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A Victorian Scrapbook

A Scrapbook of Newspaper Articles Compiled by George Burgess (1829-1905)

Victorian Culture and Life

Dr. Bellows On The Stage

Henry Whitney Bellows (1814-1882), American clergyman, and
Reference to Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909), American author, historian and Unitarian clergyman.

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Transcript from original newspaper article: -


Dr. Bellows has delivered his oration of the Relations of the Stage to the Sober and Sacred Interests of Society, before a crowded audience at the Academy of Music. He started by showing that amusement was natural, necessary, and good.


Dr Bellows on the StageHe said: “If amusement be wrong in principle – if to forget care, duty, death, the future, for any hour of the day, be dangerous – if not to be uninterruptedly engaged in contemplating and advancing the moral and serious interests of life, is culpable and offensive to Christianity – if fun, frolic, laughter, jest, humor, with, the excitement of social inter-course and the indulgence of the lighter and gayer tasted of human nature, have no legitimate times and places, and no important and indispensable offices, then, of course, it is useless to talk of defending the most amusing of all amusements. But I now stand here to maintain and so show that amusement is not only a privilege but a duty, indispensable to health of body and mind, and essential even to the best development of religion itself. For what is it? It is the play of our nature, when temporarily released from toil and anxiety. Its very essence is absence of painful effort and serious thought, absorption in the present to the forgetfulness of the past and the future. Nothing amuses which does not make a man forget himself, by calling into controlling activity pleasurable thoughts and emotions. Society is the better, the safer, the more moral and religious, for amusement. It is as good a friend to the Church as it is to the theatre; to sound morals and unsuperstitious piety as it is to health and happiness. The very word recreation carries its argument in its etymology. To recreate is to re-create, and pleasure and piety have, in this direction, an identical him, to renew and edify our nature. Amusement, it is true, recreates in a very different manner from piety. It does not make the bone and sinew, but supplies the roundness of the muscle, the fat and moisture of the system – And while one gives strength and size, the other gives flexibility and grace. Both are necessary to build up the perfect man.”


Having shown that the stage is the most complete and interesting of all amusements, he went on to argue that it was not necessarily injurious or unwholesome. He said: “The attractiveness of the theatre, even to vice and folly, is nothing against it, until it can be proved that they are attracted there by what is bad and depraving. It is not enough to show that they carry there what is bad and depraving, or that they are not kept away by what is bad and depraving there, but that they are attracted by what is bad and depraving. I suppose them to be detracted precisely by what would attract me or you, or by innocent or well-intentioned person – by the love of pleasure, spectacle, society, talent, beauty, light, architecture – and I suppose them to be very innocent so far as they enjoyment of these things is concerned…. For my own part, I believe the theatre has, in every age, exhibited the vices and follies of society rather than created them; and it has owed its reputation for evil mainly to the fact that it has been the only place in which the decency, or virtue, or propriety of society has met the indecency, the vice, and disreputableness. Now, it the theatre had produced this indecency, vice, or disreputableness, or encouraged it, we should condemn it; but I believe, on the contrary, notwithstanding its imperfect administration, it has done something to correct it. Perhaps the most innocent hours of the vicious have been those in which they were publicly amused under the protection of society. For the innocent pleasure which even vice and folly get out of their existence is the only part of their career we can look at with any satisfaction; all else is loss and ruin.”


Having admitted that bad plays are performed, the orator went on to deny the right of the clergy to ignore the theatre. He said:

“When I consider that eight theatres, as least, are open in the city for six nights of every week; that they are constantly frequented, though in very different degrees, by all classes of the community, except a portion of those technically styled professors of religion; that the tasted, morals, manners, happiness of hundreds of thousands of people are affected by them for good or evil, to a degree which almost renders the theatre a rival of the church, I confess that the vastness of this metropolitan interest is too serious an element in our whole civic character and human prospects to make me willing to ignore it, or – the hope of crushing it being preposterous – to allow me to sit easy while it remains hostile to morality or in open competition with religion. I must, for my peace’ sake, see what of good it is that gives life to this sturdy tree, which has been so long stricken with the lightenings of the Church and still survives in greenness.”


His views of the policy which he would wish to see the clergy pursue may be gathered from the following extracts from his oration: “It seems to me that avowed moralists and Christian leaders and guides have committed a grave and hurtful error in their mode of dealing with it. I am a servant not merely of religion but of the Church, and hope to live and die in this service; but if there is to be a great gulf fixed between the Church and the world, as between heaven and hell, minister of Christ as I am, I would sooner take my place and part with the world than with the Church; with common humanity than any elect portion of it; with confessed sinners than self-assumed saints – for I believe that Christ, who is the light of the world and not of the Church alone, is more permanently a resident with the common heart, and fortunes, and feelings of mankind at large, than of any fraction of humanity, however select, or self-appropriative of his name and patronage. I charge, then, the vices and follies of the theatre, as of our other amusements, and of our general society, to the withdrawal, the self-separation, of the moral and religious portion of the community as a class, for the pleasure-loving resorts of the people. I believe that all the specified classes of evils connected with the theatre would disappear to as great an extent as they ever disappear, even in respectable society, if, after having recognized the essential innocence and necessity of public amusement in general, and of the stage in particular, the sober and virtuous people of this and every city would go in moderation to the theatre.”


The Rev. Edward E Hale, of Boston, has followed in Dr. Bellows’s wake. His recommendation is as follows: “Let every city government appoint a committee to take the matter in hand; let the committee have the fullest power, and be as responsible as your school committee; let them have the entire control of all public amusements – and these places will be properly controlled. If, when an immoral play is presented at one of your minor theatres, an alderman, and a councilman were impeached and thrown out of office, there would be no more impurity seen on the stage.”