The content here is authored by Albert Barnes, a 19th Century Presbyterian theologian of America. After this section, except for what is in brackets, everything was written by him.
Barnes is best known for his extensive Bible commentary and notes on the Old and New Testaments, published in a total of 14 volumes in the 1830’s.
— Wikipedia, “Albert Barnes (theologian),” accessed on 4/4/178 JE
His commentary is among the classics that were written before new theology crept in which replaced Bible standards and principles such as the fear of God and obedience with an effortless, sentimental religion devoid of many of the standards, which is reflected by the popular literature in “Christian” bookstores today. This new theology has infected Seventh-day Adventism just as it has the rest of Christendom.
One of these old standards that disappeared through the effects of the women’s liberation movement was women wearing head coverings when in public. In the western world, they began shrinking in size in the 19th Century and disappearing altogether in the 20th Century, first in the public, then in worship services. In certain eastern regions head coverings are still prevalent to this day, but that is even changing due to increasing western expansion.
Ellen G. White was living in the time when the head coverings were shrinking; and God gave her a vision on this. Here is what she lamented afterwards:
I was shown that some of the people of God imitate the fashions of the world, and are fast losing their peculiar, holy character, which should distinguish them as God’s people. I was pointed back to God’s ancient people, and then was led to compare their apparel with the mode of dress in these last days. What a difference! What a change! Then the women were not so bold as now. When they went in public they covered their face with a veil. In these last days fashions are shameful and immodest. They are noticed in prophecy. They were first brought in by a class over whom Satan has entire control, who “being past feeling (without any conviction of the Spirit of God), have given themselves over unto lasciviousness to work all uncleanness with greediness.”
If God’s professed people had not departed greatly from him, there would now be a marked difference between their dress and that of the world. The small bonnets, exposing the face and head, show a lack of modesty. The hoops are a shame. The inhabitants of earth are growing more and more corrupt, and the line of distinction must be more plain between them and the Israel of God, or the curse which falls upon worldlings will fall upon God’s professed people.
— 2 Spiritual Gifts, p. 227
Eventually, after her death, the head covering completely went out of existence in most of the western world, but there were a people that held onto it a bit longer. For a testimony of them, we highly recommend reading A Call to the Churches in America. Dreams and visions were given to this people after Ellen White died, including on the topic of holiness and the importance of modest clothing, which included their wearing of head coverings, but eventually they too took on the fashions of Babylon, causing the head covering to get smaller and smaller until it died, along with the blessing of the Lord (exhibited in miracles, dreams, and visions) to die with it.
“Covered Their Face”?
It should be noted that the head coverings in the Bible days and early in Ellen White’s day loosely covered the sides of the face, not the front as we have seen in pictures of Islamic women, nor the necks as Catholic nuns practice. She was lamenting that the smaller bonnets were no longer covering the face on its sides, which showed greater modesty, but she would have lamented much more if she knew that the head covering would be entirely discarded after her death and that women would dare to bare parts of their legs in public; yet she had lamented how greatly God’s professed people had departed from God’s standards back then!
I mention this to show that women with unveiled heads in public is a new phenomenon in Christendom, and thus the context in Barnes’ time—again, the 1830s—was that women were always wearing head coverings. There would not have been a thought back then for women to only put head coverings on when they prayed or attended religious gatherings, because they were wearing them all the time when they were out in public for modesty’s sake. As we will see in Barnes’ notes, surprising to us (but not to those before us), the issue that Paul was dealing with was the wrong practice of putting off the head coverings—that is, women unveiling their heads—in an ecclesiastical setting, rather than failing to put them on, because they were already on.
Back to Barnes
Barnes’ view on head coverings was therefore no different than that of other classic commentators since head coverings being worn in public by women was universal in the civilized world. But his commentary I find is the clearest on this chapter, so that is why I am using his. In fact, it is so clear that I believe that the chapter will make perfect sense to you as it never has before, after you go through it, as long as you are sincere and thorough in your reading it.
Part I is thus on the head coverings, but I continue the commentary after that because Barnes makes some very good points about heresies (Part II) and the Lord’s supper (Part III), which makes these subjects appear much different than we are used to seeing them, and this will lead to reforms to be made there as well—all for the purpose of returning to primitive godliness that has not been witnessed since the apostolic days, thus true revival and reformation.
I encourage you to have a good prayer before we open up God’s Word in this Bible study.