T.G, an unidentified Puritan divine, wrote a 1616 treatise on why Christians should not go to stage plays and listed seven reasons why not: “The Puritan authorities hated and feared the theater because it portrayed immorality and could be used to promote subversive ideas.”
John Calvin (1509-1564). In his commentary on Genesis 4:20, Calvin wrote, “Now, although the invention of the harp, and of similar instruments of music, may minister to our pleasure, rather than to our necessity, still it is not to be thought altogether superfluous; much less does it deserve, in itself, to be condemned. Pleasure is indeed to be condemned, unless it be combined with the fear of God, and with the common benefit of human society. But such is the nature of music that it can be adapted to the offices of religion, and made profitable to men; if only it be free from vicious attractions, and from that foolish delight, by which it seduces men from better employments, and occupies them in vanity.” The great Reformer expresses theses sentiments throughout his commentaries (i.e., Jer. 25:10; et. al.)
John Rainolds (1549–1607). An Oxford don, Rainolds engaged in a public debate with other scholars about the appropriateness of actors cross dressing on the stage in violation of Deuteronomy 22:5.He writes that if women be even allowed to play themselves on the stage “the disgrace to the feminine sense of shame and modesty would be a remedy almost worse than flouting the verse.” Rainolds, embracing the religious controversies of the age, inveighed against the Roman Catholic church when he wrote of “the profane and wicked toys of Passion players, procured by popish priests who as they have transformed the celebrating of the sacrament of the Lord’s supper into a masse-game and all other parts of the ecclesiastical service into theatrical sights; so, instead of preaching the word, they caused it to be played; a thing put in practice by their flowers, the Jesuits, among the poor Indians.” (“The Overthrow of Stage Plays”). This was the Reformation and Puritan focus on preaching the and not the ecclesiastical theater of the Roman Catholic worship service.
It is important to note that opposition to public playhouses was widespread in the 16th and 17th centuries and not just in the Christian community. Many thought that professional actors were involved in lascivious comedies for money and such activity had no place in an ordered and well-mannered society.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Johann Bach (1685-1750). The anti-spectacles and stage plays was evident in Church music during the 16th and 17th centuries in the conflict between the Lutherans and the Pietists (Anabaptists). Pietism emphasized musical simplicity and had no use for musical adornment. They were opposed to cantatas and opera which they believed were secular and worse. Thus they were opposed to the evangelical Lutheran Bach’s music. English and Colonial Puritan music reflected the Pietistic emphasis. Luther wrote, “And these songs [hymns] were arranged in four parts to give the young–who should at any rate be trained in music and other fine arts–something to wean them away from love ballads and carnal songs and to teach them something of value in their place, thus combining the good with the pleasing, as is proper for youth” (“Preface, Wittenberg Hymnal”).
Peter Riedemann (1506-1556). The same thought was echoed by the Anabaptist leader, Riedemann, when be said that singing spiritual songs is pleasing to God only if people sing attentively, in the fear of God, and as inspired by the spirit of Christ. Singing for carnal pleasure (aus Fleisches Lust) or for the beauty of the sound, according to Riedemann, was a serious sin. He allowed singing of spiritual songs only. It took generations before the children of the Puritans came to appreciate musical adornment (“Account of our Religion, Doctrine and Faith”).
T.G, an unidentified Puritan divine, wrote a 1616 treatise on why Christians should not go to stage plays and listed seven reasons why not (noted in Steve Turner’s “Imagine” without citation). Turner writes, “The Puritan authorities hated and feared the theater because it portrayed immorality and could be used to promote subversive ideas.”
William Prynne (1600–1669). Prynne wrote his massive (1100 pages) “Histriomastix” with the intended purpose stated clearly in the beginning: “all the profession of play-poets, of stage players; together with the penning, acting and frequenting of stage plays are unlawful, infamous and misbeseening Christians. All pretenses to the contrary are here likewise fully answered; and the unlawfulness of acting of beholding academical interludes, briefly discussed; beside sundry other particulars concerning dancing, dicing, health drinking.” A couple of more quotes from “Histrionmastix” provides Prynne’s point: “Those plays which are usually accompanied with amorous pastorals, lascivious ribaldrous songs and ditties, must needs be unlawful, year abominable unto Christians. “That which is always accompanied with effeminate lust-provoking musick, is doubtless inexpedient and unlawful unto Christian. But stage plays are always accompanied with such musick.” Finally, “Those plays which are usually acted and frequented in over-costly effeminate, strange, meretricious, lust-exciting apparel are questionless unseemly, yea unlawful unto Christian. But our ordinary theatrical interludes are for the most part acted and frequented in such apparel.” Strong stuff.
Richard Baxter (1615-1691), the great Puritan pastor of Kidderminster, wrote in his autobiography that by the age of 10 he had already accumulated a bunch of sinful habits, “I was extremely bewitched with a love of romances, fables and old tales, which corrupted by affections and lost my time.” (“Reliquiae Baxterianae” compiled in 1696 after his death) In his “Treatise of Self-Denial,” Chp. 22, para 5 (1675) he excoriates the reading of imaginary literature.
English Parliament (l641), a Puritan dominated Parliament passed legislation closing down all London theaters.
Louis Broudaloue (1632-1704), the French Catholic preacher condemned theater going to his parishners as intrinsically evil. There were no exceptions to play-going. It was sinful under all circumstances (“Sermons for the Lord’s Day”).
17th & 18th centuries
William Penn (1644–1718), the founder of Pennsylvania, opposed stage plays and wrote in 1682, “How many plays did Jesus Christ and his apostles recreate themselves at? What poets, romances, comedies and the like did the apostles and the saints make or use to pass their time withal?” (“No Cross, No Crown,” Chp. 17, para. 5) The same year the Pennsylvania “Frame of Government” (written by Penn) (Article 37) dictated that stage plays and related activities were to be “respectfully discouraged and severely punished” because “they excite the people to rudeness, cruelty, looseness and irreligion.” Given the current state of Broadway, it’s hard to argue with the reasoning.
Jeremy Collier (1650-1726), the British jurist and rector wrote “A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage” in 1698 which resulted in a generation of debate in England. He wrote, “The business of plays is to recommend virtue and discountenance vice; to show the uncertainty of human greatness, the sudden turns of fate and the unhappy conclusions of violence and injustice; ‘tis to expose the singularities of pride and fancy, to make folly and falsehood contemptible, and to bring every thing that is ill under infamy and neglect.” He wrote much more in this vein.
John Newton (1725-1807). Newton preached against Christian being conformed to the spirit, maxims, amusements and the diversions of the world. “What does a believer have to do into those places and companies, where everything tends to promote a spirit of dissipation; where the fear of God has no place; where things are purposely disposed to inflame or indulge corrupt and sinful appetites and passions, and to banish all serious thoughts of God and ourselves? . . . it must be our duty to avoid a conformity with the world in those vain and sensual amusements, which stands in as direct contradiction to a spiritual frame of mind, as darkness to light.
William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the great British legislator and emancipator, wrote to his sister, Sarah, in 1787, “I think the tendency of the theater most pernicious.”
Thomas Boston (1676-1732), the great Scottish Presbyterian Puritan preacher and biblical scholar, preached numerous sermons against “the dried breasts of the world” (Hosea 9:14) and urged his parishners to be weaned from the world.
William Law (1686-1761), the English devotional writer who wrote the extraordinarily influential book “Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life,” also wrote “The Absolute Unlawfulness of the State-Entertainment Fully Demonstrated” in 1726. In this polemic he wrote, “Now it is to be observed that the fatally undoing of all the religion has done is not the state of the playhouse through any accidental abuse, as any innocent or good thing may be abused; but that corruption and debauchery are the truly natural and genuine effects of the state-entertainment.”
The Continental Congress (1774) (meeting in Penn’s Philadelphia), passed Article 8 that would “discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock fighting, exhibition of shews, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments.”
Bob Case is a 1974 graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary, where he was editor of the student newspaper, SALT. He worked for many years as published of a local newspaper in Washington state, and is currently the Director of the World Journalism Institute. He blogs at Case In Point where this article first appeared; it is used with his permission. [Editor’s note: the original URL (link) referenced is no longer valid, so the link has been removed.]