Monday musings on Australian literature: Trove treasures (5), Church and novel reading

You’ll be getting sick of my time-is-short posts, but rest assured that this too shall pass – eventually! Meanwhile, here is another Trove Treasure post. It shares two different responses to reading from churches, in the first couple of decades of the 20th century.

What the churches thought

Reading novels IN church

Woman reading with cushion

On 27 August 1902, a brief story was carried in Sydney’s Evening News and the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal. Here is how it went:

A telegram from Nowra states that in the local Church of England on Sunday, some young men were discovered reading novels during the sermon. The preacher drew attention to the circumstances, and made some pungent criticism about the practice.

Neither of the articles gave any more information. What was the “pungent criticism”? Well, interestingly, two days later, on 29 August, the Evening News ran a sort of correction:

With reference to the telegram that the practice of novel-reading in a local church was commented upon by the incumbent, the latter explains that his remarks had no reference to any supposed practice in his church, of which he had no personal knowledge. He points out that he was simply saying, in the course of a sermon on evil speaking, that the modern novel would hardly be read if it did not deal largely with the evil in human nature.

This seems to me to be a limited understanding of “the modern novel”, but I’ll leave that for you to think about. My point here is that the story did not end here …

The following day, 30 August, The Shoalhaven News and South Coast Districts Advertiser, ran a letter to the editor from “The Correspondent” who had provided the correction that ran on 29 August. This “Correspondent” quotes the previous two news items and then goes on to say that, although the reverend Mr Newby-Fraser was speaking generally about novel-reading,

during the course of the sermon on Sunday last, novel-reading was being practised in the Nowra Church of England by certain young members of the congregation.

In fact, we are told, the names of those readers and “the titles of the novels they had spread before them” could be furnished “if necessary”. Further, those novel readers apparently felt the sermon was being directed at them because they “immediately put away the books”.

The letter then says that as the minister “had no idea that novel reading was indulged in at all by any members of his congregation, young or old … he had good reason for being indignant at having been accused of making a charge of the truth of which he had no knowledge whatsoever”. However, concludes our letter-writer:

‘Truth,’ they sometimes say, ‘is stranger than fiction.’ At all events there is an indissoluble relationship existing between ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’ in this matter of novel reading on Sunday.

You could be forgiven for thinking all this had been written on 1 April – but it seems to be true!

How to spend your Sunday

Melbourne’s The Age ran a brief article on 20 October 1922 headed “Sunday Games: Preferable to reading ‘sloppy’ novels”. It was reporting on the annual meeting of the Congregational Union in Adelaide at which the issue of Sunday games was discussed, the concern being the secularisation of Sunday. Indeed, reports the paper, “a motion of protest against the secularisation of Sunday and urging members to unite with the object of preventing the desecration of the Sabbath was carried.” However, during the discussion, the chairman, Rev. G.H. Wright said

that although he preferred to see a man playing cricket or tennis on a Sunday to staying at home reading sloppy novels and the Sunday paper, it was not the highest ideal. 

And who said Australia was a sporting nation!

Comments anyone?

30 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Trove treasures (5), Church and novel reading

  1. I grew up Catholic, which means right from birth, you have no choice. Your parents take you to church. What I wouldn’t have given for the opportunity to read through the sermon. I mean, my parents could make me be there, but they couldn’t make me engage! I’m sure they were trying to raise me to be a good person.

      • There are a lot of you I found, M-R, when I started work. I used to have a lot of conversations with Catholics, lapsed and otherwise, and I discovered, surprise surprise, that Catholics are just like us Protestants – that is, human beings, and not some weirdos from outer-space as we’d sort of been led to think in our childhood days (not so much by my parents but society at large!)

    • I’m sure they were Melanie. I was brought up that way too (but in a Protestant church). However, we never took our kids to church, but we did try to inculcate them with the right moral and ethical values. I think we have! I think Australia is more secular than the USA. Very few of my generation (at least in my circles) took our kids – your generation – to church.

      • I wonder how it would be different to raise a child with deliberate ethical conversations, even posing scenarios and working it out together to choose the right thing out of many right options.

  2. “the modern novel would hardly be read if it did not deal largely with the evil in human nature” seems to me a pretty good summation of various opinions about novels throughout our earlier times. The heat they generated !!!

    • Haha M-R, good point. What the lovely Reverend misses is why they deal with “the evil in human nature”, and the knowledge, understanding and, hopefully good values, readers get from reading. This fear that reading evil will beget evil dies hard.

  3. In Saint-Simon’s memoirs somewhere there is the story of those in the King’s chapel at some major feast who were edified by the behavior of the Duc d’Orleans, in particular his attention to what they took for his prayer book. They were then let down when he told everyone that it was Rabelais he had been reading.

    The National Football League in the US has always played most of its games on Sundays, and there has always been something of a nexus between football and religion here, more perhaps through college football (the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the Southern Methodist Mustangs, etc.) than professional, though an awful lot of NFL players seem to have religious affiliations. But I have no idea what constraints may have been put on other sports in the 1920s.

    • Love the fact that you have something to offer on both these stories George. The sport one doesn’t surprise me so much, given it’s more contemporary and I’m a little across some of what you say (there’s a qualification for you), but I do love the Rabelais story.

  4. In a secular nation, we tend to think of ‘the secular Sunday’ as a practice from the 19th century with a paterfamilias reading the Bible to his long suffering family, who were forbidden even to do their embroidery because of the prohibition on work.
    But I’ve been doing some editing of radio program guides from the 1930s at Trove when in Victoria we had just 3LO and 3AR who relayed to country stations. The entire content for Sundays was religious, conspicuously Christian of course with token acknowledgement of Catholicism. Talks, sermons, broadcasts of services, on and on, all day long.
    It must have been a huge relief when the subject of my research, the concert pianist and my teacher Valda Johnston, popped up in a segment of unspecified ‘instrumental music’. I’m guessing her program must have been pre-approved by They Who Had to Be Obeyed.

    • Oh good for you Lisa. (You mean conspicuously Protestant?) Good point. I do remember those times. I think Sunday TV tended to be that way, in the mornings at least. My MIL who was not particularly religious but who loved hymns would listen to that late Sunday morning church hymns program (Songs of Praise) if she could.

      When did Valda Johnston play on the radio? I found some references to concerts on the ABC featuring sometimes, involving other times, my pianist aunt, in 1950s Sydney.

      • Valda began playing on 3LO almost as soon as it began broadcasting, but so far I’ve only found records of broadcasts to confirm what she told me, from 1931 when she was 17. If you search Trove for the Maitland Daily Mercury (NSW : 1894 – 1939), Saturday 9 May 1931, page 3 which has the radio program for the next day i.e. Sunday, it says 2BL in Sydney was on relay to Newcastle, and she was playing with the Victorian Professional Orchestra.
        For her radio debut on 3LO at 15 i.e. in 1925, she was the soloist for Mendelssohn’s G Minor concerto. But she performed with the Strad Trio before that, I just haven’t found anything at Trove about it. (Her actual stage debut was at age 5 in Wellington NZ.)
        3LO began broadcasting in 1924 when she was 10, but I expect their records are scrappy and the newspapers maybe didn’t begin including radio programming as early as that.

        She was still playing for the ABC in the late 1960s and performing at the Myer Music Bowl.
        Last time I counted, her name showed up in a Trove search 793 times and I am working my way through them to fix the transcript. I have programs from student concerts at the Albert St and UniMelb Conservatoriums so I can often work out the names that are not clear.
        What was your aunt’s name?

        • Alison Terry … I’ve found her in Teove including with the Alison Terry Trio but she was born in 1930, and went overseas around 1957. I’m not sure why but when she returned she did clerical work for a few years before becoming a piano teacher at two Sydney private schools as well as an accompanist for Licentiate students. And in her last years church organist. I think she lost confidence in mafia performing. She went to the Sydney Con and studied Uber Alexander Sverjensky, who had been a pupil of Rachmaninov. I think Roger Woodward also learnt under Sver as Alison called him, but a decade later.

          Good on you for doing all that Trove editing. It’s clunky but good work to do.

        • One of the things I’d like to find out is what sort of money was paid for concerts and broadcast performances. One press clipping I found quoted Bernard Heinze talking about preparing his students for teaching because few could make a living from performance alone. He mentioned Pablo Casals as one who had teaching as a second string to his bow.

        • No, because I’ve got some concert programs that are undated and sometimes the concerts that get advertised have details of the program and then I can date them.

  5. Bloody Radio National still runs religious programmes two or three times a week, makes my blood boil.
    Like Melanie I went to church (Cof E) with my family every Sunday. It never occurred to me I might read a book – how lacking in initiative was I!
    Novels are about ‘evil’ I think. Who wants to read one about ‘good’ – and no, I never did watch or read Little House on the Prairie.

    • Oh, I think two or three times a week is OK, Bill. They are supposed to cater for a wide range of interests. It’s one thing to monopolise most of Sunday, but two or three sessions a week seems fair enough to me to cater for those who may not get much content otherwise, particularly those older people confined to their houses>

      Yes, my point exactly, most novels are about “evil” though I don’t mind reading about good sometimes too. I never read or watched LHotP either, but my daughter loved them.

      • If you leave RN on all day as I once used to, you’ll find the Religious department pervasive (hiding behind ‘ethics’ and ‘spirituality’), the one section that never gets cutbacks. And the sanctimonious tones of the presenters drives me up the wall.

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