American Methodists have had a contentious and at times volatile relationship with popular culture. 19th-century reactions to fashionable clothing, romance novels, and motion pictures ranged from avoidance to skepticism to accommodation. These tensions are intriguing and demonstrate how Methodists navigated the often murky spaces of popular entertainments. The 1890s phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” made many Methodists nervous – especially when it came to the rejection or adaptation of popular culture in their lives.
For astute Methodist churchgoers, various authors and elders had made it abundantly clear: do not smoke tobacco, do not dance, and do not use playing cards. These vehicles for the destruction to the soul, it was thought, linked Methodists (privately and publicly) to gambling, debauchery, and the bawdy culture of the saloon. One can find dozens of books and pamphlets warning the followers of Wesley to avoid these forms of vice.
Some believed these mediums of popular culture were the tools of the Devil. And, recently I’ve discovered that the Prince of Darkness was also interested in roller skating. If the Devil had his way, roller skating would bring about physical maladies in young women and cause teenagers from across the US to abandon their Sunday evening Epworth League meetings for the dangerous atmosphere of the local roller rink.
James Monroe Buckley, the venerable editor of the New York City-based newspaper The Christian Advocate, led the charge for those concerned with this recent trendy recreational activity that attached wheels to one’s shoes. In his pamphlet The Roller-Skating Rink Craze (1885) Buckley lamented that roller skating would result in the “impaired health” of young women who were not accustomed to such rigorous physical activities. More importantly, for Buckley and his readers, it was vital that Methodists not be seen in such establishments and that Christian parents never allow their children to frequent the rink on the night of regular prayer-meeting.
Roller skating, it seemed, was dangerous to both the body and the soul.
If you would like to examine an electronic copy of Buckley’s pamphlet contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org