The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Sunday Question.

by Mary Stewart.
Volume 13, 1902, pg. 121-127

"But the minds of men are apt to run in the same grooves, whether they live in the east or the west, whether they belong to an early century or a late one; therefore it is that again and yet again the freed spirit has been confined within narrow limits, not because of the law, but because of a misconception of its meaning."

The articles in the Parents' Review for November and December, on "Children on Sundays," deal with an important subject, and one which demands thoughtful consideration from all who are concerned in the training of children.

Mr. Bird's plea for making Sunday a happy day for children is one that we are all probably ready to grant; the practical question is, how to do so, without detracting from the sacred character of the day.

Mr. Bird is right to emphasize the fact that the Jews kept the seventh day as one of recreation as well as of rest, for it is curious how many people still fail to realize that the burdens and restrictions which for so long characterized the strict British Sunday, are an inheritance from our Puritan ancestors, and have nothing in common with the ideal Jewish Sabbath.

No doubt Rabbinical law laid certain ceremonial burdens on the observance of the Holy day, but the Israelitish Sabbath never wore the sad and sombre hues which were for so long considered its orthodox livery in this country. All through the Old Testament there are frequent references to the importance of keeping the Sabbath, and every Jewish Reformer had occasion to reprove his people for some neglect or abuse of it, but none of them undertook to add anything new to the simple rule, "Thou shalt keep holy the Sabbath Day"; unless we except the familiar passage in Isaiah, where, however, the prophet may be said to be merely enlarging on the same theme--"If thou turn away thy foot from the Sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on My holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour Him, not doing thine own ways nor finding thine own pleasure" (not, "thou shalt find no pleasure in anything thou shalt do," which is the ordinary rendering of the text,) "nor speaking thine own words, then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and will feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy Father, for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it."

This is a passage worth quoting, not only because it implies that the keeping of the commandment brings a distinct and specified reward, but because it places before us a very high standard, which even the teaching of the New Testament does not surpass. We find that when, in this particular, the conduct of the Son of Man (who is Lord also of the Sabbath) was criticized and challenged by his co-religionists, he referred them on each occasion to the Law of Moses, appealing from the narrow standpoint of tradition and ritual to the wider, grander ideal of which they seemed to have lost sight. On one point indeed He laid, by word and deed, special and significant stress (to which we shall refer later), but this again was nothing more than the logical result, when truly understood, of the principle that underlay the ancient commandment.

That the teaching and practice of Christ should have roused the opposition and indignation of the leaders of the Jewish people, is no proof that He preached a new doctrine subversive of the old; their opposition was what every reformer must expect to meet in the endeavour to break the bands of the letter of the law, and to free the spirit. But the minds of men are apt to run in the same grooves, whether they live in the east or the west, whether they belong to an early century or a late one; therefore it is that again and yet again the freed spirit has been confined within narrow limits, not because of the law, but because of a misconception of its meaning. It is this misconception which, in later days, gave strength to the uncompromising rigidity of extreme sabbatarianism; men thought by laying heavy burdens on their consciences, by banishing light-heartedness and cheerfulness, however innocent, they were doing God service. We have probably all known truly good and well-principled folk, who imagined that the more irksome and wearisome they made Sunday for themselves and others, the more secure they might feel that the day had been duly hallowed.

That this idea still holds ground is instanced by the following story, which those who are acquainted with one type of Scotch character will allow is hardly an exaggeration.

    A gentlemen one Sunday morning overtook his keeper's son on his road to Kirk.

    "Good morning, Kennie," said he cheerfully, but the lad gave him neither answer nor sign of recognition, and looking unusually dour and forbidding went on his way.

    Thinking some domestic misfortune must have occurred, the Laird stopped to enquire at the keeper's cottage on his way home.

    "Duncan," said he, "what is wrong with Kennie, when I spoke to him today he did not reply and looked as if he neither saw nor heard?"

    "'Deed, sir," said Duncan, drawing himself up in proud satisfaction, "he was meaning no offence, but to tell you the truth, sir, Kennie is that pious and morose and disagreeable on the Lord's Day, he's a pleasure to his mither and mysel'."

From this extreme there has been a natural reaction, and signs are not wanting that the pendulum will swing far in the opposite direction, for the modern tendency is to break down all the barriers that fence off Sunday from the work-a-day week. To connect the idea of religion with dulness and constraint, as was almost inevitable under the influence of a colourless and wearisome Sunday, is a desperate mistake, but to eliminate everything that marks the special observance of one day in seven, may yet prove an error still more fatal and far-reaching in its consequences. Of one thing, however, we may be sure, whatever form the modern spirit takes, it will for good or evil influence our children, and as we cannot shut them out from it, we must be prepared to meet it.

The first step is to have a definite standard for ourselves, for what we do, or allow to be done on a Sunday, matters much less than the principle on which we act.

The ordinance of the Sabbath is based, like most Bible rules, on a common-sense foundation, i.e., the necessity for periodical rest, mental and bodily, which is a law of our nature. But our nature is threefold; its wants are not physical and intellectual only, it has spiritual needs also, and the Divine rule supplies the one as well as the others. As the light of a lamp shines through the crystal globe that surrounds it, so this element of spirituality illumines the outward ordinance,--alter the shape of the globe as you will, provide you neither obscure the light nor endanger its safety.

The world is too much with us; we need to escape for a breathing space into purer air, to come into closer touch with the invisible, which is the eternal. To quote George Herbert's quaint poem on "Sunday":--

    "Man had straight forward gone
    To endless death, but thou dost pull
    And turn him round to look on One,
    Whom, if we were not very dull,
    We could not choose but look on still,
    Since there is no place so alone
    The which He doth not fill."

This is indeed the crux of the whole question. With this end in view, with this thought to guide our actions, we need not fear to transgress the spirit of the commandment.

Nor if we keep steadily in sight the ideal at which we aim, shall we fail to impress the same spirit on our children. They are, as we know, peculiarly sensitive to the moral atmosphere around them. Long before they can reason about the why and wherefore of our actions, they are influenced by the temper in which we act.

A child of my acquaintance used to declare that if she were to fall asleep in the middle of the week, and not wake till Sunday, she should know which morning it was by the "Sunday feel," which, fortunately for her, meant the combined peace and cheerfulness that pervaded her home on that day. Surely this is the right attitude. Peace should be the keynote of Sunday, with happiness for its dominant, and unselfishness to complete the harmony. Avoid domestic fault findings and nursery scoldings. Put aside, as with an effort they can be put aside, family worries and the harass of business. Let masters and servants, pupils as well as teachers, enjoy the feeling of repose, of leisure, something of the holiday which owes its origin to the Holy Day. No hard and fast rule of conduct can, of course, be laid down. The case varies with each separate household, practically with every individual member of it; but practice is more potent than precept, and if we wish our children to regard the sacred character of the day, we must not let its hours be frittered away in mere amusement. We have agreed, however, that the idea of rest includes that of recreation. What we chiefly need is a relaxation of the mental tension, which the cares and duties of a busy life entail; but for this we need not have recourse to inactivity.

When the muscles of a limb, too long kept in one position, become strained and cramped, what they require is not repose, but change of attitude. So, too, variation of the mental attitude is in itself a relief. "Absence of occupation is not rest," and enforced idleness is a kind of penal servitude to active natures. As to the choice of occupation, we must allow to ourselves and others liberty of action within reasonable limits; limits that are not likely to be overstepped by those who are guided by a common motive, and are striving for the same ideal. If then, inaction and idleness bring us the sensation of restraint rather than of repose, this is the case in a still greater degree with children, whose restless minds and bodies seek refreshment in the natural way, and when tired of one pursuit turn to another.

To insist upon children breaking off all their usual occupations and interests, and to compel them to fix their minds on one subject only, will have one of three results. Either they will bore themselves and dislike Sunday, or they will learn to loaf, a terrible habit which should be considered one of the seven deadly sins of childhood; or, if they have any spirit, they will seek mischief and pursue it. To be happy or good, children must be occupied in some fashion, and it must be a fashion within reach of their powers. With quite little ones the best toys, the favourite games, the prettiest books may be kept for Sunday, when their appearance is hailed as a treat. As they grow older and develop tastes, and take up hobbies which lesson hours do not leave much time to cultivate, Sunday may provide the coveted leisure. Personally I would allow the use of pen or pencil, brush or needle, with one proviso, that the work done should not be for personal gratification, but for the pleasure or profit of others.

When two notes are struck, the ear still demands the full chord. We claim peace and happiness as our own due, but unselfishness--consideration for others--must complete the harmony. And this brings us back to the point already referred to as the special feature of our Lord's teaching. On every occasion except one, when the conduct of His disciples was under discussion, the act that provoked adverse criticism was one of mercy and pity; to heal the sick and let the suffering go free. Yet even this seemed sacrilege to those over-zealous for the honour of the Sabbath, or, at the least, a dangerous innovation. "There are six days in which men ought to work," they said; "let them therefore come on them and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day." But their indignation, genuine though mistaken, found no answer to the simple question, "Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath day?" It was as we have said, no new departure: a reference to the ancient law proved that there was nothing here foreign to its spirit; but when men have narrowed down their outlook to a single point, any view that takes in a wider angle wears an unfamiliar aspect. And are we of this enlightened generation clearer-sighted than they? Do we, who profess to follow the teaching of Christ, carry this precept into practice? Is there not here an answer to some of the difficulties about the due observance of Sunday? For it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. The day has indeed been, by Divine authority, consecrated to the service of God; but the greater includes the less, and an essential part of the service we may offer to God is the duty we owe to our neighbour.

Charles Kingsley used to play cricket with his village lads on Sunday to keep them from drinking, gambling, or hanging about street corners. A kindly friend of mine opens his house, his library, and his garden to young city clerks on Sundays, that they may have a safe and pleasant place in which to spend their one day of leisure.

If we accept this principle, which is sanctioned in the Gospels, is not consideration and thought for others one of the Sunday lessons we should try to impress on our children, and is there any real objection to allowing them to turn their childish talents to account in this direction? Why should they not paint, draw or work, write letters or manufacture small gifts for children in hospitals or in their own village? There is no lack of schemes to encourage children to band together for some good purpose. The League of Kindness, the Sunbeam Society, the newly-established League of the Children of the Empire, all supply valuable opportunities of usefulness, which might be profitably cultivated on a Sunday. Children are quick to answer to any claim on their kindliness or sympathy. Their unspoilt natures instinctively respond to the appeal of lofty motives. Supply them, then, with high aims; teach them that the practical exercise of their religion demands love, self-forgetfulness, and active endeavour for the good of others, and we shall not find them in later life pursuing selfish ends, following their own ways, or seeking their own pleasure.

There remains another and equally important aspect of the Sunday question, viz., the religious teaching given to children and their participation in the services of the day, both of which must take a prominent part in any scheme for making Sunday an active influence for good in their lives. This is a weighty mater, for on the light in which it is presented to children their attitude towards the religious questions of their day will infallibly depend, but an adequate discussion of the subject would add unduly to the length of this article. Here, as elsewhere, common sense and sympathy with the limited powers of childhood, will be our best guide. Our object should be to prevent either church services or Bible lessons from sinking to the level of a dry duty or a mere task, and to make them rather part of the privileges and pleasures of a welcomed and happy Sunday.

Typed by happi, Aug 2019; Proofread by LNL, Apr 2020