Reversing the usual theme of works on fiction, “Gossip of the Month” of May 1847 takes issue with those “pious indigents”: evangelicals seeking to reform American society by writing against everything from dancing to nude figures on bank bills. The 90-year-old man wanting a “story book” instead of a bible from the Franklin County Bible Society was excoriated in more than one piece in religious periodicals in 1847.
“Gossip of the Month” (from the Democratic Review, May 1847; pp. 460-462)

Professor Cellarius having published a Treatise on the Terpsichorean Art, the Tract Society, of New-York, offered a prize of fifty dollars for the best Essay against Dancing; the which prize was awarded to the Rev. Mr. Carey, of Sunderland, Massachusetts—Heaven help his competitors, if the learned Divine’s paper deserved the reward! Accuse us of Atheism, if you will, but we must confess that we see no connexion between dancing and deviltry; nor have we ever been able to discern, that theatricals and third-tiers are inseparable; in fact, we do not even believe, that Thomas Crehore manufactures tickets of admission to the Infernal regions. The Tract Society object to dancing! why not to singing? Loose fellows sing loose songs. Why not to violins? the fiddle-bow is the sceptre of the Goddess of Dancing. Church members ought not to read; for all editions of the classics are not expurgated. Why not take Iconoclastic ground, and write down pictures and statues, because ladies and gentlemen are often represented scantily clad? A sanctimonious paper in this city, whose singular mixture of commerce and divinity always reminds us of the money changers in the temple, once preached a crusade against the vignette on a bank-bill, a miniature woman, naked to the waist, as likely to undermine the moral foundations of society, and make money doubly the root of all evil. How hopeless must be the depravity of mankind, if their morality cannot withstand such trifling temptations! and how very hopeless the narrow-minded, we might almost say, prurient illiberality, which insults society by supposing them dangerous. We shall be read out of meeting, we know it; we shall be classed with the goats, and no longer with

“Young Obadias,

Davids, Josias,

Who all were pious,”

as the primer tells us; but, nevertheless, in the face of this exclusion, we maintain, that this Sunderland Treatise has the same claims to usefulness, as the “Bill for the better observance of Easter Monday,” which C. Brooke Dringwall, Esq., M. P., prepared for Parliament. Discourses on doctrinal and ethical points are apt to assume the high prerogative of exemption from criticism. Noli me tangere is the motto of the saints. Every “professor” who wields the pen, claims a share of the Papal infalliblity; but when a man takes to type and paper, his readers have at least the right to judge, whether [h]e makes a strong argument, or succeeds in proving the reverse of his case. The Reverend Mr. Carey writes against a natural, universal and innocent amusement. We have read him from cover to cover, and laid him down more impressed than ever with the harmlessness of dancing, since fifty dollars could not purchase one reason against it, even in Massachusetts: Still more, no anti-saltatory texts can be found, though “the Devil can quote Scripture” at a pinch. Christians must not dance, because dancing consumes time and money,

p. 461

and their time and money belong to the Lord. Sinners must not dance, for “there is something supremely shocking in the idea of a dancing sinner.” The daughter of Herodias danced before Herod, after which Herod cut off the head of John the Baptist—consequently, young ladies ought to beware of Cellarius and Charraud—Q. E. D. The chief objection to publications like this tract, is the injury they do to religion. A man cannot pass all his time in devotional exercise; all prayer, and no play, would ruin the best of us. Our New-England ancestors, Bancroft informs us, beguiled the weariness of a long summer voyage by three sermons a day: but the spirit of 1620 exists no longer. Draw the rein too tight and the steed will plunge;—a fever of profligacy is the inevitable successor of a chill of Puritanism. It is better to let “O, be joyful, be the Christian’s Psalm, and leave the sad Indian to incant the devil with tears and screeches.” But this is not all. The minor religious pen-work, such as Tracts, and Bible Society Reports, falls almost entirely into the hands of a class of men, who are aptly termed by the “profession” “pious indigents;”—pious applies to their intentions, indigent, to their intelligence and to their finances. These persons, in their anxiety to do good, allow their zeal to froth over in ranting, and constantly employing the most theological words to express their trivial ideas:—

“Hide the sacred in the silly.”

In fact, they have built up a kind of devotional slang. This sounds hard; but let any man, not a “professor,” read and judge for himself. The Sunderland divine relates the following stories, to illustrate the dangers of the “light fantastic toe:”—

“I was once called, ‘says an aged pastor,’ to visit a young lady who was said to be in despair. She had, at some time previous, been serious, and had, it was hoped, resolutely set her face Zionward. In an evil hour, some of her former associates called on her to accompany them to a ball. She refused to go. The occasion, the company, the parade and gayety, were all utterly dissonant from her present feelings. With characteristic levity and thoughtlessness, they employed persuasion and ridicule; and finally so far prevailed, that, with a desperate effort to shake off her convictions and regain her former security, she exclaimed, ‘Well, I will go, if I am damned for it!God took her at her word! Instead of the bloom and freshness of health, there came the paleness and haggardness of decay. The wan and sunken cheek, the ghastly, glaring eye, the emaciated limb, the sure precursors of approaching dissolution, were there!”—Despair! Death! Damnation, &c., &c.

The case of a young man, a leader in the ball-room:—

“To shield himself from the influence of a revival, at the time in progress, he sought to multiply dancing assemblies, and to draw others into them. But he could not escape God’s judgments, if he could his mercies. He was suddenly laid upon a bed of sickness. Death seemed near. In awful distress he begged for the mercy he had before despised. When thus borne down, hopeless of recovery, he seemed penitent, became exceedingly joyful, earnestly and solemnly warned his associates, and it was thought by pious friends, a most remarkable case of death-bed conversion.”

The old story, “When the devil was sick, the devil a saint would be,” &c. What happened to this young man? Let us hear the sequel:—

“Unexpectedly he recovered. With returning health, his religion so rapidly disappeared, that the first thing he did was to persuade his associates to make arrangements for another ball. Godless as they were, they were shocked at the proposal. But his persuasion overcame their scruples. The evening came, and in the midst of the glare and revelry of its scenes, he fell to the floor as if touched by the finger of an offended God: was borne a raving maniac to his home, which he had scarcely reached, when death sealed up his history for the final judgment.”

Charraud! Patriarch of dancing! how happens it that you have escaped the Bloomingdale Asylum for so many years? And you, O, Angelina du Sarrau! Have you no fears, lest the corner of Canal-street and Broadway should become a miniature Sodom, and burn you and bury you in its ashes! In Franklin County the righteous object to tales and stories. A reporter of the Franklin County Bible Society meets with an aged man who was fond of novel reading. He inveighs against the atrocious old wretch, as follows:—“What will he do with his passion

p. 462

beyond the grave? Can he throw aside God’s truth, and have fiction in heaven? Can he have it in hell? though more fitting there than in any other department of Eternity!” Are these gentlemen insane, or is it only methodism in their madness? Anna, the prophetess, and Joanna Southcote, never ranted or canted more painfully than they do. As in poetry there is but one step from the sublime to the ridiculous, so in religious compositions there is but one from the sacred to the blasphemous; and this step the “pious indigent” constantly takes, with a blindness and a boldness which excites the sneer of the scoffer, and the regret of the sincere well-wisher of morality and faith.

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