Date of Degree


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Degree Name





Martin J. Burke

Committee Members

Donald Scott

Jonathan Sassi

Marc Dolan

Richard Koszarski

Subject Categories



This dissertation analyzes theological concepts in silent moving pictures made for commercial distribution from 1902 to 1927, and examines how directors and scenarists sorted through competing belief systems to select what they anticipated would be palatable theological references for their films.

A fundamental assumption of this study is that, the artistic and aesthetic pretensions of many silent-era filmmakers notwithstanding, directors generally made decisions in the conception, production and marketing of films primarily to maximize profits in a ruthlessly competitive environment. As such, directors needed to walk a fine line between alienating the lucrative working class and immigrant audiences that were so important to the profitability of the early film industry, while still broadening the appeal of film to a middle-class clientele.

As a mechanism for ordering society and guiding individual human conduct, the Christian churches in America by 1900 presented believers with a variety of different, even competing, theologies. While the American-Irish Catholic establishment struggled to maintain its authority in the face of Southern European immigration after 1880, American Protestants argued points of doctrine in divinity schools, from pulpits and in the popular press. From this Protestant debate--about questions such as divine transcendence and immanence, Biblical inerrancy, and the soteriological meaning of Jesus' life and death--emerged two broad strains of belief, which were nearly antithetical. Evangelical Protestants, claimants to Calvinist orthodoxy, sought a traditional salvation experience: conviction of sin and redemption, generally experienced in a revival setting. The emerging modernist wing of Protestantism, on the other hand, shifted its emphasis from ecstatic conversion to the so-called Social Gospel, by which adherents sought to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth.

It is my contention that incorporating religious references to the modernist theology adopted by some mainline denominations after the turn of the twentieth century allowed filmmakers to appeal to Progressive-minded Americas while still highlighting universal moral themes that would be acceptable across a broad range of audiences. The symbiosis between the desire of the mainline churches to promulgate a modernist theology and the power of mass media, along with the broad lay familiarity with theological notions, combined to create both a recognizable theological vernacular that directors could tap for scenario ideas, as well as a cultural milieu in which employing sacred themes dramatically and for profit would be not only acceptable, but even appealing to audiences of diverse Christian beliefs.

This dissertation examines the result of those choices in a variety of film genres: in historicized Bible stories and humanist portrayals of Jesus from 1902 to 1927; in melodramas that use the Social Gospel theologies of the Kingdom of God and the brotherhood of man as a framework for social problem films during the period from 1908 to 1921; in explorations of Christology (themes of atonement and redemption) in feature films from 1915 to 1922; and in recasting familiar notions of sin in comedies and dramas from 1914 to 1928.


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