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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

A Suggestion to Sabbath-keepers (S505: 1894)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An essay published in the Nineteenth Century issue of October 1894. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S505.htm

    [[p. 604]] Almost all the Christian Churches of Great Britain have adopted the Sabbath of the Jewish lawgiver as a divine institution, only changing the day from Saturday to Sunday, though many of the Nonconformists retain the Jewish term Sabbath. Many, perhaps most, religious persons hold that to work on Sunday is an actual sin, comparable in gravity with most other acts forbidden in the Ten Commandments; and the strong condemnation of Sabbath-breaking in religious tracts and Sunday-school teaching is a sufficient proof of the importance attached to a due observance of the day.

    An impartial onlooker is, however, somewhat puzzled by the circumstance that, notwithstanding this general uniformity of precept, the practice, even of the teachers, is exceedingly lax; since there is hardly a Christian family in the whole country, not excluding those of the clergy of the various denominations, where the Sabbath is not broken fifty-two times in every year. Now the fourth commandment, as read every Sunday in our churches, is either binding on Christians or it is not. In the latter case breaking it is no sin, and any observance of a seventh day of rest is merely a matter of expediency or of human law. It is, however, nearly certain that the majority of Protestant clergy do not accept this latter view; and I therefore propose to discuss the question--how Sunday may be most consistently and beneficially observed by those who believe it to be a divine institution? and my argument will apply equally to those who maintain that we are only bound by the spirit of the commandment, not by the letter, still less by the special interpretation of it adopted by the Jews.

    Let us then first inquire what is the spirit and purport of the law; and in this there can be little difficulty, because it is more fully explained than any other of the commandments, so that its full meaning and purpose cannot possibly be misunderstood. This command is not given briefly, as so many others are; not merely 'thou shalt not work on the Sabbath,' as in 'thou shalt not kill,' or 'thou shalt not steal'; but with full and impressive reiteration and detail. First, we are told, 'Six days shalt thou labour and do all thy work'; then, on the Sabbath, 'thou shalt not do any work'; and then, to show how wide and complete is the law, there is added, 'thou, nor thy [[p. 605]] son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor the stranger that is within thy gates.' If ever there were plain words with a plain meaning these are such. They mean, as clearly as words can convey meaning, that each one's work during the week, that work which is the duty of our lives, and by which we maintain ourselves, is to cease on the Sabbath; and that the law is especially to apply to all servants of every kind, and to all beasts of burthen, which are included under the generic term 'cattle.'

    This being the commandment, how is it obeyed by those who uphold the sanctity of the law; by those who are continually urging others to keep the Sabbath; by those who take every opportunity of putting in force human laws against Sabbath-breakers? Are not manservants and maidservants all at work on Sunday? Are not servants and horses employed by the thousand to take people to church on Sunday? Many persons, if asked why they go to church or chapel, will say that it is to save their souls or to please God, and yet they seem to think that they may break what they believe is God's own commandment week after week, without any chance of displeasing Him or of losing the souls they are so anxious to save.

    What makes the matter worse is that, while they are thus disobeying the scriptural commandment in the most flagrant manner, they are salving their consciences by abstaining, and trying to force others to abstain, from things which are not forbidden by the commandment, and which are not in any way opposed to its spirit. To walk for health or pleasure, to row in a boat, to play at cricket, or at chess, to whistle, or sing, to read amusing books, to look at great pictures in art galleries, or to admire the beauties and wonders of nature in museums or gardens--all these things have been, and many of them are still, considered by the more strictly religious to be 'breaking the Sabbath,' and are denounced as such in many a tract and sermon. And the good people who hold these views seem quite unconscious that they themselves are far greater sinners than the people they denounce as 'Sabbath-breakers'; for to direct Sabbath-breaking they add the sin of pharisaism, inasmuch as they condemn in others what is, at the worst, a far less offence than their own, and are guilty of impious presumption in venturing to add to and improve upon the divine commandment, while constantly and knowingly disobeying the commandment itself. Do not the words of Christ exactly apply to such, when He rebuked the Pharisees from the mouth of Esaias?--'But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.'

    And when we inquire the reason for this strange and inconsistent conduct, we find only a series of excuses. They say, that the requirements of health and decency render a certain amount of work necessary on Sunday; that we keep a Christian and not a Jewish Sabbath; that we reduce the work of our labourers as much as possible; and [[p. 606]] that we only recognise works of necessity and of mercy as permissible on the holy day. It is true that Christ justified deeds of charity and of mercy to both man and beast on the Sabbath, but He nowhere abrogates the law of rest for each labourer, whether man or beast, from his six days' work. To tend the sick and to supply the wants of the animals which serve us in various ways is not to break the Sabbath; but all these things and much more may be done without infringing even the letter of the Commandment, if we choose to seek out the right way of doing them. Christ clearly emphasised the spirit of the law when He declared that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; by which we are taught that the essential principle of rest on the seventh day for all who have laboured during six days is what we must seek to preserve. How we may preserve this, and yet have everything done that is necessary for health, comfort, and refreshment of mind and body, I now propose to show.

    The whole essence of the Sabbath-question rests upon giving the proper meaning to the words 'labour,' 'work,' 'thy work,' as used in the fourth commandment. These words, as the context shows, do not refer to any particular acts, but to the work done by each one of us in the business or profession by which we live. To the summer tourist in the Alps the ascent of a mountain or the passage of a glacier is pleasure and health-giving recreation; to the guides who accompany him it is their work. A hired gardener works for his living in a garden; but though I do many of the same things as he does, to me they are not my work, but my recreation. So, a domestic servant's work is to cook or to prepare a meal, or to wait at table; but when a party go out for a picnic, light a fire, make tea, roast potatoes, arrange the meal, and help the guests, they are certainly not working but pleasuring. When a doctor attends the sick in a hospital, or the wounded on a battlefield, he is doing the work of his life; but if any one of us nurses a sick person or binds up a wound, we may be doing acts of mercy or of charity, but we are not doing 'our work.' Even if we take upon ourselves some of the work of others, carry a heavy load for a weary woman, or do an hour's stone-breaking to help an old rheumatic labourer, what we do ceases to be work in the true meaning of the term, but is transformed into a deed of love or mercy; and such deeds are not only permissible, but even commendable, on whatever day they are done.

    We have here the clue to a method by which all that needs doing for health, for enjoyment, or for charity, may be done on Sunday without anyone breaking the fourth commandment. Almost all this necessary work is now done by various classes of hired servants who, as a rule, are fully employed for six days every week, and who also have not much less to do on the seventh day. To keep the Sabbath, both in the letter and the spirit, these workers must be allowed full and complete rest; they must do none of their special [[p. 607]] work on that day. All that portion of their weekly duties which is necessary for the well-being of their employers, and for the rational enjoyment of their lives, must be done by those other members of the household who have spent the week largely in idleness or in pleasure, or if in work, in work of a quite different character from that of their servants. In doing this work; in helping each other; in sharing among themselves the various household occupations which during all the week have been undertaken by others; and in doing all this in order that those others may enjoy the full and unbroken rest which their six days' continuous labour requires and deserves, each member of the family will be doing deeds of self-sacrifice and of charity (in however small a degree), and such deeds do not constitute the 'work' which is so strictly forbidden on the Sabbath-day.

    In the ordinary middle-class household, where there are six or eight in family and two or three servants, all that is necessary may be easily done, and allow every member of the family to go to church or chapel once or oftener. In other cases there will, no doubt, be difficulties, but none which may not be overcome by a little arrangement and mutual helpfulness. Where a household consists only of aged or elderly people to whom the needful operations of housework would be painful or even impossible, there are always younger relatives or friends, or even acquaintances, who could, either regularly or occasionally, spend the Sunday with such old people; and there is probably not a single difficulty of this kind which could not be overcome by two or more households combining for the Sunday in such a way as to divide the work and thus render it as little irksome as possible. If it were once really felt that the thing must be done, that on no account must the commandment be broken by servants doing any of their usual work on Sunday, and that the truest and most divine 'service' would thus be 'performed,' all difficulties would vanish, and the day would become, not in name only but truly, a holy one, inasmuch as it would witness in every household deeds of true charity and mercy, because in every case they would involve some amount of personal effort and self-sacrifice.

    In the larger establishments of the higher classes there would be no greater difficulty, since it would be easy to effect such a division of labour as to render the work light for each. The son or other relative who was fondest of horses and dogs would of course see after their wants on Sunday; another might undertake the fire-lighting; while the young ladies would prepare the meals and do all other really necessary domestic work. And as all visitors would be acquisitions, almost the whole of the lodging- and boarding-houses would be emptied, their occupants becoming guests at the houses of their friends and taking their share of the Sabbath-day's duties. Of course the greater part of the servants thus released from their regular [[p. 608]] work would also visit their friends, and by giving some little voluntary assistance would take their part in the great altruistic movement that would characterise the day.

    Among the more important of these deeds of mercy would be the relief of the nurses in hospitals and asylums, and of the attendants in workhouses and prisons. When the great principle of rest for each individual from the weary monotony of his or her weekly work was once thoroughly accepted, volunteers by thousands would be found to take part in every duty of the kind; and it would probably not be necessary for anyone to undertake the more repulsive duties more frequently than once a month, or perhaps three or four times a year. This would of course imply some general instruction of the young in the principles and practice of nursing, which is much to be desired on other grounds.

    In the same way all the national treasures of art and nature in our galleries and museums, our libraries and gardens, might be thrown open to the great body of toilers who can enjoy them at no other time, the place of the week-day guardians of these treasures being taken by volunteers from among the more leisured classes, or from the higher ranks of workmen. Thus would be remedied the great injustice that these grand institutions, for the support of which all alike pay, are yet closed at the only time when those who contribute most toward them would be able to benefit by them. Of course the police would also be relieved by a body of special constables who would volunteer for the service. This occupation might be restricted to the Volunteer force, whose recognisable uniform and military organisation would render them admirably fitted for the purpose. Further details on this part of the subject are unnecessary, since it is evident that by an extension of the same principle it would be possible to relieve everyone whose week-day labour is now extended over some portion of Sunday also.

    And now, having briefly set forth the arguments and suggestions which seem to me needful for illustrating my views as to the consistent observance of the day of rest by all who look upon it as a divine institution, I will state with equal brevity the good effects which such an observance of it would produce. The substance of the present article has been in my mind for the last twenty years, and I have now made it public because many circumstances seem to render it less likely to give offence and also more likely to do good than at an earlier period, on account of the ever-growing strength of the great altruistic movement, with the principles of which it so well harmonises. For this latter part of the nineteenth century will be characterised in history by the awakening of the cultured classes to the terrible failure of our civilisation to provide even the barest necessaries and decencies of life for thousands and tens of thousands [[p. 609]] of those by means of whose work they live in luxury; and also by their strenuous effort no longer to rely on mere almsgiving, but to devote themselves to a sympathetic study of the condition and needs of the poorest among the workers, and to helping them with personal advice and assistance. Toynbee Hall and Dr. Barnardo's homes, missions innumerable and General Booth's slum-lasses, serve to indicate a few of the many ways in which this great movement is now making itself felt.

    And it has begun none too soon if society is to be saved from a great catastrophe. Fifty years ago Thomas Hood caused a spasmodic excitement among the well-to-do by the pictures of hopeless misery he set before them in his Song of the Shirt and Bridge of Sighs. Nearly half a century passed away; England's wealth had increased to an unprecedented extent, when society was again startled by the Bitter Cry of Outcast London, showing that the utter and hopeless misery of the earlier period was still with us, but increased and multiplied in quantity, just as the great city which produced it had increased and multiplied in size and riches. Then came official inquiries, and the 'Commissions' on the Housing of the Poor, and on the Sweating System, revealed horrors so terrible that it is simply impossible for men and women to live in a lower condition of want and misery and continue to exist. And during all this period there has been an ever-increasing growth of charitable institutions, trying in vain to cope with the ever-renewed crop of human misery; yet, notwithstanding all this effort, during last winter the only difference of opinion seems to have been whether the distress was worse than ever or only as great as it had been for years past. How bad it still is may be inferred from the constant records in the daily press of suicide from hopeless misery, and death from want of food, fire, and clothing.

    On the other hand, a change is now taking place in the attitude of the sufferers. They are no longer like the dumb beasts which perish uncomplainingly. They ask for work in order to live, and will no longer silently submit to be driven back to their cellars and slums by the police. They march by thousands into the churches, and listen to the platitudes of the preacher with murmurs of dissent. Many of them are now educated, and are quite as well able as their social superiors to reason on their condition. They begin to ask why it is that multitudes are enabled to live their whole lives idly and in luxury, while they themselves cannot obtain the poor privilege of constant work in order to provide the scantiest necessaries for their families. They now possess an amount of political power sufficient to overturn governments which do not satisfy them, and year by year they are becoming more able to make effectual use of that power; and it becomes ever more evident that, unless some real and great improvement in their condition is soon effected, very drastic, and perhaps dangerous, attempts at reform will be made.

    [[p. 610]] To those who watch the growing enlightenment of the workers, it is clear that they will not much longer be satisfied with mere administrative reforms, or with petty palliatives which in no way touch the real causes of their unhappy condition. They have learnt enough of political economy to know that the whole of the wealth annually consumed by the nation is the annual product of the labour of the working classes; and that, just in proportion to the number of the non-producers and to the extent that labour is expended on the useless luxuries of pleasure, pomp, and fashion, to that extent are they deprived of the product of their labour and have to live in comparative penury. They begin to see clearly that hereditary wealth of all kinds, and especially the possession of land, enabling millions to live luxurious and idle lives, is the fundamental cause of the poverty of the workers, and the time will soon come when they will determine that this state of things must cease. They do not wish to rob anyone of what he has been allowed by law and custom to consider his own, but they will not consent to the indefinite continuance of hereditary idlers any more than of hereditary legislators. They will probably say, as they will be perfectly justified in saying, 'We recognise no rights in any portion of the next generation to live upon the labour of others. No child born after the passing of this Act shall inherit land, nor any greater amount of wealth than is necessary for a thorough education and such an endowment as to give him a fair start in life.'

    Such radical opinions as these are common among the workers, but they are also spreading beyond them, owing to the efforts of many talented and energetic thinkers, who expound analogous views with eloquence in the lecture hall, and with argumentative power and literary skill in numerous books and periodicals. The effect of this teaching is manifested in the growing opinion among the more thoughtful even of the wealthy and leisured classes, that a life spent in ease and idleness and the pursuit of pleasure is not the admirable and desirable thing it was once thought to be. The vices and frivolity, the extravagance and the barrenness of modern society are now felt, and are being fully exposed by its own members; and one of the latest of these prophets, Mrs. Lyttleton Gell, ably urges, in a former number of this Review, 'that definite work of some sort should be the law, not merely the accessory of every girl's life,' and that it should be the means of bringing about more union between the classes, and a real friendship between the highest and the lowest.

    Now, I venture to think that nothing would tend more to bring about these desirable results than a method of observing Sunday in some way resembling that here advocated, while the beneficial effect on all concerned would be very great. The upper classes would learn, many of them for the first time, how great and how fatiguing [[p. 611]] is the labour daily expended in securing them the unvarying comfort and æsthetic enjoyment of their surroundings, and how often they cause unnecessary work by their thoughtlessness or extravagance. The need they would have, at first, of learning the duties of the particular department they were going to undertake, would bring them into friendly and intimate relations with their servants; and, in seeing how much care was often required to secure the comfort of the family, they might begin to appreciate that 'dignity of labour' which is so often preached to the poor but so seldom practised by the rich. To many this 'Sunday service' in their own families, or in that of some of their friends, would be the introduction to some serious occupation for their week-day lives, and thus inaugurate the great reform which the more thoughtful leaders of society see to be of imperative necessity.

    On the whole body of the workers the effect would be great indeed, since it would at once bring about better relations with the wealthy classes, and especially with those who teach or profess religion. They would see, what they had hitherto doubted or denied, that the religion of the upper classes had some real influence on their lives, by leading them, not merely to give away a portion of their surplus wealth in charity, or to take part in the public proceedings of charitable institutions, but really to sacrifice something which they have hitherto considered necessary to their comfort, in order to obey the laws of that religion. They would further see, everywhere, men and women of culture voluntarily undertaking various public and private duties, in order to allow all kinds of workers to enjoy repose and recreation on one day in seven; and this great object-lesson in brotherhood and sympathy would lead to a general good feeling between all classes. The harmonious relations which would be thus produced may be of inestimable value when the time comes for those radical reforms in our social organisation which are more and more clearly seen to be inevitable in the not distant future.

    It is, perhaps, too much to expect that the 'counsel of perfection' here set forth for the consideration of the religious world by an outsider will have much effect on conduct. But even if it should influence a few here and there to alter their mode of life on the day they hold to be divinely instituted as a period of complete rest for all servants and beasts of burden, and if it should render others less severe in their judgment of those they term 'Sabbath-breakers,' but who often less deserve that name than do their accusers--and if it thus helps, in however small a degree, to lower the barriers which now divide class from class, and to remove one of the causes which lead many of the workers to look upon the religion of the rich as little better than hypocrisy, the object with which it is written will have been fulfilled.

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