Unto the pure, all things are pure
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not be repealed until the closing years of the twentieth century,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.