A Nineteenth-Century Plan to Redeem Culture: Was it Successful?

The plan

James Fraser (d. 1885) had a novel idea: redeem the theatre. He saw that it portrayed ideas, displayed unwholesomeness, and evoked responses contrary to modesty, dignity, and purity. He was not alone in this sentiment. Clergy widely, strongly, and vocally opposed the theatre. However, church-goers were still attending, enjoying, and even being employed by it.

Fraser envisioned the theatre being used for good, so that it would positively influence audiences and also be a legitimate form of amusement for Christians—one that was dignified, modest, and not degrading. In his opinion, it was futile to exhort Christians to avoid the theatre altogether, because it was a popular form of amusement and he believed Christianity could effect a positive change in and through it. Therefore, redeeming the theatre was the ticket.

As the second Bishop of Manchester, Fraser was in a position to try to persuade those inside and outside the church that his idea was valid and that change was possible. He was well-liked and respected, even by Nonconformists. He was firm in his beliefs and convictions, but not dogmatic, and an advisor and peacemaker on issues outside of the church, such as labor disputes. However, in nineteenth-century England, his redeeming-the-theatre idea was radical.

The plea

In The Lancashire Life of Bishop Fraser, his first public address regarding this idea was reprinted by biographer John W. Diggle. The following is an abridged version of that 1877 plea.*

The fathers of the early Church were very severe in their judgment upon stage-players—the old fathers of an ascetic turn of mind, like Tertullian and Cyprian, denounced stage plays and stage-players in all forms of the most vehement language, and the early canons of the Church refused Baptism and even Holy Communion to actors until they had renounced their trade. I admit there was a difference. The theatre in the early days of the Church was utterly corrupt and degraded. Any one who has read the picture of manners to be found in the pages of Juvenal, and in those of later writers …can easily understand how men of earnest and somewhat over-stern minds would feel, that those who could lend themselves to such degrading exhibitions as were to be witnessed in the Roman theatres and amphitheatres could have no claim, no part nor lot, in the blessed work which Christ did for the world….

Fraser went on to explain his proposal.

I think that somehow or other Christianity should penetrate into the theatre. I remember how, in the old tale in the old book, the wandering tribes of Israel in the sandy deserts of Arabia, perishing for lack of water and grievously afflicted with thirst, came to a fountain where they hoped to slake their thirst, but found the waters bitter and well-nigh poisonous, and how Moses, taught by God, bade them cut down some wood that fortunately was close by and throw it into the bitter fountain, and the waters then became sweet and wholesome. The old interpreters said that the wood typified the Cross of Christ, which alone could sweeten the bitter waters of life and make them wholesome to those who drank of them. So I think that somehow or other the power of the Cross of Christ ought to be able to reach within the walls of the theatre….

I should be quite content if the wholesome and sound moral influence of Christianity, which makes us know and feel the value of purity and modesty in word and deed, and gesture and conduct…could be found always to be the ruling principle of the Theatre Royal, Manchester, and of every theatre, whether royal or not, in the land….

I do not want to abolish the theatre; I want to purify it. I want to make it a great instrument for providing healthful and harmless recreation to those who would always be seeking recreation…. We may preach until doomsday, but as long as God has given men the faculty of laughter and amusement…they are sure to go in search of amusement, and of various forms of amusement; and I am not one of those who wish the theatre doors closed—I wish to see them open that they may present to those who go into them things that are lovely, and beautiful, and praiseworthy, and of good report…. I therefore say that the stage need not necessarily be degrading to any one, and that it may be animated and pervaded by high and worthy motives….

But we are still His Majesty’s servants, only the King whom we serve is not the King who lives in Windsor Castle or the Queen who holds drawing-rooms at Buckingham Palace, but the great King whom we have been singing about. He came into this world to redeem us and to sanctify every lawful path, and I will not say that the actor’s path is unlawful…. I hope there will enter into theatres a spirit of higher morality, and that all will feel that the great principles of purity and modesty ought never to be compromised…. all our great cities are multiplying places of dangerous amusement which to a very great extent are corrupting old and young, and therefore I want to see what I would call legitimate places of amusement which shall stand like breakwaters amongst the surging waters of vice. (p. 78-82)

The product

Seventy-five years prior to Bishop Fraser’s address, a similar sentiment was expressed by Rev. John Clowes of Manchester. In The Life and Correspondence of John Clowes, we read that he believed theatres could “be made a means of encouraging moral virtue and discouraging vice, if not of promoting the cause of religion” (p. 115). However, Clowes did not put forth the concerted effort that Bishop Fraser did three quarters of a century later.

Unsurprisingly, Bishop Fraser received numerous letters in response to his idea. Some of these letters appear in Diggle’s biography. In one follow-up correspondence Fraser wrote, “Paul bids the Philippians ‘rejoice,’ and I am not one of those who hold that, to be religious, you must be gloomy, or forswear anything that is good and lovely in the world” (p. 87). To another he wrote, “I want to see the theatre purified. It is useless to denounce it; that is only beating the air” (p. 88).

Many responded to his plea with delight, pleasure, and support. One theatre manager took Bishop Fraser by the hand and said, “Ah, you have spoken kindly to us; if all bishops would do the same, perhaps we should be better than we are” (p. 88). An actor wrote to Bishop Fraser, “I cannot help thinking that much of the decline of the stage is due to the ‘snubbing’ many of us get because we are actors.” This actor also believed that Bishop Fraser’s efforts would “break down prejudices” and “cheer actors in their efforts to improve the tone of their profession” (p. 86).

A year later, the Dramatic Reformation Association of Manchester was organized which aimed to reform the theatre and the theatre’s audience. About eight months after Bishop Fraser’s public plea in Manchester, Stewart Headlam, a Curate in London, gave a lecture titled “Theatres & Music Halls” in which he asserted “the essential dignity of the Theatrical Profession” and claimed the theatre was extremely useful for Christians and all of society. Shortly afterward, Headlam received a letter from the Bishop of London expressing thoughts that he had erred in admitting him to the ministry. Headlam was subsequently relieved of his Curacy, so in 1879 he organized the Church and Stage Guild to combat what he thought were “unchristian prejudices” against the theatre.

Discussion on the topic of theatre reform in Manchester in 1880 is recorded in Transactions of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science. Rev. F. C. Woodhouse said that “drama was a mighty power for good…. If the devil ought not to have all the good tunes, why should he have all the popular amusements?” Woodhouse viewed the theatre as having an “advantage over the pulpit” because “it employed the eyes as well as the ears.” Hermann Vezin said, “The theatre is neither moral nor immoral. For want of a better word let us call it neutral.” Rev. William Vincent said, “Where many a sermon failed to do its desired work a scene on the stage would do it. The drama was intended to be a good work of God, and not a work of the devil.” Rev. J Freeston said, “if the drama was a moral power religious teachers could not afford to neglect it” (p. 759-768).

A movement of sorts was taking place. Ministers were becoming less antagonistic and more accepting of the theatre. Theatre workers and attendees were cheered by this change in sentiment. However, the theatre did not change; it had not been redeemed as Bishop Fraser, and John Cowles before him, had hoped. Shortly before Bishop Fraser died in 1885, he confessed “that he had been sadly disappointed in his efforts” to purify the theatre. Thomas Hughes, a friend and biographer of Bishop Fraser, revealed this confession in the Forum in 1896.

Although no reform in the theatre had occurred, reform of a different kind did take place. In Hughes’ article “The Stage from a Clergyman’s Standpoint” he wrote, “Forty years ago the pulpit very strongly condemned the stage…. The whole trend of the pulpit was against the stage…. But a remarkable change has taken place in the attitude of Christian preachers toward the stage.” This change was “very slow although very perceptible” as “the theatre has gradually been tolerated by religious teachers.” Hughes deduced, “Very much of this change of feeling, I think, must be attributed to the action taken by the late Bishop Fraser, of Manchester, England, who, twenty-five years ago, attempted to reform the stage.” Richard Foulkes, in Church and Stage in Victorian England, agrees with Hughes’ deduction (p. 68).

Hughes admitted that the push to redeem the theatre succeeded in changing attitudes about the theatre without actually redeeming it. Hughes observed that formerly if clergy “had been seen within the walls of a theatre, their ministerial popularity would have been extinguished…. Now, clergymen are frequently seen in New York theatres, and no apology for their presence is demanded” even though the theatre had not been redeemed. The intent was to redeem the theatre, but the end result was a changed attitude about the theatre, not a changed theatre.


* In The Lancashire Life, the speech is recorded as a single paragraph. It is broken up here for easier reading.

[node:bio/Brenda-T body]

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There are 7 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


Interesting case study.

My take: it looks like those debating the topic in the 19th century consistently made no distinction between "theater itself" and "how theater is conducted in our culture at present." So, to them, "redeeming theater" meant changing what everybody was doing at that time and in that place. I find that interesting but a little puzzling.

To me, what theater is as an art form is a separate question from how people in a particular place and time do theater. It's like looking at an especially bad period for popular paint-on-canvass work and deciding we need to "redeem painting."

So what I'm working my way around to is that the art form itself does not need redeeming... and do the degree Fraser's efforts resulted (eventually) in some doing better theater, and Christians doing their own theater (though that wasn't his aim), he was successful in "redeeming" how at least some people do theater.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Lee's picture

There is no good or bad culture of itself.  Culture is representative of the common belief system of those that make up the culture.  Every culture is defined by what its people worships; its idolatry if you please. That is what the Jerusalem council of Acts 15 ultimately addressed, and that address is specifically applied in I Cor. 6-10 (w/ emphasis on 8 & 10). 

A culture cannot be redeemed unless there is a collective turning from idolatry to truth.  We cannot redeem culture through cultural methodology.  We can prevent the culture and its incumbent idolatry from entering the church by carefully applying Acts 15, I Cor. 8-10, and other passages that communicate clearly our directive toward all things idolatrous ("abstain from pollutions of idols...").

You want to redeem the culture, do what Paul did in all the pagan cultures he visited--he "...preach[ed]....that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein..."


Aaron Blumer's picture


It might help to use words like "influence" and "improve" rather than "redeem." Redemption tends to be seen as all-or-nothing proposition, and there are good reasons to see it that way. When is a culture, or even an art form in particular culture, "redeemed"? When it's 100% pure 100% of the time? Given that Christians don't have 100% agreement on what the standard of purity would even be, that sort of "redemption" is a quixotic goal.

Influence, on the other hand, can take many forms and some good can be accomplished even where people don't turn from their idols.

A big complication in the US (and the West as a whole?) is that there is no longer a religious center. As a culture, we don't even have mostly the same "idols." So it's debatable whether we even have a "culture" at all anymore. Maybe there are still enough bits and pieces of vaguely Christian notions in the minds of a majority to keep our culture just barely this side of the grave. We should do what we can to help it stay alive and maybe get it out of CCU occasionally. It's always possible to have pockets of truth and beauty here and there even in the most confused and chaotic cultures.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

I think we certainly have a culture. We are still a distinct grouping of people among the peoples of the earth. I totally agree that we no longer have a Christianized culture, and that the idols which have replaced God are widely varied. I also agree with change from redeem to influence/improve. It clarifies the discussion.

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Aaron Blumer's picture


Yeah, there's a fair amount of conflict about what exactly constitutes a culture. I lean toward the idea that Lee expressed: that a culture is what happens when a group of people share a set of beliefs about ultimate questions and, as a result, share a common worldview, many common values and common expressions of those beliefs and values. Usually geography and language are shared as well (pretty much always, so far, but I'm not sure that's an essential attribute or one that will continue into the future).

So if a group of people shares geography and language but not core beliefs and values, can they really share a "culture"? Not by that definition. But it's not really necessary to agree on the word. It works to say that, historically, there has been this phenomenon of shared religion/belief-system/values-system that has profoundly shaped everything a people-group does. We could stipulate that this combo of beliefs and way of life is called Völkergedanken... and then assert that American Völkergedanken is dead or close to it.

(Actually Völkergedanken is too narrow in meaning and too hard to say... it means something like "people-think"... I think)

So, in this way of looking at the situation, when America becomes truly post-Christian, it is ideologically centerless--and so also cultureless-- until some other religion replaces Christianity as the shared belief system.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Tim Emslie's picture

Thank you Brenda


It seems legitimate objections to theater have taken both forms throughout history: description of the form by Aristotle and its rejection by Augustine, etc., and objections to the "lewdness" that has generally attached itself to the form in actual practice. I think these can be separate arguments; obviously if you accept the first there's no use trying a plan like Fraser's? 

Wayne Wilson's picture

Thanks for posting this. 

It is interesting in the light of what happened with the movies in the 20th century.

The intent was to redeem the theatre, but the end result was a changed attitude about the theatre, not a changed theatre.

In the 20s and 30s Christians of all stripes fought Hollywood and changed it quite dramatically, but many Fundamentalists and Evangelicals still forbade attendance. 

When the movies broke free of all moral restraint (and self-imposed censorship), there was a movement in the church to redeem it, but the main result wasn't a redeemed Hollywood, but rather a wide embrace by many Christians and Christian leaders of whatever Hollywood cranked out.   Something in the grossest films is found to have "redemptive value" which somehow sanctifies the whole ungodly mess.

I certainly think the dramatic arts are "redeemable" in specific settings, but they are also too powerful to be tamed unless the culture at large is strongly inclined toward Christian morality.

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