Worldly Amusements at the “West Point” of the Christian Reformed Church

Worldly Amusements at the “West Point” of the Christian Reformed Church

In the 1920s, the Christian Reformed Church debated the doctrine of common grace. Synod’s affirmation of this doctrine led a small group to separate from the CRC and form the Protestant Reformed Church. But the theological defense of the potential good of non-Christian— “worldly” —culture did not mean that CRC leaders were eager for members to interact with that culture.

In 1928 its Synod condemned worldly amusements, specifically dancing, playing cards, and going to movies, and Calvin College fired a professor who continued to go to movies despite warnings to stop.

Controversies did not roil the CRC in the 1930s, as in the 1920s, and CRC leaders continued to work to wall off the faithful from various kinds of worldliness even as the faithful Americanized. There were under-currents of conflict, however, notably about, the New Deal, the role of women in society and church and issues such as divorce and baptism of adopted children. Debates over these issues would pick up in the second half of the twentieth century.

B. K. Kuiper, dismissed for movie attendance.

What was the place of Calvin College in all of this? Concern in the 1930s about student movie attendance provides an illustrative example.


Faculty and students at the school, like CRC members generally, had diverse views about worldly amusements and doctrinal ideals about the place of Christians in the wider world. People at the college generally agreed that Christian faith should shape and be integrated with all aspects of life and learning. But they differed on what that meant in practice.

One bloc characteristically emphasized defending Reformed doctrine, promoting personal piety, and maintaining strict Christian morality. It wanted to see Christian ideas in the classroom and “spiritual seriousness” on campus and no hint of dancing, card playing, movie attendance, or other forms of worldliness.

Another bloc characteristically agreed about defending sound Reformed doctrine, but emphasized thoughtful engagement with contemporary culture, whether ideas, the arts, sports and entertainment, or social and political concerns. People should have Christian liberty when it came to attending movies and should be trusted to use good judgment when they did so. Students took the lead in promoting these perspectives, but some faculty supported them too.

There may have been a generational component to these blocs, with younger, more Americanized students and faculty more likely interested in cultural engagement and participating more in American culture, and older generations more likely to oppose such participation. But these blocs had (and continue to have) a long history among Reformed Christians.


At Calvin, differences over worldliness—in theory and practice–came to a head in 1936 and 1937. The issue was students going to movies and the faculty’s failure to police this behavior. Many students were violating the school’s ban on movie attendance.

The Regent Theatre, 1923, on Crescent NW. It closed in the 1960 and was demolished.
The Regent Theatre, 1923, on Crescent NW. It closed in the 1960s and was demolished.

Most students lived off campus and the college found it difficult to monitor their behavior. Some students came from homes (and perhaps congregations) that didn’t agree with the CRC’s prohibition of movie attendance. Some, whose families (and congregations) agreed with the CRC position theory, nonetheless enjoyed going to movies and did.

How did students get caught? And what did the college do?

Mostly students did not get caught. Local Christian Reformed members occasionally saw students going into theatres and reported them. The college’s discipline committee investigated these cases but could do little when students denied the charges. Those who confessed typically got off with a warning, if they promised not to do it again.

Aside from having faculty surveil theatre entrances nightly, there was no way to track first-time or repeat offenders effectively. A lot of students broke the rules, and some offenders came from prominent CRC families. Succeeding in catching all of these students, and suspending or expelling repeat offenders, might have been embarrassing, given the numbers.

“Our attempts to enforce the rule of the Board prohibiting theater and movie attendance, dancing, and card playing have met with the usual difficulties,” reported an exasperated R. B. Kuiper in 1932: “The rule is very unpopular with a majority of our students, and, unless one should institute a detective bureau, is impossible of fool-proof enforcement.”

R. B. Kuiper
Ralph Stob

Kuiper’s successor as college president, Ralph Stob, shared this frustration but was more determined to stamp out such misbehavior. He also opposed some faculty’s careful engagement with modern ideas, notably Harry Jellema, a popular philosophy professor.

Feeling besieged, Jellema left Calvin for Indiana University in 1936. Stob refused to allow students to organize a farewell event for him. (Jellema returned to Calvin and the philosophy department in 1948.)

In 1936 and 1937 Stob and the Board of Trustees told the faculty to get tough in enforcing the movie policy. They should do less moral counselling of students who attended movies and instead impose discipline.

In one case in 1936-1937, the discipline committee chastised a group of thirteen first- and second-year women students with a warning and an announcement of their policy violation in chapel; but their parents were not notified. A couple were daughters of faculty, and some were from prominent CRC families. In another case that year, the committee revoked the financial aid of a repeat offender and suspended her for two weeks. The Board’s executive committee recommended she also be banned from taking part in a Glee Club tour, which the committee did. (She graduated in 1937.)

Three-fifths of the student body condemned the lone student’s punishment in a petition, citing the unfair treatment of her compared to the thirteen. A unanimous student council supported the petition and further protested that the discipline committee and Board had not consulted with it, as college policy required. The faculty rejected the petition to change its judgment, perhaps feeling pressure from the Board.

A note in Chimes in 1937, the Calvin College student newspaper. It complains elliptically about various decisions by the discipline committee, seeming to refer to the student whose scholarship was taken away and who was removed from the choir.

The outcomes in these cases did not satisfy the Board. It remained vexed with faculty for not effectively enforcing the ban on movie going and concerned that some faculty disagreed with the CRC ‘s stance on movies. During its meetings in June 1937, the Board took up the problem. About the faculty, it said:

The faculty should have long ago come to a united stand to oppose these and other forms of worldliness with serious determination and antithesis, without which our church and school and God’s kingdom cannot continue to exist in this world. . .  [If the faculty had been united, an] atmosphere would have been created in which such an attitude of worldliness as is reported, could not live. But the creation of such an atmosphere requires a united front and deep conviction on the part of the whole faculty.

The Board’s spiritual warfare and fortress sensibility in its vision of the college and its role in the church is striking. “The place and task which our College has in the circle of our churches calls for such a positive, vigorous, united stand,” the Board urged. “Our school is a church school and it is the ‘West Point’ of our denomination, the training camp for those who are to be our leaders.” The minutes from the June Board meeting state that faculty should “emphasize the ideal in season and out of season . . . with firm discipline against the ‘more open infractions of the rule,’” resolutely expelling students when necessary.

Perhaps recognizing the practical problem of enforcement, and perhaps aware that fully enforcing the rule would require extreme measures and embarrassingly reveal the scope of the problem, the Board allowed: “Now, that does not call for secret police duty.” Faculty should focus their attention on student “leaders” who defied the college’s rules. The problem was not just movies or even card playing and dancing, the Board noted, but also forms of worldliness not explicitly condemned by Synod in 1928, notably “drinking, visiting roadhouses, etc.”

Finally, the Board expected all faculty to emphasize the rules and the spiritual idea behind them “to the end that our Calvinistic, ethical standards may be maintained.” It was tired of student behavior and faculty reluctance, but also presumably of students and faculty who argued the legitimacy of attending movies and participating in American culture.


Stob, the Board of Trustees, and critics of the college in the CRC seem to have blamed the faculty for not effectively enforcing the movie ban out of frustration. They perhaps did not know what to do with the simple fact that significant numbers of students (and presumably other CRC members) disagreed with the denomination’s ban on movie going and ignored it.

The gap between the CRC’s prohibition of movie going and the behavior of its youth and adult members would only grow in the postwar years, with television adding to the problem. My anything-but-rebellious parents (my father then a Calvin student) would go to their first movie in 1965: The Sound of Music.

In 1966 this trend would lead the CRC to change its stance on movies. It would affirm Christian freedom for CRC folk to enjoy movies, calling them to do so with discernment, and ask Calvin College to develop course on film and television. Calvin students not only could attend movies, including on campus, but were encouraged to work in the film and television industry and promote Christian influence in it.


William Katerberg is a professor of history and curator of Heritage Hall at Calvin University.

The cover photo of this blogpost is Keith’s Theatre on Lyon Street in Grand Rapids. It opened in 1915 as a vaudeville theatre and later converted to motion picture. It closed in the 1960s and was demolished.

This blogpost uses and in some places paraphrases and quotes unpublished research on the history of Calvin College by Michael Hamilton.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *