John Carstares on Theatre Attendance

From a Dedication to James Durham’s “Practical Exposition of the Ten Commandments”.

Carstares was a Scottish Presbyterian. His main arguments in this essay are as follows:

1. Theatre attendance is a violation of the seventh commandment.
2. Church councils throughout the ages have prohibited attendance at theatres and excommunicated actors.
3. Church Fathers through the centuries have opposed theatre attendance.
4. When the Gospel spread to various lands, theatres were virtually eradicated.
5. Even some of the worst Roman emperors opposed stage plays, as did all of the best Christian emperors.
6. Any gains in knowledge (from theatre attendance) can be better obtained outside of the theatre.
7. Attendance is a participation in pagan idolatry and superstition.
8. Attendance breaks a believer’s baptismal vow to renounce the devil and all his works.
9. Attendance is against Gospel living in which Christians are to abstain from lust-focussed activities (Gal 5:16, 24, Rom 13:14)
10. Christians are not to be conformed to the world (Rom 12:2).
11. Christians are not to spend time as fools but wisely using their time (Eph 5:15).
12. Christians are to not give any appearance of evil (1 Thes 5:22).
13. Theatres have a satanic, pagan origin.

Titles in this extract were not written by Carstares.

Rulings of Church Councils

Stage plays, in their several sorts, where prohibited, reprobated, and condemned, and the actors in them appointed to be excommunicated, by the canons of several more particular, and of some general councils (which canons I forbear, for brevity’s sake, to set down at length) as namely:

By the 5th canon of the first council at Arles in France, AD 314, in the time of Constantine the Great.

By the 20th canon of the second council held there, AD 326, or more probably 389.

By the 57th, 62nd, and 67th canons of the Eliberine council in Spain, AD 305.

By the 11th and 35th canons of the third councils of Carthage, AD 397, the very same with the 13th and 35th canons of the council of Hippo in Africa, held AD 393.

By the 12th canon of the African Council held AD 408, where Augustine was present; the canons of both which councils suppose persons to have been excommunicated on this account, and provide for their reconciliation to the church, in case of repentance, and turning from these practices to the Lord.

And by the 51st and 62nd canons of the sixth general council (called by some the fifth) held in Constantinople, AD 680, the canons whereof were renewed in that council held at Constantinople, AD 692; these two canons are very express and peremptory in this thing.

And can any Christians warrantably, and without sin, recreate [entertain] themselves with beholding such plays, the actors wherein deserve to be excommunicated? What? Is there no better, no more innocent and inoffensive way? Or, is this the only, or the best way, to recreate men – to refine, sharpen, and polish their wits [minds]; to persuade and prevail with them to hate and flee vice, and to love and follow virtue; to acquaint them from history with, to impress on them the remembrance, and to excite them to the imitation, of the noble and truly imitable actions of illustrious heroes, and other great men; to breed them to a suitable confidence; to make them eloquent and fine spokesmen; and to help them to a becoming carriage in all actions, places and societies? The grave seers [elders] and great lights of the church did never see any such thing in them. But, on the contrary, have with common suffrage judged them to be the most effectual and compendious way to make men soft, dissolute, and sensual; nay, even in a manner quite to emasculate them; and have without any discord declared that the lightness, lasciviousness, and lewdness that in these plays were couched under, and covered over with such shreds and pieces of learning, history, eloquence, invention, wit and art, only made them more dangerous. And that Satan showed his pernicious and pestilent policy not a little, in thus tincturing [staining], sugaring, and gilding [cover with gold] these poisonous pills, that they might go the better down, diffuse themselves the less sensibly, and operate the more strongly.

Opposition by Civil Magistrates

And however some empty and effeminate, vain and vicious Roman emperors reduced such plays; yet some of the greatest and soberest, manliest and bravest, even heathen emperors, did oppose and exterminate them (so that Guevara notes it to have been one of the tokens and characteristics to know a virtuous or vicious prince of Rome by, to wit, whether he maintained players, jesters and jugglers among the people, or not) as did also many senators, Christian emperors, and well-regulated republics, both pagan and Christian; as unbecoming exercises, and effeminate arts, which did much dishonor and corrupt the state; and as seminaries of all vices and intolerable mischiefs in the commonwealth. And no doubt, whatever good is pretended to be got in a playhouse, or at the stage (hardly without a predominant mixture of evil) may be learned as well, as easily, and much more safely, if not more cheap too, elsewhere.

Reasons for Condemning

As they have been best forbidden and censored by councils, so I say more particularly, they had been unanimously condemned by the Fathers, on these and other suchlike grounds:

1. As being a breach of the seventh commandment, wherein a multitude of modern divines, writing on this command, accord with them.

2. As being a conforming to, and participating with, pagans in their idolatrous and superstitious practices, expressly forbidden to the people of God in the Scripture; which put Cyprian [an early Church Father] peremptorily to conclude, “that the Scripture has everlastingly condemned all sorts of such spectacles and stage plays, when it took away idolatry, the mother of them, whence all these monsters of vanity, likeness and lewdness did proceed.”

3. As being [at]cross [purposes] to, and a practical renunciation of, the baptismal vow of Christians, wherein they engage to renounce the devil and all his works, of which sort they account the acting and beholding popular stage plays to be.

4. As being the removal of the distinguishing character of Christians from heathen Gentiles, “Who”, as Tertullian says, “did most of all discern men by this, that they abandoned and renounced all stage plays.”

5. As being unsuitable to, if not inconsistent with, the gospel; which forbids Christians to make provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof, to be caterers for their corruptions, and to be conformed to the world; and commands them to walk circumspectly, accurately, even with spiritual preciseness and strictness, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, woefully wasted away, and miserably misspent this way; to abstain from all appearance of evil; to rejoice in the Lord; and, when they are merry, to sing Psalms, and to vent and express their mirth in songs of praise to God, and not in this wanton way; and assures them withal, that evil communications corrupt good manners.

6. As being a corruption of manners, incentives to lightness and lust, and seminaries and nurseries of wantonness and uncleanness.

7. As holding their pedigree, original and institution from the devil, the inventor of them; and being at first idolatrously and superstitiously celebrated to the honor, and for many hundreds of years together, dedicated, devoted, and appropriated to the worship and service of the heathen devil-gods. “Who (as Augustine affirms) did themselves importunately demand these plays to be exhibited to them for their honor, fiercely and cruelly command them, denounce calamities if they were not exhibited, avenge most severely if anything about them was neglected, and, if they amended what was formerly omitted or neglected in them, show themselves pacified and well pleased.”

The Witness of Church Fathers

Let us hear now, in the next place, some more of these fathers speak their own and the church’s thoughts a little more particularly of stage plays, with respect to such grounds, having heard some of them already.

1. Clemens Alexandrinus calls stage plays, comedies, and amorous poems, “Teachers of adultery, and defilers of men’s ears with fornications;” and says, “that not only the use, the sight, the hearing, but the very memory, of stage plays should be abolished.” And elsewhere tells Christian youths, “that their pedagogues must not lead them to plays or theaters, that may not unfitly [appropriately] be called the chairs of pestilence, because these conventicles, where men and women meet together promiscuously to behold one another, are the occasion of lewdness, and there they give or plot wicked counsel.”

2. Cyprian styles theaters, “the stews of public chastity, the mastership of obscenity, which teach these sins in public, that men may more usually and easily commit them in private; he learns to commit, who accustoms himself to behold the theatrical representation of uncleanness. It is not lawful for faithful Christians; yea, it is altogether unlawful, to be present at these plays.”

3. Tertullian calls the Playhouse, “the chapel of venery [sexual indulgence], the house of lechery [lustfulness], the consistory [council or court] of uncleanness.” And elsewhere he says, “we renounce your spectacles and stage plays, even as we reject their origin, which we know to have had their conception from superstition; we have nothing at all to do with the fury of your circus, with the dishonesty of the theater; we come not at all to your plays.”

4. Origin says, “that Christians must not lift up their eyes to stage plays, the pleasurable delights of polluted eyes, lest their lusts be inflamed by them.”

5. Lactantius says, “that these interludes with which men are delighted, and whereat they are willingly present, because they are the greatest instigations to vice, and the most powerful instruments to corrupt men’s minds, are wholly to be abolished from amongst us.”

6. Gregory Nazianzen calls stage players, “the servants of lewdness” and stage plays, “the dishonest, unseemly instructions of lascivious men, who repute nothing filthy but modesty”; and the playhouses, “the lascivious shops of all filthiness and impurity.”

7. Ambrose (in Psalm 118), styles stage plays, “spectacles of vanity, by which the devil conveys incentives of pleasure to men’s hearts: let us therefore turn away our eyes from these vanities and stage plays.”

8. Jerome says, “have nothing to do with stage plays, because they are the pleasing incendiaries [growers] of men’s lusts.”

9. Augustine brands stage plays with this black mark: “they are the spectacles of filthiness, the over-turners of goodness and honesty, the chaser-away of all modesty and chastity; whorish shows, the art of mischievous villainies, which even modest pagans did blush to behold; the inventions of lewdness, by which the devil uses to gain innumerable companies of evil men to himself.” In another place he calls theaters, “cages of uncleanness, the public professions of wickedness, and stage players, the most petulant, the most impure, imputed, wicked, shameful, and detestable atonements of filthy devil gods; which to true religion are most abominable.” And elsewhere he declares that, “when the gospel came to be spread abroad in the world, stage plays and play houses, the very caves of filthiness, went to ruin almost in every city, as inconsistent with it; whence the Gentiles complained of the times of Christianity, as evil and unhappy times.”

10. Epiphanius says, “that the catholic and apostolic church reprobates [disapproves] and forbids all theaters, stage plays, and suchlike heathenish spectacles.”

11. Chrysostom says, “I wish the theaters and play-places were all thrown down, though as to us they did lie desolate and ruined long ago.” Elsewhere he says that, “nothing brings the oracles and ordinances of God into so great contempt, as admiring and beholding stage plays: and that neither sacraments nor any other of God’s ordinances (pray, mark this diligently, O how often is it sadly verified!) will do a man any good so long as he goes to stage plays.”

12. Bernard says, “that all the faithful soldiers of Jesus Christ abominate and reject all dicing [playing with dices] and stage plays, as false frenzies.”

13. Let Salvian, his weighty words, shut up this short account of the judgment of these ancient fathers about this matter, who says that, “in stage plays there is a certain apostasy from the faith. For what is the first confession of the Christians in their baptism, but that they do protest they renounce the devil, his pomps, spectacles and works? Know thou, Christian, when thou dost wittingly and knowingly return to stage plays, thou returnest to the devil, who is in his plays; for thou hast renounced both of them together.” Wherein many fathers agree with him; they being harmonious in condemning stage plays, as being ordinarily stuffed with the names, histories, persons, fables, rights, ceremonies, villainies, incests, rapes, applauses, oaths, implications, and invocations of the idol gods.

Conclusion and Exhortation

In fine, to show the perfect agreement between the primitive and Protestant church about such plays, it will neither be impertinent, nor I hope unedifying, to subjoin here the judgment of the famous reformed Protestant Church of France (from which other reformed Protestant churches in this do not differ, yea, the stream of Protestant divines runs this way), declared in a national synod held at Rochelle, AD 1571, where this canon was unanimously framed: “Congregations shall be admonished by their ministers seriously to reprehend and suppress all dances, mummeries [absurd/false performances], and interludes [short or simple plays]; and it shall not be lawful for any Christians to act or to be present at any comedies, tragedies, plays, interludes, or any other such sports, either in public or in private chambers [rooms – consider the television or internet movies], considering that they have always been opposed, condemned, and suppressed, in and by the church, as bringing along with them the corruption of good manners; especially when as the holy Scripture is profaned, which is not delivered to be acted or played, but only to be preached.”

What used now to be said in apology for, and defense of stage plays, and for reforming of them, yet so as to retain them still, was long since objected by the witty and voluptuous pagans, and solidly answered, and strongly confuted by the fathers; as it has been by several modern writers, particularly Dr. John Reynolds, Mr. Stubbs, and notably by Mr. Prynne, and may be in a great part by what has been here hinted concerning the invention and original of them, the nature, and use of them. Beside all that has been, and may most justly be said of the many dangers and dreadful tendencies, attendance, consequence and fruits of them, and the horrid abuses of them, we may sufficiently plead against the use of such stage plays, as being neither necessary nor profitable, and [plead] for the utter abolition of them.

God is jealous, and will not be mocked.