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Celluloid SermonsThe Emergence of the Christian Film Industry, 1930-1986$

Terry Lindvall and Andrew Quicke

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780814753248

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: March 2016

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9780814753248.001.0001

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God Talks

God Talks

(p.1) 1 God Talks
Celluloid Sermons

Terry Lindvall

Andrew Quicke

NYU Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter talks about how moving pictures have become an evangelistic complement for many churches. For Protestant fundamentalists and conservatives, the films preach repentance and conversion. For the more liberal groups, films sought to promote social justice and to bring a global consciousness to American congregations. Christian involvement in the industry would culminate in creative artists, directors, and producers like Scott Derrickson, Tom Schatz, Ken Wales, and Ralph Winter contributing their talents directly to Hollywood. Religious leaders recognized the visceral impact of film and envisioned the medium as a means to develop character—if film could be used for ill, it could also promote religious devotion. Such a viewpoint reflects the changing attitudes toward moving pictures, with more denominations actively investigating how they might appropriate the media for religious purposes.

Keywords:   church films, Protestant fundamentalists, liberal groups, American congregations, Christian film industry, religious media

One late spring day in May 1934, the Roman Catholic cardinal of Philadelphia, Dennis Dougherty, ordered his diocesan flock to “stay away from all [movie theaters].” He framed this exhortation not as pastoral counsel, but as a “positive command, binding all in conscience under pain of sin.”1 The same year, a forceful Roman Catholic layman, Joseph Breen, commandeered the reins of the Production Code Administration board, believing, like many frustrated church people, that the movie morality czar Will Hays had compromised the mission of guarding the public from Hollywood excess.2

When Hollywood looked at religious concerns, they were likewise frequently nonplussed. On one hot July morning in 1934, as Hollywood moguls grabbed bagels on their way to work, they glanced at their own trade paper bible, the Hollywood Reporter, and may have been startled to read the headline “Taking It on the Jaw.” The surprised executives read that it “seemed that every living soul (if you are going to believe the newsprints) was lined up against the industry, and the Churches of all denominations have created a new sin—THE SIN OF GOING TO THE MOVIES.”3

Christian fundamentalists and Roman Catholics, and even many mainline churches, believed that lax enforcement of movie morals had allowed film content to degenerate. Such accusations were extended into a general condemnation of all movies as sinful. Frustrated grumbling from clergy and laity toward Hollywood during the early 1930s percolated into a vocal, even vociferous protest. The campaign for decency in the moving pictures pitted religious people of all stripes against the devil’s minions who shot out filth and violence at twenty-four frames a second. It was, in a strange, unforeseen way, a truly ecumenical movement, uniting Protestants and Roman Catholics in a joint crusade.4

The religious boycott of movie theaters in Philadelphia spurred Hollywood to recognize that it knew little about this giant block of ticket buyers.5 Acknowledging the powerful lobby of the Roman Catholic Church, with its (p.2) Legion of Decency driving a protest against Italian gangsters in Scarface, the suggestive naughty bits of Mae West and Betty Boop, and film exports that exemplified the “morals of the barnyard,” Hollywood moguls conceded that they needed the support of religious audiences to insure the industry’s profitability, especially during the Depression.6 Deals were made and the Roman Catholic influence substantially shaped the golden age of Hollywood filmmaking. Acquiescing to religious pressures, Hollywood essentially decided to avoid religious topics in its films throughout the 1930s, and only tiptoed back in the mid-1940s with inspirational priests played by the likes of Patrick O’Brien and Bing Crosby. As film the historian Francis Couvares adroitly pointed out, a grassroots Kulturkampf took place on Main Street America.7

Just before the Production Code secured its teeth to guard against “immorality” in Hollywood, numerous testimonies were broadcast against the kinds of films being exhibited, suggesting the kind of public struggle over cultural authority. One Methodist layman, A. H. Beardsley, attended the movies in the early thirties and found himself confused by what he viewed as Hollywood’s religious worldviews. On the one hand, he found much to laud about the 1929 feature film Evangeline, with its portrait of a kindly, courageous priest. He judged an accompanying short comedy less favorably. Its amusing plot centered on an urban rescue mission, where samplers like “Remember, Jack, your mother is praying for you tonight” decorated the walls. Beardsley interpreted the scene as mocking religion, as when a “bad boy” passed around a large bottle of “lemonade” laced with glue to all the parishioners, so that everyone in the whole mission got their lips stuck together as they attempted to sing a hymn. In the accompanying newsreel, a Catholic priest was called to bless hunters and hounds before a fox hunt (at which the writer wondered, “Who blessed the fox?”). The Methodist who visited the moving picture that day found that religion had been positively portrayed in a heartfelt drama, satirized by the ridiculous scene of a puckered-lip congregation, and finally thrown to the dogs. He left the theater feeling fully betrayed.8

The critical discourse of conservative religious spectators during this era marks a cultural divide on the nature and purpose of movies. With such a chasm opening between Hollywood and Christian traditions, it is not surprising to see the emergence of an alternative film movement, an independent cottage industry of religious filmmakers making movies for their own constituencies. For some Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders, policing a commercial industry was not as promising as growing one’s own media products for teaching, worship, and missions. The British journalist G. K. Chesterton had once recommended such a self-reliant strategy when he (p.3) visited the United States in the 1920s. The problem with movies, he wryly observed, is not that they go to places like Middle America, but that they don’t come from places like Middle America.9

Moving pictures became an evangelistic complement for many churches, supplementing traditional forms of communication. Among the various denominations, films became extensions of their sermons. For Protestant fundamentalists and conservatives, the films preached repentance and conversion. For the more liberal groups, films sought to promote social justice and to bring a global consciousness to American congregations. As institutions whose primary missions were not to make movies, however, denominations would be supplanted by individuals and studios that sought only to produce movies. The emergence of a marginal troupe of film artists, outside the realm of traditional film history, suggests a subterranean industry and culture that reflected what the evangelist Jerry Falwell once labeled the “silent majority.” Ironically, this separatist movement by Christians paralleled the Yiddish film movement of the silent era, with many involved in the making of those films assimilating into the larger film culture. Christian involvement in the industry would culminate in creative artists, directors, and producers like Scott Derrickson, Tom Schatz, Ken Wales, and Ralph Winter contributing their talents directly to Hollywood. However, early experimentation of religious filmmaking would open the church up to new forms of communication, particularly in modes of reception. Religious moving images would function in conjunction with the preaching of the Word, as congregations might find parables not only in stone and glass, but also in digitized images. Churches adapted to a visual culture and found ways to show the Gospel instead of just telling about it.

The Silent Backdrop

In his earlier Sanctuary Cinema, Terry Lindvall ferreted out the origins of the Protestant film during the era of silent American cinema. That work culled forth unexpected details regarding the church’s involvement in exhibiting, making, and distributing films. Yet it all seemed to come to naught, with barely an image enduring into the Depression era. The advent of expensive mainstream “talkies” and the popularity of radio supplanted religiously oriented filmmaking in the 1930s, as churches did not possess the discretionary funds with which to make films. But that earlier blossoming of religious filmmaking was but the preface to the various future film enterprises to be addressed here.

(p.4) To put the 1930s and beyond in context, it is worth looking back over the first quarter century of nontheatrical religious films, those films exhibited outside the normal channels of theaters in church basements, schoolrooms, and religious halls. The historian Arthur Edwin Krows divided the development of sponsored nontheatrical films into seven stages that corresponded with national American progress in an ongoing series published in Educational Screen.10 His first division covered the preliminary stages of World War I, when many educators and clergy differentiated between entertainment films and sponsored, nontheatrical moving pictures. During this era, the producer George Klein had tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to pioneer efforts in organizing the nontheatrical field for churches and schools. He tried to salvage old theatrical films, particularly travelogues and Passion plays, and offer them to churches for educational and mission use. During the second phase, wartime, films were intentionally produced for cantonments and for military companies overseas in order to inculcate moral and religious values in the soldiers. Third, immediately after the war, overseas projection equipment used by the military was returned, with much of it put on public sale and bought up by nonprofit institutions, especially schools and churches. The distributor Warren Foster tried valiantly to adapt noncommercial films into the civilian economy through his Community Motion Picture Bureau, but he fell far short of his goals. One organization that did stake out a modest foothold, the YMCA, inaugurated a Motion Picture Bureau under its tireless leader, George J. Zehrung. It slowly began to flourish, and in time it provided the vigorous impetus that would give rise to a viable nontheatrical movement. While many churches and schools supported the vision, they committed only trivial amounts of funding to sustain it. Nevertheless, a prominent trend began with small independent producers such as James Shields contributing significant product for distribution and exhibition (such as The Stream of Life, 1919).

Krows’s fourth era traced the momentous development of a visual educational movement, principally with the 1919 founding of the Society for Visual Education in Chicago, underwritten in large part by the public utilities magnate Harley Clarke. Through its official trade journal, Educational Screen, the organization was able to propagate an infectious vision to attract progressive educators and clergy to incorporate film into their work. Simultaneously, Eastman Kodak, the primary supplier of film and cameras, offered the Presbyterian Church two thousand projectors so that they might learn to exhibit their own films. In 1919, the Methodists held their centenary in Columbus, Ohio, and converted hundreds of ministers into “visual exhibitionists,” placing an emphasis on each of them becoming missionaries for using film in (p.5) their own communities. For Krows, the fifth stage occurred when specialized users decided they were more competent and knowledgeable about their own needs than outsiders and could thus produce their own visual materials. Within this development were included the debut of the Christian Herald Film Bureau, the University Film Foundation of Harvard, Eastman Teaching Films, and, under the auspices of the Harmon Foundation, Yale University’s pedestrian Chronicles of America book and film series. The sixth and penultimate step for Krows involved the discovery of the need for specialized exhibition sites and a national system of distribution, particularly among churches of different denominations. Simultaneously, many intriguing and independent undertakings of groups that sought to capitalize and exploit a nontheatrical market proved quite speculative and quixotic (e.g., Pictorial Clubs and the American Motion Pictures Corporation headed by Paul Smith, now reposed in the “pathetic graveyard of worthy but premature endeavors” of those who risked capital and came up bankrupt). Finally, when talking pictures became commercially practical, Krows celebrated a revolution of cooperation in the production of educational talking pictures for schools and churches. Krows’s chronological account suggests a trajectory in which the church slowly came to the realization that it could make its own movies to instruct, evangelize, and even entertain its congregants. The optimistic prophecies of the historian writing in the mid-1930s would form the backdrop for the filmmakers emerging in the 1940s.11

Along with Krows, Mary Beattie Brady, director of the Harmon Foundation, envisioned the 1930s as a new era for the church to invest in sound moving pictures. The Harmon Foundation had been set up by a wealthy real estate tycoon in the late 1920s to investigate how religious groups could use the burgeoning film medium. Since denominations had largely retreated from motion picture production on grounds of the cost of sound, the Harmon Foundation was the one organization that championed the use of film in Protestant circles. For Brady, the usefulness of film to the religious field had become axiomatic, although from its early entry as a novelty to its strategic use by Protestants to get people to Sunday evening services, it had proved a dismal and disheartening failure due to inadequate equipment and lack of suitable products. Yet, as a by-product of the Legion of Decency movement of the early 1930s in which the Breen Code policed film content, Brady saw more visionary and creative approaches in the religious appropriation of film. Denominational visual education boards, the use of the moving picture in missions, academic courses, journal columns, and a focus on religious education through visual means evinced a persuasive case for optimism.12

(p.6) The New Era of Religious Emotion

Various attempts at religious film production, distribution, and exhibition by churches in the silent era had been erratic and serendipitous. Filmmakers from the Protestant tradition usually exhibited an overt emphasis on the Word, demanding that images and music serve the verbal narrative in clear, definite, and propositional ways, by emphasizing doctrinal instruction over entertainment. Religious filmmakers often favored direct and moralizing address rather than such indirect communication as parables. Didacticism underlay and defined most Protestant silent films. Dogma prevailed over drama.

Back in 1927, the Christian Statesman reported that the Harmon Foundation had conducted an interesting experiment in the making of religious motion pictures and distributing them to churches. It pointed out that while the commercial side of the film industry had experienced an astounding growth, there existed a notorious neglect in creating worshipful pictures that could become part of the regular, formal service. Thus this attempt was commendable, in that the Harmon “pictures have been designed, through their direct and simple treatment of biblical themes, to enhance for the church the richness and dramatic qualities of worship. That they may not conflict with the continuity of the service, they are short and nontheatrical, appealing to the emotions much in the manner of the beautiful anthem or stirring hymn.”13 The key here was the cinematic appeal to the emotions.

Despite dogmatic concerns among conservatives, the evolving influence of the liberal ideas of the 19th-century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher began to inform what many saw as the emotional bases of religious education.14 For Schleiermacher and his German romantic disciples, religious experience, or our consciousness of an absolute dependence on God, underlay the reality of religion. God’s immanent presence was communicated through and in religious feelings, and the moving pictures were prime vehicles for evoking such spiritual experiences. Schleiermacher’s means for achieving spiritual knowledge was not through objective content or traditional doctrines, but via human feelings, imagination, and intuition. Movies could manipulate such emotional states and conjure up pathos, passion, and artificial euphoria. The Swiss neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth once summed up Schleiermacher’s theology as speaking about humankind in a loud voice. Sound movies could now amplify that voice into mythic encounters; one could penetrate through the material aspects of film to awaken “cultural despisers” to a sense of holy and divine things. In the finite and (p.7) temporal medium of film, one could contemplate the infinite and eternal. Schleiermacher advised his fellow travelers to “transport yourselves into the interior of a pious soul and seek to understand its inspiration.” For the feeling theologian, the “sight of a great and sublime work of art” can accomplish the miracle of lifting the soul above the finite.15 As the historian Anne Morey has pointed out, film and religion shared a goal of producing a rapt or elevated state.16

The Congregationalist editor George Reid Andrews opined about the relation of old revivals and modern motion pictures, pointing to the common excitement of the soul:

I could but think in that connection of the way in which the old prayer meetings, revivals, camp meetings and sermons had served just that purpose for the mass of humanity in affording them temporary release from the corroding cares of the day and giving them a prospect of the streets of god and the gates of pearl.

In a way the motion picture does just this. The beauty and romance of the silver screen help the toilers of farm and factory, of kitchen and office to forget the humdrum of life for a period and come back renewed for the task before them. Any picture which does this is, to my way of thinking, religious.17

Key to propagating this notion of the experiential religious potential of film was the educator H. Paul Janes, whose pamphlet for the Religious Motion Picture Foundation (RMPF) recommended How to Stimulate Greater Activity in Your Church through Motion Pictures.18 Silent pictures accompanied by hymn singing and organ playing had enhanced the sensory experiences of worship, but now the sound picture seemingly would bring in the finest music of the world’s great cathedrals and choirs, which would elevate the spiritual experiences of all congregations. While it would also afford an opportunity to listen to sermons and personal messages from church authorities, Janes’s emphasis was on the values of an emotional pietism that could be experienced through sound pictures.

Discussing the purpose of the RMPF, its executive director R. F. H. Johnson explained that the “business of the Church, and of the motion pictures designed for its use, is to help us experience that true spiritual emotion which gives meaning to life and arouses us to action and service.” The RMPF believed that churches were not yet weaving the medium into the warp and woof of the church fabric. When it did utilize moving pictures with a modern (p.8) 16mm projector and a good screen, however, the church could assure itself a praiseworthy exhibition that would move congregations and enable them to develop character.19 The roots of character development, according to Janes, were “in the feelings”20 and the potential to arouse those emotions was viewed clearly as within the power of the movies.21 Alert modern ministers were advised to “capitalize emotional responses” from their congregations through the effective power of moving images.22 In contrast to the Marxist cultural theorist Walter Benjamin’s notion of the reduced impact or aura of mechanically reproduced art, liberal religious leaders believed that an authentic piety could be elicited by watching movies. Where Benjamin would argue that the mechanical reproduction of film would emancipate spectators from the aura of religious ritual and could recommend revolutionary politics, religious leaders believed they could harness the power of filmmaking for religious ends—for proselytizing, for deploying entertainment strategies to bolster church attendance, or even for supplying faith as a commodity that could be transferred via celluloid.23

In the early 1920s, movies had allegedly performed other spectacular miracles, including making men sober by closing down saloons, making girls more beautiful by offering models of mimesis, and making the mute speak, as the Los Angeles Times reported in a story about a deaf little girl, Lillian Ostereizer, who was aroused to speak for the first time as she watched a silent film.24 Enormous faith was put in the modern technology of the moving picture. It offered a miracle for communicating with the masses. The director D. W. Griffith believed it had even been prophesied in the Bible as the universal language that would usher in the Kingdom of God. For many clergy, however, films remained in the old era of Babylon, even Hollywood Babylon, a place of exile and corruption.

Changing Protestant Attitudes toward the Movies

The Roman Catholic Church had been instrumental in the implementation of the Production Code that Hollywood studios reluctantly accepted in 1934. With threats of national censorship, the film industry negotiated their “capitulation” to Breen and his colleagues, making a show of cleaning up their own stalls. But many conservative Protestants resisted engagement with Hollywood, sulking in their tents and complaining about the industry’s immoral depravity; only later would Protestant leaders discover that they could use Hollywood studio products to convey religious sentiments, or at least spark dialogue regarding latent spiritual issues in films. This followed their strident (p.9) criticism of the industry and, in particular, Production Code Commissioner Will Hays. Hays had, in fact, once asserted that “schools should stick to educational subjects, the church to religious films, and that amusement films be restricted to theaters.”25 For conservatives, it had been easier to retreat from the secular world of theaters and curse the cinematic darkness than to spend time and money on lighting one candle, or making one movie. With increased public scrutiny of Hollywood product, various clergy discovered the latent, or at least potential, religious and moral parables of box office hits. Thus theologically moderate magazines like the Christian Herald puffed the most promising films with positive reviews, featuring photographic spreads and full-page advertisements. The professional images of the Hollywood Babylonians outshone those of any homegrown, amateur product.

Hollywood images were more captivating. For example, in her letter to the editor, a Mrs. Morrow, concerned about the vulgar movie magazines her daughter had collected, decided to check out the movies rather than reject them in toto: “I suddenly was realizing that Hollywood was the single greatest influence in the world on people’s thinking and I simply had been trying to ignore the fact.” Thus she marveled at The Courtship of Miles Standish and The King of Kings, and commended other movies as wholesome and highly educational entertainments.26 This practice of finding pearls of value in Hollywood movies would persist until after the World War II, as Christian periodicals would boost good Hollywood product at local theaters more than they would address the issue of films in churches.27

Belatedly recognizing the magnitude of the social impact of movies on the young, the Better Films Council, working through the Federal Council of Churches (FCC), continued to suggest suitable films. The time had come, announced the Better Films Council in 1933, that Protestant churches “exert their educational influences for better films.”28 They hoped that this goal could be achieved by the Federal Committee on Motion Pictures organizing and coordinating local church boards on the community level. What this meant primarily, however, was that groups would study motion pictures as an art of expression, supervise children, collaborate with local theater managers on current pictures and programs, and organize fan clubs. Near the end of its recommendations for action was the “Study of the Use of Motion Pictures for Religious Purposes, and If Found Practicable, Assistance to the Pastor and the Church Board in Equipping the Church for Showing Pictures, and the Education of the Church in Their Proper Use.”29 The council basically surrendered the art of making one’s own movies in favor of the more passive task of exhibiting pictures made by others. It also advertised, in a (p.10) blatantly self-serving fashion, its own national religious monthly film review column in its Federal Council Bulletin.

Columbia University Dean Howard LeSourd suggested extracting “vivid scenes of pedagogical worth” from Hollywood motion pictures to use in religious education. LeSourd wondered if motion picture companies would allow him to collect scenes from films like The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935) so that schools and churches could “take excerpts from the best photoplays and teach appreciation of pictures and solve our problem of production, all the while building character and developing visual teaching.” The episodes, he hoped, would inculcate character, in his words “plucking berries from the garden of Hollywood fit for kings.”30

Most religious use of feature films thus stressed the promotion of good character and social issues rather than the teaching of religious doctrine. The Committee on Social Values in Motion Pictures (with LeSourd as chair) applied educational theories to teach people how to meet life situations by showing them stories, leading to a national Character Education Program. At a 1936 National Youth Conference, for example, scenes from 1932’s The Sign of the Cross and other features were shown, followed by discussion groups about Christian persecution and martyrdom, peace, and racial prejudice. The leader would show clips and then ask, “What’s wrong with this picture?”31

What emerged among many mainline Protestant churches was a grudging engagement with film culture to teach and refine moral discrimination through such blockbuster films. The educator Paul Vieth scheduled a series of twenty single-reel cuttings from commercial pictures, which he called The Secrets of Success.32 He planned it as a project that reinterpreted success in terms of social values, with each edited section leading naturally into discussions of morality.33 The experimental series was made possible by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, headed up by the ubiquitous Professor LeSourd, now of Boston University.34 But the number of people engaged in using film media for religious education remained very limited, and few conservatives would have called it “religious” education at all.

Building an Audience

At the annual convention of the National Board of Review in 1934, Dr. Worth Tippy, the executive director of the Department of the Church and Social Service of the Federal Council of Churches, addressed the board on the gratifying increase of the appreciation of the motion picture in churches. (p.11)

God Talks

A drawing in the October 1949 issue of The Christian Herald inquired about the role of technology in the future church, questioning whether it would speed or hinder the Kingdom work.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

While the early 1930s was mired in Roman Catholic and Protestant protests against the evils of commercial cinema, Tippy noted the positive work of both Bishop John J. Cantwell of the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae, who had been reviewing and broadcasting since 1924, and of the Protestant churches that had used films in their services and parish houses for many years.35 For Tippy, such ecumenical coordination augured an auspicious future for church–motion picture relations.

In the wake of the moral codification of Joseph Breen’s Production Code, which set moral guidelines for all Hollywood movies, the Committee on Motion Pictures of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America—comprising church boards, the National Council of Federated Church Women, and other interchurch agencies—issued a brochure on “better films.” In their Better Films Council (BFC) manual, Cantwell called for churches to become fundamentally constructive toward visual media rather than unfriendly and iconoclastic. Tippy scripted a litany of directives to promote the motion picture (p.12) as an art of religious expression: through consultation, research, collaboration with local theater managers, the study of social control, and coordination with production companies. All this preparation would assist the minister and the church board in practical ways of equipping the church for showing pictures. The BFC sought cooperative ventures of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish groups to organize film clubs in churches. They invited these groups to explore how they could control acceptable movie content and to study local theater ordinances, proposals for censorship, and federal legislation of the new motion picture code as it might affect the public welfare and quality of pictures. The FCC’s committee on motion pictures published a sixteen-page pamphlet titled Source Material on Motion Pictures for Pastors, distributed to all denominations, partially to secure its allegiance to the Legion of Decency and to promote the use of the third Sunday in October as an occasion for discussing the movies as a potential positive resource for society and religion.36

But the vision to incorporate a system of exhibition into religious settings faced several problems. First, there remained restrictions against inflammable films in the churches. Other practical challenges pressed in on church leaders, such as the need for insurance, the industry’s transition to sound, the establishment of standard film width (35 or 16mm), the unlikelihood of finding suitable films every week as appropriate content, and the religious leaders’ own ignorance regarding the effective use of film for religious purposes. (Some ministers, for example, would use films to substitute for sermons or as advertising to attract new audiences.) The transition to sound movies aggravated economic and logistical problems in church exhibition up until about 1936. The supplier of 16mm equipment, Bell and Howell, did not think churches were ready for proper projection of sound pictures. Others complained that there were not sufficient products to exhibit. The RMPF thought otherwise and developed a catalog with listings for over thirty distributors of religious films, including the Bell and Howell Company, Eastman Kodak, the Catholic Film Guild, the Lutheran Film Division, and the Methodist Episcopal Church. The catalog encompassed old films from the Harmon Foundation and newer ones from various denominations. In Church Management, the church educator Dorothy Fritsch Bortz agreed, pointing to a remarkably full list of sources for religious films in the mid-thirties.37

Significantly, the RMPF coordinated the interdenominational growth of a Christian League of Nations, formed in 1932 around the World Sunday School Convention. Their most pressing concern focused on the use of films in teaching children. This organization would also coordinate the distribution of religious (p.13) films for decades to come, as we will see, from early visual documents on authentic mission work to the more progressive works coming out of a refurbished Harmon Foundation, such as The Negro and Art and Negro Artists at Work.38 The genres of movies, from mere biblical reproductions to topics of social and political concern, would expand the definition of Christian filmmaking and open up doors for more creative and provocative films.

Defining the Religious Genres

In the early 1930s, the Protestant establishment felt hoodwinked by the sham promise of a sanctified Hollywood. By 1934, the premiere liberal religious periodical, the Christian Century, had surrendered any iota of hope for a moral film industry under the leadership of Czar Hays. They called on Americans to “engage in a critical assessment of Christ and culture,” and to reject the status quo.39 On the horizon they saw, through a glass darkly, some positive Roman Catholic action in the militant words and deeds of Joseph Breen and others under the banner of the Legion of Decency, but they remained suspicious of the commercially driven enterprise of moviemaking.40

One educator saw an alternative. Having been accused of attempting to camouflage a relationship between Hays and his own Committee on the Use of Motion Pictures for Religious Education, Chairman LeSourd, now professor of religious education at Duke University, declared that he was not connected to the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association in any way.41 He averred that his committee had nothing to do with entertainment pictures, but rather was concerned with conducting nationwide surveys of the ways and means to use motion pictures in churches and schools.42 While few believed his protestations of innocence, he did draw attention to the emergent movement of nontheatrical religious motion pictures. The hope of the churches was not in Hollywood; it was within their own missions.

In a series of five articles in Christian Century in 1930, Professor Fred Eastman of Chicago Theological Seminary depicted movies under the reign of Hays as a “menace to the mental and moral life of America.”43 Eastman delineated how the motion picture code under the National Recovery Administration intersected with the public interest at three points: stopping immoral pictures, preventing block booking, and promoting the renting of pictures to schools and churches. Of immediate concern was the first category, with Eastman pointing to how producers had bamboozled the public for four (p.14) years, primarily because of a “metropolitan influence.” But central to Eastman’s argument was his castigation of the Hollywood monopoly for making it almost impossible for small, independent producers in schools and churches to make and secure films relating to their own needs. He suggested that studios should reorganize their production and distribution apparatus, even converting some of their facilities into specialized production centers for nontheatrical films. Hollywood, he argued, must contribute to becoming community builders.44 While criticizing Hollywood’s waywardness, Parents’ Magazine printed Eastman’s plea for the church to reclaim opportunities missed by the movies.45 According to Eastman and Robert Hopkins Jr., what was needed was a program of nontheatrical films for character building. The most auspicious site for viewing these films was in the churches, whether in their auditoriums or their parish halls.

In his own study on film, Rev. R. Hellbeck concluded that the Protestant film had been created and enabled by the work of the Harmon Foundation, whose productions had become the basis of cinema activities in Protestant circles. As part of the progressive vision, he announced that Protestants no longer needed to consider film to be “The Cannon That Shoots Twenty-Four Times a Minute.” The superannuated notion of film as the devil’s work was, according to Hellbeck, inherently misleading and mischievous, in that it assumed that the moving picture was an instrument of evil taking us to hell and back in a basket of filth and pornography. Essentially, Hellbeck claimed, the medium exists as a neutral instrument.46 What Saint Augustine had declared regarding rhetoric was true of film: film was a neutral art that could be used for God’s glory. The oral art of persuasion could now be enhanced by a technological art of communication, the moving picture.

While in the late 1920s the Harmon Foundation had invested heavily in nonsectarian religious production for churches and schools, the economic pressures of the Depression squeezed them out of competition. The beginnings had been auspicious, and one important legacy endured. Harmon’s vision to produce wholesome religious motion pictures encompassed and defined five categories: biblical, missionary, historical/biographical, pedagogical, and inspirational films,47 all of which were intended to fulfill the foundation’s motto to “support, not supplant, the sermon.”48 These general categories remained stable throughout Christian filmmaking for the next fifty years under five larger umbrellas identified by the Harmon Foundation as “Bible Stories and Bible Lands,” “The World and Its Peoples,” “Religion Historically Treated,” “Church Activities” or “The Church in Action,” and various subgenres of “Dramatic Films,” also known as “Religion and Life.”

(p.15) Categories and Genres

Biblical Films

Within these five categories of Christian films produced in the 1930s by both denominational departments and independents, the biblical film remained the staple and possessed the longest history. Bible stories had remained popular since the director Henry Vincent’s Passion Play of Oberammergau in 1898. Replacing it and Sidney Olcott’s groundbreaking From the Manger to the Cross (1912) was Cecil B. DeMille’s classic King of Kings (1927), which enjoyed worldwide distribution, financed by the New York philanthropist Jeremiah Milbank’s Cinema Corporation of America. The blockbuster film illustrated familiar Bible stories, incorporated numerous hymns in its presentation, and washed away audience fears of the new medium. Its impact proved monumental; in fact, many viewers testified that they saw the face of H. B. Warner (DeMille’s actor playing Jesus) whenever they prayed.49 It would be followed by notable works such as the Episcopal minister James Friedrich’s Living Christ series (1951–57) and Campus Crusade’s “most seen movie in the world” version of The Jesus Film (1979). The apotheosis of this category would be Mel Gibson’s bloody and violent The Passion of the Christ (2004), a remarkable cinematic achievement, based in part on the visions of an obscure 19th-century Roman Catholic nun, Sister Emmerich.

This category established itself as the most frequently exhibited type of religious film in the 1930s, dominated by the Harmon Foundation’s own 1930/31 series on the life of Christ, I Am the Way, incorporating reedited portions of DeMille’s King of Kings.50 In fact, the critic Gretta Palmer identified The King of Kings as Hollywood’s most far-reaching success, noting that thousands of 16mm versions (in Chinese, Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, and Hindustani) were distributed to missionaries around the globe: “In our Southern mountains, the Paulist Fathers have shown King of Kings to audiences who have seen no other picture. Three missionaries in India still replace their old prints every three years.”51 Palmer cited Alexander Wolcott’s classic review that “it is my guess that The King of Kings will girdle the globe and that the multitude will still be flocking to see it in 1947,” and concluded that he was right.52

Artistically it did not matter that DeMille’s theology was a bit fuzzy, a sort of nebulous liberal Protestant humanism. In defending his use of the story for a universal audience, DeMille explained that it did not matter “whether one believes that Jesus was a divine being who descended into humanity or a human being who rose to divinity, it is not after all tremendously important in view of the fact that His ideals apply to us all.”53 The King of Kings, like a (p.16) Shroud of Hollywood, allowed viewers to project whatever theological significance they wished onto the silent images.

Nevertheless, some missionary bodies believed that the exhibition of The King of Kings internationally was needed to counteract the deleterious effects of Hollywood’s other corrupting movies. Rev. Charles Gilkey, pastor of Hyde Park Baptist Church in Chicago, told attendees at the scholarly Fourth National Motion Picture Conference meeting in February 1926 that on his recent visit to the Orient, he had “learned that the motion pictures … were misrepresenting American ideals, thus prejudicing foreign people against our country.”54 Based on questionnaires to several hundred students in India, however, one study argued that Hollywood’s films had a relatively small influence on Hindus who lived in villages, away from larger urban centers.55

One of the grandest works to come out of the foundation was a scenario on the life of Christ from indigenous Indian filmmakers. For God So Loved, a seventy-minute Kodachrome film, was based on Love Divine, a sort of Passion play performed regularly in a natural amphitheater. Native Indian Christians made and performed the film under the auspices of Rev. Ralph Korteling and Rev. Harold Heckman of the National Christian Council of India. It was edited and prepared for distribution by the Harmon Foundation, with sound commentary and Eastern music provided by Wasantha Singh and his Indian orchestra. “Devout men, women and children in homely garb” acted in this community project, a folk presentation by village people against a background featuring the hillsides of Pasumalai, South India. Two miracles were highlighted, namely, the exorcism of the demon-possessed man in Gadarene and the bringing of sight to the blind. Despite imperfections of camera techniques and costuming, For God So Loved boasts a simple and authentic story that was “true to the spirit of Jesus though not bound to the letter of the New Testament.” In various prologues, native Indians announced that Jesus too often seemed wholly European, so “it is only natural that we Indian people think of Him as one of ourselves.” Even in its raw and primitive form, the film elicited fervent religious responses and provided fresh and genuine perspectives on the Gospel story from a non-Western culture. An epilogue shows Jesus appearing to a farmer, a carpenter, a housewife, and a nurse, saying “Lo, I am with you always—even to the end of the world.” The film concludes with a universal appeal from the Scriptures, declaring, “For God so loved the world, all the world, without distinction of time, or race or station that He gave His son that all might be one in Him.”

(p.17) Other biblical films went global as well.56 These films would be followed by the remarkable Daya Sagar (Oceans of Mercy), a graphically powerful all-Indian production of the Jesus story distributed by the producer John Gil-man in 1979. But that is a later story.

Missionary Films

Under this generic rubric were gathered missionary films from Africa, China, Japan, Latin America, and Native American Indian tribes, which had a twofold purpose. First, they sought to explain the cultures and needs of designated mission fields. Second, they were made to use in mission work, both at home and overseas. Most of the films addressed the salient concerns of medical missions, Christian education, and evangelistic work of international missionaries. An early series on The Spirit of Christ at Work in India (1931) and a three-reel study of The Moslem World (1931) sought to understand other religious cultures in light of the Christian faith. The latter covered “From Lands of the Camel” through “Out of the Desert,” probing the roots of Islamic thought, a history of Muhammad, and the rapid rise of Islam. In its concluding reel, “Christianity Faces Islam,” it presciently addressed crucial challenges in Muslim missionary work.57 In the China Our Neighbor series, the Harmon Foundation produced a script by Sue Chien titled Mr. Chang Takes a Chance (1932). The film, still silent, introduced a drama about a desperately ill, prominent Chinese citizen, a Mr. Chang, who visits a missionary hospital, is cured, and shows his gratitude by endowing it with generous funding. As part of a travelogue series, What a Missionary Does in Africa traced the life of a missionary in the Belgian Congo who followed Stanley’s expedition by riverboat, planted a mission, and won the confidence and friendship of its people.58

Most mainline denominations participated in some significant way in making use of films related to missionary work. Rev. Andrew Burgess, Lutheran missionary to Madagascar, produced “fine quality” movies of native life and island scenes, taking his pictures with Bell and Howell equipment. His colleague Dr. Benjamin Gregory declared that their mission to gain converts was enhanced by using such modern methods of evangelism.59 For Christian Reform ministers, “the movies that picture life on our Indian mission field, or the work in China, are good enough to be shown in any of our churches.”60 Methodist churches in particular were attracted to mission films. Their Board of Foreign Missions filmed a low-caste village in India, which was used in a work titled Touching Untouchables. This film vividly and (p.18) realistically portrayed the social change among the lower strata of the Hindu social system through Christian teaching on the value of human nature.61

While James Joy, editor of the Christian Advocate, the official organ of the Methodist Episcopal Church, lambasted Hollywood for establishing a seminary of vice, a school of crime with “foul-picturing writing,” he also believed that “the cinema is a true school” with appealing methods for nascent minds.62 Home missions would showcase summer camp work for city children, urban mission activity in Chicago and Philadelphia, and activity in more rural areas in northern California, among the logging camps in Washington, and in the occupied territories of Hawaii and Puerto Rico. The Open Door captured a survey of the Methodist Episcopal movement while the denomination’s vanguard work in race relations was showcased in its farsighted Investment in Negro Youth galvanizing a growing social concern. In conjunction with their films, the Methodists published Methodist Educational News, which served as a screen magazine. In addition, one of their preeminent schools, Drew Theological Seminary, actually produced a promotional film advertising its own mission. The Board of Foreign Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church, in consultation with the RMPF, engaged Rev. W. S. Reinoehl (a scenario writer of the Amateur Cinema League and a missionary) to dramatize mission work in Singapore.63 Methodist churches lauded their Land of Cherry Blossoms and Snow (1936) as the finest missionary and scenic picture ever made, showcasing the exotic beauty of Hirosaki, Japan, and the success of their boys’ school there. Rev. Floyd Shacklock had borrowed a camera and found it more effective in disseminating his vision than the usual missionary sermons.64

The Northern Baptist Convention, through their Board of Missionary Cooperation, captured exotic footage of their international mission work. In Burma they showed buffalo, elephants, and the jungle villages where they had instituted medical missions; in China, they presented newly constructed schools and hospitals; Philippines boasted a snake charmer; lepers and holy men represented India; Buddhist temples symbolized Japan; and in three reels of Africa, cameras crossed the equator and gazed on Victoria Falls via railroad, with stops to examine the Baptist dispensary along with opportunities to view baptisms and schoolchildren singing. The films on Asia were worked around the hundredth anniversary of Baptist mission work in India, under the leadership of Harry Myers, secretary of the Department of Stereopticon Lectures, Moving Pictures, and Exhibits of the Northern Baptist Convention, who on special assignment in Burma and Madras documented mission work for the annual convention in 1936.65 H. E. Goodman, president of the Women’s American (p.19) Baptist Foreign Mission Society, juxtaposed travel and scenic shots of Japan, China, Burma, and India with their Baptist mission work.66

Mission films proliferated. In their effort to educate, films taken by missionaries “penetrating strange lands” provided documentary teaching, such as Father Dufays’s From Dakor to Goa, which displayed aspects of French Africa.67 The Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA) empowered its Board of National Missions and Board of Foreign Missions to produce such films as Among the Navajos, A Friendly Hand (about a Christian Neighborhood House’s influence on Russian boy), and such standard travelogue mission films Behind the Scenes in Chinatown and Beneath the Arctic Circle. Verna Lotz of the Board of Foreign Mission’s Visualization Bureau released and recommended China Today, with its curiously titled segments on Babes in Chinaland and Siam: Land of the White Elephant.68 The Board of Foreign Missions further illustrated its work in world missions in Syria, Asia, and the Near East under the guidance of Dr. James Detwiler, secretary of the board.69 It paid particular attention to making and using films for promotional work, including the multi-reeled On Wings under the Southern Cross, capturing a birds’ eye view of Latin America ministries, and Skylines, displaying its mission work in New York City.70 Having received more than two thousand projectors from Eastman Kodak, Presbyterians actively promoted the use of 16mm films throughout their denomination.

Research findings on motion pictures in the 1930s demonstrated that Hollywood movies—in contrast to church-made films—handicapped missionary work, especially in the Orient, where viewers could not distinguish between true and false portrayals of American life.71 The Christian Advocate attacked Hollywood for its tendency to corrupt overseas missions, where “eighty per cent of the films shown in China come from Hollywood,” with complaints that our celluloid American garbage was being dumped on their shores.72 The slick professionalism of the Hollywood product overshadowed the simple visual documents of missionary films.

Church Activities: Historical and Biographical Films

The third and fourth categories of genre involved “Church Activities,” principally a group of historical and biographical films stretching back to early actualities, mere visual documents of events and people, but which have since become fascinating historical records. For example, the “unexpectedly festive but dated” General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America gathering at Atlantic City in 1934 was preserved as an ecclesiastical yearbook on film. Silent film had previously captured the former Chicago (p.20) White Stockings baseball player turned evangelist Billy Sunday in several of his dramatic poses. The flamboyant Aimee Semple McPherson of the five-thousand-seat Foursquare Angelus Temple in Los Angeles spoke directly to film audiences, boasting of her church’s pioneering work as the first to own a radio station, announced that “with the talking movie picture comes the great privilege of getting out the message to the ends of the earth.”73 In 1929, she agreed to appear in a “talker [talking picture] presenting her life story” through her own Angelus Productions.74

In a promotional strategy to persuade clergy to sign on for his “Protestant demonstration talkie,” Swedish Evangelical Church member Milton Anderson asked a mysterious character, the self-promoted filmmaker Colonel Erpi, to help him make “the first talking picture church service.” They developed the film by incorporating a male quartet, a celebrated soloist dressed in “appropriate costume” interpreting one of David’s Psalms, a YMCA secretary giving a business talk, and two ministers concluding the presentation, one with short sermon and the other uttering a benediction. But when one quartet member would not wait for the filming, the song became a trio. Anderson featured Rev. F. W. Sockman of Christ Madison Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church in rendering this first talking picture church service. Finally, Anderson dubbed in organ music to give the film an aura of reverent atmosphere. Hollywood industry personnel told Anderson his production was not big or spectacular enough, as though Jesus needed forty disciples rather than twelve. So Anderson added members of a Los Angeles dramatic school to enact a parable, used some stock footage of the Holy Land (including snow on mountains), drafted a female choir of three dozen members, and secured the actor Alec B. Francis to read Scripture. Shown in the Hollywood Bowl as Old Truths in New Garments, the film expanded to several reels, which made it an extremely long church service.75

The omnipresence of such recorded church services was illustrated in a New Yorker cartoon of July 20, 1929. Bruce Bairnsfather showed a couple sitting in a mainline denominational church (possibly the historic Riverside Church) watching a film of a projected minister in a pulpit, and one says to the other, “I hear we’ve got Fosdick next week, in full color.”

Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, a famous liberal Baptist preacher renowned for his radio addresses, had been showcased on the cover of Time magazine in October 6, 1930.76 The cartoon suggested an emerging trend among several modern churches to project their ministers onto movie screens. Television would soon open the floodgates for a legion of egocentric preachers to appear. (p.21)

God Talks

The New Yorker cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather presciently sketched the future of moving pictures in the church on July 20, 1929, suggesting that the Modernist Baptist preacher Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick of Riverside Church would soon be preaching through color films.

Courtesy of the New Yorker.

Recording church activities on film ranged from the neophyte to the more sophisticated productions. Rev. Father Yunker of Springfield, Illinois, pioneered amateur 16mm moviemaking for church work, as he took one of the first Bell and Howell cameras to a Lithuanian parish in Europe and staged pageants depicting epochs in Lithuanian history. Upon his return, he exhibited the various parish scenes on a screen in the parish house.77 On the other end of the spectrum, David O’Malley produced impressive historical surveys of the Roman Catholic Church in Through the Centuries (1934) and (p.22) The Shepherd of the Seven Hills (1934). Distributed by Faith Pictures, these works combined newsreels, pans of the Sistine Chapel interiors, and classic artworks accompanied by a lecture contrasting the ruins of a pagan Rome with the glories of the Vatican. The progress of the church through history, often shown in animated drawings, was designed primarily for Catholic audiences.78 The Educational Screen columnist Edwin Buehrer praised the comprehensive cinematic vision of the Roman Catholic churches, noting that they had long known about the importance of visual religious education, and adding it was time the Protestant churches caught up.79

The Harmon Foundation aided the Episcopal Church in 1934 in producing The New World.80 The church exhibited the film, which depicted the history of the Episcopal Church in the United States, at their general convention at Atlantic City, demonstrating that one denomination had the wherewithal to undertake such an enterprise.81 The idea that one could visually record religious history sparked a reviewer’s challenge. Extolling the virtues of The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), the editorial inquired that if Pasteur could be made “picturized,” why not Wesley or Luther or Knox? The article continued, “There should be money enough in the stewardship of Methodists to produce a picture that would compare in power and beauty with Pasteur, where Jews and Catholics as well as Methodists and Presbyterians stand in queue.”82 So, too, the zeal to produce a feature version of The Pilgrim’s Progress on the 250th anniversary of John Bunyan’s death sparked the idea of a

moving tale full of unexpected turns, that lends itself to the kaleidoscopic art of the screen. The characters are simple and vital, the stereotypes who can always be depended upon to be “dopey” or “sneezy” or “bashful,” the kind of folk whom the director can be sure will always be true to type. The Valley of Humiliation and Vanity Fair would lend themselves to the talents of the master minds of stage setting. And the popular appeal is unquestioned. Best of all, The Pilgrim’s Progress has a happy ending, to be [assured of becoming] a box office success.83

Dramatic Films

Finally, “life situation” pictures taught about Christian living, focusing on personal, social, and even economic issues (e.g., the Harmon Foundation’s Our Children’s Money, ca. 1931). Films even provided guidance on the proper ethnic etiquette for missionaries in approaching a tribal chief or in building one’s own lean-to shelter in the jungle.

(p.23) More dramatic films covered a host of styles and formats, ranging from the historical and missionary pictures (e.g., the India picture Padre Sahib, ca. 1949) to the evangelistic, allegorical, and apocalyptic.84 The narrative of these films emphasized story rather than instruction, often by illustrating various anecdotes and parables. The Story of Bamba (ca. 1939) adapted a missionary’s testimony about an African boy who assists the fetish doctor of his tribe in the rites of administrating the poison cup. When Bamba becomes ill, he is healed not by the witch doctor but by a Christian medical doctor. Both he and the witch doctor become Christians as Western medicine and Christian faith are shown to be demonstrably superior to the old ways. In the first decades of the talking picture, churches mostly avoided narrative films in favor of biblical and didactic works. This genre would dominate after World War II, however, with the transmission of numerous subgenres in melodrama and apocalyptic films. Nonetheless, a few religious dramatic films were produced that reflected the progressive concerns of liberal denominations, such as the Yale Divinity School’s If a Boy Needs a Friend (1939), which promoted tolerance toward other races and religions.


In 1947, recognizing the existence of a growing trend of religious filmmaking, Michela Robins published “Films for the Church” in Hollywood Quarterly.85 Robins discovered a wellspring of religious production, finding a heterogeneous output for the approximately fifteen thousand churches exhibiting films. An industry periodical, Film World, even launched a new quarterly publication, Church Films, to exploit the burgeoning interest. While Robins saw great possibilities for the emergent church picture, she wondered whether the films would be insipid “missionary conscience-tweakers” and regurgitated Bible stories, or whether they would expand into vital dramatic films dealing with pressing social and moral issues from Christian perspectives.

These categories or basic genres of filmmaking as delineated by the Harmon Foundation would endure through the emergence of the Christian film industry, with instructional and dramatic films predominating by 1985. Yet at its outset, religious leaders recognized the visceral impact of film and envisioned the medium as a means to develop character, primarily through moving the emotions. If film could be used for ill, it could also inculcate virtue and promote religious devotion. Satan’s tool could be converted for godly uses. Such viewpoints of Protestants revealed changing attitudes in the (p.24) 1930s toward moving pictures, with more denominations actively investigating how they might appropriate the media for religious purposes. Films functioned as sermons. Certain denominations, like the more conservative Southern Baptists, primarily concerned about evangelism, would focus on preaching the Word through their films. Others, like their more liberal counterpart, the Northern Baptists, would stress missionary work around the world. As we will see, all these categories—biblical, missionary, historical/biographical, pedagogical, and inspirational films—were to be practiced by the various denominations.

But as denominations sought out how to articulate their distinctive messages on celluloid, three unique filmmakers would set standards for biblical, evangelistic, and instructional films for the church market in the 1940s. The pioneering ventures of Rev. James Friedrich, Carlos Baptista, and Dr. Irwin Moon would lay clear paths for future Christian filmmakers.


(1.) Dougherty, Cardinal Dennis, “Legion of Decency” Catholic Standard (May 25, 1934), 1.

(2.) As a Presbyterian elder, Hays sensed his calling as divine. See Ross, Clyde, “A Presbyterian Elder, a Church Crusade, and the Period of ‘Family Movies’” Fides et Historia (Fall 1993), 80–90. By 1933, Edward Edkahl denounced him thus: “As the Master of the Movies, I pronounce you, Will Hays, a complete failure. Your cameras are all out of focus.” “The Screen” Christian Advocate (June 15, 1933), 573 (Christian Advocate hereafter cited as CA).

(p.224) (3.) “Taking It on the Jaw” Hollywood Reporter (July 12, 1934), 1.

(4.) The International Catholic Film Organization (OCIC) was established in 1928, primarily to establish dialogue among filmmakers and theologians. The Catholic educator Jan Hes argued that the OCIC also aimed at supporting initiatives for church film production, creating a wider international basis for such projects and developing contacts with film professionals. See Hes, Jan, “Notes from the Diary of a Stepchild” Media Development (February 1980), 3. Hes’s article is based on a quotation from Dr. Hans Florin: “Film is the stepchild of Christian communication.” A second group, INTERFILM (International Interchurch Film Association) began in Paris in 1955.

(5.) Black, Gregory, Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies (Cambridge UP, 1996), 170.

(6.) Skinner, James, The Cross and the Cinema: The Legion of Decency and the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, 1933–1970 (Praeger, 1993), 35.

(7.) Couvares, Francis, “Hollywood, Main Street, and the Church: Trying to Censor the Movies before the Production Code” Movie Censorship and American Culture, ed. Francis Couvares (Smithsonian Institute Press, 1996), 129–58.

(8.) Beardsley, A. H., “I Went to the Picture Show” CA (February 1933), 103.

(9.) Chesterton, G. K., As I Was Saying (Eerdmans, 1985), 37–38. More than sixty years later, Chesterton’s cultural observation was echoed by the independent filmmaker John Sayles, who envisioned a “democratizing of the filmmaking process.” Through a decentralization of financing, distribution, and delivery systems, he hoped for more demographically narrow casting of film audiences. John Sayles, “The Big Picture” American Film (June 1985), 10.

(10.) Krows, Arthur, “So the Pictures Went to Church” Educational Screen (October 1938), 252–53 (Educational Screen hereafter cited as ES). See also Rick Prelinger, Field Guide to Sponsored Films (National Film Preservation Foundation, 2006).

(11.) See the following pieces by Arthur Krows: “A Quarter-Century of Non-theatrical Films” ES (June 1936), 169; “Motion Pictures—Not for Theatres” ES (September 1938), 211–14; “Motion Pictures—Not for Theatres” ES (October 1938), 249–53, “Motion Pictures—Not For Theatres” ES (January 1939), 13–16; “Motion Pictures—Not for Theatres” ES (September 1941), 333; “Motion Pictures—Not For Theatres” ES (May 1942), 180–82.

(12.) Brady, Mary Beattie, “A New Era for the Church” ES (December 1935), 289–90.

(13.) “Motion Picture for the Church” Christian Statesman (January 1927), 8.

(14.) See Clements, Keith, Friedrich Schleiermacher: Pioneer of Modern Theology (Collins, 1987); and Schleiermacher, Friedrich, On Religion: Addresses in Response to Its Cultured Critics, trans. Terrence Tice (John Knox Press, 1969).

(15.) Schleiermacher, Friedrich, On Religion: Speeches to the Cultured Despisers, trans. John Oman (John Knox Press, 1994), 18, 138–39. I am indebted to Ryan Parker for this insight.

(16.) Anne Morey, Hollywood Outsiders: The Adaptation of the Film Industry, 1913–1934 (University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 145.

(17.) Andrews, George Reid, “The Church and the Motion Picture” National Board of Review Magazine (March/April 1926), 9–10; cited in Morey, op. cit., 145.

(18.) Janes, H. Paul, How to Stimulate Greater Activity in Your Church through Motion Pictures (Religious Motion Picture Foundation, 1932).

(19.) “Sources of Religious Films” Religious Motion Picture Foundation (May 15, 1936), 2; Johnson, R. F. H., “Suggestions from the Religious Motion Picture Foundation” ES (February 1933), 56–57 (italics added).

(p.225) (20.) Janes, H. Paul, “Using the Direct Route to the Feelings: A Character Education Project” ES (February 1934), 42–43.

(21.) Janes, H. Paul, “Changing the Emotional Potential” ES (October 1934), 212, 219.

(22.) “How the Alert Minister Can Use a Life Situation Picture” ES (October 1936), 247, 261.

(23.) See Benjamin, Walter, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), in Illuminations, trans. Hannah Arendt (Schocken, 1968); and Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, Public Relations of the Motion Picture Industry (1931; Jerome Ozer, 1971).

(24.) Boyd Gatewood, “Girl, Dumb Eight Years, Speaks after Seeing Thrilling Moving Picture” Los Angeles Times (December 14, 1919), 4, 13.

(25.) “Harry Levey Company to Furnish Pictures to Churches Everywhere” Moving Picture World (August 26, 1922), 660. Hays did propose an experiment to test the popularity and financial viability of religious pictures by monitoring the demand among twelve churches in twelve towns (near New York City) over twelve consecutive Sundays. See “Films in Churches” Motion Picture News (July 4, 1925), 32.

(26.) Morrow, Mrs., “The Cinema: I Make a Discovery” Christian Herald (June 1934), 18, 35 (Christian Herald hereafter cited as CH).

(27.) “Have You Sent Yours Yet?” CH (April 1946), 69. The monthly would highlight positive cinematic treatments of Protestant ministers and what were viewed as devotional films. Selections included Anna and the King of Siam (August 1946), 66; Henry V (September 1946), 74; Sister Kenny (October 1946), 100; and Angel on My Shoulder (November 1946), 102.

(28.) Robinson, Harold, Better Films Council (Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, 1933).

(29.) Ibid., 4.

(30.) Stidger, William, “Berries for the King’s Plate” CH (April 1937), 14.

(31.) Vandercook, Anna Jean, “Motion Pictures Bring Life to Conferences” International Journal of Religious Education (October 1936), 18–19, 40 (International Journal of Religious Education hereafter cited as IJRE).

(32.) In 1947, Vieth would pen his classic work, The Church and Christian Education (Bethany Press), as he guided denominations in putting together curricular series.

(33.) Vieth, Paul, “Movies and Slides as Teaching Aids” IJRE (July 1935), 17–18.

(34.) Hopkins, Robert, Jr., “Where Materials in Visual Education May Be Secured” IJRE (November 1937), 16–17.

(35.) Tippy, Worth, “The Supporting Church Interest in Community Motion Picture Organization” National Board of Review Magazine (June 1934), 5–7, 10.

(36.) “An Informational Pamphlet for Pastors” ES (September 1934), 139.

(37.) Bortz, Dorothy Fritsch, “Motion Pictures for the Church” Church Management (February 1936), 235–36.

(38.) “New Mission Films” ES (January 1933), 23.

(39.) Toulouse, Mark, “Socializing Capitalism: The Century during the Great Depression” Christian Century (April 12, 2001), 418.

(40.) “The Movies Last Chance” Christian Century (June 20, 1934), 822–24 (Christian Century hereafter be cited as CC).

(41.) “Exposing Another Attempt at Camouflage” CC (March 5, 1930), 293.

(p.226) (42.) LeSourd, Howard, “Church Use of Moving Pictures” CC (March 19, 1930), 37.

(43.) See the following articles by Eastman: “The Menace of the Movies” CC (January 15, 1930), 75–78; “Who Controls the Movies” CC (February 5, 1930), 173–75.

(44.) See the following articles by Eastman: “Social Issues in Movie Code” CC (September 20, 1933), 1170–71; “Chances the Movies Are Missing” CC (May 12, 1937), 617–18.

(45.) Eastman, Fred, “What Can We Do about the Movies?” Parents’ Magazine (November 1931), 19, 52–54. In the same issue, Eastman lauds the magazine’s Movie Guide as the best aid in previewing services for reliable moviegoing guidance.

(46.) Hellbeck, Robert, “The Film and Protestantism” International Review of Educational Cinematography (October 3, 1931), 923–25.

(47.) Cited by Hopkins, op. cit., 16–17.

(48.) His general manager, George Reid Andrews, divided them as “The Bible,” “Religious Biography,” “Church History,” “World Friendship or Missionary,” “Religious Pedagogical Pictures,” and a large class of wholesome pictures for Sunday night services. Andrews, op. cit., 10.

(49.) Hayward, P. R., “The King of KingsIJRE (April 1928), 7. A New Yorker cartoon by I. Klein (December 21, 1929) showed a couple sitting in a movie theater watching a prosecutor harangue a witness, with the wife whispering, “Sure that’s H. B. Warner. Don’t you remember Jesus in the King of Kings?”

(50.) See Maltby, Richard, “The King of Kings and the Czar of All the Rushes: The Propriety of the Christ Story” Screen (Summer 1990), 188ff.

(51.) Of course, not everyone saw DeMille’s religious spectacle as laudatory. The Marxist critic Harry Alan Potamkin quipped, “It has not been observed that the American movie has produced a single ‘sacred’ film comparable to The Passion of Joan of Arc, made in France. The King of Kings is a product of this sycophancy—it is the pimple of sanctimony.” Cited in Jacobs, Lewis, ed., The Compound Cinema: The Film Writings of Harry Alan Potamkin (Teachers College Press, 1977), 156.

(52.) Palmer, Gretta, “Greatest Movie Success” CH (April 1944), 23.

(53.) DeMille, Cecil B., “The Screen as a Religious Teacher” Theatre Magazine (June 1927), 45.

(54.) At the same conference, Judge Lindsey of Denver said that there were more incentives to misdirected passion and immorality in the Song of Solomon than in all the motion pictures ever produced: “And more girls have been led astray on their way home from Sunday school than in 4,000,000 cinema palaces!” “Conference on Movies” Banner (March 19, 1926), 168.

(55.) Cressey, Paul Frederick, “Influence of Moving Pictures on Students in India” American Journal of Sociology (November 1935), 341–50. The American Trading Association promoted the 16mm version of Jerusalem: Cradle of Faith, which was available in both a synchronized sound version and a silent copy with descriptive titles. Likewise, they advertised The Passion Play: The Story of Jesus of Nazareth with “sacred songs sung by the Roxy Chorus and Emil Velazco at the Organ,” and also “narrada en espanol, musica y cantos.” Biblical narratives remained universal in interest and in outreach. No sound American version of the Christ story would be made until George Steven’s mammoth The Greatest Story Ever Told (also known as the longest story ever told) in 1965.

(56.) A one-reel Indian version of the New Testament parable, The Good Samaritan (1950), was also performed by students of Leonard Theological College in Jubbulpore, introducing the customs, colors, and flavors of a contemporary Indian countryside. (p.227) Incorporating the colorful clothing of South India and various customs such as women carrying water pots on their shoulders, the film resonated with both native and foreign audiences. See Visual Materials for Your Program pamphlet, n.d., Division of Visual Experiment, Harmon Foundation, Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress.

(57.) The latter was made in conjunction with the Visualization Committee of the Missionary Education Movement, with Harry Myers of Northern Baptist Convention and William Rogers of Harmon Foundation scripting their scenario from the 1937 book Mecca and Beyond, assembled by the Central Committee on the United Study of Foreign Missions and the Missionary Education Movement of the U.S. and Canada.

(58.) See Ernst, R. A. and Vivien Cooper pamphlet, March 28, 1977, 3, Harmon Foundation Gift Collection Catalogue, Archival Manuscripts, Library of Congress.

(59.) “Motion Pictures in Mission Work” and “Evangelizing Films” ES (September 1934), 139.

(60.) Tanis, Rev. E. J., “Timely Topics: The Movies” Banner (January 24, 1930), 80.

(61.) “Motion Picture on India’s UntouchablesCA (April 28, 1938), 406. On the domestic side, Methodist Home Missions captured the need for social work in U.S. urban centers in their film Children of the Crowded Streets. “New City Motion Picture” CA (August 11, 1938), 842.

(62.) Joy, James, “A School That Never Closes” CA (September 10, 1931), 1102–3.

(63.) “Mission Work to Be Dramatized in Motion Pictures” ES (January 1936), 11. Another media-savvy school, the Moody Bible Institute, also documented Life at MBI (n.d.) in 16mm film.

(64.) “Japan in Motion Pictures” CA (February 25, 1937), 198.

(65.) At home, the Board of Missionary Cooperation of the Northern Baptist Convention acquired both 16mm projectors and the eight-reel film A Michigan Miracle, about a rural church in southwestern Michigan, to show among its churches. “Clergyman ‘Shoots’ Camp Movie” ES (February 1933), 57; “Priest Makes Travel Film” and “Film Announcements” ES (February 1933), 57.

(66.) “Baptist Women’s Foreign Mission Society Uses Movies” ES (May 1933), 139.

(67.) “Missionaries and the Cinema” International Review of Educational Cinematography (July 1932), 557–58; and Ford, J. T., “Motion Pictures and Foreign Missions” Missionary Review of the World (August 1931), 611–12. The journal also investigated how Christ would make a difference in the lives of youth and missions. See “The Child—Movies—Missions” Missionary Review of the World (July 1933), 348–49.

(68.) “New Mission Films” ES (January 1933), 23.

(69.) “Missions in Syria to Be Filmed” ES (May 1936), 145. Presbyterians emphasized “educational answers” to native problems in such films as New Indian Trails (ca. 1936) about North India missions.

(70.) “Film Activities among the Denominations” ES (January 1936), 12.

(71.) “Missionaries and Motion Pictures” Missionary Review of the World (February 1936), 86.

(72.) “Editorial” CA (March 19, 1936), 267.

(73.) Forsher, James, Hollywood Chronicles: The Search for God, Grails, and Profits (MPI Home Video, 1991).

(74.) Morey, op. cit., 117.

(75.) Krows, Arthur, “Motion Pictures—Not For Theatres” ES (June 1944), 248–50; Anderson, op. cit., 90.

(p.228) (76.) Ironically, Fosdick, the Social Gospel pulpiteer and old dean of liberal preachers, gave a sermon in 1935 at the Riverside Church titled “The Church Must Go Beyond Modernism,” challenging culture while at the same time using it.

(77.) “Clergyman Interested in 16mm Talkies” ES (January 1933), 23.

(78.) “Motion Pictures for Catholic Audiences” ES (January 1934), 21.

(79.) Buehrer, Edwin, “A New Deal for the Sunday School” ES (April 1934), 104–5.

(80.) It also cooperated with the Missionary Education Movement to launch the Africa Motion Picture Project in 1939. The secretary of the American Mission to Lepers, Dr. Emery Ross, oversaw the work. See Rogers, William L. and Paul H. Vieth, Visual Aids in the Church (Christian Education Press, 1946), 16.

(81.) “Editorial” CA (October 11, 1934), 829.

(82.) “Editorial” CA (February 20, 1936), 172.

(83.) Nall, Otto, “Our Advancing World: Movie Tip” CA (August 18, 1938), 846.

(84.) See “The Religious Film: Religious Cinematography in India” International Review of Educational Cinema (August 1929), 162–69. See also “Religion: Padre SahibTime (September 19, 1949).

(85.) Robins, Michela, “Films for the Church” Hollywood Quarterly (Winter 1947/48), 178–84. See also Reynolds, Glenn, “‘Africa Joins the World’: The Missionary Imagination and the Africa Motion Picture Project in Central Africa, 1937–39” Journal of Social History (Winter 2010), 459–479.