Saturday, June 13, 2015

This Week in Texas Methodist History   June 14

Caldwell Methodists Protest Sunday Motion Pictures, June 14, 1934

One of the sources of continuing fascination for this Methodist historian is constantly changing list of social causes that have attracted the attention of the denomination.   Armed with Biblical justification and righteous zeal, Methodists have plunged into many social causes—and incidentally ignored others.  For example, the issue of the prohibition of alcohol consumed the social conscience of the church for more than a generation.  That same generation, with the exception of some brave women such as Jessie Daniel Ames, seemed to ignore the systematic terrorism of African Americans through lynching during the same period.   Why did the church participate in a crusade to rid the world of alcohol and turn a deaf ear to the cries of murder victims?  

Another issue that is only an historical footnote today is the drive to make the injunction of the 4th Commandment the law of the land—“Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”

Methodism spread into a young nation divided on the subject.  In New England and states populated by descendants of Puritans there were usually “Blue Laws,” so called because they had been printed on blue paper.  These laws used the power of the civil authority to restrict activities on Sunday, bringing both commerce and recreation to a halt.  Presumably the citizens, freed from these distractions, would attend church and listen to the 3-hour sermons for which Puritans were famous.
The southern states, on the other hand, often had a different outlook on the Sabbath—in many southern states, including Texas, Sunday was a day for horse racing, wrestling contests, shooting at targets, --in other words excuses to get together and drink and gamble on the outcome of contests.  Horse racing for stakes was so popular on Sunday afternoons that the small town of Washington on the Brazos had two race tracks.  

Methodists were attracted to the restrictions on Sunday activities.  Travel diaries reveal that Methodist preachers usually refrained from travelling on Sunday, even if not doing so represented a hardship.  When Methodists and Baptists became predominate denominations, they used their new influence to enact blue laws. 
The enactment of blue laws was in some ways similar to the fight for prohibition in that the groups in that both were attempts to impose Anglo-Southern mores on the whole population.   Texans of Mexican and German ancestry were accustomed to spending Sundays shopping, socializing, visiting family, or participating in club activities such as the German Schutzen Vereins  (shooting clubs), nine pin bowling, or Turner Vereins (gymnastic, physical culture societies).   

Just at the battle for prohibition was won, so too was the campaign to enact Sunday closing laws.    By the 1920’s and 1930’s Methodist reformers could look with pride on the success of their efforts to create more wholesome communities.  It is difficult for someone of my generation (b. 1946) to explain to younger persons how thoroughly pervasive Sunday closing laws were as late as the 1950s.  

There were always problems in the details.  For example, our family sometimes patronized a cafeteria after Sunday morning worship.  Did not our patronage mean that food service employees had to work on Sunday?  

Another issue was motion pictures, and in 1934 the Methodist and Baptist preachers in Caldwell tried to get the motion picture theater, the Matsonian (so named because it was owned by the Matson family). Both preachers, Terry Wilson (Methodist) and W. O. Wright (Baptist), denounced the Matsonian’s Sunday showings from their pulpits on a Sunday morning.  After the Methodist service, the congregation asked Rev. Wilson to write a protest letter to Mr. and Mrs. Matson—which he did.
It should be noted that the Mr. and Mrs. Matson had already made concessions to the churches.  On Sundays, they had only two showings in the afternoon so that no one would skip Sunday nigh services to attend a movie.  

The flap over Sunday movies seems quaint in today’s world which seems to have discarded the 4th Commandment injunction.  There are a few relics of the era such as the Texas law that prohibits sale or public consumption of alcohol before noon on Sunday.  For the most part, however, Methodists ignore their tradition of Sabbath observance.  Just notice what happens on a Sunday after church in the fall when the Cowboys have a 12:00 game.  I recently heard of a Houston preacher who wears his Texans jersey under his clerical robes so he can rush to the stadium after pronouncing the benediction.  

On a personal note. . .   I would welcome a swing back of the pendulum toward recapturing the sacredness of the Sabbath.  If such a pendulum swing would occur, it could not be on the legalistic basis by which it was formerly justified.  Instead, recapturing the Sabbath rest would depend upon evidence from economics, sociology, and psychology that show the benefits of the practice as a social justice issue for workers. 


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