The Congregation at Duke University Chapel

Christian Leisure? The Protestant Debate over Entertainment in the Early 20th Century


Christian Leisure? The Protestant Debate over Entertainment in the Early 20th Century

Some reading material provided in a handout during class on January 28, 2007 by Shanny Luft.

excerpt from

Popular Amusements

by Rev. J.T. Crane, 1870, pp. 121-125



"Of making many books there is no end." Eccl. xii, 12

What is a novel? A recent writer thus defines it: A novel is a portraiture of "something new falling within the domain of fancy or imagination, with its interest centering in love." If this is correct, it would seem, it would seem that a novel, as such, is neither good nor bad, but is the one or the other according to its individual character. To portray something new is certainly not wrong if the portraiture be true, and there be a good reason for the portrayal. There is a place, also, for fancy and imagination in the legitimate operations of the mind; nor does the fact that the interest centers in love necessarily condemn it. True love, such as God designed to exist among the families of men, is a golden chain which binds in the best and purest friendship known on earth. Genuine, honest, rational love needs to be cultivated, not rebuked and repressed. It needs the controlling and formative influences of intelligence, reason, and religion, and may, therefore, be discussed by the press and on the platform or even in the pulpit.

And yet novel-reading has become one of the great vices of our age. Multitudes care for nothing but light reading. The bookstores abound with works of fiction. The records of our public libraries show that there are more readers in this department than any other - perhaps more than in all the rest. The literature which finds its way into the hands of our people, as they journey by land or water, is almost invariably fictitious. Our weekly periodicals, secular and religious, often have their serial story. Our Sunday school libraries have been overwhelmed by the flood of weak and washy literature till scarce a vestige of somber history or real biography shows itself above the surface of the wild wilderness or waters. A whole generation of young people are growing up, to whom solid books are unknown, to whom the great historic names of the past are but a sound, and whose ignorance of the world of fact is poorly compensated by their acquaintance with the world of dreams.

It is a rule in political economy that demand creates supply. As all kinds of readers addict themselves to fiction, so all sorts of writers press into this wide and productive field, and exhibit results of every degree of badness, with now and then something of better quality. It is not easy for the young to find their way through this labyrinth of good and evil, the good little and the evil infinite. The safest rule, in whose application the fewest mistakes will be made, is that of TOTAL ABSTINENCE. To declare that all the wild fruit of a certain forest is poisonous, and to prophecy the death of every one who eats a single berry there, may be contrary to truth; nevertheless, if nine out of ten of kinds found there are deadly, and none but a well-taught observer is able to distinguish between the good and the evil, the warning to be given to the inexperienced is, "Touch not, taste not."

In regard to novels this is often the only available rule. But it we are required to give more discriminating advice, there are four maxims which are plain, and, if faithfully adhered to, will, I think, be found safe.

1. If you have but little time for reading, spend none of it on works of fiction.

Your success in life, your happiness, usefulness, and safety in the world depend upon your intelligence, your good sense, your moral character, your modes of living. What you are to be and what you are capable of accomplishing will depend, in no small degree, upon what you know. You require solid information. You need to learn ten thousand things which are to be found in books. Your usefulness in the circles to which you belong and your position in the community are intimately connected with the degree in which you improve your mind. You have much to do. You have no time to waste on counterfeit coin while golden treasures of knowledge woo you on every side. Read your Bibles. Read history, the records of the past, and the accounts of current events. Read the biographies of good men and women. Read books of science. Push your researches in every direction, delve in every mine that opens before you. Traverse every rich field that invites your footsteps. Discipline your mind, store your memory; train your will to all high resolves. If your lot in life is such that little time can be given to intellectual ....


excerpt from

The Christian's Relation to Amusements and the World

by J. Wilbur Chapman, 1904

... games be played in their homes, that their parlors should not become kindergardens for training young gamblers.


"I have spoken about the things we must give up. Now, what is the gain? Some of you say: 'What did Peter give up?' And you try to figure it up, and all you can find that he ever did give up was an old boat that was not seaworthy, an old net that needed mending, and an old father that was ready to die, and you say to-day: 'I would be willing to give up things like that.' But you must remember that that was all he had. The only boat he had was old, the only net he had was almost useless, and the only father he had was ready to die, and he gave up everything. And, all in all, whether you live in a hut or in a palace! - God always blesses those who give up everything for Him. Peter gained culture. Here was a man, a poor fisherman, ignorant and unlearned. And here is a man writing the Epistles in the purest Greek that is to be found in the New Testament. Where did he get that? At the feet of Jesus, in complete surrender. The third thing he gained was fellowship with Jesus, with Him in the home of Jairus; with Him in the garden of Gethsemane; with him on the mount of Transfiguration! Oh, thou man of nets and boats, what would I not give up if I could have a fellowship like thine! I believe that I may have the same, if I make a sacrifice as complete.



by Henry Atkinson, 1915, p.188-189

... the child that was in us by nature has turned to adult and that we are already tainted with superannuation." Music is furnished through municipal parks; pictures, statuary and other works of art through the public museums; the libraries have furnished the means to satisfy those who have the taste for history, biography, fiction and poetry; but the man who appreciates the best in the drama and who longs to see a really good exhibit at the theater has been prohibited because of the price charged for admittance. On the other hand the cheap, poor, vile, contaminating theatrical performances have been within the reach of the poorest. It is the abuse of the theater rather than its use that makes it dangerous. Like every other interest in life the theater has a right to be judged at its best. Here, as in other forms of popular amusements, it remains for the church to inculcate good principles, and so transform the tastes of the people that they will instinctively learn the things that are best and will naturally turn from those that are vile and hurtful to those that are pure and helpful.

The church, instead of being critical and suspicious of the people's motives, must be sympathetic with every endeavor to find right kinds of play, and ready to help provide those things that are good and make it possible for the people to follow their best inclinations. Granted that some of the people are suffering from an excess of amusements, and that they have gone too far in their desire for fun; the way to strike the proper balance is not by prohibiting all pleasures, nor by indiscriminate condemnation, but by giving such persons other things to think about and worthy tasks to do, so that recreation and amusement will naturally fall into their proper places in the ordered scheme of life. In preaching to some audiences against the excesses growing out of the expression of the play spirit, it is necessary for the church to urge moderation; but instead of demanding renunciation, put in its place the more significant word, discrimination.

excerpt from


by John Rice, 1955, pp. 10-11

The Devil has tried to make people think they cannot be happy unless they dance or go to the movies. Particularly he has made us think that young people need to do the things for happiness that older Christians do not. That is foolish. Young people are just folks. They ought to work like grown people. They ought to do right like grown people. Sin does not make a young person happy any more than it makes an old person happy. Anything that is sinful and wrong for old people is sinful and wrong for young people. If it is wrong for a preacher and his wife to go to a night club and to dance, it would also be wrong for young people.

Young people were happy before there was ever a moving picture show. They popped corn, they made candy, they had games, they hiked, they took pictures, they read. Those who attend picture shows are no happier than those who do not.

In my judgment, the greatest happiness for young people will come not primarily from entertainment and play. They need entertainment and play and social life, of course, but the main happiness will come from work, from Christian fellowship, and from daily communion with God and the leadership and power of the Holy Spirit.

Christian homes should be opened to young people frequently for carefully supervised social life. They should have chaperons and be properly safeguarded. Older people should often have a good time with young people. It does not take looseness, licentiousness, or nudeness to make people happy.

I suggest the following principles for young people's social life: (1) Young people should play games but only those that are not associated with gambling or bad company. (2) Young people should swim, but separately. (3) Young people should have social life properly chaperoned. (4) Young folks should be taught that they are just people and should live up to the same rules of life as God has set for others. They should play the game but they should abide by the rules of decency and good taste.

And above all, remember that a Christian doing right is happier than people on the Devil's side doing wrong.

II. Movies

Is It Sinful to Attend Picture Shows?

I think it is a sin for people to attend regular Hollywood picture shows for the following reasons:

1. A great majority of pictures have sex material and situations that are bound to be a temptation. The pictures show sex triangles, show women untrue to their husbands, husbands unfaithful to their wives, make much of hugging and kissing, often show women with few clothes on, and the pictures have suggestive subtitles. People who attend movies regularly are certain to be tempted in such matters, in my judgment. It is not good to have the mind full of thoughts about sex.

2. In the second place, moving pictures promote gambling, show a great deal of murder, robbery, and crime. Ray Hamilton, a criminal who was electrocuted for murder in Texas after a long record of crime, said that he learned a lot about crime from picture shows. Many other young criminals have said the same. Criminals are pictured as smart. Hijackings and killings are shown repeatedly. That has a bad influence on boys and girls, men and women.

3. An editorial in a Movie-Radio Guide read as follows: "Recall almost any recent movie you have seen. Somewhere in its plot you will find a pair of pinch-bottle babies engaged in either humorous of serious drinking ... Drinking scenes provide every child who sees movies with the conviction that (1) all smart people drink; (2) that it is fun to get 'woozled'; (3) that hard drinking is the logical ...."