The Sabbath Question Illustrated, by a Roadside Enquirer
In reading this book I was struck by the melancholy reflection that evangelical Christianity has tended to have a bad reputation in England but a better one in the United States. There are a great many reasons for this, mostly relating to history and the fact that many of England’s most devoted evangelicals left for the United States and that the connection between serious Christianity and republican political ideals was one that did not go over well in a constitutional monarchy. Be that as it may, this book is an intriguing example of how an evangelical writer (apparently a deaf woman, but one who remains formally anonymous here at least) was able to write an intriguing book about the practices of the Sabbath and how one can better honor God. The author paints the Sabbath and the rest that comes with it as a boon to the ordinary person who is oppressed by heavy labor and exploited by those who seek leisure for themselves as a leisure class but not the widespread rest that is commanded by scripture. The book carries some severe political implications that I do not generally mind personally but that others might not enjoy seeing very much.
This book is a decent-sized one at about 200 pages or so, and it consists of a series of more or less imaginary dialogues between a figure named Philander (expressing the author’s love for the common people) and various people who do not keep the Sabbath properly but who are at least interested in having intellectual commentary about it. The author begins with a discussion of the reason for its existence (1) and some scriptural suggestions about the Sabbath and its biblical importance (2). After that the main conceit of the book begins with the traveler meeting someone who is at least friendly to the idea of talking about the Sabbath and taking what the Bible says about it seriously (3), and engaging in conversation at the fireside of a yeoman (4). There are a couple of pedestrian gleanings that the author humbly submits to the reader (5, 10), as well as some discussions about the relationship between technology and the Sabbath (6, 7) relating to railroads and canals, an imaginary conversation among boatmen (8), a debate of Sabbath observance with someone who appears to be offended that the common people would prefer rest to earning more money (9), and some discussions of new forms of evil that take people away from obedience to God (11) before the author concludes.
The most telling aspect of this book for me personally is the way that the author manages to talk a lot about the importance of Sabbath observance and rest in general for the well-being of ordinary people without coming to grips with the precise nature of the Sabbath command to rest on the seventh day. Most authors will at least try to explain away the variance between the Sabbath as it is commanded in scripture and the Sabbath as it is conceived by Hellenistic Christianity. They will make the false claim that the early church changed the Sabbath to the first day (not recognizing that this amounts to the sign that Christianity had departed from apostolic practice and divine approval), or something to that effect. This book, though, ignores the entire issue, making it seem as if practicing the Sabbath as God commands it in all aspects but the day on which one keeps it would be pleasing to God. While the author’s approach is likely to make Sabbath obedience seem less burdensome to those who do not want to change too many of their practices, it does not quite work from a biblical perspective. This is a shame, as there is otherwise much to commend about this work and its desire to encourage the well-being of ordinary Brits.