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Robert Ingersoll Sabbath Superstition

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Sabbath Superstition

Robert Green Ingersoll


THE idea that one day in the week is better than the others
and should be set apart for religious purposes; that it should be
considered holy; that no useful work should be done on that day;
that it should be given over to pious idleness and sad ceremonies
connected with the worship of a supposed Being, seems to have been
originated by the Jews.

According to the Old Testament, the Sabbath was marvelously
sacred for two reasons; the first being, that Jehovah created the
universe in six days and rested on the seventh: and the second,
because the Jews had been delivered from the Egyptians.

The first of these reasons we now know to be false; and the
second has nothing, so far as we are concerned, to do with the

There is no reason for our keeping the seventh day because the
Hebrews were delivered from the Egyptians.

The Sabbath was a Jewish institution, and, according to the
Bible, only the Jews were commanded to keep that day. Jehovah said
nothing to the Egyptians on that subject; nothing to the
Philistines, nothing to the Gentiles.

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The Jews kept that day with infinite strictness, and with them
this space of time known as the Sabbath became so holy that he who
violated it by working was put to death. Sabbath-breaking and
murder were equal crimes. On the Sabbath the pious Jew would not
build a fire in his house. He ate cold victuals and thanked God.
The gates of the city were closed. No business was done, and the
traveler who arrived at the city on that day remained outside until
evening. If he happened to fall, he remained where he fell until
the sun had gone done.

The early Christians did not hold the seventh day in such
veneration. As a matter of fact, they ceased to regard it as holy,
and changed the sacred day from the seventh to the first. This
change was really made by Constantine, because the first day of the
week was the Sunday of the Pagans; and this day had been given to
pleasure and recreation and to religious ceremonies for many

After Constantine designated the first day to be kept and
observed by Christians, our Sunday became the sacred time.

The early Christians, however, kept the day much as it had
been kept by the Pagans. They attended church in the morning, and
in the afternoon enjoyed themselves as best they could.

The Catholic Church fell in with the prevailing customs, and
to accommodate itself to Pagan ways and superstitions, it agreed,
as far as it could, with the ideas of the Pagan.

Up to the time of the Reformation, Sunday had been divided
between the discharge of religious duties and recreation.

Luther did not believe in the sacredness of the Sabbath. After
church he enjoyed himself by playing games, and wanted others to do
the same.

Even John Calvin, whose view had been blurred by the "Five
Points," allowed the people to enjoy themselves on Sunday

The reformers on the continent never had the Jewish idea of
the sacredness of the Sabbath.

In Geneva, Germany and France, all kinds of innocent amusement
were allowed on that day; and I believe the same was true of

But in Scotland the Jewish idea was adopted to the fullest
extent. There Sabbath-breaking was one of the blackest and one of
the most terrible crimes. Nothing was considered quite as sacred as
the Sabbath.

The Scotch went so far as to take the ground that it was wrong
to save people who were drowning on Sunday, the drowning being a
punishment inflicted by God. Upon the question of keeping the
Sabbath most of the Scottish people became insane.

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The same notions about the holy day were adopted by the
Dissenters in England, and it became the principal tenet in their

The Puritans and Pilgrims were substantially crazy about the
sacredness of Sunday. With them the first day of the week was set
apart for preaching, praying, attending church, reading the Bible
and studying the catechism. Walking, riding, playing on musical
instruments, boating, swimming and courting, were all crimes.

No one had the right to be happy on that blessed day. It was
a time of gloom, sacred, solemn and religiously stupid.

They did their best to strip their religion of every redeeming
feature. They hated art and music -- everything calculated to
produce joy. They despised everything except the Bible, the church,
God, Sunday and the creed.

The influence of these people has been felt in every part of
our country. The Sabbath superstition became almost universal. No
laughter, no smiles on that day; no games, no recreation, no
riding, no walking through the perfumed fields or by the winding
streams or the shore of the sea. No communion with the subtitle
beauties of nature; no wandering in the woods with wife and
children, no reading of poetry and fiction; nothing but solemnity
and gloom, listening to sermons, thinking about sin, death,
graves, coffins, shrouds, epitaphs and ceremonies and the
marvelous truths of sectarian religion, and the weaknesses of
those who were natural enough and sensible enough to enjoy
themselves on the Sabbath day.

So universal became the Sabbath superstition that the
Legislatures of all the States, or nearly all, passed laws to
prevent work and enjoyment on that day, and declared all
contracts void relating to business entered into on Sunday.

The Germans gave us the first valuable lesson on this
subject. They came to this country in great numbers; they did not
keep the American Sabbath. They listened to music and they drank
beer on that holy day. They took their wives and children with
them and enjoyed themselves; yet they were good, kind,
industrious people. They paid their debts and their credit was
the best.

Our people saw that men could be good and women virtuous
without "keeping" the Sabbath.

This did us great good, and changed the opinions of hundreds
of thousands of Americans.

But the churches insisted on the old way. Gradually our
people began to appreciate the fact that one-seventh of the time
was being stolen by superstition. They began to ask for the
opening of libraries, for music in the parks and to be allowed to
visit museums and public places on the Sabbath.

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In several States these demands were granted, and the
privileges have never been abused, The people were orderly,
polite to officials and to each other.

In 1876, when the Centennial was held at Philadelphia, the
Sabbatarians had control. Philadelphia was a Sunday city, and so
the gates of the Centennial were closed on that day.

This was in Philadelphia where the Sabbath superstition had
been so virulent that chains had been put across the streets to
prevent stages and carriages from passing at that holy time.

At that time millions of Americans felt that a great wrong
was done by closing the Centennial to the laboring people; but
the managers -- most of them being politicians -- took care of
themselves and kept the gates closed.

In 1876 the Sabbatarians triumphed, and when it was
determined to hold a world's fair at Chicago they made up their
minds that no one should look upon the world's wonders on the
Sabbath day.

To accomplish this pious and foolish purpose committees were
appointed all over the country; money was raised to make a
campaign; persons were employed to go about and arouse the
enthusiasm of religious people; petitions by the thousand were
sent to Congress and to the officers of the World's Fair, signed
by thousands of people who never saw them; resolutions were
passed in favor of Sunday closing by conventions, presbyters,
councils and associations. Lobbyists were employed to influence
members of Congress. Great bodies of Christians threatened to
boycott the fair and yet the World's Fair is open on Sunday.

What is the meaning of this? Let me tell you. It means that
in this country the Scotch New England Sabbath has ceased to be;
it means that it is dead. The last great effort for its salvation
has been put forth, and has failed. It belonged to the creed of
Jonathan Edwards and the belief of the witch burners, and in this
age it is out of place.

There was a time when the minister and priest were regarded
as the foundation of wisdom; when information came from the
altar, from the pulpit; and when the sheep were the property of
the shepherd.

That day in intelligent communities has passed. We no longer
go to the minister or the church for information. The orthodox
minister is losing his power, and the Sabbath is now regarded as
a day of rest, of recreation and of pleasure.

The church must keep up with the people. The minister must
take another step. The multitude care but little about
controversies in churches, but they do care about the practical
questions that directly affect their daily lives.

Must we waste one day in seven; must we make ourselves
unhappy or melancholy one-seventh of the time?

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These are important questions and for many years the church
in our country has answered them both in the affirmative, and a
vast number of people not Christians have also said "yes" because
they wanted votes, or because they feared to incite the hatred of
the church.

Now in this year of 1893 a World's Fair answered this
question in the negative, and a large majority of the citizens of
the Republic say that the officers of the Fair have done right.

This marks an epoch in the history of the Sabbath. It is to
be sacred in a religious sense in this country no longer.
Henceforth in the United States the Sabbath is for the use of

Many of those who labored for the closing of the Fair on
Sunday took the ground that if the gates were opened, God would
visit this nation with famine, flood and fire.

It hardly seems possible that God will destroy thousands of
women and children who had nothing to do with the opening of the
Fair; still, if he is the same God described in the Christian
Bible, he may destroy our babes as he did those of the Egyptians.
It is a little hard to tell in advance what a God of that kind
will do.

It was believed for many centuries that God punished the
Sabbath-breaking individual and the Sabbath-breaking nation. Of
course facts never had anything to do with this belief, and the
prophecies of the pulpit were never fulfilled. People who were
drowned on Sunday, according to the church, lost their lives by
the will of God. Those drowned on other days were the victims of
storm or accident. The nations that kept the Sabbath were no more
prosperous than those that broke the sacred day. Certainly France
is as prosperous as Scotland.

Let us hope, however, that these zealous gentlemen who have
predicted calamities were mistaken; let us be glad that hundreds
of thousands of workingmen and women will be delighted and
refined by looking at the statues, the paintings, the machinery,
and the countless articles of use and beauty gathered together at
the great Fair, and let us be glad that on the one day that they
can spare from toil, the gates will be open to them.

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