The devil's church: conservative Protestantism and the movies, 1915-1955 Public Deposited

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  • March 22, 2019
  • Luft, Shanny
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Religious Studies
  • Few Protestants today consider stepping into a movie theater anathema to their religion. But during the first half of the twentieth century many conservative Protestants avoided movie theaters entirely and church leaders frequently insisted that the faithful refrain from seeing any Hollywood film. Some denominations, such as the Christian Reformed Church and Church of the Nazarenes, established formal regulations prohibiting church members from patronizing movie theaters in the 1920s while Christian colleges and bible schools required students to stay out of movie theaters as a condition of their enrollment. For a time, so common was conservative Protestant abstention from movies that Stephen Paine, Houghton College president and founding member of the National Association of Evangelicals, considered it an identifiable trait of conservative Protestantism. “[H]ere is an area of unpremeditated agreement of spirit,” Paine wrote, “We don’t attend the movies.” Conservative condemnations of Hollywood began in earnest in the 1910s, so the fact that Paine offered this observation in 1957 provides an indication of how long conservative Protestant hostility toward movies lasted. Although some conservative Protestants began to relax their total ban on movie-going in the 1950s, the vituperative sermons and editorials denouncing Hollywood throughout the first half of the twentieth century had a long-lasting impact on conservative Protestants throughout the twentieth century. For example, at Wheaton College, a flagship evangelical liberal arts school, all students had signed pledge cards that they would not patronize a movie theater until 1968 when the administration finally lifted the ban. And although many did not follow their church’s dictates, the formal Manual of the Church of the Nazarene required church members to abstain from movie-going into the 1980s. The broad conservative Protestant aversion to commercial cinema for at least the first half of the twentieth century was also unique in several ways. They demonstrated no comparable animosity to other modern forms electronic media. On the contrary, they became the predominate religious voices on radio in the 1930s and television in the 1970s. Second, their abstention from movie-going set them apart from liberal Protestant and Catholic clergy who encouraged church members to patronize theaters that exhibited films they deemed morally acceptable. Despite the fact that abstention from movie theaters uniquely characterized a broad range of conservative Protestants for a time, few scholars have considered this behavior worthy of sustained critical attention. Yet a comprehensive account of a religious body demands that historians of American religion calibrate their analysis to focus on the debates our subjects considered crucially significant. This dissertation examines the widespread conservative Protestant abstention from commercial movies, focusing on a period between 1915 and 1955 as the time when this posture had been most prevalent. To illumine this frequently overlooked history, I drew upon a wide range of conservative Protestant periodicals, sermons, pamphlets, and books published by conservative Protestant leaders and publishing houses, many of which frequently returned to this issue. Zondervan, to name just one prominent evangelical publishing house, produced nineteen books between 1938 and 1955 that addressed the problem of movies. Additionally, vivid denunciations of commercial cinema appeared regularly in conservative periodicals such as the Moody Bible Institute Monthly, The King’s Business, The Sunday School Times, The Gospel Herald, The Herald of Holiness, The Banner, and others. By critically reading a broad range of materials from Baptists, Methodists, Mennonites, Pentecostals, as well as materials from the Christian Reformed Church and the Church of the Nazarene, I identified consistent attitudes toward commercial cinema across a broad body of conservative Protestants. This research informs my argument that conservative Protestant hostility toward cinema both reflected and modified longstanding Christian anti-theatrical prejudices. In reacting to the establishment of the Hollywood film industry in the 1910s, conservative Protestants reiterated arguments that had been established by church fathers in the second, third, and fourth centuries. At the same time twentieth century conservative Protestants adapted those critiques to reflect their modern anxieties about the lost public prominence of the church and their anxieties about the new culture of consumerism burgeoning after World War I. This project offers a historical account of a broad period in the twentieth century when a dominant religious body found its cultural authority slipping just as new commercial interest established a dominant position in American culture. During the span of the first two decades of the twentieth century moving pictures evolved from an intriguing gimmick to a familiar ritual of entertainment for millions of people. Public enthusiasm increased exponentially as Hollywood studios in the 1910s began manufacturing exotic movie stars and sublime theater spaces to complement their thrilling feature films. As audiences flocked to the movies conservative Protestant attitudes toward the commercial film industry soured. They had been distressed about the increasing prominence of amusements during the nineteenth century and moving pictures provoked those arguments anew. More substantially, as Hollywood studios began to self-consciously adopt the modes of popular American theater they ignited previously dormant reserves of outrage among conservative Protestants. Conservative Protestant detestation of the commercial film industry should also be considered against the backdrop of nineteenth century revivalism when the Protestant body expanded and many come to view Protestant hegemony as a feature of America’s heritage. But in the last quarter of the nineteenth century Protestant clergy found their authority undermined as Darwin’s evolutionary theory and German higher criticism challenged Protestant biblical interpretations. Soon thereafter a massive influx of Jewish and Catholic immigrants challenged Protestant social dominance. As H.L. Menken put it, “Every day a new Catholic church goes up; every day another Methodist or Presbyterian church is turned into a garage.” Additional social transformations also weakened Protestant hegemony in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In colleges and universities, specialists trained in the methods of modern scholarship gradually replaced clergy who had founded and presided over many institutions of higher learning. At the same time, modern industry, advertising, and mass media shifted additional cultural authority to modern consumers. Conservative Protestants who had mobilized their troops to defend their beliefs from challenges from the academia found themselves ill-prepared to engage in a fight against so many cultural revolutions. By the mid-1950s, splinters within conservative Protestantism became more pronounced and many of them—particularly from the younger generation—began to challenge the thick walls of separatism that the previous generation had built to defend against some aspects of cultural modernity. Although conservative Protestants by the 1950s began to confront their community’s long-standing abstention from commercial cinema, the incessant jeremiads from the first half of the century fortified a mistrust of the film industry that has continued thereafter. In this study, I provide a portrait of a prominent American religious body struggling to counter some of the radical social and cultural changes in the twentieth century.
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  • Ariel, Yaakov
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  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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