The Gospel According to Walt

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

I proudly admit that I grew up as a "Disney Kid," meaning that some of my earliest impressions and values were influenced by movies and television shows produced by Walt Disney. At the time, it never consciously occurred to me that those productions were firmly based on the same values I was learning in Sunday school each week.

It was not surprising because Walt Disney was a strongly religious man who truly believed that good would triumph over evil and that it was important to accept and help everyone even if they were very different from yourself.

Walt Disney's own name owes its existence to religion and the church. He was named after Reverend Walter Parr. Parr preached at the St. Paul Congregational Church in Chicago that the Disney family attended at the turn of the century.

When St. Paul's needed a larger church, Elias who was earning his living as a carpenter volunteered to build a new church for the congregation and he put up a plain, serviceable structure with a tall, sloping roof.

Walt's father, Elias, was close friends with Parr and would occasionally step into the church pulpit to deliver the weekly sermon when Parr was out of town or indisposed. Elias's wife, Flora, would play the organ for the Sunday services. Parr baptized the young Walt Disney in the church on June 8, 1902.

Elias Disney has been portrayed as stern and straight-laced man although there is evidence that he was also a sociable, caring man who sometimes demonstrated a sense of fun with his fiddle playing on Sunday afternoons. However, one of the things that Elias took very seriously was religion.

He didn't believe that adults should indulge in alcohol or tobacco and disapproved of things he believed were frivolous including candy for children and some books. He lectured his sons that if they were determined to read before falling asleep that instead of wasting their time on the popular books of the day, they should have their noses in a Bible. Each day in the Disney household began with a prayer session around the breakfast table.

This strong religious upbringing had a definite effect on the young Walt but not what his father would have suspected. As an adult, Walt did not attend church.

"He was a very religious man," said his daughter Sharon, "but he did not believe you had to go to church to be religious.... He respected every religion. There wasn't any that he ever criticized. He wouldn't even tell religious jokes." (For those who still persist in the urban myth that Walt was anti-Semitic, they never consider that at one time Sharon dated a young Jewish man and neither of her parents offered any objections.)

In January 1943, Walt wrote a letter to his sister Ruth about his daughter Diane who was then about 10 years old: "Little Diane is going to a Catholic school now, which she seems to enjoy very much. She is quite taken with the rituals and is studying catechism. She hasn't quite made up her mind yet whether she wants to be a Catholic or Protestant. I think she is intelligent enough to know what she wants to do, and I feel that whatever her decision may be is her privilege. I have explained to her that Catholics are people just like us and basically there is no difference. In giving her this broad view I believe it will tend to create a spirit of tolerance within her."

In Building a Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire, Disney biographer Bob Thomas wrote that, throughout his career, Walt "had eschewed any film material dealing with religion, reasoning that portions of the audience would be displeased by the depiction of a particular sect."

Walt's daughter Diane Disney Miller told one minister that there are no churches on Main Street at Disneyland (even though there were plans for one in the original concept drawings and the then-Governor of California mentioned to a nationwide television audience on Disneyland's dedication day that there was a church on Main Street) because her father did not want to favor any particular denomination.

The Reverend Glenn Puder, Walt's nephew-in-law, delivered the invocation at Disneyland's grand opening on July 17, 1955. He stood alongside representatives of the major American religions at that time: Catholic, Jewish and Protestant.

In addition, in 1955, writer Samuel Duff McCoy contacted several celebrities including Lillian Gish, Herbert Hoover, Conrad Hilton, Burl Ives, Harry Truman and Walt Disney to write about in what manner prayer had benefited them. He included those responses in his book How Prayer Helps Me (1955, Dial Press).

Walt wrote a three paragraph essay entitled "My Faith":

I have a strong personal belief and reliance on the power of prayer for divine inspiration.

Every person has his own ideas of the act of praying for God's guidance, tolerance and mercy to fulfill his duties and responsibilities. My own concept of prayer is not as a plea for special favors or as a quick palliation for wrongs knowingly committed. A prayer, it seems to me, implies a promise as well as a request.

All prayer, by the humble or the highly placed has one thing in common, as I see it: a supplication for strength and inspiration to carry on the best human impulses which should bind us all together for a better world. Without such inspiration, we would rapidly deteriorate and finally perish.

Walt's brother, Roy, was so moved by these words that he had the studio print shop print a version entitled "Prayer in My Life" to give to selected visitors to the Disney Studio. It was apparently also reprinted as an insert for a 1978 record anthology entitled "Magical Music of Walt Disney."

In 1963, religious writer Roland Gammon contacted 55 Americans including J. Edgar Hoover, Steve Allen, Billy Graham, Eleanor Roosevelt, Roy Rogers, Bud Collyer and of course, Walt Disney. He asked each of them the same question: "What is your faith and what part has it played in your life achievement?"

Gammon spent three years gathering the responses and included them in his book entitled Faith is a Star (New York E. P. Dutton and Company).

You'll notice that Walt includes almost word for word what he had written for the previous book but greatly expands on the importance of his faith, mentioning his "study of the Scripture" and "my lifelong habit of prayer."

Deeds Rather Than Words

By Walt Disney

In these days of world tensions, when the faith of men is being tested as never before, I am personally thankful that my parents taught me at a very early age to have a strong personal belief and reliance in the power of prayer for Divine inspiration. My people were members of the Congregational Church in our home town of Marceline, Missouri. It was there where I was first taught the efficacy of religion ... how it helps us immeasurably to meet the trial and stress of life and keeps us attuned to the Divine inspiration. Later in DeMolay, I learned to believe in the basic principle of the right of man to exercise his faith and thoughts as he chooses. In DeMolay, we believe in a supreme being, in the fellowship of man, and the sanctity of the home. DeMolay stands for all that is good for the family and for our country.

Every person has his own ideas of the act of praying for God's guidance, tolerance, and mercy to fulfill his duties and responsibilities. My own concept of prayer is not as a plea for special favors nor as a quick palliation for wrongs knowingly committed. A prayer, it seems to me, implies a promise as well as a request; at the highest level, prayer not only is a supplication for strength and guidance, but also becomes an affirmation of life and thus a reverent praise of God.

Deeds rather than words express my concept of the part religion should play in everyday life. I have watched constantly that in our movie work the highest moral and spiritual standards are upheld, whether it deals with fable or with stories of living action. This religious concern for the form and content of our films goes back 40 years to the rugged financial period in Kansas City when I was struggling to establish a film company and produce animated fairy tales. Many times during those difficult years, even as we turned out Alice in Cartoonland and later in Hollywood the first Mickey Mouse, we were under pressure to sell out or debase the subject matter or go "commercial" in one way or another. But we stuck it out—my brother Roy and other loyal associates—until the success of Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies finally put us in the black. Similarly, when war came to the United States in 1941, we turned from profitable popular movie-making to military production for Uncle Sam. Ninety-four per cent of the Disney facilities in Hollywood became engaged in special government work, while the remainder was devoted to the creation of morale building comedy, short subjects.

Both my study of Scripture and my career in entertaining children have taught me to cherish them. But I don't believe in playing down to children, either in life or in motion pictures. I didn't treat my own youngsters like fragile flowers, and I think no parent should.

Children are people, and they should have to reach to learn about things, to understand things, just as adults have to reach if they want to grow in mental stature. Life is composed of lights and shadows, and we would be untruthful, insincere, and saccharine if we tried to pretend there were no shadows. Most things are good, and they are the strongest things; but there are evil things too, and you are not doing a child a favor by trying to shield him from reality. The important thing is to teach a child that good can always triumph over evil, and that is what our pictures attempt to do.

The American child is a highly intelligent human being—characteristically sensitive, humorous, open-minded, eager to learn, and has a strong sense of excitement, energy, and healthy curiosity about the world in which he lives. Lucky indeed is the grown-up who manages to carry these same characteristics into adult life. It usually makes for a happy and successful individual. In our full-length cartoon features, as well as in our live action productions, we have tried to convey in story and song those virtues that make both children and adults attractive. I have long felt that the way to keep children out of trouble is to keep them interested in things. Lecturing to children is no answer to delinquency. Preaching won't keep youngsters out of trouble, but keeping their minds occupied will.

Thus, whatever success I have had in bringing clean, informative entertainment to people of all ages, I attribute in great part to my Congregational upbringing and my lifelong habit of prayer. To me, today, at age sixty-one, all prayer, by the humble or highly placed, has one thing in common: supplication for strength and inspiration to carry on the best human impulses which should bind us together for a better world. Without such inspiration, we would rapidly deteriorate and finally perish. But in our troubled time, the right of men to think and worship as their conscience dictates is being sorely pressed. We can retain these privileges only by being constantly on guard and fighting off any encroachment on these precepts. To retreat from any of the principles handed down by our forefathers, who shed their blood for the ideals we still embrace, would be a complete victory for those who would destroy liberty and justice for the individual.

There are two books entitled "The Gospel According to Disney" that explores some of the religious values in Disney culture.

The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust and Pixie Dust by Mark Pinsky released in 2004 really doesn't directly address the religious aspects of Disney but has more general observations on the impact of Disney culture and the concepts of good triumphing over evil and believing in yourself.

The Gospel According to Disney: Christian Values in the Early Animated Classics by Phillip Longfellow Anderson released in 1999 is a compilation of twenty sermons by the Reverend Anderson where he chose problems and decisions faced by Disney characters such as Pinocchio and related them to the everyday difficulties we all run into during our lives. Clarence Nash, the voice of Donald Duck, was in the audience for Reverend Anderson's sermon on Donald Duck and animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston often attended Anderson's Sunday services and wrote an introduction to this book.