Freedom of Enjoyment


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    Unto the pure, all things are pure
    Titus 1:15
    To the Puritan all things are impure
    D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), Etruscan Places

    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.

    From 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 actors along with those who drove in chariot races. Before long the Church had made all manner of entertainments illegal - from the Olympic Games 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 Because of the combined efforts of Christian groups and trade unionists, restrictive laws could not be repealed until the closing years of the twentieth century, although prosecutions were often highly selective.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 on Sundays*.

    In 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 Independence day..

    As Churches could not find any biblical justification for banning alcohol, other reasons had to be found. Christians could justify prohibitting it for the poor on moral grounds, but the arguments did not apply to the rich, who could drink without impacting their children's diets. Even so the Christian teetotal movement sought to ban the purchase, sale and consumption of alcohol for everyone.

    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 Ireland, for religious reasons, it was illegal to buy or sell alcohol on Good Friday, from 1927 until the Intoxicating Liquor Act of 2018.

    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.

    Public protests at Christian inspired restrictions on basic liberties

    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 of prize-fights.

    Prohibition - Alcohol barrels stacked ready to be burned (1924)

    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.

    When Christian moralists lost the battle over prohibition in the USA they turned their attention to other forms of amusement, including the Devil's passtime of pinball.


    Back 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.

    Every 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”*.

    Anything 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 nonconformist 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.

    Whatever 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.

    On 23 November 1903, Pius X issued a papal directive, a motu proprio, that banned women from singing in church choirs. In November 1913, he declared tango dancing immoral and prohibitted it for Catholics.


    Rock 'n' Roll is the devil's music.
    This illustration suggests that black men might use it to entrap white women.

    Christmas had its own specific restrictions. The Calvinist John Knox put an end to Christmas in 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"*.

    Public Notice in Seventeenth Century Boston, Massachuesettes
    " The Observation of Christmas having been deemed a Sacrilege, the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings, dressing in Fine Clothing, Feasting and similar Satanical Practices are hereby FORBIDDEN with the Offender liable to a Fine of Five Shillings."


    Nine 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 tenpin 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.

    The most innocent activities could be discouraged or prohibitted because of their sinful associations, however tenuous. In the nineteenth century missionaries in Hawaii almost succeeded in brining an end to the traditional practice of surfing, along with many other Polynesian traditions and cultural practices. The main arguments against surfing were nothing to do with the practice itself, but based on the sinful sparce of clothing worn and the equally sinful custom of betting on surfing competitions. If visitors from the US mainland had not taken up and popularised surfing, the missionaries might well have succeeded in killing off the practice altogether in the early twentieth century.

    Travelling during the Sabbath was also 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.

    Sunday Laws in Canada carried large penalties


    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 activities 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 takeaway, but not from a fish and chip shop. In certain areas and at certain times it was legal to buy gin, but not tea.

    An beach official measures women's bathing suits in the 1920s to ensure they are not too short.
    Christian morality has long focused on women's flesh. Measurments like this are still being made on schoolgirls' skirts in religious schools into the third millennium.


    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.


    Games are evidently another manifestation of demons enticing children away from God.
    In the twenty-first century Evangelists still often condemn computer games as satanic,
    and a front for "demon worship"


    There 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 three spheres did the Church permit unfettered enjoyment. One was torturing and killing animals. The second was ridiculing, humiliating and torturing chained lunatics. The third 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 morals.


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    §. "Sometimes on a Sunday", The Economist, p 29, 5 th April 1986.

    §. " “Wet” Sunday in Wales", The Independent, 8 th November 1996.

    §. Sabbatarian laws, though clearly discriminatory, have been held to be constitutional in the US. Braunfeld v. Brown, 1961. 366 U.S. 599 (1961)

    §. Time Magazine reported the decision by the authoritative La Palestra del Clero “The kiss that started the discussion was confessed to his priest by a 15-year-old Italian village boy. Mortal sin, said the priest. The anguished youth went to a second confessor, who told him he had committed only a venial one. Back went the boy to the first priest, who in turn wrote to La Palestra del Clero for guidance.”,9171,824439,00.html

    §. Eating a dinner of more than three courses on Christmas Day, or eating mince pies or Christmas pudding are both prohibited under a statute of 1646 passed by the Long Parliament — people have been executed for crimes like this. Riding rather than walking to Church is banned under the Holy Days and Fasting Days Act of 1551 (and the authorities have power to seize and sell your horse or motor car if you do). The Unlawful Games Act of 1541 forbade all sports except archery, but exceptions were later made for leaping and vaulting.

    §. Ware, The Orthodox Church, p 121, citing Ridding (ed.), The Travels of Macarius, p 68.

    §. The first Sunday sailing was from Stornoway on Lewis to mainland Scotland on Sunday 19 July 2009

    §. Potter, Hanging in Judgement, passim.


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