at the Casuistical Exercise, on Wednesday Evenings, in Little St. Helen’s, Bishopsgate-Street.
By Samuel Hayward.
Is going to plays, and other theatrical performances, consistent with the profession and practice of Christianity?
The answer to this question, you will find, is in consequence of the following letter:—
“Reverend Sir,—I have often been asked by my acquaintance to go to a play. But having had the blessing of religious education, and the good example of pious relations; and being apprehensive that such diversions tend to diminish, if not entirely to extinguish the zeal we should have for the honor of God, and the purity of religion; to eradicate all serious impressions; to cloud our evidences, and to make us careless about our precious and immortal souls, and remotely incline to impurity and irreligion; I have hitherto resisted their solicitations. But their entreaties becoming more frequent, and there being many truly religious persons, who have gone, and still do at times go to the theatre, my resolutions are almost broken; therefore beg you will resolve the above query.”
The question I am now called to answer, needs not much consideration; it being, I apprehend, evident at first view, that going to plays and such pleasing entertainments, cannot be suitable to our character as Christians, as tending greatly to the injury of our immortal souls. Yet, as there are so many who are captivated with these bewitching vanities, and are willing to find excuses for their pursuit of them, and say, there is no harm in it; as there are many who are in great danger of being carried away with these enchanting pleasures, and yet would be glad to be fortified against the snare, so I would take the case into particular consideration, and endeavor to convince you of the unsuitableness and danger of such practices. And may what I have to offer upon this subject, strike your minds with a peculiar force! May you lie open to conviction, and, upon a consciousness of any evil attending this practice, be enabled to resolve, through divine strength, to guard against this and every other pleasure, that has a tendency to injure your everlasting welfare, and break in upon the peace of your souls! For the truth of what I shall say, I would appeal to the consciences of those who attend plays and other diversions of the like kind, and only beg this favor, that you would give everything that is said its due weight, and let conscience have its full liberty: let that but speak, and it will soon decide the point. Having thus in some measure prepared the way, I would recommend to your consideration the following things:
I. Attending plays, and other diversions of the like kind, is by no means profitable to our souls. If upon examination we find that no real advantage can be gained, it should be a means of curbing our inclinations, and of making us suspect, whether it is not our duty to guard against all such diversions. Some, indeed, plead as an excuse, that persons may make an improvement of the theatre, and gain as much advantage from a play, as from hearing a sermon. This is a sad reflection upon preaching the word; and, however true it is as to some particular sermons, which are only empty harangues, contrary to the genius of the Gospel, and designed only to tickle the ear, and please the fancy; yet preaching, abstractly considered, is a divine institution; and therefore we may expect a divine blessing upon it, to make it effectual to promote our spiritual advantage. This cannot be said of a play, which is a mere human invention, designed not to conform us to God, but only to amuse us: we cannot, therefore, reasonably expect the blessing of God upon it, to make it effectual to our real advantage. Such excuses as these are very trifling, and will not bear even the most superficial examination. There is so much that tends to eradicate all serious impressions, to corrupt the mind, and promote dissoluteness of manners; and there is so little that tends to usefulness, and this little attended with such circumstances, that there is not the least probability of our being real gainers by a play. Who would go to the theatre, or to public diversions, to learn to hate sin, to love holiness, and be brought nearer to God? Do any really attend with these views and desires? I appeal to you. Is it so? You, who have frequented the play-house, what led you thither? Was it a desire of spiritual advantage? I may answer for you, no; and say, you had not the most distant view of this. It was a love of pleasure, of mirth, that carried you thither, and not any view to the glory of God, or to your spiritual profit. You will perhaps say, there is something peculiarly awful in a tragedy; you have seen the assembly struck with a solemn silence; nay, many faces all bedewed with tears. This is no proof that any real advantage is gained. Music has all the charms of eloquence, all the force of oratory in it: and those who have a musical soul cannot withstand its influence. Its effects upon us, either to fill us with melancholy, or to elate us, will be according to the suitableness in the music to our natural frame and constitution. This you see, therefore, is something mechanical. So the passions may be touched, and wound up to the highest pitch, by the manner of action upon the stage, &c. but no saving spiritual impressions made, nor any good received. But, if there was anything in a tragedy to strike the mind, and fit it for a serious thoughtfulness; if there was any part of the performance, that tended to fasten a conviction upon the spectator; yet the evening generally concludes with some indecent entertainment, or something that tends to remove all gloom from the mind, and put an entire stop to all solidity of thought. Thus plays, not being calculated to promote our spiritual advantage, have nothing in them that should appear sufficient to engage our attention. But,
II. Much time is spent in these diversions, that might be spent to better purposes.—Time is a precious thing, an invaluable jewel. None can speak its worth but a dying person, or those who have entered the regions of an awful eternity. And must this time be spent in vanity, or thrown away upon the empty unsatisfying pleasures of the present life? Time! Oh, what is it?
Time, the supreme!—Time is eternity:
Pregnant with all eternity can give:—
Who murders time, he crushes in the birth
A power ethereal, only not ador'd.
Such a sense had the inimitable Young [Dr. Young’s Night Thoughts, Night II.] of time when he wrote these lines: and oh, that we all had the same striking view of it! Could you not spend that time to better advantage that is spent in plays? You will say, indeed you may as well be at the theatre as spending your time unprofitably, as many do, viz. in reviling their neighbors, or in frothy, nay, injurious conversation.—But if others spend theirs unprofitably, is that a sufficient excuse for you, or any reason that you should do so too? Whatever we see in others that is unsuitable to the character of a Christian, we should endeavor carefully to avoid: for he is inexcusable who condemns anything in others, and is guilty of the same, or of worse, himself. But consider how many, when you are in the playhouse, are in their closets, examining the state of their souls, or looking up to God by prayer? How many are with their families, engaged in social worship, or employed in religious and most instructive conversation? Had not this better be the case with you? You may sport with time now in the midst of health: but the awful period is coming, when you will see the value of it? Will so many hours spent in these public diversions, afford a pleasing review? Will it give you any satisfaction, in the near views of eternity, to look back, and consider how many important duties have been neglected, whilst you have been gratifying a low inclination, among crowds of vain and irreligious persons, at the play-house? Will such a reflection as this soften a dying pillow, silence the clamors of an awakened conscience, or soothe the horrors of that critical and important hour? Hear what a soul under the force of alarming conviction says upon the subject; hear the reflections of an expiring sinner!—“Oh, the time I have foolishly, nay wickedly spent in the play-house, and in other vain and ensnaring diversions! Oh, that I should have no concern for my dear immortal soul! Oh, how gladly would I call back the hours I have wasted in such a criminal and stupid manner! But they are gone, gone never to return; and all before me is eternity! Oh, what a review! It fills me with shame and confusion; and the pleasures that once so much entertained me, and raised my laughter, now sting and wound me to my very heart.”—Would to God that every person who has any fondness for the diversions of the stage, may see them in this light, and be deeply humbled for their spending so much precious time in so unprofitable a manner! Upon this account it is highly unsuitable to our character as rational creatures, especially as Christians, to frequent the theatre.
III. Attending upon plays, and other such pleasures, greatly unfits us for the spiritual discharge of duties, and leads us to the neglect of them. If the diversions of the stage could be used only as a relaxation of the mind, to unbend our thoughts for the present, that we may be the more fit for engaging in religious duties, and go to them with greater eagerness and delight, there would then be some show of an argument for the pursuit of them. But do these diversions answer this purpose? I leave your consciences to answer, you who have been there. Is it an easy transition from the play-house to the duties of the family or closet? Can you with so much composure of mind, and freedom and regularity of thought, read the word of God, and seek him by prayer? Can you expect him with you in spiritual duties, after you have been wasting so much time in these empty pleasures? Have you gone into your closets with the same quietness of mind, and met with the presence of God as usual? Oh! be faithful to your souls in this point. Do not smother the truth. Nay, I would charge you, in the name of the Lord, to give conscience its full scope, and let it speak matter of fact. Stand the test then, and answer these questions if you can.—Are not your minds full of what you heard, when you come away? Do not the pleasing scenes which struck your fancy, follow you into your closet? Is it not oftentimes some days before you can shake off the diverting thought? Have you not found a shyness to duty after attending the stage? Could you go to God with that confidence as before, till you had humbled yourself before him, and applied afresh to the blood of sprinkling? Have you had time for the performance of family and closet duties, after you have been at the play-house, or been till an unseasonable hour at an assembly? Oh, the duties that have been curtailed, and often neglected, by attending upon such public diversions! If this then is the case, it manifestly appears, that going to plays, and to pleasures of the like kind, is by no means suitable to the profession and practice of Christianity.
IV. Attending plays and other such diversions, has a particular tendency to set persons against the power and life of religion, and to make them take up with a mere form. That religion that will not admit of the pleasures of the play-house, is disregarded by all the admirers of the stage. What shall they do, who have had a religious education, and have been followed with repeated convictions? They endeavor by all possible means to satisfy their consciences, that attending plays may be innocently done, and that it is perfectly consistent with real Christianity. Thus the child who has been accustomed to family and closet duties, begins to look upon these as unnecessary, and to think a pious parent too severe, who is for abridging his children of amusement so innocent. The young person, now become gay in his behavior, and wild in his sentiments is ready to think a godly minister too stiff and precise, because he faithfully reproves the lovers of pleasure. He cannot think there is so much duty required; so much praying, self-examination, and mortification necessary; and, therefore by degrees loses all that regard for religion, and the people of God, he once professed to have, and at last boldly sits in the seat of the scoffer. I need not ask you my friends, whether this is the case or not. You have, I doubt not, known many awful instances of it, and thereby see the evil tendency of plays, and other pleasures of that kind. If there be any of you who visit these houses of pleasure, let me again appeal to your consciences for the truth of what I say. Let me particularly appeal to you who have had a religious education, but have been led aside by these captivating pleasures: Is not what I have said agreeable to truth? You dare not deny the awful fact; but you fain would smother it. You once discovered a serious disposition; but plays, assemblies, &c. gave you a disrelish to strict, practical, religion, and led you to look upon it as unnecessary and burthensome: and now you would fain vindicate your present practices; but you cannot; conscience will at times speak and remonstrate. How awful that any should attempt to defend a practice so injurious! Do you ever see any person attend the play-house, who are growing and flourishing Christians? As soon as they begin to make their appearance there, and to relish the stage, and other such diversions, they begin to dwindle, and to sink into sad formality. If this then is the case, it clearly shows, how unsuitable attending the theatre is to the profession and practice of Christianity.
V. Attending plays and other such diversions is accompanied with the greatest evils.—This practice is a sad inlet into all manner of sins; it opens a door to the greatest extravagances; to support which the most desperate measures are often taken, which brings the poor unhappy creature to an ignominious end. The stage may boast of thousands and ten thousands it has led captive, and ruined both as to time and eternity. How many lovely youths, who once bid fair for heaven, here lost all their convictions, were introduced into evil company, turned out the greatest debauchees, consumed their substance, destroyed their constitution, broke the hearts of their aged relatives, and by their intemperance and debaucheries, did not live out half their days? That this is the case, we have too many awful instances to deny; and it is no wonder, when we consider the degeneracy of our natures, and the tendency of plays to lead to profaneness in conversation, and promote impurity of thought, by the wanton songs, and filthy jests, and blasphemous speeches, with which many of them are crowded. A youth who has here lost his religion, becomes an easy prey to the great enemy of souls; for what has he to ballast him? Intoxicated with pleasure, he is like a drunken man, has nothing to prevent his complying with every temptation that is presented before him. Oh, how many upon a dying bed have lamented their frequenting the stage, and other public pleasures! How many have cursed the day that brought them to a sight of a play, and entangled them in such company, as proved their ruin!—“Oh, how happy, had I never stepped out of the road I was directed to by my religious relatives! I was guarded against running into such dangerous paths, cautioned of the consequences: but alas! I would not hearken to the tender solicitations of my affectionate friends! I thought I might innocently go; and oh! there my unwary feet were caught! The net was carefully spread, and I was taken! Oh! lament, lament my soul, the time, the hour I first gazed upon these pleasing, but destructive scenes! Now I am going into eternity, to give an account of the improvement of it, to an infinitely just and holy God; and oh! how awful the view! What can I expect after a life of such irreligion and profaneness!” Thus many have been led to infidelity and impiety, and will have, it is to be feared, an eternity to bewail their folly and stupidity.
VI. For professors to attend plays and other such entertainments, is to set a bad example.—Thus our young friend mentions it as being a temptation to him, and as an argument almost sufficient to answer every objection, viz. that many truly religious persons have, and still do at times attend the theatre. An awful consideration this! What! a Christian seen at the play-house! It is something indeed amazing! It is no wonder to see an immoral person crowding after public diversions; one who has no sense of the worth of his soul, and the importance of eternity: but to see a professor of religion, one who is willing to be esteemed a Christian indeed, one who perhaps appears at the table of our Lord; to see such a person amidst a crowded assembly at the theatre, and to hear him excusing his attendance, by saying, there is no harm in it, is something awful! Well may a poor giddy sinner make a bad use of such an example: well may an unsteady youth say, “I may certainly now go, when such a person attends. I may now conclude it is not inconsistent with a religious character, and therefore may indulge my inclinations, when an opportunity offers.” Oh, see the melancholy consequences, and the destructive influence of a bad example! Remember, if you go, others will go too. And suppose you could go to the theatre innocently; yet many who are prevailed upon perhaps to go through your example, may be ruined forever; they cannot withstand the force of those temptations that are before them: therefore a concern for the glory of God, a consideration of the influence of our example and a regard for others, should keep us from the play-house, and from every pleasure that we think may be injurious to the souls of others, even suppose it should not be so to our own.
Thus I have hinted a few things, that are, I apprehend, sufficient to show, that going to the theatre, &c. is unsuitable to the profession and practice of Christianity. If any amongst you have an inclination to attend the stage and other public pleasures, and can answer it to God, to yourselves, and to others, that none of these things shall be the consequences, then go; but I may venture to say, that the above hints are so near the truth, that none, who have frequented public places of pleasure, can deny them if they would faithfully relate their own experience. I would now, therefore accompany what I have said with a warm and affectionate address. And,
1. To masters and heads of families—particularly, to those who attend themselves.—And let me entreat you to consider the bad example you are setting before your families. Consider the unhappy use they are like to make of it. No wonder you find them desirous of walking in your steps. To see you frequently setting out for the theatre, and to hear you perhaps recommending some of the parts you have seen acted, cannot but raise in them a curiosity to see the same; and they apprehend they may boldly ask to go, or even take the liberty, if it should be denied. And what can you say to discourage them? You cannot consistently represent the danger of such practices; this would be an argument against your attendance as well as theirs. How can you forbid them going, or curb an inclination in them to the theatre? How can you complain of their extravagancies, or correct them for their being so frequently there? You lead them thither yourselves. You may justly chide yourselves, and say, “How can I wonder to see in my children and servants such a desire after the pleasures of the stage, when I have done enough to raise it in them? Must I not blame myself for all the gaiety and extravagancy of my child? I taught him first to go to a play; and see what evils I have hereby introduced into my family! 1 gave my son a taste for the play-house, and see what are the consequences! He has contracted an acquaintance with those who will be his ruin! How extravagant in his expenses! How is he enfeebling his constitution by intemperance, &c.! And what will be the end of all? A tragical one, I fear; and all occasioned by my own folly!”
Let me speak a word to such who permit their children and servants to frequent those diversions. And is it so? Do you take no care how your children and servants spend their evenings? Do you never inquire into the company they keep? Never guard them against those houses of pleasure, that are so ruinous to youth? Can you connive at the liberties they take, the hours they spend abroad, and suffer them wantonly to indulge every criminal inclination? Oh, how can you answer it to your own consciences, and to those who entrusted their children and their relations with you? Do you never consider that the souls of your families are committed to your care? Do your consciences never check you, as acting so cruel a part by your children, and so unfaithfully by your servants? Oh, how are you helping your families to ruin! seeing Satan hurrying them on to destruction, and yet never endeavoring to prevent it: Alas, alas! use your authority: let the souls of your families lie with weight upon your minds; and do not suffer one in your house to be pressing on in the road to everlasting destruction, without warning them of the danger, and endeavoring to do all you can to promote their salvation.
2. I would address myself to professors of religion upon this subject.—Need I ask, whether any of such a character attend the theatre? This city presents us with too many awful instances of it. See amongst the crowd, that is pressing into the play-house, how many professors! They cheerfully mingle with the throng, appear as eager as any in the pursuit of pleasure, and as much delighted with those scenes of vanity. Oh weep, O my soul, that this is the case! And will not everyone, who has a zeal for Christ, drop a tear, that he should be thus dishonored?—How shall I address you, ye cold professors? Have you any real love to Jesus? Do not your hearts deceive you? Is it surely so? It is a sign that your love is but cold, your faith weak, and that you have but little concern for the glory of God, when you can hurry to such places of profaneness. Let me entreat you to consider, how inconsistent your conduct! How can you answer it to your fellow-Christians, how to God, and to your own consciences? Oh, you stumble, you discourage, nay, you harden many. You occasion many reflections upon Christ and his interest. May he not justly complain of you, and say, “What, have you no regard for my glory? "What, bear my name, and harden the hearts of so many against me, encourage sin, and bring such a dishonor upon me! Have I done anything to deserve such coldness, ye lazy professors! Consider my love; consider my service: and let a zeal for my glory continually animate your souls, and guard you against everything that tends to weaken your hands, and to bring any reflections upon me or my cause.”
3. I would close all with a particular address to young persons. You are the persons, who are more particularly under temptation of being carried away by such bewitching vanities. I would therefore guard you against them. Have any of you attended these houses of pleasure? and have you not found them tending to give you looser thoughts of religion than once you had, and to lead you to take greater liberties than you once did? Let this satisfy you that there is danger in them; and, therefore, be persuaded carefully to avoid them; and be deeply humbled before God, that you have ever frequented them. I hope you are not determined against conviction. I would set before you the worth of your souls, the importance of eternity; and call you to view the transactions of the great day, when you will receive a sentence of everlasting life, or of everlasting condemnation. Oh, consider how you will answer to an infinitely holy God for your spending so much time in such empty pleasures! View the vast assembly that will be gathered! See thousands of thousands at the right hand of Jesus, and a numberless throng at his left hand! See all earthly scenes closing forever, and the state of each person fixed! Oh, if your minds were once suitably impressed with a sense of these important things, you would soon see the impropriety and danger of plays; your minds would be taken up with viewing subjects of infinitely greater importance, than these low and perishing things.—Oh my dear young friends, I cannot leave you, knowing the snares you are exposed to. I would entreat you: I would warn you: I would beseech you. If you have any concern for your souls, if any love for your friends, any desire to honor Christ, let me beseech you to guard against these and such like bewitching pleasures. O, I cannot leave you. I would try once more to convince and move you. I would beseech you by the love of the mighty God. Oh, see him willingly veiling his glory, and coming to rescue poor souls from everlasting misery! Behold him nailed to the accursed tree! Hear him groaning! See him bleeding, dying! And all to redeem precious souls, and to purchase for them the blessings of salvation? And can you now dishonor this Jesus? I would not think so hardly of you. Sure you cannot! In fine, labor to follow Solomon’s advice, Prov. i. 10; and, if sinners entice, consent thou not. Let me beg you to follow the instructions of your religious friends; and, whilst others are spending their time in the pursuit of pleasure, do you be considering and pursuing the concerns 'of your souls; you will find it to your unspeakable satisfaction, both in life, and at death. Whilst others are trembling and shuddering upon the brink; for you to stand and look into eternity; for you to be enabled to say with the apostle, 2 Tim. iv. 7, 8, We have fought the good fight, we have finished our course, and have kept the faith; oh! it is impossible to express the pleasure this will give you. If, then, you have any concern for your peace, living and dying, beg of God to keep you from sin, and to enable you to improve and use your time so as may be for your everlasting advantage. Amen.