Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Christianity and its traditional views on Freedom of Enjoyment


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 which 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 very earliest times Christians were not permitted to enjoy ordinary entertainments such as sporting events, theatres or circuses. Before long the Church had made all manner of entertainments illegal, and they remained illegal for many centuries. Christian laws still constrain many actions in Britain. 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 Because of the combined efforts of Christian groups and trade unionists, restrictive laws could not be repealed until the closing years of the twentieth century, though prosecutions were often highly selective.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 .

The consumption of alcohol was also regulated, especially on Sundays. 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, though 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. 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 earlier this 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 community. 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 thirteen 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: not only alcohol but obscene literature, contraceptives and even films of prize-fights.

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 pass-times. 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 for example 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 and the National Lottery in the UK. Regulations on activities such as roulette and betting on horse races are still strict, though they have been relaxed since economic interests have superseded religious ones.

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 .

Whatever Christians disapproved of, they associated 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. 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 which 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 Christmas in Scotland in 1562 and it was reintroduced as a major festival there only at the end 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" . 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 ten pin bowling, which was not technically illegal. The Sunday ice-cream was tantamount to blasphemy so it had to be renamed as a Sundae, which seems to have made it acceptable.

Sabbath travel 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 very 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 especially evil, and therefor 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.

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 public entertainments (theatres, operas, playhouses), sporting guns, parties (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 Bombadier 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.

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.

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 (dancing, merrymaking, swimming, gambling, and so on). Only in one area did the Church permit unfettered enjoyment, and that was attendance at 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.