Adolescents: Not Just a Modern Concern

Several months ago, Kristin Franke posted here about the long and rocky relationship between sports and church folks. She directly addressed the myth that “today, in 2015, sports are a new challenge for the Christian church,” showing that in fact people have found the playing field more enticing than the Lord’s house for a very long time.

This particular myth aligns neatly with another common myth: the idea that adolescence is a recent social construct brought about by the Industrial Revolution, extended education, and other cultural shifts.

“Look abroad into the world: consider the generality of our youth in this age, what they are, what manner of lives they lead, how vain, lewd, and debauched the most are in their conversation; how rare it is to find one amongst many that is solid, sober, and religious, that makes real conscience of avoiding all know sin, and of performing holy duties, or of exercising himself to godliness, as becomes his Christian profession. Nay, do not many of them walk, and act, and talk more like atheists, or infidels, than Christians…” (Samuel Peck, 1686)

Youth-plus-sports trouble shows up in many historical documents, including sermons, parenting manuals, conduct books, and educational materials, often in reaction to a specific crisis. One such crisis happened in 1618 when the King of England made a declaration about what sports could lawfully be played on the Sabbath, after the worship service. (One suspects that said King might have had a personal stake in his own edict, perhaps a Sunday playoff joust he didn’t want to miss.) Many youth, however, took things too far and began skipping church entirely in order to swim, play football, and dance.

In one preacher’s view, “So manifold mischiefs have attended and followed, as never any age since Christ. ” Youth had never been more debauched and culture had never been more depraved. The sky was falling fast and furiously, an ongoing phenomenon in which each particular generation is worse than the last. “A new generation of maleferiati hath risen up, out-daring and defying the whole world and God himself.”1 Thus does cultural mischief drag down an entire society through its sinful shenanigans.

“Youth is prone to Sabbath breaking; a day which usually young people meet together upon, to walk abroad in the fields, and take their pleasure, and run into all excess of riot, chambering, acting their filthy lusts, drinking healths, playing at cards, dancing, swearing, and sometimes quarrelling, fighting, thieving, robbing of orchards and gardens, and thus inverting the day which God hath sanctified, and appropriated to his own honor and service, and the saving of souls, to the service of the Devil, and damning their own souls.” (Samuel Pomfret, 1693)

If the first reaction to adolescent misbehavior happens to be lament and despair, consequential warnings and fear tactics usually aren’t far behind. In some cases, the “logical consequences” of one’s bad behavior took on epic proportions in order to eradicate poor decision-making by the youthful hooligans. That might be why a popular 17th century broadsheet – the People plus Enquirer of its time – took great pains to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt just how abominable Sunday-sporting youth were. Divine Examples of God’s Severe Judgments Upon Sabbath-Breakers in Their Unlawful Sports2 delivered this grim news: skip church to play sports and prepare to die. Fact.

These stories were presented as evidence:

-A young maid from Enfield danced so much on Sunday that she died on Tuesday.
-A lusty young wench from Westchester planned to attend a Sunday-ale but fell into a ditch on Saturday and died.
-A youth from Bow went swimming on the Sabbath and drowned.
-Fourteen youth skipped church to play football on the frozen River Trent and drowned. All of them.


That last tragedy is illustrated with a vivid woodcut of the young men falling through the ice to their doom as they helplessly watch the football arc through the air.

The broadsheet recounts 44 such events, many featuring youth in particular, others featuring adults behaving like youth. All the episodes turn out badly – that is to say, everyone dies – which just goes to show how stupid it is to go sporting on Sunday.

Foolish sporting was just one worry among many that adults had about adolescents in previous centuries. There was also sex, drinking, gambling, rebellion, vanity, laziness, cursing, staying out late, and keeping bad company – the standard fare, even still today.

In terms of religion, the greatest fear of clergy was the possibility that youth would drift away from the faith little by little, rejecting their parents’ beliefs without ever embracing them as their own. In fact, they feared unsticky faith, which could result from any number of things: ineffective preaching, non-age-appropriate catechisms, the rise of atheism, and the natural tendencies (read: sins) of adolescence.

“Young people are subject to fleshly lusts, especially uncleanness. This concerns persons past childhood, and therefore I direct it to young men. You are not ignorant that your appetites are unruly, and your inclinations too lascivious…How few possess their vessel in honor, or arrive at Manhood without a forfeiture of chastity!” (Daniel Williams, 1691)

Preachers often made a clear distinction between various age groups, for example between the “younger lambs” and the more “grown youth.” They produced plenty of diatribes lambasting adolescents, but also plenty of encouraging and helpful principles for clergy such as:

Preach a robust faith, not a timid and shy one, because youth will be ashamed of such a religion.

Because adolescents place high value on brave and adventurous behavior, focus on God’s love, goodness, blessing, and promise of new life rather than fear of the Lord, a strategy that will backfire.

Don’t merely teach them a set of phrases but rather help them understand the true grounds of religion.

Even hundreds of years ago, long before the Industrial Revolution and the advent of American high schools, preachers understood that adolescents (those aged 14 though 21 or 25, according to dictionaries going back as far as the 1500s) were at a unique stage of development that required equally unique interactions and responses from their spiritual mentors.

Though we are ministering centuries later, in a tech-driven culture that would be unrecognizable to the preachers and parishes of the 1600s, we are ministering to adolescents whose identity development and faith formation must go through the same processes as adolescents of long ago. And just like those preachers and parishes of old, the church today has two clear choices when it comes to our interaction with adolescents:

That stuff about falling dead in punishment for sporting on Sunday? Nonsense. Twice over.

But that stuff about making careful preparation and giving focused attention to the developing faith of youth? Yes and amen. Over and over and over again.



1. Henry Burton, A Divine Tragedy Lately Acted, or A Collection of Sundry Memorable Examples of God’s Judgments Upon Sabbath-breakers, and Other Like Libertines, in Their Unlawful Sports (1636).
2. NA (1671).


Crystal Kirgiss (PhD) serves as adjunct faculty at Purdue University where she teaches English and researches the history of adolescence. For 25 years, she has worked with students in church, parachurch, educational, and community settings. She is the author of many books for adults and students, most recently In Search of Adolescence: A New Look At an Old Idea, which presents a broad historical survey of youth throughout the centuries. She regularly speaks to youth workers, parents, students, and congregations on a variety of topics. She lives in Indiana with her husband Mark, a veteran youth worker.

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1 reply
  1. Jay Phillippi says:

    Your conclusion runs against the grain of my own reading in the area. What the historic examples are discussing are almost certainly not “adolescents”. The concept of youth was very different as little as 150 years ago. The activities described seem, in my reading, to be the actions of college age and what we would today call “twenty-somethings”. Since the arrival of the European on this shore people of that age were referred to as “youth”, even “large boys” (in the case of the males, lol). By definition, these age groups might qualify as late adolescents but I think using the term in conjunction with the examples used is misleading. If you’re not familiar with the book (it is out of print) I highly recommend “Rites of Passage – Adolescence in America 1790- the Present” by Joseph F. Kett. I see hardback copies on sale at Amazon for 39 cents!

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