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An essay by George William Curtis

The New England Sabbath

Title:     The New England Sabbath
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

There are still villages among the hills of New England--we cannot call them remote hills, because the locomotive darts up every valley and fills the woods upon the highest hill-side with the shrill, eager cry of hurrying life and bustling human society, but even where the steam is heard, softened and far away, there are yet villages nestling in the hills in which also the old New England Sabbath lingers and nestles. The village street, broad and arched with thick-foliaged sugar-maples, is always still. In the warm silence of a summer noon, as you sit reading upon the piazza or in the shade of a tree, the only moving object in the street is a load of hay slowly passing under the maples, drawn by oxen, or a group of loiterers in front of the village store pitching quoits. The creak of the wagon, the ring of the quoits, or the laugh and exclamation of the players are the only sounds, except, indeed, the musical clangor of the blacksmith's anvil, as his quick hammer moulds the sparkling horseshoe or beats out the bar.

These are drowsy summer sounds that only emphasize the stillness of the week-day. But the stillness of Sunday is startling. A faint tinkle of cows in the early morning filing to the pasture, the warning shout of the barefooted boy who drives them, are the only sounds that break the Sabbath silence, except, again, the chirp and song of birds in the trees, which are no respecters of days, and which sing as blithely, even in the deacon's maples, on "Sabbath morning" as in the tavern ash on the Fourth of July. The cows pass and all is still. The street is deserted, save by, at intervals, a solitary figure upon some small errand. The sun lies hot upon the pastures and hill-sides. There is no mail on Sunday, no newspaper, no barber to visit. Now and then men in their daily dress are seen at the barn door or in the shed or yard doing their chores. They are bringing wood, milking, feeding the cattle. But all is spectral. There is no sound. Even the wind in summer fears to be a Sabbath-breaker. It is an enchanted realm. Have the blue-laws such vitality? Are we still held by their grim spell?

It is nine o'clock, and the meeting-house bell, with a bold voice of authority, as if it had the sole right to disturb the silence and to speak out, warns the village and the outlying farms that it is the Sabbath, and everybody must prepare to come to meeting; and the little children hear the bell with awe as if it were a living voice, and sacred as a part of the Sabbath, and to be heeded under unknown penalties. Obey thy father and mother; thou shalt not lie; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt go to meeting--seem to them all commandments of the first table. The sound of the bell lingers in their ears and hearts as a Thus saith the Lord. And, lo! at the second bell, the men, who have changed their daily dress and put on their Sabbath clothes, issue from the houses on the village street with their wives and children, and through the street, closely following each other and pounding along in a cloud of dust, comes the long line of wagons from the farms. The sun beats down remorselessly, and the man in heavy woollens, such as he wears in the sleigh in January, sits between two women in their Sabbath garments, the horses trot with a Sabbath jog, and all turn up to the stone platform by the meeting-house, upon which the women alight, and the man drives the horse under the shed, and then chats soberly with the others at the door.

But the minister passes in, not clad in gown and bands and cocked hat of the older day, but in plain black clothes. The chatting loiterers follow him in. The bell which has gathered the village into the sacred fold rests from its labors. There is no one in the street. There is no sound. But after a few moments the music of "Old Hundred" pours out of the open doors and windows of the meeting-house, sung by a well-balanced and well-trained choir. It is the opening hymn, and it has a full, vigorous, triumphant sound. Once more Thus saith the Lord. There is another interval of silence, but at a little distance you can hear the voice of reading and prayer. Hark! another hymn. It is "Federal Street," or "Coronation," or "Dundee," but whatever it is, it is a strain from other years, and voices and faces and scenes and days that are no more all blend in the familiar music, and a Sabbath benediction rests upon the listener's soul.

A longer silence follows, broken by fragmentary sounds of energetic speech. Is the preacher emphasizing and elucidating the five points? Is he denouncing and alarming that tough regiment in woollen, or winning the wondering and doubting mind? Is his sermon upon an official and perfunctory discourse by which little children are soothed to sleep and in which the elders like unqualified damnation and the hottest fire as a toper likes "power" in his dram? Or is his pure and manly life and conversation his true preaching, and the Sabbath sermon only a statement of the principles of such holy living, and a revival of the colors in the immortal portrait of the holy life of the Gospel?

Before we can answer there is a burst of music, then two strokes of the bell to announce that "meeting is out;" then an issue of the congregation, a procession homeward, a driving away of wagons, and soon once more the solitary street. In the afternoon there is the Sabbath-school, and the good pastor preaches at one of the school-houses in a farther part of the town. But it is always the Sabbath, in every sight and sound until the sun has set, and then from the neighboring house upon the hill above the village street comes a clear, resonant soprano voice singing hymns and prolonging the solemn spell of the holy day.

The tithing-men are gone, and the deacons do not sit severe and conspicuous in the meeting-house, and the minister has not the air of a lord spiritual of the village; and the genius of modern times and the spirit of the age are entertained with full consciousness of what they are. But it is still the sober and constrained and decorous New England Sabbath which recurs every seventh day; and the honest, industrious, intelligent, self-respecting, plain-living village recalls remotely the day of the severer dispensation, and illustrates the noble manhood that the severe dispensation fostered.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: New England Sabbath