree with us at present, the time will come when they will see the wisdom of our course. I have had many young people in later years thank me for prohibitions against which they chafed when they first encountered them.
"You mentioned that those who are interested in swimming parties do not support the other social activities of the church. However, if you should inaugurate church sponsored swims, most of these individuals would still not support anything but the swims. They would not immediately gain interest in the other activities just because you had yielded to their urging in this matter.
"All this may sound as if I am one of those 'ridiculously unrealistic' persons of whom the young people speak. I assure you that this is not so. It is just that I have lived with young people every day for so many years that I have become exceedingly aware of the results when we yield to some of their unwise urgings. These days we need to place before our young people every incentive for right thinking and acting. Mixed bathing is not such an incentive.
"Swimming is one of the best of all exercises, and certainly it is a proper physical activity for Christians when engaged in moderation and under the proper circumstances.
If it is the physical benefit that is desired, this object can be gained by our sponsoring swims for young men and young women separately in appropriate places. I greatly miss the opportunity to go swimming as frequently as I would like, because of the difficulty of finding suitable places for the recreation. I know many others who feel the same way, but our young people must learn to take a proper attitude toward denying present pleasures for future benefits.
"I sympathize with you in your problem. It is a perennial one in our schools, and I have been trying to cope with it for a dozen years. It seems to me that this is something that must be left as a decision for families to make. If consecrated parents decide that they wish to accompany their children as a family or as a group of families, certainly we should not condemn them, but for the church to sponsor swimming parties of this kind is an entirely different matter."