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Ought Cities to Make Sunday-law? A Sermon Preached in Grace Church, New York, September 29th 1895.

By William Reed Huntington

New York: Sabbath Committee, 1895.

In view of the grave importance of the Sunday Question as it now confronts us, and of the wide diversity of views on some of the issues involved in it, the NEW YORK SABBATH COMMITTEE requested the Rev. Wm. R. Huntington, D.D., to discuss the subject from his pulpit, assured that whatever he might present would receive careful attention. It is with great pleasure that the Committee publishes the discourse preached in compliance with its request, and commends it to the thoughtful perusal of all who are concerned for the best interests of our City and State.


Remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set. Prov. xxii: 28.

That this mandate has its limitations is no reason for our refusing to give heed to it. Doubtless there do come times when ancient landmarks have to be removed, former precedents reversed, established usage set at nought, outworn law repealed; but the wise and prudent are slow about affirming in any given instance, that the moment for change has come.

The man with the sponge must make out his case beyond a peradventure, or stay his hand. The man with the hammer may be right, but let him show that he is right before he strikes. To preserve ancient landmarks is far easier than to restore them when once wiped out or battered down, and those to whom a threatened fabric is dear can save themselves much future trouble by a little present vigilance.

[4] There exists among us a venerable social institute known as the Weekly-Rest. The Hebrew name for it was Sabbath, the generally accepted modern name is Sunday. The essence of the observance consists in the setting apart in the name of God of one-seventh portion of time, as time is reckoned by days, for absolute immunity from toil. Whether this protected portion of time shall be identified with the first or the last day of the week, is a subordinate question. The discovery of the sphericity of the earth has made all wrangling about that point absurd. Whether the time thus partitioned off and sheltered shall be devoted to outward acts of religious worship, and what is commonly called "going to church,” is another subordinate question, important, I grant you, immensely important, but still subordinate. As to the comparative merits of different methods of keeping Sunday, so long as men refrain from toil, I make no contention. The pith of the observance lies in the segregation of a seventh day, not of day number seven. The great fact I am asking you to observe is the existence of the institute of the Weekly-Rest as such, the Sunday. Here it is, a most noteworthy feature of modern life, an actual present possession, a thing in hand; on what principle, by what methods ought we, as reasonable men, to deal with it? Is such a business notice as the following, for instance, a good way of dealing with it? " Until further notice these works will run from seven A.M. till nine P.M. every day, including Sunday. Refusal to comply with this request will be ground for immediate discharge." [Vouched for by the state inspector of factories In Illinois. See THE SUNDAY PROBLEM, p, 154. The Baker and Taylor Company. 1894.] I have said thus much with a view to helping, if I may, to clear the issue which just now is confronting the people of .New York. That the issue has become very badly obscured there can be no manner of doubt. Some are under the impression, naturally enough, but most erroneously, that it is the so-called "temperance question" with which we are called to deal. Others are persuaded that the principle at stake is the all important one of the supremacy of law, the duty of the sworn officers of [5/6]  the State to enforce the State's decree. But this latter question, has for the moment, at any rate, thank God, been set at rest. We are no longer pestered by the vicious proposition that laws are enacted rather with a view to silencing the murmurs of the good, than for the purpose of restraining the passions of the bad. We now know, what, a few months ago, we did not feel so sure of, that municipal law, when there is a will behind it, can be made-almost as effective as the sure, swift law of nature.

Equally evident is it, when we look facts in the face, that it is not the temperance question which is now at stake, for no one can pretend that even the complete suppression of the sale of intoxicants, if confined to a single day of the week, could settle that. Temperance legislation if it would be properly so called, must aim at covering all days.

No, the question really at the fore is the Sunday Question. An attack is making upon the immunities of the Weekly-Rest, as those immunities have been defined by usage and by public law. It so happens that in this particular case the hostile movement has sprung up in [6/7] the quarter known as "the liquor interest," and that is what is confusing people's minds; but there are other points of the compass from which the assault might just as naturally have come. The simple truth of the matter is that Sunday is all the while in the position of a beleaguered fortress. Now on this side, now on that the batteries flash. Both of the twin giants of selfishness, the gaunt one who swears by money and the bloated one who swears by pleasure, are confederate against those sacred walls, and the names of their followers is Legion. "Many there be," cry the besieged, "that fight against us, O Thou most Highest," yet there are those who undismayed keep on saying quietly to themselves, "God is in the midst of her, therefore shall she not be removed, God shall help her and that right early."

The points which I propose making are these:

1. Sunday observance is no mere specialty of the Hebrew code, no mere survival of a discredited puritanism, but is, on the contrary, an essential and permanent feature of the morality called Christian.

2. The people of the State of New York are living under the Christian morality as contrasted with and distinguished from all other moralities whatsoever, Mohammedan, [7/8] Confucian, Buddhist, Roman, Greek or Intuitive.

3. Because these things are so, legislation which infringes or even impinges upon the Weekly-Rest should emanate only from the body with which sovereignty is lodged, and never become subject to a purely municipal control, or what is popularly known as "local option."

These points I ask you to aid me in elucidating. They stake out the area we seek to cover.

(1) Sunday, the Weekly-Rest, is, I have suggested, one feature of the general scheme of conduct known as Christian morality. What is Christian morality? asks some one, startled at hearing it so much as suggested that there may conceivably be more moralities than one. What is Christian morality, and whence came it?

Christian morality is a scheme or plan of social life, which in its fulness, as we know it, dates from the days when the New Testament was taking shape, but which in reality had an origin far earlier than that. For clear and careful definitions of what Christian morality is we turn to such utterances as the Sermon on the Mount, the Parables of Jesus Christ, the Twelfth or sociological chapter as we may call it, of the Epistle to the Romans, [8/9] the Thirteenth or charity chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, and to the ethical passages of St. James, St. Peter and St. John. These teachings gradually gave form and color to the lives of the men and women to whose ears they came, until there grew to be recognized in that old Roman World a distinct type of character, the Christian.

But if we insist, as we ought to insist, upon going more deeply still into the question of origins, we find that "Christian morality" is after all, only a graft upon a still more ancient stock, and that in order to discover the actual roots we must dig down into the soil of Hebrew history. From the prophets and law-givers of the Old Testament came the elements of that scheme of human life which is propounded in the New. Nay, we may insist on going further still, until, below the surface soil of Hebraism, we strike the sub-soil of a primitive tradition contemporary with Assyria and Egypt. The essence of this ancient tradition we find embodied in the Ten Commandments, which were evidently, a republication rather than a first announcement of the basic [9/10] principles of morals, since the offences against which they are directed seem to have called only for mention and not for definition. Murder, theft and adultery are prohibited simply by name. Moses takes it for granted that the people for whom he is legislating know what these words mean. The central and distinguishing feature of this high tradition as to how men ought to live, was the doctrine of one only and true God, whose will as to the doings of His creatures was to be obeyed because His will. This doctrine was relieved of all appearance of arbitrariness by the emphasis laid upon the Law-giver's respect for His own law. The gods of the peoples who lived outside of this tradition, were represented as having one standard for themselves and another for men. They did as they pleased, but were swift to punish such of their worshippers as were not punctual with their gifts of wine and oil and blood. But the God of truth had no such double standard ; He imposed a law of holiness, because holiness was of His own essence, He commanded men to work righteousness because He Himself was righteous.

[11] If now we take our map of the world and mark with some distinguishing token the countries where, at the present day, power is lodged, we shall find that the countries we have marked are the countries which as a matter of historical fact have accepted, in greater or less completeness, that sacred tradition which, beginning "before Abraham was," culminated in the person, and found its perfect expression at the lips of Jesus Christ. Of this, which we may call in general the accepted morality of Europe and America, I affirm the protected Rest-day to be an essential part, as essential a part as the law of monogamy and the law of property and bound up with them in one common destiny. The fact that Jesus Christ rebuked the men who by their hair-splitting and pettifogging had turned the day from a blessing into a curse makes nothing in favor of our modern destructives. It is to Him we owe the very strongest assertion of the universality and permanence of the law of the Rest-day ever put forth. "The Sabbath was made," said He, "for man." Could anything possibly be broader or more comprehensive than that? Laws [11/12] written by the finger of God in the constitution of man may not lightly be effaced and if temporarily clouded over are bound to reassert themselves. You remind me that to the words, "the Sabbath was made for man," He added, "and not man for the Sabbath." So He did, and even so He might have done with respect to both of the other great social institutes of human life with which the Ten Words of Sinai deal. Had He been addressing a company of usurers, for instance, He might very naturally have said, as we can so easily imagine Him saying to the extortioners and sweaters and rack-renters of the present day, “Property was made for man and not man for property." Would such an utterance have proved Christ a communist, a believer in the abolition of all rights of ownership? No, it would have had precisely the contrasted purport, for it would have exhibited Him in the attitude of unmasking an abuse by the simple assertion of a use. Doubtless it was Christ's purpose, by both his teaching and his example to infuse into the Fourth Commandment a more spiritual meaning, to make it every way a larger, [12/13] richer, fuller blessing to man than it had ever been, but such, we are bound to remember, was his intention with respect to all the rest of the moral law. The Christian morality was, as I have said, grafted upon the stock of the Hebrew morality. Of course, the graft may be expected to bear the juicier and sweeter fruit, but to say that Christ annulled the Rest-day, and, while sanctioning the other nine tenths of the Decalogue, treated this one tenth as if it had never been, is to hazard an assertion incapable of proof.

(2) I pass to my next point, which is that the people of the State of New York are living under the Christian morality as contrasted with any and all other moralities known to history. In support of this proposition I am not intending to quote the law-books, although well aware that there, are some minds so constituted that they must remain unconvinced unless such a course is followed. I am content to rest my structure upon pillars which, though they may seem to the literalist and to the legalist merely pillars of cloud, will be found upon investigation as strong as steel.

[14] I maintain that our whole life as a community, our habits of speech, our standards of taste, our ordering of domestic life, our recognition of reciprocal duties as between man and wife, father and child, brother and brother, employer and employed, our distinctions between what is truthful and deceptive, decent and indecent, honorable and base; that the whole thing has, as respects the ideal entertained, the standard aimed at, a complexion clearly and beyond all peradventure Christian. I am content to abide the verdict of those who attach deepest importance to this kind of evidence. I give over as hopeless the case of those who will never be convinced that this Republic is a Christian land, until by act of Congress the Deity shall have been recognized in an amendment to the Constitution. Back of every written constitution that ever was, there has lain a vast region of accepted and unchallenged, and, for that very reason, unexpressed truth. "For our government itself," wrote the General Court of Massachusetts to the Long Parliament in 1646;—"For our government itself, it is framed according to our charter [14/15] and the fundamental and common laws of England, and conceived according to the same—taking the words of eternal truth and righteousness along with them as that rule by which all kingdoms and jurisdictions must render account of every act and administration in the last day." Perhaps what I have been calling the doctrine of an unwritten tradition of righteousness lying back of all the engrossed legislation of Christiandom, never found worthier or more eloquent expression than in that passage.

Yes, the Republic is a Christian nation. If any man doubts it, if any body is convinced that all moralities are equally tolerable in the United States of America under existing conditions, let him test his conviction by openly practicing another sort of morality than the Christian, and he will presently discover his error. A few years ago, a renegade from Christianity undertook in this city a propaganda of Mohammedanism, and at the hour of noon, for a few days running, the Moslem call to prayer was sounded from a pulpit in Union Square. That was all very well. Nobody was disturbed and the [15/16] traffic of the Square went on as usual. But had this missionary undertaken openly to set up in New York a Moslem standard of domestic purity, as that is understood in Constantinople, or a Moslem standard of justice as that is understood in Armenia, he would speedily have made the discovery that the standard of morals accepted in the State and City of New York, is the Christian standard and none other.

(3) This mention of the State and city of New York suggests our third point, for if it be true as I have been maintaining that this great social institute of the protected Rest-day is part of the moral law of Christendom, it follows that only sovereign power, such power I mean as regulates the tenure of property, the validity of contracts, the conditions of marriage and the penalty of death has any right to legislate about it. Much dust has been thrown in our eyes by talk about "Home Rule for Cities," a taking phrase, but one which under a system of government like ours is full of peril. Municipal ordinances, bearing upon the details of civic administration may properly enough be left to the municipalities themselves to make [16/17] and to execute, but only the people in their sovereign, that is to say, in their supreme capacity, can take in hand a great moral law, and say: Thus or thus it shall be modified. I am not denying that the application of Sunday law to great cities in contrast with small towns and villages, admits of a measure of variation; what I urge is that the right to adapt, the power to modify, lies where the sovereignty lies, and nowhere else. That right, that power, can be entrusted to no less a unit than that which, in our own case, we name The People of the State of New York. If "Home Rule for Cities" is to give us a Continental Sunday in New York, a Scotch Sunday in Brooklyn, and a Canadian Sunday in Rochester and Buffalo, why not, by parity of reasoning, one definition of larceny and murder in Utica, and another in Syracuse; one law of divorce for Albany and another for Ogdensburg?

Let us beware of allowing ourselves to be either cajoled or scared by the war cries of political partizanship when great moral principles are at stake. Just now it is the fashion to flout the opinion of the rural portion of the commonwealth [17/18] in questions, where the interests of cities are involved. But what reason is there for thinking that the dwellers in streets are ethically so much more highly cultured than the dwellers on farms? For my part I confess that I would rather entrust the destines of the city of New York to the yeomanry of the State of New York, than to leave it in the hands of, a constituency which is said to contain a compact body of fifty thousand men, who can be counted upon to vote as the brewers and distillers command. But this is neither here nor there. I have not been arguing the question upon a basis of political expediency; or with a view to electoral probabilities. To one who is trying to be a preacher of righteousness for righteousness' sake, it ought not matter whether the reason he urges make in favor of one party or another. Are they sound reasons or are they not? that is the main point, nay, it is the only point.

You wonder, perhaps, why I should have chosen the line of argument at all, and not, rather, the line of appeal. Might it not have been better to have drawn a picture of the ideal life open to American [18/19] communities, showing the Sunday nestled among the hard and sordid secularities of our work-a-day life like a trellised cottage, with its roses and honey-suckles revealing its quiet beauty amid the sheds and shops and slag-heaps of a mining camp? Yes, that might have been the more attractive way, and I should wish to be the last to cast contempt upon such a method of treatment by calling it sentimental. But believing, as I honestly do, that sentiment, true sentiment, can only survive and flourish after it has been first rooted and grounded in the homely soil of truth and fact, I have thought it best, on the whole, to seek to enlist reason and conscience on the side of Sunday, leaving emotion to adjust itself as it may. If this precious franchise be of God, man cannot annul it. If this protected circle was really scored by the finger of the Almighty, no temporary madness of the people can permanently efface it. Nevertheless, forewarned is forearmed, and for you and me, as citizens and men, the maxim holds, “Remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set."

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