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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
On Behavior at Church
By Sir Richard Steele (1672–1729)
 
From the Guardian

THERE is not anywhere, I believe, so much talk about religion, as among us in England; nor do I think it possible for the wit of man to devise forms of address to the Almighty in more ardent and forcible terms than are everywhere to be found in our Book of Common Prayer; and yet I have heard it read with such a negligence, affectation, and impatience, that the efficacy of it has been apparently lost to all the congregation. For my part, I make no scruple to own it, that I go sometimes to a particular place in the city, far distant from my own home, to hear a gentleman whose manner I admire, read the liturgy. I am persuaded devotion is the greatest pleasure of his soul, and there is none hears him read without the utmost reverence. I have seen the young people who have been interchanging glances of passion to each other’s person, checked into an attention to the service at the interruption which the authority of his voice has given them.  1
  But the other morning I happened to rise earlier than ordinary, and thought I could not pass my time better than to go upon the admonition of the morning bell, to the church prayers at six of the clock. I was there the first of any in the congregation, and had the opportunity (however I made use of it) to look back on all my life, and contemplate the blessing and advantage of such stated early hours for offering ourselves to our Creator, and prepossessing ourselves with the love of him, and the hopes we have from him, against the snares of business and pleasure in the ensuing day. But whether it be that people think fit to indulge their own ease in some secret, pleasing fault, or whatever it was, there was none at the confession but a set of poor scrubs of us, who could sin only in our wills, whose persons could be no temptation to one another, and might have, without interruption from anybody else, humble, lowly hearts, in frightful looks and dirty dresses, at our leisure.  2
  When we poor souls had presented ourselves with a contrition suitable to our worthlessness, some pretty young ladies in mobs popped in here and there about the church, clattering the pew door after them, and squatting into a whisper behind their fans. Among others, one of Lady Lizard’s daughters and her hopeful maid made their entrance: the young lady did not omit the ardent form behind the fan, while the maid immediately gaped round her to look for some other devout person, whom I saw at a distance, very well dressed; his air and habit a little military, but in the pertness, not the true possession of the martial character. This jackanapes was fixed at the end of a pew, with the utmost impudence declaring, by a fixed eye on that seat where our beauty was placed, the object of his devotion. This obscene sight gave me all the indignation imaginable, and I could attend to nothing but the reflection that the greatest affronts imaginable are such as no one can take notice of.  3
  Before I was out of such vexatious inadvertencies to the business of the place, there was a great deal of good company now come in. There was a good number of very jaunty slatterns, who gave us to understand that it is neither dress nor art to which they were beholden for the town’s admiration. Besides these, there were also by this time arrived two or three sets of whisperers, who carry on most of their calumnies by what they entertain one another with in that place; and we were now altogether very good company. There were indeed a few in whose looks there appeared a heavenly joy and gladness upon the entrance of a new day, as if they had gone to sleep with expectation of it. For the sake of these it is worth while that the Church keeps up such early matins throughout the cities of London and Westminster; but the generality of those who observe that hour perform it with so tasteless a behavior that it appears a task rather than a voluntary act. But of all the world, those familiar ducks who are, as it were, at home at the church, and by frequently meeting there throw the time of prayer very negligently into their common life, and make their coming together in that place as ordinary as any other action, and do not turn their conversation upon any improvements suitable to the true design of that house, but on trifles below even their worldly concerns and characters. These are little groups of acquaintance dispersed in all parts of the town, who are forsooth the only people of unspotted characters, and throw all the spots that stick on those of other people.  4
  Malice is the ordinary vice of those who live in the mode of religion, without the spirit of it. The pleasurable world are hurried by their passions above the consideration of what others think of them, into a pursuit of irregular enjoyment; while these who forbear the gratifications of flesh and blood, without having won over the spirit to the interests of virtue, are implacable in defamations on the errors of such who offend without respect to fame. But the consideration of persons whom one cannot but take notice of when one sees them in that place, has drawn me out of my intended talk, which was to bewail that people do not know the pleasure of early hours, and of dedicating the first moments of the day, with joy and singleness of heart, to their Creator. Experience should convince us that the earlier we left our beds the seldomer should we be confined to them.  5
  One great good which would also accrue from this, were it become a fashion, would be, that it is possible our chief divines would condescend to pray themselves, or at least those whom they substitute would be better supplied than to be forced to appear at those oraisons in a garb and attire which makes them appear mortified with worldly want, and not abstracted from the world by the contempt of it. How is it possible for a gentleman, under the income of fifty pounds a year, to be attentive to sublime things? He must rise and dress like a laborer for sordid hire, instead of approaching his place of service with the utmost pleasure and satisfaction that now he is going to be mouth of a crowd of people who have laid aside all the distinctions of this contemptible being, to beseech a protection under its manifold pains and disadvantages, or a release from it by His favor who sent them into it. He would, with decent superiority, look upon himself as orator before the Throne of Grace, for a crowd who hang upon his words while he asks for them all that is necessary in a transitory life; from the assurance that a good behavior, for a few moments in it, will purchase endless joy and happy immortality.  6
  But who can place himself in this view who, though not pinched with want, is distracted with care from the fear of it? No: a man in the least degree below the spirit of a saint or a martyr will loll, huddle over his duty, look confused, or assume a resolution in his behavior which will be quite as ungraceful, except he is supported above the necessities of life.  7
  “Power and commandment to his minister to declare and pronounce to his people” is mentioned with a very unguarded air, when the speaker is known in his own private condition to be almost an object of their pity and charity. This last circumstance, with many others here loosely suggested, are the occasion that one knows not how to recommend, to such as have not already a fixed sense of devotion, the pleasure of passing the earliest hours of the day in a public congregation. But were this morning solemnity as much in vogue even as it is now at more advanced hours of the day, it would necessarily have so good an effect upon us as to make us more disengaged and cheerful in conversation, and less artful and insincere in business. The world would be quite another place than it is now, the rest of the day; and every face would have an alacrity in it which can be borrowed from no other reflections but those which give us the assured protection of Omnipotence.  8
 
 
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