BLTC Press Titles

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The Characters of Theophrastus


The Souls of Black Folk

W. E. B. DuBois

The Revolt of the Netherlands

Friedrich Schiller

Theory of Colours

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

A serious inquiry into the nature and effects of the stage

by John Witherspoon


Dear Christ tan Brethren,

We now address you, and recommend it to you, in the name of the Great God our Saviour, whose Disciples you are, to Withhold All


In this recommendation, we are confident, that we are urging upon your attention a plain christian duty. It is inconsistent with your holy calling to countenance the Theatre, because, in its origin and history it has been a public nuisance in society, in its present constitution it is criminal, under every form it is useless, and it must necessarily tend to demoralize any people who give it their support.

1. The Theatre owes its origin to the revelry which accompanied the celebration of the feast of Bacchus, the God of wine, in the licentious ages of heathen idolatry. Dramatic representations formed a part of that worship which the Athenians offered to this false God; and were perfectly in character with the worshippers themselves and the object of their adoration. The actors imitated whatever the poets thought proper to feign of their idol. Men and women in masquerade, appeared night and day before the public, practising the most gross immoralities, and indulging in every species of debauchery. The Goat, which is said to be injurious to the vine, and the name of which in Greek is Tragos, is the animal sacrificed on this occasion to Bacchus ; and hence the revelry itself was called tragedy, and the actors tragedians.* The feasts were celebrated during the vintage. So gratifying however did those shows prove to the public taste in Athens, that they were demanded more frequently than the season, to which they originally belonged, recurred. Thespis, accordingly, about five hundred and thirty-six years before the christian aera, embodied a company of actors, and carried them about with him on his cart to perform tragedies wherever an audience could be assembled. And afterwards under the direction of TEschylus, a public Theatre was erected and appropriated to dramatic representations. Comedy,* which was, at first, a mimicry and abuse of living and well known characters, for the amusement and gratification of the idle and the profligate, soon followed tragedy, on the public Theatre. From Greece these exhibitions passed over to Rome. But, in neither place, did the immoral tendency of the stage escape the observation of the more sober Heathen. Their wisest and best men, their philosophers and magistrates deprecated the licentious tendency of this school of scandal, and gave warning of its danger to every society in which the evil was tolerated. Both in Athens and in Rome, the stage was not uufrequently suppressed by positive statute. The evil was popular, however, and the remedy was ineffectual. The Theatre fell, only under the power of the Gospel.

* K»po- was the God of revelry among the Greeks; and seems to be the same with Chemosh, the abomination of the Moabites. It is but another name for Bacchus From the name of the Idol, both the scored and profane writers employ < -«-', to designate that obscene festivity u Inch was accompanied with drunkenness and music. This word is translated "rioting" Rom. 13 13. and " revellings," Gal 5. 21 & I Pet 4.3. In these texts of scripture, the waoton amusements of the Theatre are expressly prohibited. The word Comedy is not however,derived from the Idol C.omus; but is compounded from u>n, a town or viV lsge, and » n, a song. Th-. abusive and srun ilous s'ngs of strolling companies through the streets gave rise to Comedy.

The primitive church could not be supposed to abet a system of licentiousness of which the sensible Pagans were themselves ashamed. Christians were then as well as now exposed to seduction, from the common vices of society: but they resisted temptation with characteristic firmness. The Theatre was given up, as well as the other abominations of the heathen. Its representations were not congenial to a taste formed upon evangelical principles: nor could a correct morality hold communion with those unfruitful works of darkness. It required however on the part of the christian individual great circumspection and resolution to abstain from the criminal pleasures in which all around him were accustomed- to indulge. Circumstances gave strength to the temptation. It was often recommended by the solicitations and sample of a neighbour, an intimate companion of early life, a partner in business, a superior in talents and influence, and perhaps too by a wife, a brother, and a parent. The revelation of the will of God was the christian's support against the seductive influence, of affection, of frowns, and of injuries. Could he rise up, from the word of inspiration, and go to the obscene entertainment of the Play-House? That word says, Whether, therefore, ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory-of God. For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, retellings, and abominable idolatries. Be ye, therefore, followers of God, as dear children ; and walk in love as Christ also loved tis. Butall uncleanliness let it not be once named among you, as becometh Saints; neither filthiness, nor foolisli talking, nor jesting which are not convenient. In correspondence with these directions, the church ordained that no play-actor should be admitted to communion without renouncing his profession. If lie ever afterwards returned to his former employment he was excommunicated. The Theatre gave way, as Christianity prevailed among the nations, and, in process of time, disappeared from Christendom.* Nor did k re-appear, until superstition succeeded in spreading her sable mantle

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