Unto the pure, all things are pure
To the Puritan all things are impure
D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), Etruscan
Among many Protestant groups the intention that people need
not work on the Sabbath was interpreted as meaning they should
not work, then that they must not work, then that they
must rest, then that they must not enjoy themselves. So it was
that various types of sport and entertainment were made illegal
on Sundays as they still are in some Christian countries.
The effect of this was to enforce views that were precisely
the opposite of the biblical Jesus when he noted that the Sabbath
was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
the earliest times Christians were not permitted to enjoy ordinary
entertainments such as sporting events, theatres or circuses.
The Synod of Arles in 314 excluded from the Church those who
drove in chariot races and actors. Before long the Church had
made all manner of entertainments illegal - from the OlympicGames
to local horse races - and they remained illegal for many centuries.
Christian laws still constrain many actions in Britain and throughout
Christendom. Statutes based on Christian ideas still govern
activities such as entertainment, sport, gambling, licensing
and trading. Because of the combined efforts of Christian groups
and trade unionists, restrictive laws could not be repealed
until the closing years of the twentieth century, although prosecutions
were often highly selective. Prosecutions for Sunday trading,
for example, were common, but the Archbishop and Dean of Canterbury
somehow escaped prosecution when it was revealed that their
cathedral shop was breaking the law by selling items to tourists
the US, the Supreme Court has upheld Sunday closing laws, imaginatively
interpreting them as not being unconstitutional*.
The consumption of alcohol was especially regulated, and still
is in many countries, so that people cannot buy or sell alcohol
at certain times on certain days, generally Sundays and Christian
festivals throughout Europe and in the USA also on Independance
Under the 1881 Sunday Closing (Wales) Act, all public houses
in the principality were obliged to close on Sundays. This continued
until 1961, when the law was relaxed and districts were allowed
the option. The last dry district (Dwyfor) succumbed only in
November 1996, although even then temperance campaigners were
still fighting to deny people the right to drink*.
It is still not possible to buy alcohol in the strongly Presbyterian
Western Isles on a Sunday - there is no law about it because
historically none was needed to ensure that shopkeepers behaved
themselves. In England it was possible to buy alcohol only at
certain times on a Sunday, an inconvenience to shops and shoppers
alike. The law was relaxed in the late 1990s, yet the times
at which alcohol may be sold are still restricted. In the USA
early in the twentieth century a Christian lobby managed to
make the manufacture and sale of alcohol illegal in many states.
Restrictions became stronger and more widespread until it became
possible for temperance groups to impose their views on the
whole country. In 1920 the Constitution itself was amended.
The Volstead Act, the eighteenth amendment to the American Constitution,
introduced prohibition one of the greatest legislative
disasters ever. Prohibition lasted for 13 years before the law
was repealed. Congress obliged Christian forces in other ways
too. It was for example made illegal to transport a range of
goods across state borders: this applied not only to alcohol
but also to obscene literature, contraceptives and even films
In the USA so-called blue laws regulate public and
private conduct. The term was originally applied to 17th-century
laws in New Haven. They were called "blue laws” from
the blue paper on which they were printed. New Haven and other
Puritan colonies in New England passed strict laws prohibiting
Sabbath breaking, drunkenness, and excesses in clothing. The
growth of the prohibition movement in the 19th and early 20th
centuries brought more laws regulating private conduct. States
forbade the sale of cigarettes, and laws prohibited secular
amusements along with a unnecessary Sunday work. Provision was
made for strict local censorship of books, plays, films and
other media of instruction and entertainment. There are still
many areas in the United States that retain blue laws.
in Europe almost any activity carried out on a Sunday was prohibited:
working, trading, transporting goods, travelling, or even "profanely
or vainly walking". Staying away from Church without good
reason was also punishable. Churches opposed all manner of fun,
relaxing their condemnation in modern times only when their
stance was in danger of making them look foolish. Amongst the
activities that have excited their condemnation are singing,
dancing, laughing ("Jesus never laughed"), drinking
(partially because it might encourage laughter ), nude bathing,
mixed bathing, sex, theatre, games, sports, racing and gambling.
In theory all games of chance were prohibited because they were
disrespectful to God. God was thought to decide who won (based
on Proverbs 16:33), and it was impertinent to require him to
waste his time on mere pastimes. But the practice was not always
so straightforward. In medieval times gambling was permitted
to the privileged classes but prohibited to everyone else. During
the Crusades, knights and clergymen gambled with each other
for money, while ordinary crusaders were not allowed to. The
general feeling was that the lower orders were not safe to be
trusted with the temptations of gambling. Christians opposed
lower class gambling right through the twentieth century, notably
numbers in the USA and premium bonds, the football
pools, and the National Lottery in the UK.
sort of enjoyable activity was seen as a threat. Acting and
wit were dangerous, not merely because the Church Fathers had
condemned them, but because they encouraged laughter, and laughter
was well known to subvert Christianity and promote scepticism.
Besides, misery was good in itself: "Sorrow is better than
laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is
made better" (Ecclesiastes 7:3); "Woe unto you that
laugh now! For ye shall mourn and weep" (Luke 6:25). An
ordinance in 1647 decreed that anyone who had acted in a London
playhouse was to be punished as a rogue. The following year
it was held that anyone who acted in public was liable to whipping,
and anyone who watched was liable to a fine. Kissing anyone
except one's own spouse was a mortal sin until 1956 when the
Catholic Church reconsidered the position and determined that
it is only a venal sin if there is no intention to “fornicate”*.
new was automatically attributed to the Devil. When coffee was
first introduced it was widely condemned as pagan and therefore
demonic, or where it was imported directly from Moslem lands
then it was condemned as "Mohammedan" and therefore
demonic. Either way it was demonic. Churches shifted slowly
as coffee became ever more commonplace. Catholic churchmen tried
to ban the drinking of coffee until Pope Clement VIII declared
it acceptable in 1600. Anglicans also disapproved, especially
as coffee houses became popular centers for discussions about
natural science, secular philosophy and Enlightenment ideas.
Charles II made an attempt to suppress coffee houses in 1675,
but without success. Coffee was banned by the Ethiopian Church
until the 1880s, and by non-conformist western denominations
into modern times. There are still Christian sects denouncing
coffee as satanic and prohibitting their members from drinking
it, along with other stimulants and any of the many other brews
concocted by Satan.
Christians disapproved of, they associated it with the Devil
in order to discourage participation. Dice were the Devil's
bones. Playing cards were the Devil's Bible. Tobacco
was the Devil's weed, not because of health dangers
associated with smoking, but because it was enjoyable. Once
smoking became commonplace, marijuana took over as the Devil's
Harvest. Any sort of new music was generally branded the
Devil's music. The term has been applied to the waltz
music, blues, jazz, reggae, rock-and-roll, punk, rap, heavy
metal, house, and numerous more recent styles. The General Assembly
of the Church of Scotland once defined the theatre as "the
actual temple of the Devil, where he frequently appeared clothed
in a corporal substance and possessed the spectators, whom he
held as his worshippers". This obsession with people having
fun has led to a huge range of victimless crimes that are not
crimes at all in countries that have abandoned religious constraints.
Christmas had its own specific restrictions. The Calvinist
John Knox put an end to Christmasin Scotland in 1562 and it
was reintroduced as a major festival there only in the second
half of the twentieth century. In 1644 a Puritan Parliament
forbade the observance of Christmas in England, and it is still
technically an offence to do the most innocent things on Christmas
Day. It is illegal to eat a dinner of more than three courses,
or to eat mince pies or Christmas pudding, or to ride rather
than walk to Church, or to engage in sports other than either
archery or "leaping and vaulting"*.
In earlier times, almost any trivial piece of fun could incur
the death penalty. While in western Europe people could be executed
for eating a mince pie, in eastern Europe they might be executed
for "drinking tobacco"*.
pin bowling was another victim of Christian moralists. When
it was made illegal in the American colonies, an additional
pin was added to create a new sport of ten-pin bowling, which
was not technically illegal. Calling a special ice cream a Sunday
ice cream was tantamount to blasphemy so it had to be renamed
as a Sundae, which seems to have made it more acceptable.
Travelling during the Sabbath was regarded as evil, and in
1809 the evangelical Spenser Percival succeeded in stopping
Parliament sitting on Mondays, to save MPs from the evil of
travelling on Sunday. Travelling for pleasure was even more
of a threat. Already in the eighteenth century Christians had
become concerned about the growth of travel literature. Such
literature was held to encourage comparisons between customs
and practices in various parts of the world. It also revealed
the scale of natural disasters and extent of pointless suffering
throughout the world. Such knowledge was thought to encourage
speculation on two uncomfortable subjects: comparative religion
and the problem of evil. Clearly, it would be better for all
concerned if information about other places were suppressed.
Travelling for enjoyment on a Sunday was doubly evil, and therefore
had to be prohibited wherever possible. In Canada the matter
was decided in 1925, when the Canadian Province of Manitoba
permitted Sunday excursions. A Christian organisation called
the Lord's Day Alliance opposed such enjoyments
in court, but lost its case on appeal to the Privy Council.
When ferries started sailing on Sundays in the Hebrides in 2009
there were still enough local traditionalists to mount legal
challenges and protests then prayed for the nation to
"turn its back from sin and wickedness" as women wiped
away tears and prayed for a return to the Lord's commandments*.
By the nineteenth century evangelical Christians found themselves
unable to ban many popular activities, so they mounted political
campaigns to tax them instead. A popular target was alcohol,
but there were many others. Among them were public entertainments
(theatres, operas, playhouses), sporting guns, parties (as well
as music, visiting cards, masquerades), gambling (cards, dice,
racing), prints, magazines and Sunday newspapers.
Prize fighting was another Christian issue well into the twentieth
century. It was opposed not so much for modern liberal reasons
(that it is barbaric), but rather because it provided popular
entertainment and encouraged gambling. A fight between Jack
Johnson and Bombardier Billy Wells due to take place in 1911
at Earl's Court had to be cancelled after campaigning by Baptists
and other Free Church Christians. The year before, American
Christians had succeeded in banning a fight between Johnson
and Jim Jeffries in California.
A US cartoon by the popular Roman Catholic
cartoonist E J Pace, 1922
A fashionable young woman is led astray by an imp of the
devil, who has changed "Sunday" to "Funday"
on her calendar, tempting her to ungodly activies such
as playing golf, watching movies, attending a sports game,
going dancing and enjoying a picnic.
Trading restrictions were another major area of Christian concern.
However much one person wanted to buy and another wanted to
sell, Christians felt obliged to stop them doing so on a Sunday.
In England the Churches supported the Sunday Trading Restriction
Bill in 1928, as they had supported every attempt to retain
Sunday trading restrictions since the Sunday Fairs Act
of 1448. But the public mood had now changed. The Shops
(Sunday Trading Restriction) Act of 1936 attempted a compromise
but succeeded in making the law a laughing stock for decades.
It became legal to sell tins of clotted cream on a Sunday, but
not evaporated milk. It was legal to sell fuel for cars, but
not for cigarette lighters. It was legal to sell razors to cut
corns with, but not to shave with. A new Shops Act
in 1949 perpetrated the Sunday anomalies. It was still legal
to sell magazines (including soft pornography) but not books
(including bibles). One could buy fish and chips from a Chinese
take-away, but not from a fish and chip shop. In certain areas
and at certain times it was legal to buy gin, but not tea.
Other Sunday restrictions were also coming into question. Churches
supported the Sunday Performances Bill in 1931, as
they did every attempt to maintain the restrictions on Sunday
activities. The Sunday Entertainments Act of 1932 was
another compromise. It allowed cinemas to show films on Sundays,
but subject to special levy. Musical entertainments were permitted,
but not variety entertainments; zoological gardens and botanical
gardens could open to the public, but not amusement parks. Museums
and galleries could open to the public, but not theatres. And
of course Sunday sport was still not permitted. Circuses were
still banned under the 1625 Act, as were public concerts. Representatives
of the Lord's Day Observance Society were still
stopping Sunday charity concerts into the twentieth century
including one in 1961 in aid of the National Prevention
of Cruelty to Children.
is almost no area of enjoyment that the Church has not tried
either to control or suppress. If the Church could harness an
activity for its own purposes then it did so (Church art, Church
music, mystery plays, printed lives of saints, and so on. If
the Church had no use for it then it was suppressed. Only in
two spheres did the Church permit unfettered enjoyment. One
was ridiculing chained lunatics, the other was attending public
executions. Hanging days were holidays, observed along with
Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, well into the nineteenth century.
As long as the proceedings did not get out of hand, all the
mainstream Churches thought it thoroughly wholesome for men,
women and children to enjoy a good hanging*.
Apart from a visit to Bedlam, it was the only form of family
entertainment that was both popular and improving to Christian
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