A History of Adventists and Visual Media
By: Lynelle Ellis
“I was told that if I went into a movie theater my guardian angel would stay outside.” This comment describes the experience of thousands of Seventh-day Adventists who were told that movie theaters were a bad place to go and off limits for the true Christian. The idea may sound surprising to the general population, but it is one Adventists are familiar with.
There has been long-standing tension between visual entertainment and the Christian church that crosses denominations. Adventists and their relationships to movies are a part of that story. Where and how were such beliefs and practices about visual entertainment introduced and perpetuated within our denomination? Why do some Adventists maintain such beliefs within our highly mediated current society? These are questions I set out to answer with research for my doctoral dissertation, “Seventh-day Adventists and the Movies: An historical and contemporary exploration of the conflict between Christianity and visual media.”
Seventh-day Adventists as a group historically approached movies in much the same way as many other Christian faith traditions. When movies were a new art form in the early to mid-1900s (Angly, 1934), many Christian groups and individual leaders within those groups expressed concern. The early cautions of Adventist church leaders regarding movies were very similar to the warnings given by leaders of the Methodist denomination. There was concern that movies and similar entertainment were a “worldly distraction from higher things” and would “dull the spiritual sensitivities” (Berckman, 1980). Even the general population expressed concern over movies when they were new (Beauchamp, 1997).
What perhaps sets Seventh-day Adventists apart is the tenacity with which we have clung to the early taboos about movies and attendance at movie theaters. Early admonitions about the theater (stage productions) by Ellen White were certainly influential, but my research showed that White never wrote that our angels would not go into the theater with us even though many Adventists probably thought her to be the source of this widespread idea. The most closely related statement by White speaks of thoughtful consideration for places where a husband might take his family for entertainment. In The Signs of the Times, White wrote, “A great responsibility rests upon the husband—house-band—to bind the household together, by the ties of kindness, love, and harmony. . . When about to accompany his wife and children to the theater or the ball-room, let the professed Christian ask himself, ‘Can I seek God’s blessing upon the scene of pleasure? Would my master be a guest at such a place? Will angels minister to me there?’” (White, 1882, n.p.)
The more apparent influence in the church related to movies came from Francis M. Wilcox, editor of the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald from 1911 to 1944, whose warnings put the Adventist church in the position of essentially forbidding movie-watching for members. Wilcox presented a rigid viewpoint related to movies and influenced his readership through a series of editorials on the topic. While his views changed over time from being concerned about the film medium itself to greater concern about the content of movies, the writing of Wilcox were significantly influential during his lifetime—and even, to some extent, today.
Wilcox’s death in 1951, just as television arrived in the homes of North Americans and others around the world, may have contributed to the more casual way Adventists approached the use of television. His clear-cut warnings and guidelines related to movies were absent when television arrived on the scene. As Adventists sorted out their own perspectives on television, including its relationship to their faith, church leadership mostly ignored the topic (Strayer, 1993). In general, television was much more widely accepted among Seventh-day Adventists than movies and movie theater attendance had been.
Gradually, visual entertainment made its way into the lives of many, if not most, Adventists. With the addition of VCRs and DVD players, many Adventists began watching movies at home, and the old admonitions about avoiding movies by staying away from theaters seemed outdated and even a double standard. This led to a relaxation in practice related to movies and movie theaters by many Adventists, although the official stance of the church—no movies, no attendance at movie theaters—remained unchanged until 2010 (Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, 2010). In the past 10-20 years, Adventists have been increasingly exposed to content that may not be supportive of Christian faith and spiritual growth.
Most Seventh-day Adventists, as revealed in the interviews I conducted for my dissertation research, seem to be mostly unaware of how the church came to its early understanding of movies. There has been dissatisfaction among Adventists over perceived double standards related to watching movies at the theater versus watching them at home or at other venues. The reluctance of church leaders to address issues related to movies and other visual entertainment during the past several decades has left members charting their own courses. Some have held tenaciously to the old warnings, some have tried to find a principle-based middle ground, and some have thrown out the old cautions entirely.
My study illuminated a need for further media literacy education among Adventists. As a group, we seem to have held onto a strict perspective of the necessity of abstinence from movies much longer than many other Christian groups. Without good tools for discernment or critical analysis of media content, we followed early admonitions of church leaders almost blindly for generations and then quite dramatically threw out much of their guidance. Many young Adventists seem to embrace movies and other visual media without much discernment and with little concern about potential media effects. There is a need for communication and biblically based training to equip Adventists to relate to and use visual media—including movies—in a truly Christian manner.
Angly, E. (1934). Boycott threat is forcing movie clean-up. Literary Digest, July 7.
Beauchamp, C. (1997). Without lying down: Francis Marion and the powerful women of early Hollywood. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Berckman, E.M. (1980). The changing attitudes of Protestant churches to movies and television. Encounter, 41(3), 293-306.
Seventh-day Adventist church manual (18th ed.). (2010). Secretariat General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Retrieved from http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Resources/ChurchManuals/CM2010.pdf
Strayer, B.E. (1993). Adventists & movies: A century of change. Dialogue, 5(1). 12-15.