Obsolete Religious Tracts and the Church’s Moral Decline
I am fascinated by religious tracts that were written decades ago. In addition to the samples pictured above, I have seen tracts that condemn make-up (“Face Paint”), short hair on women (“Bobbed Hair, The Mark of the World”), all TV shows (even “The Lone Ranger”), and other things which most Bible-believing Christians now consider perfectly acceptable.
Some of these tract writers had quite a way of expressing their convictions. Don Lonie, for example, in “What About The Dance?” states, “You will find that a dancing foot and a praying knee do not grow on the same limb.” The anonymous writer of another tract informs us that The Methodist church was raised for the purpose of counteracting the dance.” (Any readers from a Methodist background who can confirm that statement?) Mrs. J. Remmerde, in the tract “Death in Cards,” gives this ominous warning: “I do hope that the next time you touch them [a deck of cards] that God will smite you in your conscience with such conviction of your sin that you will fall on your face crying out, ‘What must I do to be saved?’”
I think my favorite lines are found in “The Horrid Cigarette,” a hymn written in 1907:
“There’s a horrid little tempter Who seeks the heart and hand Of all the little boys about To kill them from the land. Tis the cigarette, the horrid cigarette!… O many a manly fellow Who sought him for a pet Has walked away to prison Led by Mister Cigarette.”
It is somewhat amusing to think about these things that were considered such grave concerns by Christians of a bygone era. Playing a game of cards or using minced oaths (words like “gee,” “golly,” “darn,” etc.) seem perfectly harmless. Why did Christians preach and write against such things? John White, in his book Flirting With the World, relates his experience growing up as a boy in the 1950s. He tells us that his church knew what worldliness was back then: lipstick, make-up, short skirts, bobbed hair, wedding rings and jewelry, movies, and church kitchens. Then he makes this statement: “Church leaders who fought the liberalizing trends of education, affluence, mobility, and urbanization may have pitched the battle in the wrong places, but you can’t fault their instincts. They knew that something vital was at stake: the maintenance of a distinct identity.
Of course the liberalizing trends won the battle, and now very few Christians have a “distinct identity.” Most Christians today are indistinguishable from the worldly non-Christians around them. White writes, “The church gave in, and many leaders hailed this as progress. Now the enemy was not ‘the world’ but ‘legalism,’ and we praised the move from narrow rules to ‘personal convictions.’”
Most readers have probably seen statistics which compare problems in public schools today to problems of a few decades ago.
Top Problems in Public Schools
|Running in halls||Suicide|
|Cutting in line||Rape|
|Dress code infraction||Robbery|
Using obsolete religious tracts, we could make a similar comparison between problems in the Church of the 1990s and problems in the Church of the 1940s and 50s. Our chart might look something like this:
Top Problems in the Church
|Smoking||Ordination of sodomites|
|Movies/TV||Divorce and remarriage|
|Make-up, dress||Financial scandals|
|Card playing||Fallen televangelists|
|Minced oaths||Drug abuse|
The above chart is based on personal observation, not on a scientific study, but I do not believe it is too far off. The picture is even bleaker if we consider how relatively tame the so-called “worldly” movies and TV programs were in past decades. I do not believe it is wrong for God’s people to watch movies. But it is wrong to watch some movies.
When my children were young, they asked me what the G, PG, R, and X movie ratings meant. I told them the letters stood for Good, Pretty Good, Rotten, and Xtra Rotten.
Some of my friends, including Bible believing Christians, think I am “too legalistic” because I refuse to watch R-rated movies. I have been rethinking my position, and now I am wondering if perhaps I should refuse to watch even PG-13 films. My friends will no doubt think I am becoming even more prudish, but this decision is not due to a rise in my own moral standards; it is due to the decline in the moral standards of our culture.
I recently became aware of how far the standards have fallen in the movie industry. I had heard a lot about the movie Forrest Gump. I knew it was a very popular film that had won several Academy Awards. A co-worker of mine told me it was a great film, and she recommended that I see it. I asked her if it was suitable for children. She assured me that there was nothing really bad in it to make it unsuitable for kids, so I decided to rent the video and watch it with my family. However, when I got to the video store, I noticed it was rated PG-13, so I was reluctant to let my children see it without first previewing it myself. Our kids were going to be away at camp the following week, so I decided to wait and watch the movie while they were gone.
When I watched Forrest Gump, I was surprised that the film contained so much nudity, violence, foul language, and verbal and visual references to sex. I was surprised because “PG-13” means that parental guidance is suggested only for children under 13. The PG-13-rated movie is supposedly fine for teenage viewers, mom and pop are told. I was also surprised by Forrest Gump because the person who recommended the film for my family’s viewing was a lady who attends church regularly and appears to have fairly normal Christian moral standards.
After viewing Forrest Gump, I told my wife that in 19691 had seen one X-rated motion picture, Midnight Cowboy, I have a good memory for details, and from what I could remember of Midnight Cowboy, I didn’t think it was much worse, morally speaking, than Forrest Gump. For the purpose of this article, I watched both movies again and kept a careful count of the offensive elements in each film. Here are the results:
|Midnight Cowboy||Forest Gump|
|Uses of Profanity||53||47|
|Acts of Violence||2||7|
|Scenes with Partial Nudity||6||5|
|Verbal Reference to Sex||3||2|
|Visual References to Sex||5||3|
|Scenes with Drug Use||1||3|
As the above figures show, the two films probably deserve about the same rating. I shared my thoughts on this with a friend, and my friend said that he was certain Midnight Cowboy was rated R, not X. I went to the library to find out, and discovered this revealing information in The Motion Picture Guide:
“Midnight Cowboy was the only ‘X’-rated picture to ever win the Oscar as Best Picture of the year. They lowered the rating to an ‘R’ later and, by today’s standards, it’s almost a ‘PG-13.'”
In other words, what was considered pornography in 1969 is now acceptable for teenagers. What does this tell us about today’s standards? It is even more pathetic when one considers the fact that the above quote about “today’s standards” was written in 1986.
The real issue at stake here is not Midnight Cowboy or Forrest Gump or the motion picture industry. The issue for us believers is how the moral decline in our culture affects our own moral standards. God’s people have always held up a moral standard higher than that of the unbelieving world around them. But as the unbelieving, godless world continues to lower its moral standards, it is tempting for believers to lower their standards at the same rate.
We still hold up a moral standard that is higher than that of the unbelievers, and we congratulate ourselves for being such pious, moral people. But all we are doing is maintaining the same distance between our standard and the world’s. Eventually the Church’s moral standard will decline to the moral standard which the unbelieving world holds to today. The sins that the non-Christian world deems acceptable today will be deemed acceptable by the Church in a few years.
The only way to prevent this trend is for God’s people to prayerfully search the Scriptures, determine God’s standards, and hold to those standards regardless of what the rest of the world says and does. Then maybe we can bring back some of those obsolete religious tracts.
1. Inspiring Temperance Songs No. 7 (Chicago: Meyer & Brother, 1907), 24.
2. John White, Flirting With the World (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press). 10.
4. Church History (Pensacola, FL: ABeka Book). 179.
5. The Motion Picture Guide (Chicago: Cinebooks. Inc., 1986). Vol. V