“Shall We Dance?” A Historical Christian Perspective on Dancing


The Bible makes a plain case against worldly dancing. The Scripture contrasts the dance of holy worship and joy with the foolish activity of idolaters and the immortalized daughter of Herodias, whose lascivious dancing led to the martyrdom of John the Baptist. Throughout the centuries, Christians have grappled with the issue of dancing, and history preserves a consistent record of religious stricture against popular and social dancing, exposing the amusement as a carnal counterfeit for the sacred dancing of Ancient Israel.

In 1632, William Prynne, a Puritan who graduated from Oxford University and became a barrister, published Historio-Mastix. The work focuses primarily on the evil of stage plays, but Prynne heavily interpolates his disapproval of theater-going with invectives against other worldly amusement, chiefly dancing. He presents a comprehensive catalogue of early Church councils, many of which forbade dancing. In 364 AD, the Concilium Laodicenum, which was attended by most of the bishops in Asia declared: “Christians going to weddings ought neither wantonly to sing, nor yet to dance; but to suppe or dine soberly as become Christians” (Prynne 572-573). In 401 AD, the Concilium Carthaginense anathematized ministers who “delight in filthy jests, or sing or dance pubclikely” (Prynne 574). In 408 AD, the Concilium Africanum, whose auspicious attendees included St. Augustine, warned against “wicked dances” on the Christian feast days, citing the fact that “the modesty of innumerable women devoutly coming to the most holy day, is assaulted with lascivious injuries . . .” (Prynne 575-576). Another council, which convened at Carthage in 419 AD, enjoined presbyters, deacons, and subdeacons to avoid marriage feasts where “amorous and filthy things are sung, or where obscene motions of the body are expressed in rounds or dances” (Prynne 578). Histrio-Mastix is a compendium of such examples, but these selections suffice to establish the most primitive repudiation of Christianity against dancing as a lustful and precarious practice.

Many other works were published throughout the centuries that included strong warnings against the evils of dancing. In Destructorium Vitiorum (1429), Alexander Fabritius denounces liturgical dancing as an offense against Christian baptism: “. . . . but when they enter into the Dance, they go into the Pompous Procession of the Devil.” The Waldenses published Censure of Dancing, forbidding Christians of that sect to dance. Francesco Petrarch (1304-74) posited that dancing induced immoral conduct. Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540) wrote Instruction of a Christian Woman, dedicated to Catherine of Aragon, the ill-fated Catholic wife of England’s Henry VIII, in which he taught that even watching dancing compromised the chastity of both mind and body (Wagner 9-13).

In 1577, John Northbrooke published A Treatise Against Dicing, Dancing, Plays and Other Idle Pastimes. He boldly exposes dancing as a Satanic device designed to draw Christians into foolishness and impurity:

Dauncing is the vilest vice of all, and truly it cannot easily be saide what mischiefes the sight and the hearing do recieue hereby . . . They daunce with disordinate gestures, and with monstrous thumping of the feet, to pleasant soundes, to wanton songs, to dishonest verses: maydens and matrones are groped and handled with unchast handes, and kissed and dishonestly embraced . . . [dancing is] an exercise not descended from heaven, but by the deuilles of hell deuised to the iniuire of the Diuinitie. (Northbrooke 171)

In America, this attitude toward dancing was sustained by Northbrooke’s Puritan brethren, namely Increase and Cotton Mather, and became a consistent opinion amongst the growing Evangelical Church in the New World.
In 1867, Dr. Hiram Mattison published Popular Amusements: an Appeal to Methodists, in Regard to the Evils of Card-Playing, Billiards, Dancing, Theater-Going, etc. This little volume is packed with powerful convictions against dancing. Mattison moves from practical objections about the needless of waste of time spent at balls and money for expensive dancing lessons and ballroom regalia to dancing’s diametric opposition to moral purity and true spirituality. He describes the worldly environment of these social gatherings thusly:

The fact is, both ladies and gentlemen drink at balls, and both get heated with wine and inflamed by passion. The atmosphere of the ball-room is deadly to modesty. It smothers it, murders it, and leaves the robbed victim polluted by the image of sin and the breath of the destroyer, Intemperance. (Mattison 12)

Mattison also includes a broad survey of contemporary churchmen’s opinions against the evils of dancing, providing the modern reader with an unshakeable sense of the Christian consensus against dancing:

  • Bishop Pierce of the Methodist Episcopal Church South:
    . . . Dancing Methodists, without prompt confession of wrong, deep humiliation, and solemn pledges never to repeat, will be-or ought to be-cut off” (55).
  • Bishops of the Southern Methodist Church:
    This is no time to abate our testimony against worldliness in all its forms. Our Church has never faltered in its teaching or modified its tone in relation to dancing . . . we renew our warning (55).
  • General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (1818):
    It [dancing] steals away precious time, dissipates religious impressions, and harden the heart (61).
  • Central Presbyterian Church, Rochester, New York (1867)
    We desire to give our solemn testimony against such practices on the part of professing Christians, as card-playing, theatre-going, and dancing. We regard these things as unedifying, as giving offence to pious minds, as dissipating serious thoughts, as leading to practices that are very reprehensible, and as presenting an example unwholesome to the world (61).
  • Young Men’s Christian Association, Albany, NY (1866)
    Resolved, That we bear our energetic testimony against dancing, card and billiard-playing as so distinctively worldly in their associations and unspiritual in their influences as to be utterly inconsistent with our profession as the disciples of Christ (65).
  • Plenary Council of the Roman Catholic Church, Baltimore, MD (1867)
    We consider it to be our duty to warn our people against those amusements which may easily become to them an occasion of sin, and especially against those fashionable dances, which, as at present carried on, are revolting to every feeling of delicacy and propriety, and are fraught with the greatest danger to morality (66).

Dancing, in all its worldly forms, is a vice. If the practice provoked such ire in Christianity’s forebears, imagine their utter condemnation of today’s wicked dancers, whose sole aim seems to be the excitement of sensuality. Sadly, dancing has gained wide social and spiritual acceptance, and parents and pastors alike seem unacquainted with the historical testimony against it. Even in churches, dancers employ carnal choreography in mimicked “worship,” and so-called “praise dancing” has replaced the fervent and sacred holy dances of shouting saints! As Apostolic Christians, we cannot afford to ignore history and desensitize ourselves to the onslaught of worldly dancing. We must assume an adversarial stance where worldly dancing is concerned and dedicate ourselves to a Biblical model of worship and true spiritual dancing, rejoicing in the presence of God and the power of the Holy Ghost!

Sources:

Mattison, Hiram. Popular Amusements: an Appeal to Methodists, in Regard to the Evils of Card-Playing, Billiards, Dancing, Theatre-Going, Etc. Carlton & Porter. New York: 1867.

Northbrooke, John. A Treatise Against Dicing, Dancing, Plays and Other Idle Pasttimes. Shakespeare Society. London: 1843.

Prynne, William. Histrio-Mastix; the Players Scovrge, or Actors Tragaedie. E.A. and W.I. for Michael Sparke, London: 1633.

Wagner, Ann. Adversaries of Dance from the Puritans to the Present. Unversity of Illinois Press. Urbana & Chicago: 1997.

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One Response to ““Shall We Dance?” A Historical Christian Perspective on Dancing”

  1. Carlos Avery Says:

    Hehe I am really the only comment to your awesome read?!?

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