In the first half of the 20th century many, but not all, Mennonite groups considered motion pictures and stage theater as Hell's Playground -- to use the title of a 1921 booklet by Clayton F. Derstine circulating among Mennonites. An author writing in the Gospel Herald (MC) in 1930 called the opera, theater, and movies a "trio of soul seductive institutions." A widely circulated Mennonite booklet, The Menace of the Movies, printed in 1940 (reprinted 1943) argued that motion pictures overemphasize crime and sex and portray love as "animalism." Honest toil, the booklet claimed, is depreciated while immorality is glorified in movies. Moreover, the author contended that motion pictures produce "nervous and emotional debauchery, provide schooling in crime and contribute to moral delinquency."
The strong Mennonite opposition to motion pictures was rooted in several factors. In the 19th century some Mennonite groups had opposed photography believing it violated the biblical commandment against making graven images. Moving pictures were an embellished form of photography that accentuated sex, violence, crime, pleasure, and greed. Motion pictures produced by non-Christian screenwriters and actors threatened the innocence and isolation of rural Mennonites. The content and medium of the motion picture were simply incongruous with a religious subculture that valued simplicity modesty, nonresistance, integrity, and separation from an evil world (nonconformity). Hollywood in the eyes of many Mennonites symbolized a den of worldly iniquity. The Brethren in Christ expressed a similar disdain and condemnation of motion pictures in the first half of the 20th century. In the 1990s Old Order Mennonite and Amish groups continued to forbid attendance at theaters and movie houses, although some of their youth may attend on the sly before baptism.
By the middle of the 20th century motion pictures were gradually becoming acceptable among many Mennonite groups. Even congregations affiliated with the Mennonite Church (MC), which had vigorously castigated the evils of motion pictures before World War II, gradually relaxed their objections in the last third of the century. In fact by 1972 a survey of five Mennonite groups conducted by Kauffman and Harder revealed that only 18 percent of the respondents thought it was always wrong to attend movies rated for children and adults while 48 percent thought it was always wrong to watch adult-rated movies. For some Mennonites the Sound of music became their rite of passage to the movie theater during the 1960s. The production and distribution of religious films by such evangelists as Billy Graham further eroded the resistance to films. In 1973 a feature-length film on Mennonite life, Hazel's people, was produced by Good Enterprises, an independent Mennonite production company. Festival quarterly, an independent Mennonite magazine, began offering reviews of commercial films in 1973 and in the 1980s some Mennonite colleges were offering courses in film criticism. Film strips, 16mm films, and video tapes were widely used by all types of Mennonite organizations -- including colleges, mission boards, and historical societies -- to communicate their stories in the last quarter of the 20th century. The acceptance of motion pictures, in short, followed the trail of acculturation as Mennonites were transformed from a rural sectarian group to a modern religious denomination.
Burkhart, I. E. The Menace of the Movies. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1940, 31 pp.
Derstine, Clayton F. Hell's Playground: Theaters and Movies. Eureka, IL: the author, 1921.
Kauffman, J. Howard and Leland Harder, eds. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: a Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1975: 122-23.
Shoemaker, J. S. "The Opera, Theatre and Movie." Gospel Herald (3 July 1930): 298-99.
Smucker, Donovan E. "The Menace of Modern Movies." Christian Monitor (March 1947): 95.
Miller, Ella May. "Sick Movies and Dancing." Gospel Herald (21 May 1968): 454-55.
Hess, J. Daniel. "Why I am Teaching a Course About Movies." Gospel Herald (23 August 1983): 580-82.
Wittlinger, Carlton O. Quest for Piety and Obedience: the Story of the Brethren in Christ. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978: 344-45.
"Theaters: Indoor, Outdoor." Salunga, PA: The Bishop Board of Lancaster Mennonite Conference, 1961.
Weaver, Amos W. "Shall I Attend 'Good Movies' at the Theater?" Youth Messenger (4 April 1967): 2.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 603-604. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Kraybill, Donald B. "Motion Pictures." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 19 June 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/M677ME.html.
APA style: Kraybill, Donald B. (1989). Motion Pictures. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 June 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/M677ME.html.