On my clergy vestments: black, white or none?

After I get my hands on a black academic gown, I’d like to wear it on a preaching Sunday just to be a rebel.  A secret: I think black is kind of cool.  Recently, I just purchased a Roman-style “doggy” clerical collar but I’m not wearing it because it’s so difficult to attach.  It looks very Anglican but many Lutherans are starting to wear the doggy collar these days.  Some mainline clergy claim that the collar helps us get entry into places where we ordinarily would not be able to get in.  It automaticaly sets us apart from the laity who wear normal street clothing.  When I enter hospitals and carehomes, it does enable easier entry because we are automatically recognized. But sometimes, I just walk in with a regular shirt. Maybe that’s how I should go on Sunday mornings too?  Maybe I’ll be a rebel.

Personally, I don’t care for fancy stoles or embroidered albs.  For me, the plainer, the better.   Personally, if I had a choice, I’d prefer to wear the black academic gown that Luther and Calvin wore during the time of the Reformation.  For me, the black academic gown distinctly communicates a return to the roots of the Reformation.  I’m a person whose is rooted in the Reformation tradition rather the liturgical tradition so naturally I prefer the black.   The black gown is still the norm for most mainline Presbyterians; and it was also the norm for Lutheran pastors.  I wonder if Lutherans will ever go back to the traditional black of academia?

Historically, on October 9, 1524, Martin Luther introduced the use of the black academic gown for preaching in order to replace the monk’s robe.  It was meant to get away from the Romish image.   Calvin did the same in Geneva too, hence, the name “Geneva gown”.   I don’t think many Presbyterians and Lutheran in the free or brethren denominations are into the gown and vestment thing.  Presbyterian Church (USA) pastors are into the black Geneva gowns, and some, I hear, have started to switch over to the white albs.   The white alb became  increasingly popular in mainline protestant circles after Vatican II.  Protestant churches were reverting to the liturgical roots of the early church so it was a fashion trend of the second half of the 20th century.  Many of our Lutheran pastors started copying the Catholic and Anglican/Episcopalian brethren in wearing the long white robe/alb.  Today, most Lutheran pastors are donning the white albs, but this was not the case 150 years ago.

18 thoughts on “On my clergy vestments: black, white or none?

  1. hi – is it just me !! can any one explain why when i type in the firefox browser “newepistles.com” i get a different site yet whe i type it in google its ok? could this be a bug in my system or is any one else having same probs ?


  2. Rev. James, Luther did wear the black academic gown several years after Karlstadt started wearing it (who then later rejected it for regular clothes).

    I’m curious when the government forced this merger between Reformed and Lutheran?


  3. The black, preaching gown was forced upon the Lutheran clergy in Germany when the government “merged” the Lutheran and Reformed traditions generations after the Reformation… The black gown is decidedly “un” Lutheran. The alb and chasuble has been in continuous use in Lutheran Scandinavia since the Reformation. The accepted and ratified Lutheran Confessions, to which Luther was, of course, a contributor, are the “standard” for Lutheranism, not the voluminous writings of Luther himself, some of which are quite an embarrassment today. James T.


    1. This is not true. Dr. Hans Schwarz, Univ. Regensburg, states in his book, True Faith in the True God, that Luther got rid of the Roman vestments and went with the academic gown after he was booted out.


  4. Yes, I agree with simplicity. Sometimes I just go with the black jacket and collar shirt, and sometimes, the alb and stole. People seem to like the variety because it’s less traditional.


  5. I believe that there is a need for simplicity and we should make some decision to improve that thing. If we stick to the tradition too much then we can not think something else.


  6. Hi Timothy, I wasn’t taking myself very serious in this post. I really appreciate your input and encouragement here. I love Lutheran theology too. All our symbolic and liturgical things in our service point to our crucified, resurrected and risen Lord Jesus Christ, which is comforting to me.


  7. Timothy, Luther’s recommendation of vestments, crucifixes, images are all vestiges from Luther’s days as a Roman Catholic monk. These are constructs of our religious traditions which we so choose to continue–nothing biblical. However, it does set the minister apart and identifies us as clergy, but I believe there is nothing right or wrong about wearing it or not wearing it.


    1. Dear Kevin,

      Be careful not to downplay tradition too much. While it is true that Luther was quite liturgical, these traditional elements still serve their purpose.
      We must be careful in making vestments, crucifixes, etc. more than adiaophra. However, adiaophra are “things indifferent,” not things unimportant. I love Lutheran tradition because it functions to teach Christ. Consider the sign of the cross (here we learn about prayer, the Holy Trinity, the Atonement, and our Baptism into Christ the crucified).

      The central idea here is that these things are helpful, but not required. In the Mass/Divine Service, there is more order and reverence (and this is because of faith) than in a contemporary service which advocates emotionalism and trends.

      Again, such are the ravages of Pietism. As Dr. Walther said, we cannot allow the Church’s customs to be driven by those who are offended by them.


  8. Hello Kevin,

    I respectfully disagree with you. The Lutheran Confessions advocate–very strongly–the keeping of the Mass, together with the wearing of vestments and the use of Christian imagery (the Crucifix, images, etc.).

    The purpose of vestments–which fell out of disuse within Lutheranism due to the error of Pieitism–is to do several things:

    1.) It sets the minister/celebrant apart. This is not to suggest he is holier or more of a priest than his parishioners. He honors Christ by serving Him in uniform.

    2.) The minister represents Christ. He shows that he has been lent the Keys of Absolution to forgive sins, that He preaches Christ’s Gospel and administers His Supper by the power of His given Word.

    3.) Outside the context of the liturgy, when the minister is wearing street clericals, he continues to represent Christ. Have you ever wondered how many opportunities to share the Gospel have been missed because you could not be identified as a competent servant of the Word?

    How many people would have asked you, “Teacher, what must I do to be saved?”

    Such is my apology, gentlemen. 🙂

    In Christ,



  9. I wear the alb and stole, even for contemporary/blended services. The alb covers the person and is not affected/influenced by fashions (I never seem to be in fashion regarding clothes!). Thus, especially with the alb and cassock/surplice, the focus is not on the person, but on the ministry of Word and Sacrament. I think it helps to get away from “personality cult”.

    Just some thoughts from an old(er) codger…


  10. There are still some congregations where the cassock and surplice are worn – fewer now though. I haven’t seen many pastors who wear it around here though.


  11. I don’t think Luther went for the black academic gown. Most Lutherans did not; that was definitely a Reformed focus. The cassock and surplice were the standard for most Lutheran clergy.

    I agree with you that there is a need for simplicity, but also the alb/cassock & surplice also denote something about Lutheran worship that is not present in other confessions.



  12. Kevin

    I vote with TC – none.

    “Some mainline clergy claim that the collar helps us get entry into places
    where we ordinarily would not be able to get in.
    It automaticaly sets us apart from the laity who wear normal street clothing.”

    Where is “Clergy – Laity” in the scriptures?
    Why be set apart? Hmmm?


  13. TC, I didn’t get which of my comments you were reacting to in: “Kevin, seriously?”

    Gary, I don’t know what it is in the white alb look that is so attractive? I really want to scrap the whole vestment thing altogether but if I had to go with one, of course black Reformation gown would be my choice.

    I just heard this weekend from another Lutheran pastor that’s he’s going with no collar and no gown–just a regular shirt for the 11AM praise & worship service. I feel inspired already but I wonder what the reaction might be from the people?


  14. ” The white alb became increasingly popular in mainline protestant circles after Vatican II.”

    Really? Has it been that long? I never saw United Methodist pastor’s in anything but black up until about 10 years ago. Maybe the UM’s were slow to get with the program.


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