Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Press vs. preacher: A scandalous Christmas dance

Mallory's Opera Hall, built during 1872 at the northwest corner of the Chariton square, was the site of the December, 1874, Christmas dance.

It seems innocent enough now, some 140 years later --- but that Christmas night dance at Mallory's Hall back in 1874 raised a fuss in Chariton and the blood pressures of a few citizens.

Here's how our old friend Dan M. Baker, then at the editorial helm of The Leader and most likely enjoying every minute of this tempest in a tea pot, described the party in his edition of Saturday, Jan. 2, 1875:

The Christmas dance in Mallory's Hall was one of the most pleasant evening's entertainment we have had the privilege of attending for a long while. There were about forty couples of the young folks present. The music by Reed's band was delightful, and the order and decorum of those present in pleasing harmony with the music. Tom Ewing discharged the duties of floor manager in a graceful manner, that materially added to the social feature of the evening."

The dance, in fact, seems to have been about the only thing Dan had enjoyed about the holiday that year, noting elsewhere that "Christmas was an unusually dull and quiet day in Chariton. With the exception of troops of happy little boys and girls in search of candies, nuts, and toys, and an occasional stray man from the country, moving along the streets as though anxious to get out of town, the city was duller than if a snow storm had wrapped it in its fleecy folds."

Although he endured it, Dan did not like dull. Nor did he care for Iowa winters, which was why he eventually ended up in California.

Fortunately for Dan, the Rev. Henry Harris Oneal, then pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church,  caught wind of the dance and roundly denounced it in a sermon delivered to the faithful at the new brick church just north of the square on the Sunday following, Dec. 27.

At that time, as unusual as it seems today, orthodox Methodists still were scandalized by such worldy pusuits as dancing, theatrical entertainments, card-playing and the consumption of demon rum.

Sadly, we do not have the text of the Rev. Mr. Oneal's sermon to refer to.

But Dan, in turn, caught wind of it and was off and writing --- a Page 1 editorial, also published on Jan. 2, roundly denouncing the views of the preacher. It was headlined, "Pulpit Anathemas."

"Our special reporters, who sometimes accidentally stray into a church out of religious curiosity, inform us that ... brother Oneal, of the Methodist church, commented pretty sarcastically Sunday upon the Christmas dance in Mallory's hall, and denounced it in a first-class Orthodox manner."

"Very good," he declared. "We certainly admire any man in the pulpit who gives expression to his own views upon any and all subjects, and think that there is a proper place to discuss subjects of public interest. But there are two sides to these questions."

By this time, Brother Dan was standing firmly in his bully editorial pulpit and let loose on the unfortunate Brother Oneal:

"Brother Oneal still clings to the old dogma that dancing is sinful, and especially so upon Christmas day. If that day is to be regarded as a day of mourning, then probably excessive festivities upon that occasion in any shape would be inappropriate. There there's a time for all things --- so says an eminent gentleman of ancient times.

"Now, will our friend please rise and explain why the innocent, healthy and agreeable pastime of dancing is so sinful on that day, while the older and more sedate portion of civilization take their amusements in the share of rich viands and choice luxuries in the victual line until they have transformed themselves into first-class gluttons?

"The abuse of a thing may be sinful and excess in anything to an individual's injury is wrong; so the misuse of nature's gifts may be wrong, but a love for social pleasure upon the part of anyone, whether that pleasure is manifested in the parlor or in the ball room, is not wrong nor sinful, and violates no law of nature or common sense; nor does it conflict with any law, human or divine.

"But, says the shrewd critic of dancing, 'It often leads to great  harm!' Does it? And will our critic please tell us what will not lead to harm, if abused. Too much of good food will do harm and promote serious earthly ills. Edged tools, in the hands of improper persons, may do someone an injury. Fire arms, carelessly handled, may do the same thing. Poison, administered by quacks, may exert a baleful influence. Over work may prostrate both the mental and physical man. Too much rest may produce want and encourage disease. Though all these things may be very good in themselves, and a great benefit to mankind, yet a little abuse or misuse soon renders them a source of evil.

"The excitement and confusion of a ball room is less objectional and less ridiclous than the excitement of a camp meeting, while its sinful consequences will invariably fall far short of the average camp meeting results.

"In point of morality and decorum, a well conducted ball room generally furnishes a lesson by which a great many ardent church members could profit, with credit to themselves and honor to their children. In this connection we would suggest to the ministerial profession of the city, that they attend one of the Chariton balls and see the sinful folly of it for themselves --- probably they might know more about it."


Dan obviously enjoyed himself while writing that and all was quiet in his next edition, suggesting that the Rev. Mr. Oneal rose above the criticism rather than responding to it.

It's helpful to know that Dan was what, in those days, would have been called a free-thinker. He did not attend church. To have described him as "agnostic" would have been overly optimistic.

But he was not anti-religion in the sense that he wanted to discourage his neighbors from practicing their faith. He did, however, distrust organized religion, orthodoxy and some preachers.

Later on in California, where he eventually settled and picked up his editorial pen again, he did battle for the rights of Catholics, then under attack from the Protestant establishment.

But he reportedly found greater joy when a pious Protestant preacher denounced him from a pulpit as "the wickedest man in Santa Ana."

In later life, Dan mellowed and began a long and amiable, but informal, affiliation with his wife's denomination, the Unitarians, of whom it was frequently said, "they believe in one God --- at the most." A Unitarian luminary, the Rev. Eliza Tupper Wilkes, who had founded a Unitarian congregation in Santa Ana the year before, officiated at his 1902 funeral.

The Rev. Mr. Oneal lived long and prospered in the fields of Iowa Methodism. He was reassigned to a Des Moines parish during October of 1875 after leading the Chariton flock for some three years and after serving many other congregations died at age 81 during 1921 in his vacation cottage at Bay View, Michigan. He and his wife, Lamira, are buried at Glenwood in southwest Iowa.

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