“RIGHTEOUSNESS EXALTETH A NATION.”
JANUARY 10, 1923.
TrueCovenanter.com Editor's Introduction.
The following article, under the above title, appeared in the Christian Nation magazine about a hundred years ago. It was written by an RPCNA minister, Thomas Melville Slater, D.D. A short account of Dr. Slater may be found on pages 301-302 of Thompson’s Sketches of the Ministers of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. The text presented here is according to the original, except for some revisions to the reasoning employed in the section titled “Plausible Appeals.” These were provided by the present editor. The propriety or usefulness thereof will appear to those who care to make comparison with the original text. The remainder of the text is unmodified and serves to demonstrate the position Reformed Presbyterians have historically taken in opposition to Theatrical Entertainment and Movies, even within the more liberal RPCNA.
Can one who does not himself attend the theater be in a position to discuss the question of theater-going? If he condemns it, does he know what he is talking about? Has he any right, without first-hand knowledge, to set himself up as a judge of things he has himself never seen?
Such are the rejoinders theater-men and theater-goers make to any criticism we may make of this institution. Furthermore, open opposition of the theater seems to make few converts from among the theater element in any community, but has rather the opposite effect. Last winter a prominent minister in New York, in preaching against the theater, made charges which a leading theatrical manager in the city claimed the right to answer after the same fashion. In this encounter, the favor of the press being with the stage, the total benefit for the cause of righteousness seemed little enough.
God Needs Witnesses.
Nevertheless, a testimony should be given. Dr. Blanchard in opposing the lodge used to say that no one needs to join a gang of horse-thieves to be in a position to condemn their trade, and so here. The character of the theater is known by its fruits, and we may all have first-hand knowledge of these. The trouble now is that most people are unwilling to judge by this test, and are guided by other considerations. Its allurements are most subtle, its fascination for the irreligious utterly captivating, and its attractions for young Christians, and those of unsettled convictions, well nigh irresistible. Perhaps never before in the history of the world has the theater made its appeal so strongly, its attractions been presented so alluringly, or its popularity been so general. It is indeed hard for any to stand against the tide. Parents, pastors, and all who feel any responsibility to help those who come under the spell of this institution know this. The present age is fairly theater-drunken and movie-drugged. Several things, at least in part, account for this.
Compliance of the Churches.
First of all, God’s witnesses against the stage are much fewer and less outspoken than they once were. Theaters and theater-going were once condemned as sinful. The law of the Church was against this, and church members who followed this course were disciplined. Not in our own denomination only, but in others. A few years ago any Church that professed to stand for anything, stood against this. Now, things are changed. The great majority of professing Christians attend theaters and movies. The law of the Church is openly disregarded, wherever it once existed. No pretense at the exercise of discipline is attempted. “Going to a show” is accepted as a matter of course by the general run of church members, and those who do not go to such places are exceptions. I know a prominent “church-worker” who holds the controlling stock in the largest movie house in his city, and which runs seven days of the week. Year after year the highest Court of the Methodist Church is torn with discussion as to erasing this restriction, with that on dancing and cards, from their Book of Discipline. Most ministers of the Church at large attend the theater, and some extol it as doing as worthy a work as that of the Church. We have in our own ministry at least one man, holding a high position and looked to as having some influence, who frankly tells us that he visits the movies whenever he wants to. And unless God gets more witnesses for the separated life, theater-going is bound to increase.
Another fact making it hard to resist the theater, is the closeness with which we are perforce brought into contact with theater interests, whose educative influence presses upon us as the atmosphere. From this no escape is possible. Show-houses occupy the most conspicuous locations on our streets, bidding for patronage by day, and with all the witchery of illumination make every possible appeal to the eye by night. “Catchy” music draws auditors near to the door. Doll-featured ticket-sellers and liveried attendants are there to draw patronage. Lurid posters fill the billboards on every vacant lot and proclaim all too truthfully what is to be seen. Newspaper advertising of plays and pictures is found profitable, and in many towns a program of the week’s features is supplied to the homes. In many of our magazines the pictures of popular actresses are given a place. Then in the schools our children associate daily with companions who attend these resorts from one to five or six days each week, and who think and talk of little else but what they have seen or heard at the shows. Added to all this we have some teachers who, by way of emphasizing the lesson in English, recommend that all in the class must certainly hear such and such a play, or be sure to see some picture now showing in town.
So it is true that this institution has entered into our life today as the salt is in the sea. Experience with these modern features of Sodom, amid which we dwell and with which we all have an unwilling familiarity in both seeing and hearing, gives us some measure of kinship with Lot, both in the vexation of his righteous soul from day to day, and his difficulties in raising a family. Irving S. Cobb’s description of New York as a combination of “Play-house, eating-house and mad-house,” is somewhat exaggerated; but it suggests a type of civilization all too common everywhere. Under the best circumstances it is impossible for young Christians to escape all questions as to what shall be their relation to the show-world, for it fills the world, and as far as possible is displacing God’s world.
Perhaps the strongest consideration why we should all form in line with the multitudes to get our tickets for the show are the educational and recreational advantages promised. Seeing a story or one of Shakespeare’s plays dramatized, gives a vividness of interpretation never obtained from its mere reading. In being denied this our students in English feel a distinct loss. Then the shows afford the people a place to go. Likewise, others in our time feel themselves denied their due entertainment in the closing of saloons and other outlets of vice. To many of them these modern institutions of amusement have become a necessary alternative so they will have something to do with their time and money. Where drinking-houses are closed, we must have the play-houses to occupy the time of those who cannot be persuaded to live a useful life. And if the business-men of the time may not be allowed to enrich themselves by taking advantage of the inclination of sinners to one vice, then they must be allowed another.
As for the possibilities of some good coming from either drama, the screen, or film, that is not what is in question. We do not deny that something good might come from these, or many other things generally regarded as harmful. We do not deny that admirable skills are demonstrated by these who have the part of actors; nor do we deny that eloquence and other arts have a due place in the Christian life. Lively and animated expression may safely have its employment in more worthy uses. When a man has skill in speaking before an audience, he does very well to employ that gift to the glory of God. Besides this, we not not embrace the Theater simply to concede that when means are available to persuade and teach by example and visual representation, these may be used without limiting ourselves to the instruction of sound alone. It is likely that most of what we learn comes by way of the eye. But all of this brings us to the question: what does the audience learn, and in what are they trained, by their attendance upon actors and actresses exercising such skills and arts in these present amusements?
Let us note also, that our question is not about the lawfulness of recreation. This is not in question at all. We understand that all men, Christians too, must have their sources of recreation, as well as instruction. But the question concerns the lawful forms of recreation, and whether the time spent for this particular recreation is truly well used, or not rather abused. Certainly, this is not the ideal use of our recreation-time. In that regard, let us contemplate this question, which may be persuasive in itself: What place do we believe that theaters and movies will have during the Millennium? If they have a place, they will surely be different things than they are now. Likewise, I see a great many reasons why some of the essential features of these institutions, as we now know them, will have to be totally eliminated before we get the Millennium; and their very names fumigated before either will pass any Board of Censors in the Kingdom of God. And the point I now seriously raise with those who believe in this Kingdom, and profess to be praying and working for its coming upon earth, is this: The morals of these resorts being what they now are, can God’s people afford to patronize them, even for the sake of the recreation, education, or any other benefit they are supposed to afford?
A Vital Issue.
This question, as above indicated, concerns all Christians, and especially the youth of our churches—in the country as well as the city. With good roads, a good machine, and good company, what is more certain than the inducement to run into town for the evening to see what is advertised as “a good show”? Certainly many young people will yield to this temptation, and Covenanter young people, and some who are not young, will catch the contagion of the amusement-crazed multitudes, and attend these crowded resorts, unless they know of a better reason for not going.
To what extent the lure of the play-house has already gotten into the heart of the Covenanter Church, I do not know. That it has to some extent, everybody knows. And because we know this, and that the theater and all similar organizations are of the same evil family; because some who allow themselves visiting relations with this family are not aware of the company they are in, and some who should know are trifling with this as a non-essential matter, and one about which liberal views should be allowed; because the evident deterioration of spirituality in all who indulge these things testifies how impossible it is to serve Christ with a divided heart; and because theater-going is bound to increase if God’s witnesses continue their assent—therefore the time has come for plain speaking on the part of all who have at heart the purity of the Church and the best interests of souls.
The Covenanter Conscience.
I said at the start that open opposition of the theater makes few converts from the world. However it is not to unbelievers, or the professedly godless that these words are primarily spoken, but to those who profess something better. Can we who are not our own, but the property of Jesus Christ, take offense at His own claims? Can we who know ourselves bought with His precious blood, and are expecting to deliver the goods, question His right to His own? And will any such as are on the wrong side of this question resent an open discussion of the truth, but rather welcome it, and be glad that the words are plain-spoken? I believe that in loyalty to the Master our people are second to none; and if as open-minded seekers after the truth they see they can be truer to Christ on the outside of theater doors than on the inside, I count upon the true Covenanter conscience to answer true, and that in this also God will have His own blessed will.