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An essay by John Greenleaf Whittier

First Day In Lowell

Title:     First Day In Lowell
Author: John Greenleaf Whittier [More Titles by Whittier]

To a population like that of Lowell, the weekly respite from monotonous in-door toil afforded by the first day of the week is particularly grateful. Sabbath comes to the weary and overworked operative emphatically as a day of rest. It opens upon him somewhat as it did upon George Herbert, as he describes it in his exquisite little poem:--

"Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky!"

Apart from its soothing religious associations, it brings with it the assurance of physical comfort and freedom. It is something to be able to doze out the morning from daybreak to breakfast in that luxurious state between sleeping and waking in which the mind eddies slowly and peacefully round and round instead of rushing onward,--the future a blank, the past annihilated, the present but a dim consciousness of pleasurable existence. Then, too, the satisfaction is by no means inconsiderable of throwing aside the worn and soiled habiliments of labor and appearing in neat and comfortable attire. The moral influence of dress has not been overrated even by Carlyle's Professor in his Sartor Resartus. William Penn says that cleanliness is akin to godliness. A well-dressed man, all other things being equal, is not half as likely to compromise his character as one who approximates to shabbiness. Lawrence Sterne used to say that when he felt himself giving way to low spirits and a sense of depression and worthlessness,-- a sort of predisposition for all sorts of little meannesses,--he forthwith shaved himself, brushed his wig, donned his best dress and his gold rings, and thus put to flight the azure demons of his unfortunate temperament. There is somehow a close affinity between moral purity and clean linen; and the sprites of our daily temptation, who seem to find easy access to us through a broken hat or a rent in the elbow, are manifestly baffled by the "complete mail" of a clean and decent dress. I recollect on one occasion hearing my mother tell our family physician that a woman in the neighborhood, not remarkable for her tidiness, had become a church-member. "Humph!" said the doctor, in his quick, sarcastic way, "What of that? Don't you know that no unclean thing can enter the kingdom of heaven?"

"If you would see" Lowell "aright," as Walter Scott says of Melrose Abbey, one must be here of a pleasant First day at the close of what is called the "afternoon service." The streets are then blossoming like a peripatetic flower-garden; as if the tulips and lilies and roses of my friend W.'s nursery, in the vale of Nonantum, should take it into their heads to promenade for exercise. Thousands swarm forth who during week- days are confined to the mills. Gay colors alternate with snowy whiteness; extremest fashion elbows the plain demureness of old- fashioned Methodism.

Fair pale faces catch a warmer tint from the free sunshine and fresh air. The languid step becomes elastic with that "springy motion of the gait" which Charles Lamb admired. Yet the general appearance of the city is that of quietude; the youthful multitude passes on calmly, its voices subdued to a lower and softened tone, as if fearful of breaking the repose of the day of rest. A stranger fresh from the gayly spent Sabbaths of the continent of Europe would be undoubtedly amazed at the decorum and sobriety of these crowded streets.

I am not over-precise in outward observances; but I nevertheless welcome with joy unfeigned this first day of the week,--sweetest pause in our hard life-march, greenest resting-place in the hot desert we are treading. The errors of those who mistake its benignant rest for the iron rule of the Jewish Sabbath, and who consequently hedge it about with penalties and bow down before it in slavish terror, should not render us less grateful for the real blessing it brings us. As a day wrested in some degree from the god of this world, as an opportunity afforded for thoughtful self-communing, let us receive it as a good gift of our heavenly Parent in love rather than fear.

In passing along Central Street this morning my attention was directed by the friend who accompanied me to a group of laborers, with coats off and sleeves rolled up, heaving at levers, smiting with sledge-hammers, in full view of the street, on the margin of the canal, just above Central Street Bridge. I rubbed my eyes, half expecting that I was the subject of mere optical illusion; but a second look only confirmed the first. Around me were solemn, go-to-meeting faces,--smileless and awful; and close at hand were the delving, toiling, mud-begrimed laborers. Nobody seemed surprised at it; nobody noticed it as a thing out of the common course of events. And this, too, in a city where the Sabbath proprieties are sternly insisted upon; where some twenty pulpits deal out anathemas upon all who "desecrate the Lord's day;" where simple notices of meetings for moral purposes even can scarcely be read; where many count it wrong to speak on that day for the slave, who knows no Sabbath of rest, or for the drunkard, who, imbruted by his appetites, cannot enjoy it. Verily there are strange contradictions in our conventional morality. Eyes which, looking across the Atlantic on the gay Sabbath dances of French peasants are turned upward with horror, are somehow blind to matters close at home. What would be sin past repentance in an individual becomes quite proper in a corporation. True, the Sabbath is holy; but the canals must be repaired. Everybody ought to go to meeting; but the dividends must not be diminished. Church indulgences are not, after all, confined to Rome.

To a close observer of human nature there is nothing surprising in the fact that a class of persons, who wink at this sacrifice of Sabhath sanctities to the demon of gain, look at the same time with stern disapprobation upon everything partaking of the character of amusement, however innocent and healthful, on this day. But for myself, looking down through the light of a golden evening upon these quietly passing groups, I cannot find it in my heart to condemn them for seeking on this their sole day of leisure the needful influences of social enjoyment, unrestrained exercise, and fresh air. I cannot think any essential service to religion or humanity would result from the conversion of their day of rest into a Jewish Sabbath, and their consequent confinement, like so many pining prisoners, in close and crowded boarding-houses. Is not cheerfulness a duty, a better expression of our gratitude for God's blessings than mere words? And even under the old law of rituals, what answer had the Pharisees to the question, "Is it not lawful to do good on the Sabbath day?"

I am naturally of a sober temperament, and am, besides, a member of that sect which Dr. More has called, mistakenly indeed, "the most melancholy of all;" but I confess a special dislike of disfigured faces, ostentatious displays of piety, pride aping humility. Asceticism, moroseness, self-torture, ingratitude in view of down-showering blessings, and painful restraint of the better feelings of our nature may befit a Hindoo fakir, or a Mandan medicine man with buffalo skulls strung to his lacerated muscles; but they look to me sadly out of place in a believer of the glad evangel of the New Testament. The life of the divine Teacher affords no countenance to this sullen and gloomy saintliness, shutting up the heart against the sweet influences of human sympathy and the blessed ministrations of Nature. To the horror and clothes-rending astonishment of blind Pharisees He uttered the significant truth, that "the Sabhath was made for man, and not man for the Sabhath." From the close air of crowded cities, from thronged temples and synagogues,--where priest and Levite kept up a show of worship, drumming upon hollow ceremonials the more loudly for their emptiness of life, as the husk rustles the more when the grain is gone, --He led His disciples out into the country stillness, under clear Eastern heavens, on the breezy tops of mountains, in the shade of fruit- trees, by the side of fountains, and through yellow harvest-fields, enforcing the lessons of His divine morality by comparisons and parables suggested by the objects around Him or the cheerful incidents of social humanity,--the vineyard, the field-lily, the sparrow in the air, the sower in the seed-field, the feast and the marriage. Thus gently, thus sweetly kind and cheerful, fell from His lips the gospel of humanity; love the fulfilling of every law; our love for one another measuring and manifesting our love of Him. The baptism wherewith He was baptized was that of divine fulness in the wants of our humanity; the deep waters of our sorrows went over Him; ineffable purity sounding for our sakes the dark abysm of sin; yet how like a river of light runs that serene and beautiful life through the narratives of the evangelists! He broke bread with the poor despised publican; He sat down with the fishermen by the Sea of Galilee; He spoke compassionate words to sin-sick Magdalen; He sanctified by His presence the social enjoyments of home and friendship in the family of Bethany; He laid His hand of blessing on the sunny brows of children; He had regard even to the merely animal wants of the multitude in the wilderness; He frowned upon none of life's simple and natural pleasures. The burden of His Gospel was love; and in life and word He taught evermore the divided and scattered children of one great family that only as they drew near each other could they approach Him who was their common centre; and that while no ostentation of prayer nor rigid observance of ceremonies could elevate man to heaven, the simple exercise of love, in thought and action, could bring heaven down to man. To weary and restless spirits He taught the great truth, that happiness consists in making others happy. No cloister for idle genuflections and bead counting, no hair-cloth for the loins nor scourge for the limbs, but works of love and usefulness under the cheerful sunshine, making the waste places of humanity glad and causing the heart's desert to blossom. Why, then, should we go searching after the cast-off sackcloth of the Pharisee? Are we Jews, or Christians? Must even our gratitude for "glad tidings of great joy" be desponding? Must the hymn of our thanksgiving for countless mercies and the unspeakable gift of His life have evermore an undertone of funeral wailing? What! shall we go murmuring and lamenting, looking coldly on one another, seeing no beauty, nor light, nor gladness in this good world, wherein we have the glorious privilege of laboring in God's harvest-field, with angels for our task companions, blessing and being blessed?

To him who, neglecting the revelations of immediate duty, looks regretfully behind and fearfully before him, life may well seem a solemn mystery, for, whichever way he turns, a wall of darkness rises before him; but down upon the present, as through a skylight between the shadows, falls a clear, still radiance, like beams from an eye of blessing; and, within the circle of that divine illumination, beauty and goodness, truth and love, purity and cheerfulness blend like primal colors into the clear harmony of light. The author of Proverbial Philosophy has a passage not unworthy of note in this connection, when he speaks of the train which attends the just in heaven:--

"Also in the lengthening troop see I some clad in robes of triumph, Whose fair and sunny faces I have known and loved on earth. Welcome, ye glorified Loves, Graces, Sciences, and Muses, That, like Sisters of Charity, tended in this world's hospital; Welcome, for verily I knew ye could not but be children of the light; Welcome, chiefly welcome, for I find I have friends in heaven, And some I have scarcely looked for; as thou, light-hearted Mirth; Thou, also, star-robed Urania; and thou with the curious glass, That rejoicest in tracking beauty where the eye was too dull to note it. And art thou, too, among the blessed, mild, much-injured Poetry? That quickenest with light and beauty the leaden face of matter, That not unheard, though silent, fillest earth's gardens with music, And not unseen, though a spirit, dost look down upon us from the stars."

[The end]
John Greenleaf Whittier's essay: First Day In Lowell