Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
A New England Sunday
By Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887)
From ‘Norwood’

IT is worth all the inconveniences arising from the occasional over-action of New England Sabbath observance, to obtain the full flavor of a New England Sunday. But for this, one should have been born there; should have found Sunday already waiting for him, and accepted it with implicit and absolute conviction, as if it were a law of nature, in the same way that night and day, summer and winter, are parts of nature. He should have been brought up by parents who had done the same thing, as they were by parents even more strict, if that were possible; until not religious persons peculiarly, but everybody—not churches alone, but society itself, and all its population, those who broke it as much as those who kept it—were stained through with the color of Sunday. Nay, until Nature had adopted it, and laid its commands on all birds and beasts, on the sun and winds, and upon the whole atmosphere; so that without much imagination one might imagine, in a genuine New England Sunday of the Connecticut River Valley stamp, that God was still on that day resting from all the work which he had created and made, and that all his work rested with him!  1
  Over all the town rested the Lord’s peace! The saw was ripping away yesterday in the carpenter’s shop, and the hammer was noisy enough. To-day there is not a sign of life there. The anvil makes no music to-day. Tommy Taft’s buckets and barrels give forth no hollow, thumping sound. The mill is silent—only the brook continues noisy. Listen! In yonder pine woods what a cawing of crows! Like an echo, in a wood still more remote other crows are answering. But even a crow’s throat to-day is musical. Do they think, because they have black coats on, that they are parsons, and have a right to play pulpit with all the pine-trees? Nay. The birds will not have any such monopoly,—they are all singing, and singing all together, and no one cares whether his song rushes across another’s or not. Larks and robins, blackbirds and orioles, sparrows and bluebirds, mocking cat-birds and wrens, were furrowing the air with such mixtures as no other day but Sunday, when all artificial and human sounds cease, could ever hear. Every now and then a bobolink seemed impressed with the duty of bringing these jangling birds into more regularity; and like a country singing-master, he flew down the ranks, singing all the parts himself in snatches, as if to stimulate and help the laggards. In vain! Sunday is the birds’ day, and they will have their own democratic worship.  2
  There was no sound in the village street. Look either way—not a vehicle, not a human being. The smoke rose up soberly and quietly, as if it said—It is Sunday! The leaves on the great elms hung motionless, glittering in dew, as if they too, like the people who dwelt under their shadow, were waiting for the bell to ring for meeting. Bees sung and flew as usual; but honey-bees have a Sunday way with them all the week, and could scarcely change for the better on the seventh day.  3
  But oh, the Sun! It had sent before and cleared every stain out of the sky. The blue heaven was not dim and low, as on secular days, but curved and deep, as if on Sunday it shook off all incumbrance which during the week had lowered and flattened it, and sprang back to the arch and symmetry of a dome. All ordinary sounds caught the spirit of the day. The shutting of a door sounded twice as far as usual. The rattle of a bucket in a neighbor’s yard, no longer mixed with heterogeneous noises, seemed a new sound. The hens went silently about, and roosters crowed in psalm-tunes. And when the first bell rung, Nature seemed overjoyed to find something that it might do without breaking Sunday, and rolled the sound over and over, and pushed it through the air, and raced with it over field and hill, twice as far as on week-days. There were no less than seven steeples in sight from the belfry, and the sexton said:—“On still Sundays I’ve heard the bell, at one time and another, when the day was fair, and the air moving in the right way, from every one of them steeples, and I guess likely they’ve all heard our’n.”  4
  “Come, Rose!” said Agate Bissell, at an even earlier hour than when Rose usually awakened—“Come, Rose, it is the Sabbath. We must not be late Sunday morning, of all days in the week. It is the Lord’s day.”  5
  There was little preparation required for the day. Saturday night, in some parts of New England, was considered almost as sacred as Sunday itself. After sundown on Saturday night no play, and no work except such as is immediately preparatory to the Sabbath, were deemed becoming in good Christians. The clothes had been laid out the night before. Nothing was forgotten. The best frock was ready; the hose and shoes were waiting. Every article of linen, every ruffle and ribbon, were selected on Saturday night. Every one in the house walked mildly. Every one spoke in a low tone. Yet all were cheerful. The mother had on her kindest face, and nobody laughed, but everybody made it up in smiling. The nurse smiled, and the children held on to keep down a giggle within the lawful bounds of a smile; and the doctor looked rounder and calmer than ever; and the dog flapped his tail on the floor with a softened sound, as if he had fresh wrapped it in hair for that very day. Aunt Toodie, the cook (so the children had changed Mrs. Sarah Good’s name), was blacker than ever and shinier than ever, and the coffee better, and the cream richer, and the broiled chickens juicier and more tender, and the biscuit whiter, and the cornbread more brittle and sweet.  6
  When the good doctor read the Scriptures at family prayer, the infection of silence had subdued everything except the clock. Out of the wide hall could be heard in the stillness the old clock, that now lifted up its voice with unwonted emphasis, as if, unnoticed through the bustling week, Sunday was its vantage ground, to proclaim to mortals the swift flight of time. And if the old pedant performed the task with something of an ostentatious precision, it was because in that house nothing else put on official airs, and the clock felt the responsibility of doing it for the whole mansion.  7
  And now came mother and catechism; for Mrs. Wentworth followed the old custom, and declared that no child of hers should grow up without catechism. Secretly, the doctor was quite willing, though openly he played off upon the practice a world of good-natured discouragement, and declared that there should be an opposition set up—a catechism of Nature, with natural laws for decrees, and seasons for Providence, and flowers for graces! The younger children were taught in simple catechism. But Rose, having reached the mature age of twelve, was now manifesting her power over the Westminster Shorter Catechism; and as it was simply an achievement of memory and not of the understanding, she had the book at great advantage, and soon subdued every question and answer in it. As much as possible, the doctor was kept aloof on such occasions. His grave questions were not to edification, and often they caused Rose to stumble, and brought down sorely the exultation with which she rolled forth, “They that are effectually called do in this life partake of justification, adoption, sanctification, and the several benefits which in this life do either accompany or flow from them.”  8
  “What do those words mean, Rose?”  9
  “Which words, pa?”  10
  “Adoption, sanctification, and justification?”  11
  Rose hesitated, and looked at her mother for rescue.  12
  “Doctor, why do you trouble the child? Of course she don’t know yet all the meaning. But that will come to her when she grows older.”  13
  “You make a nest of her memory, then, and put words there, like eggs, for future hatching?”  14
  “Yes, that is it exactly: birds do not hatch their eggs the minute they lay them. They wait.”  15
  “Laying eggs at twelve to be hatched at twenty is subjecting them to some risk, is it not?”  16
  “It might be so with eggs, but not with the catechism. That will keep without spoiling a hundred years!”  17
  “Because it is so dry?”  18
  “Because it is so good. But do, dear husband, go away, and not put notions in the children’s heads. It’s hard enough already to get them through their tasks. Here’s poor Arthur, who has been two Sundays on one question, and has not got it yet.”  19
  Arthur, aforesaid, was sharp and bright in anything addressed to his reason, but he had no verbal memory, and he was therefore wading painfully through the catechism like a man in a deep-muddy road; with this difference, that the man carries too much clay with him, while nothing stuck to poor Arthur.
*        *        *        *        *
  The beauty of the day, the genial season of the year, brought forth every one; old men and their feebler old wives, young and hearty men and their plump and ruddy companions,—young men and girls and children, thick as punctuation points in Hebrew text, filled the street. In a low voice, they spoke to each other in single sentences.  21
  “A fine day! There’ll be a good congregation out to-day.”  22
  “Yes; we may expect a house full. How is Widow Cheney—have you heard?”  23
  “Well, not much better; can’t hold out many days. It will be a great loss to the children.”  24
  “Yes; but we must all die—nobody can skip his turn. Does she still talk about them that’s gone?”  25
  “They say not. I believe she’s sunk into a quiet way; and it looks as if she’d go off easy.”  26
  “Sunday is a good day for dying—it’s about the only journey that speeds well on this day!”  27
  There was something striking in the outflow of people into the street, that till now had seemed utterly deserted. There was no fevered hurry; no negligent or poorly dressed people. Every family came in groups—old folks and young children; and every member blossomed forth in his best apparel, like a rose-bush in June. Do you know that man in a silk hat and new black coat? Probably it is some stranger. No; it is the carpenter, Mr. Baggs, who was racing about yesterday with his sleeves rolled up, and a dust-and-business look in his face! I knew you would not know him. Adams Gardner, the blacksmith,—does he not look every inch a judge, now that he is clean-washed, shaved, and dressed? His eyes are as bright as the sparks that fly from his anvil!  28
  Are not the folks proud of their children? See what groups of them! How ruddy and plump are most! Some are roguish, and cut clandestine capers at every chance. Others seem like wax figures, so perfectly proper are they. Little hands go slyly through the pickets to pluck a tempting flower. Other hands carry hymn-books or Bibles. But, carry what they may, dressed as each parent can afford, is there anything the sun shines upon more beautiful than these troops of Sunday children?  29
  The old bell had it all its own way up in the steeple. It was the licensed noise of the day. In a long shed behind the church stood a score and half-score of wagons and chaises and carryalls,—the horses already beginning the forenoon’s work of stamping and whisking the flies. More were coming. Hiram Beers had “hitched up,” and brought two loads with his new hack; and now, having secured the team, he stood with a few admiring young fellows about him, remarking on the people as they came up.  30
  “There’s Trowbridge—he’ll git asleep afore the first prayer’s over. I don’t b’lieve he’s heerd a sermon in ten years. I’ve seen him sleep standin’ up in singin’.  31
  “Here comes Deacon Marble,—smart old feller, ain’t he?—wouldn’t think it, jest to look at him! Face looks like an ear of last summer’s sweet corn, all dried up; but I tell ye he’s got the juice in him yit! Aunt Polly’s gittin’ old, ain’t she? They say she can’t walk half the time—lost the use of her limbs; but it’s all gone to her tongue. That’s as good as a razor, and a sight better ’n mine, for it never needs sharpenin’.  32
  “Stand away, boys, there’s ’Biah Cathcart. Good horses—not fast, but mighty strong, just like the owner.”  33
  And with that Hiram touched his new Sunday hat to Mrs. Cathcart and Alice; and as he took the horses by the bits, he dropped his head and gave the Cathcart boys a look of such awful solemnity, all except one eye, that they lost their sobriety. Barton alone remained sober as a judge.  34
  “Here comes ‘Dot-and-Go-One’ and his wife. They’re my kind o’ Christians. She is a saint, at any rate.”  35
  “How is it with you, Tommy Taft?”  36
  “Fair to middlin’, thank’e. Such weather would make a hand-spike blossom, Hiram.”  37
  “Don’t you think that’s a leetle strong, Tommy, for Sunday? P’raps you mean afore it’s cut?”  38
  “Sartin; that’s what I mean. But you mustn’t stop me, Hiram. Parson Buell ’ll be lookin’ for me. He never begins till I git there.”  39
  “You mean you always git there ’fore he begins.”  40
  Next, Hiram’s prying eyes saw Mr. Turfmould, the sexton and undertaker, who seemed to be in a pensive meditation upon all the dead that he had ever buried. He looked upon men in a mild and pitying manner, as if he forgave them for being in good health. You could not help feeling that he gazed upon you with a professional eye, and saw just how you would look in the condition which was to him the most interesting period of a man’s earthly state. He walked with a soft tread, as if he was always at a funeral; and when he shook your hand, his left hand half followed his right, as if he were about beginning to lay you out. He was one of the few men absorbed by his business, and who unconsciously measured all things from its stand-point.  41
  “Good-morning, Mr. Turfmould! How’s your health? How is business with you?”  42
  “Good—the Lord be praised! I’ve no reason to complain.”  43
  And he glided silently and smoothly into the church.  44
  “There comes Judge Bacon, white and ugly,” said the critical Hiram. “I wonder what he comes to meetin’ for. Lord knows he needs it, sly, slippery old sinner! Face’s as white as a lily; his heart’s as black as a chimney flue afore it’s cleaned. He’ll get his flue burned out if he don’t repent, that’s certain. He don’t believe the Bible. They say he don’t believe in God. Wal, I guess it’s pretty even between ’em. Shouldn’t wonder if God didn’t believe in him neither.”…  45
  As soon as the afternoon service was over, every horse on the green knew that it was time for him to go home. Some grew restless and whinnied for their masters. Nimble hands soon put them into the shafts or repaired any irregularity of harness. Then came such a scramble of vehicles to the church door for the older persons; while young women and children, venturing further out upon the green, were taken up hastily, that the impatient horses might as soon as possible turn their heads homeward. Clouds of dust began to arise along every outward-going road. In less than ten minutes not a wagon or chaise was seen upon the village green. They were whirling homeward at the very best pace that the horses could raise. Stiff old steeds vainly essayed a nimbler gait, but gave it up in a few rods, and fell back to the steady jog. Young horses, tired of long standing, and with a strong yearning for evening oats, shot along the level ground, rushed up the little hills, or down upon the other side, in the most un-Sunday-like haste. The scene was not altogether unlike the return from a military funeral, to which men march with sad music and slow, but from which they return nimbly marching to the most brilliant quick-step.  46
  In half an hour Norwood was quiet again. The dinner, on Sunday, when for the sake of the outlying population the two services are brought near together in the middle of the day, was usually deferred till the ordinary supper hour. It was evident that the tone of the day was changed. Children were not so strictly held in. There was no loud talking, nor was laughing allowed, but a general feeling sprung up around the table that the severer tasks of the day were ended.  47
  Devout and age-sobered people sat in a kind of golden twilight of meditation. The minister, in his well-ordered house, tired with a double service, mingled thoughts both glad and sad. His tasks were ended. He was conscious that he had manfully done his best. But that best doing, as he reflected upon it, seemed so poor, so unworthy of the nobleness of the theme, and so relatively powerless upon the stubborn stuff of which his people’s dispositions were made, that there remained a vague, unquiet sense of blame upon his conscience.  48
  It was Dr. Wentworth’s habit to walk with his family in the garden, early in the morning and late in the afternoon. If early, Rose was usually his company; in the afternoon the whole family, Agate Bissell always excepted. She had in full measure that peculiar New England feeling that Sunday is to be kept by staying in the house, except such time as is spent at church. And though she never, impliedly even, rebuked the doctor’s resort to his garden, it was plain that deep down in her heart she thought it an improper way of spending Sunday; and in that view she had the secret sympathy of almost all the noteworthy villagers. Had any one, upon that day, made Agate a visit, unless for some plain end of necessity or mercy, she would have deemed it a personal affront.  49
  Sunday was the Lord’s day. Agate acted as if any use of it for her own pleasure would be literal and downright stealing.  50
  “We have six days for our own work. We ought not to begrudge the Lord one whole day.”  51
  Two circumstances distressed honest Agate’s conscience. The one was that the incursion of summer visitors from the city was tending manifestly to relax the Sabbath, especially after the church services. The other was that Dr. Wentworth would occasionally allow Judge Bacon to call in and discuss with him topics suggested by the sermons. She once expressed herself in this wise:—  52
  “Either Sunday is worth keeping, or it is not. If you do keep it, it ought to be strictly done. But lately Sunday is raveling out at the end. We take it on like a summer dress, which in the morning is clean and sweet, but at night it is soiled at the bottom and much rumpled all over.”  53
  Dr. Wentworth sat with Rose on one side and her mother on the other, in the honeysuckle corner, where the west could be seen, great trees lying athwart the horizon and checkering the golden light with their dark masses. Judge Bacon had turned the conversation upon this very topic.  54
  “I think our Sundays in New England are Puritan and Jewish more than Christian. They are days of restriction rather than of joyousness. They are fast days, not feast days.”  55
  “Do you say that as a mere matter of historical criticism, or do you think that they could be improved practically?”  56
  “Both. It is susceptible of proof that the early Christian Sunday was a day of triumph and of much social joy. It would be well if we could follow primitive example.”  57
  “Judge, I am hardly of your opinion. I should be unwilling to see our New England Sunday changed, except perhaps by a larger social liberty in each family. Much might be done to make it attractive to children, and relieve older persons from ennui. But after all, we must judge things by their fruits. If you bring me good apples, it is in vain to abuse the tree as craggy, rude, or homely. The fruit redeems the tree.”  58
  “A very comely figure, Doctor, but not very good reasoning. New England has had something at work upon her beside her Sundays. What you call the ‘fruit’ grew, a good deal of it at any rate, on other trees than Sunday trees.”  59
  “You are only partly right. New England character and history are the result of a widespread system of influences of which the Sabbath day was the type—and not only so, but the grand motive power. Almost every cause which has worked benignly among us has received its inspiration and impulse largely from this One Solitary Day of the week.  60
  “It is true that all the vegetable growths that we see about us here depend upon a great variety of causes; but there is one cause that is the condition of power in every other, and that is the Sun! And so, many as have been the influences working at New England character, Sunday has been a generic and multiplex force, inspiring and directing all others. It is indeed the Sun’s day.  61
  “It is a little singular that, borrowing the name from the heathen calendar, it should have tallied so well with the Scripture name, the Lord’s day—that Lord who was the Morning Star in early day, and at length the Sun of Righteousness!  62
  “The Jews called it the Sabbath—a day of rest. Modern Christians call it the Sun’s day, or the day of light, warmth, and growth. If this seems fanciful so far as the names of the day are concerned, it is strikingly characteristic of the real spirit of the two days, in the ancient and modern dispensation. I doubt if the old Jews ever kept a Sabbath religiously, as we understand that term. Indeed, I suspect there was not yet a religious strength in that national character that could hold up religious feeling without the help of social and even physical adjuvants. Their religious days were either fasts or like our Thanksgiving days. But the higher and richer moral nature which has been developed by Christianity enables communities to sustain one day in seven upon a high spiritual plane, with the need of but very little social help, and without the feasting element at all.”  63
  “That may be very well for a few saints like you and me, Doctor, but it is too high for the majority of men. Common people find the strict Sundays a great annoyance, and clandestinely set them aside.”  64
  “I doubt it. There are a few in every society that live by their sensuous nature. Sunday must be a dead day to them—a dark room. No wonder they break through. But it is not so with the sturdy, unsophisticated laboring class in New England. If it came to a vote, you would find that the farmers of New England would be the defenders of the day, even if screwed up to the old strictness. Their instinct is right. It is an observance that has always worked its best effects upon the common people, and if I were to change the name, I should call Sunday THE POOR MAN’S DAY.  65
  “Men do not yet perceive that the base of the brain is full of despotism, and the coronal brain is radiant with liberty. I mean that the laws and relations which grow out of men’s relations in physical things are the sternest and hardest, and at every step in the assent toward reason and spirituality, the relations grow more kindly and free.  66
  “Now, it is natural for men to prefer an animal life. By-and-by they will learn that such a life necessitates force, absolutism. It is natural for unreflecting men to complain when custom or institutions hold them up to some higher degree. But that higher degree has in it an element of emancipation from the necessary despotisms of physical life. If it were possible to bring the whole community up to a plane of spirituality, it would be found that there and there only could be the highest measure of liberty. And this is my answer to those who grumble at the restriction of Sunday liberty. It is only the liberty of the senses that suffers. A higher and nobler civil liberty, moral liberty, social liberty, will work out of it. Sunday is the common people’s Magna Charta.”  67
  “Well done, Doctor! I give up. Hereafter you shall see me radiant on Sunday. I must not get my hay in if storms do threaten to spoil it; but I shall give my conscience a hitch up, and take it out in that. I must not ride out; but then I shall regard every virtuous self-denial as a moral investment with good dividends coming in by-and-by. I can’t let the children frolic in the front dooryard; but then, while they sit waiting for the sun to go down, and your Sun-day to be over, I shall console myself that they are one notch nearer an angelic condition every week. But good-night, good-night, Mrs. Wentworth. I hope you may not become so spiritual as quite to disdain the body. I really think, for this world, the body has some respectable uses yet. Good-night, Rose. The angels take care of you, if there is one of them good enough.”  68
  And so the judge left.  69
  They sat silently looking at the sun, now but just above the horizon. A few scarfs of cloud, brilliant with flame-color, and every moment changing forms, seemed like winged spirits, half revealed, that hovered round the retiring orb.  70
  Mrs. Wentworth at length broke the silence.  71
  “I always thought, Doctor, that you believed Sunday over-strictly kept, and that you were in favor of relaxation.”  72
  “I am. Just as fast as you can make it a day of real religious enjoyment, it will relax itself. True and deep spiritual feeling is the freest of all experiences. And it reconciles in itself the most perfect consciousness of liberty with the most thorough observance of outward rules and proprieties. Liberty is not an outward condition. It is an inward attribute, or rather a name for the quality of life produced by the highest moral attributes. When communities come to that condition, we shall see fewer laws and higher morality.  73
  “The one great poem of New England is her Sunday! Through that she has escaped materialism. That has been a crystal dome overhead, through which Imagination has been kept alive. New England’s imagination is to be found, not in art and literature, but in her inventions, her social organism, and above all in her religious life. The Sabbath has been the nurse of that. When she ceases to have a Sunday, she will be as this landscape is:—now growing dark, all its lines blurred, its distances and gradations fast merging into sheeted darkness and night. Come, let us go in!”  74

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