Article of the Month




by Robert L. Dabney


THIS infidel association has been for three years vexing the public horizon as an evil portent. The publications noted below are its authoritative exponents. The moral and religious complexion of the society may be seen in these facts: that Col. Robert Ingersoll, of Illinois, is the manifest coryphoeus of the whole crew; that D. M. Bennett, the chosen publisher of these and all their other documents, is at this time in prison, under a conviction of the not too scrupulous courts of the United States, for violating their statutes against sending blasphemies and obscenities through the United States mails; that the most impious and blatant atheists in the country are members; that the foulest impieties see always to have been most applauded in their “congresses”; and that their first professed object is to drive the Bible and the Sabbath out of the land.

Another instructive feature of this agitation is, that the survivors of the original anti-slavery society, of Garrison and that ilk, now reappear in this atheistic movement, like uneasy corpses airing their unsavory persons from the grave. These, like Parker Pillsbury, and the President, Elizur Wright, expressly connect the present movement with the past, and claim for it the same success by the same means, thus verifying the truth that the abolition movement was and is essentially infidel and disorganizing. This “League” scarcely disguises its communism and its assault on property. Its arguments are the very same by which the original abolitionists assaulted the constitution and laws which protected the property of the South. Thus again is illustrated the fact that abolitionism is virtual agrarianism. The new progeny of the old heresy will, in due time, convince the anti-slavery plutocracy of New England and Britain of their folly, by showing them that the same arguments which were suited to overthrow our right to the labor of our lawful bondsmen, are equally good to destroy their rights to their lands, factories, mines, ships, warehouses, and incomes.

Another lesson impressively taught by the new movement is the perilous and destructive nature of the political philosophy now in the ascendant in this country. The philosophy of this atheists’ league is precisely that briefly described in the number of this Review for October, 1879, as underlying the demand for the ecclesiastical and social equality of women. It seeks authority by perverting those “glittering generalities” to which the Declaration of Independence has familiarized the American ear, that “all men are by nature equal, and inalienably entitled to liberty,” etc.; that “all just government is founded in the consent of the governed”; and that taxation and representation should go together. In our last number the distinction was drawn between the sense in which these propositions are true — in which they were held by the founders of our republic — and that in which they are false. There is a sense in which men are naturally entitled to liberty; that is to say, to the privilege of doing, unimpeded by civil law, all those things which they have a moral right to do. But in the sense of these radicals, with whom “liberty” means absolute independence of will to do whatever they please, no creature of God is “born free”; but all are by nature subject to his sovereign will, and to the civil, domestic and ecclesiastical authorities under which his providence has placed them. There is a sense in which all rational men are equal, which is, that, however different the specific personal rights assigned by God and the laws to the superior and inferior ranks in civil society, the inferior has an ethical title to his smaller circle of privileges, identical with the title of the superior to his larger privileges. But it is not true that, in the sense of these radicals, men are by nature equal; but they are made by God endlessly unequal in their strength, ability, energy, sex, providential position, and consequently in their natural rights. All just government is founded in the consent of the governed, in this sense, that the commonwealth as a whole has an inalienable right to choose its own political connections, rulers, and forms of administration; that when these are imposed against the will of the commonwealth in all its orders and forms of expression, this is conclusive of their injustice. But the radical notion is, that allegiance originates in a “social contract” of individuals, so that it is unjust for a ruler to govern any soul who has not had an opportunity to vote for him. Whereas the simple fact is, that every soul is put under civil government by the ordinance of a sovereign God, without any option of his own. Radicalism holds that no one can be righteously taxed who does not vote. The founders of our states only asserted that maxim of the British constitution, that a parliament in London ought not to tax commonwealths in America which were unrepresented in it in any form.

Now, the two facts deserving of solemn attention from every thinking man are these: such is precisely the political philosophy which this “League” lays down as the basis of their whole structure, and on which they logically rear conclusions, the establishment of which would imply the utter and anarchical overthrow of American institutions; but such is also identically the philosophy of abolitionism, the philosophy implicitly held by the editors and politicians and party which ,have been dominant in the country for nineteen years, and which is everywhere expounded as the doctrine of Republicanism. It is the philosophy of the frantic “leveller” Lilburn, whom the enlightened founders of English liberty in the days of the Commonwealth themselves put in the pillory and the prison, while they had his book burned by the common hangman, which is now everywhere preached and accepted in this country under the name of liberty. What can come of such inculcations? Whither must the people drift who receive them without question? This radical league tells us. From this philosophy they deduce women’s suffrage, agrarianism and an atheistic social order.

Another observation will strike the reader of these documents: that these abolitionists now with one mouth declare the condition of the Northern hireling laborer as far more oppressive than that of domestic slaves. Thus, p. 85, their condition is that of a “wages’ slavery,” under which they are “poor and down-trodden.” P. 88. “The laboring classes are working under a despotism far more tyrannical than that of the slaves of the South.” “The Republican party was grand enough to unshackle four millions of negro slaves; but now it is cruel enough to put these working classes under chains far more torturing than those borne by the blacks.” P. 99, “On the one hand, the bonanza or railroad king of six millions of dollars a year, bribes corrupt politicians to keep his twenty or thirty thousand white slaves in subjection by the aid of unjust laws and bayonets; and on the other, the half-starved wage-slaves exist on an average of one hundred and fifty to three hundred dollars a year.” If, then, the special friends of hireling labor and apostles of abolition may be believed, all the truths uttered by Southern defenders are confirmed: that our system of labor was more humane than the hireling system substituted for it, and more promotive of the laborer’s welfare; that domestic slavery was not the only form for subjecting the laborer to the will of his employer, but only one form among many, and perhaps the most philanthropic; and that the overthrow of Southern institutions would prove to be very far short of the real abolition of bondage.

But, in justice, it should be added, that the laboring classes in the United States have doubtless real grievances. Not only is it inevitable that human nature, being what it is, greedy and selfish, shall view the enormous disproportion of conditions which has grown up in this country with discontent: it is, in a certain sense, just that it should. In an ethical point of view, the disparity is illegitimate. The gains of the great capitalists are inordinate, and the luxury and waste of their living mischievous and wicked. Legislation ought not to be so framed as to make these enormous accumulations, and this more than regal luxury easy. Certain it is, that this condition of extreme inequality is not consistent with a permanent republican constitution of society. The communistic remedy will doubtless prove more fatal than the disease, especially to the poor, for whom it is pretended to be offered. But none the less does the fearful truth remain, that the present organization of society and business is impossible as a permanency, and that this vast, festering, suffering proletariat, sinking ever deeper and deeper into vice, hatred, and destitution, and sundered more and more widely from every domestic tie with the employing class, by the hireling system, is not going to coexist peaceably beside this ruthless plutocracy, ever wresting the legislation of the country to pile up their invidious wealth higher, and to lavish it before greedy, starving eyes, more selfishly. The wealthy class in the North will be wise to read the handwriting on the wall, to moderate their aims, and to use the wealth already acquired more wisely and humbly. Else the reign of terror will come. It will not stay, indeed; for riches and intelligence, though cautious, and in appearance cowardly, while the deadly issue is forming itself, yet always defend themselves successfully and conquer, when once it is inexorably joined. But how shall the fever-fit of communism pass? By the bayonet hired by riches? Or by a Christian, patriotic use of wealth, and a return to honest, equitable legislation and administration? History answers: probably not by the latter way. Then it must be ended by the former; and that means also the end of free and equal institutions, not only for the crushed proletariat, but for the whole society.

The Liberal League, while coquetting with the most outrageous communists, yet announce their “general object to be the total separation of church and state.” They ground their movement in these facts: that the Constitution of the United States formally neither names nor recognizes any God or religion as its basis of right, and that it forbids any establishment by the government of any religion; that the most of the state constitutions are similar in this respect; and that the spirit of American institutions makes men of all religions, and of no religion perfectly equal before the law. Hence they demand —

That all church property shall be taxed like other property.

That education shall be committed to the state’s control, shall be compulsory and universal, and shall be absolutely secularized; and every species of religious worship and inculcation excluded from all state schools, high and low.

That the religious oath shall be utterly banished, and replaced by a simple affirmation under the penalties of perjury.

That all Sabbath laws shall be absolutely repealed, and that no restriction shall exist preventing any act of government or secular pursuit of citizens on the holy day as on any other day. And the League ostentatiously employs Sunday as the day of its most noisy meetings.

That no government, state or federal, shall concur in any religious act whatsoever, recognizing any divine government, nor have any chaplaincy, nor appropriate any money to any pious use.

That the right of free utterance, by speech and publication, and through the United States mails, shall be restored to atheists and blasphemers, under the plea of liberty of speech and the press.

That women be invested with all the rights of voting and holding office possessed by men.

The League asserts, as its fundamental principle, that natural morals are a sufficient basis for secular society, and guarantee of public order, prosperity, and righteousness; that is to say, it proposes to reconstruct society on a merely atheistic basis; and claims that the sacred name of religious liberty authorizes their doing so.

It is evident that the issue will be practically joined with this atheistic party, first upon these two points: the secularization of all state schools, and the repeal of all Sunday laws. Our subsequent discussion will be limited, for lack of space, to the Sunday question. This, however, will raise the main principles as to the nature of free civil government, upon which the whole movement turns. The public has been familiar with the infidel argument against Sunday laws of the state. Its whole force is in the assumption that Sunday is solely a Christian institution, and should therefore be left, like baptism and church-going, to the conscience and optional preference of those who desire to observe it. They say that as the state is a purely secular and non-Christian organism, and as state and church are declared independent, and the Constitutions of the United States and the States forbid that any citizen shall be prejudiced in any way, in person or estate, on account of his religion or his non-religion, it is as unjust for the state to prevent any man’s amusements or work on the Sabbath, when he believes in no Sabbath, as to fine or persecute him for his religious opinions.

This audacious argument has aroused a multitude of answers from the Christian side, some of which have not been either discreet or logical. It is obvious, at a glance, that with the atheist, the rationalistic Jew, the German infidel, and sometimes even the European Lutheran, any pious declamation concerning the reverence of our Christian fathers for the Lord’s day and its supposed glories and sanctities count for nothing. If these assailants are to be silenced, it must be by other arguments than these. Some have reasoned, that the majority is entitled to rule; and because Sabbatarians are in the majority in the United States, they are entitled to make the minority respect their Sabbath. On this ground, whenever a state shall show a majority of atheists, it will be right for that government to abolish the Sabbath. Sometimes it is argued, that there is no injustice, because the Sabbath laws lay no restriction on the doings of the infidel but such as are laid on all the citizens. If the Protestants who use this sophism lived in a popish state, where the laws compelled them to desist from legitimate labors and amusements on all those “saints’ days” which we Protestants thoroughly disbelieve and despise, they would see little solace in the fact that their superstitious popish neighbors all were idle on the same days. These Protestants would find the intrinsic injustice in this, that the religious superstitions of others were made a pretext to restrain them, who believed them false and groundless, from acts to which they were naturally and morally entitled. This is precisely the ground assumed by our infidels against Sabbath laws of the state. We hear the argument, again, put thus: although church and state are independent, yet the American is a Christian people. The country was settled by Christians. The great majority are Christians now. Hence it is right that the dissentient or the immigrant should submit to the Christian features of the society whose hospitality he receives. If he does not like them, let him go away. But unfortunately for this argument, it is the state which enforces these Sunday laws; and the state declares itself non-Christian, and it invites these dissentients to become citizens, covenanting with them solemnly that as citizens they shall incur no inequality or loss of civil right by reason of their religious views. Now, if a man has a natural and secular right to live without a Sabbath, this objection is formidable. Once more: it is argued, Christians have a civic right to observe the Lord’s day, if they believe it their duty; and hence it is a merely secular duty of the state to stop all such employments and amusements of the unbelievers as would disturb the Christian observances. The infidel answers, that it is at least as much the business of the worshipper to take his pious assembly out of the way of the worldly one, the military band, or the clanging factory, as it is the business of the worldling to take his band or factory out of the way of the pious assembly. And this the more, because the infidel believes that the Sunday work and amusement are reasonable and useful, and the worship foolish and vain.

A more tenable plea is found in the laws of nature, as exemplified from social experience. It can be experimentally proved that the bodies of men and domestic animals, and the social affections, habits, mental health, virtue and domestic welfare of human beings, call for a hebdomadal rest. Hence, even if we take the restricted view of the commonwealth which makes it the institute for realizing only secular order and justice, this truth authorizes the state to enforce a Sabbath rest and secure its blessings for the dependent classes of human beings and the helpless beasts. It is a prerogative as proper and righteous as when a state abates a nuisance hostile to hygiene, or forbids the working of minor children and servants beyond a humane number of hours per day. But this step brings us, in fact, to the threshold of what is the true argument for Sunday laws by the state.

While the American state is not positively Christian, no state can rightfully be atheistic. The doctrines of redemption are not the necessary basis of the validity of a state: witness the fact that the Bible recognized the validity of the authority of Rome, a pagan empire; and that every sound jurist in Christendom recognizes the validity of Mohammedan states. But theism is essential as the basis of civil government. Atheism, if prevalent, would leave civic authority logically baseless. The legitimate state exists only by virtue of the will of God as Maker and as providential Ruler; and therefore can ground its authority only in its recognition of him. But the Sabbath, while in its special aspect, a commemorative institution of redemption to the believer, is also, in its prior and general aspect, an ordinance for man, as a moral creature, instituted for the race in all times by God, as Maker and Ruler. The truth which is overlooked by both parties, and which is vital to our argument, is this: that the Sabbath now serves two purposes; with the believing part of the race included in Christ’s spiritual kingdom, it is a gospel means of grace; but none the less is it to mankind at large what it was first given for, an essential institute of that natural theism and that personal, social, and domestic righteousness, on which civil society rests as its foundations. How fair and consistent this view is will appear when we show that the Sabbath was ordained for man before he needed any redemption. This purpose of its original institution remains immutable, through all ages and dispensations. After man fell, and God in his mercy set up the spiritual kingdom of redemption, the other use of the Sabbath, as a redemptive ordinance, was superadded. Hence it will follow, that no human being has a natural or civic right either to atheism or to live without a Sabbath. These are simply natural iniquities, subversive of social morals as really as incest or murder, though not so greatly. Here, then, is the cardinal sophism of the infidel plea against Sabbath laws, that he has assumed the privilege of neglecting the Sabbath to be, so long as he professes no Christian conscience, his natural right, unjustly restricted by another’s erroneous conscience, like the natural right to labor and to recreation; whereas it will be shown that Sabbath observance is, for every human being, a moral obligation of natural theism and social order.

First, then, it is to be shown that theism is essential to the grounding of the state as a valid authority over men. Here we come directly into collision with the proton pseudos; of the infidel party: that natural morality and intelligence are the “basis of secular government, and the adequate guarantee of public order, prosperity and righteousness.” This is expressly denied. It is asserted, on the contrary, that the fear of God and the sanctity of his law are the only adequate basis and guarantee.

The first proof advanced is one which carries little weight with men who glory in despising the lights of history and experience, but which all sensible men appraise at a prime value. There never has been a permanent civilized order in the world founded on atheism. The only notable experiment was that made during the French Revolution, when for a short time, at the darkest period of the” Reign of Terror,” atheism was in the ascendant. The result is too well known for comment. It was too bad even for Robespierre, who found it necessary to cut off his atheistic comrades’ heads. All the thinking men of all ages and schools, pagan and Christian, have usually judged atheistic principles inconsistent with any moral order. All the best ethical writers, of all ages and schools, have grounded their moral systems in man’s responsibility to God. So essential is religious belief to any moral order, that erroneous belief has always been better than none; theism, under the form of polytheism, was always a cornerstone of such heathen commonwealths as ever became civilized or great, like Egypt, Tyre, Rome, Athens; and in these, when belief declined, the national virtue and greatness went down with it. If our modern destructives would find actual instances of societies founded according to their ideal, they must look among the miserable human herds of the Hottentots or Australians. Experience offers no other verification of their theory.

Secondly. Civil government cannot be safely based without theism, because there is no explanation of the origin of the civil ruler’s moral right, or of the moral obligation of allegiance, or of the right of property, without a God and his ordinance. Let the jurist begin without a God, with any theory of “a social contract,” or any such invention as prevailed from Hobbes to Rousseau, his logical structure proves an absurd card castle, demolished by the first touch of reason. There is no way in which the duty of allegiance and obedience to the civil magistrate can receive a moral foundation, save from the ordinance of God, the Maker and Sovereign Proprietor, instituting it. There is no tenable account of the right of property, except in God’s gift of the earth and its goods to man as his rational tenant. For the well-informed reader there is no need of repeating the proof. He will recall, for instance, Paley’s demolition of the theory of social contract.

Thirdly. A practical argument is found in our experience of human nature. It is corrupted from its origin. Man is naturally a sinner, selfish, unjust, heedless and passionate. It requires all possible restraints to prevent his breaking out into such disorders as are destructive of social well-being. Take away the restraints of the divine authority, the fear of future penalty, the hope of reward, and the average man becomes an uncontrollable rebel against duty. There have been self-controlled virtuous atheists? Perhaps. Still the principle holds that “one swallow does not make a summer.” The exception does not destroy the rule. Your average atheist, from the Hottentot up to Tom Paine, is not noted for morals. The decent atheists are usually men who are shielded from temptation by a careful rearing, comfortable wealth, and wholesome surroundings. But the majority of human beings for whom governments legislate, are exposed to poverty and strong temptations; and the general result is, that then moral principles, unsustained by religious convictions, give way.

Fourthly, and chiefly. The species of atheism which prevails in our day involves also materialism. In this it is consistent. The argument which banishes spirit from the human person must also, if carried out, banish the infinite Spirit from the universe. The history of human opinion shows that this is a true maxim: Nullas spiritus in microcosmo, nullus Deus in macrocosmo. But it is simply impossible that materialism can sustain any theory of real moral obligation, virtue, or merit. The popular and practical argument for this assertion — than which there is none more conclusive — is, that beasts have no ethics, and can have none; and materialism makes man an improved beast. The sound philosopher reaches the same conclusion a more analytic way, by observing that if all of man is material, then no motives in man can be generically different from animal instinct. Rational free agency is impossible, because man acts only from animal impulse; and there is consequently no room for a true moral responsibility. The history of opinion proves the same fact; for materialists, when they attempt to write ethics, always resolve the moral motive into selfishness, desire of applause, or some lower appetency. If there is no God, then of course there can be no responsibility higher than the social; for there is no one to whom responsibility can bind. There can be no imperative standard of duty or obligation asserting any moral supremacy over the individual will, because the only other intelligent will is that of the fellow-creature, which is no higher than, and just as fallible as, the will to be regulated by it. Of course there can be no future responsibility, and every moral restraint arising from it is broken. There can be no sacredness about the human person or life; but the murder of a man would be as the killing of a beast. It is indisputable that the apostle expresses the legitimate ethics of atheism: “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.” Is not this precisely the philosophy of Elizur Wright, the president of the League? P. 83:

“The perfection of human nature is when the spiritual in man has the profoundest reverence for the physical; worships it in fact with every offering that can contribute to its highest health and the perfect development, in their due time and order, of all its marvellous faculties and functions. Every such act of worship reacts on the conscious mind itself, and fills it to overflowing with good will. This is virtue; this is the highest happiness. There is no charity which does not begin at home. Charity is like gravity, which acts inversely as the square of the distance. Who wrongs his own body will wrong everything and everybody else.”

It has been said by Christian moralists that even the atheist, if he would make a correct analysis of the facts of consciousness, would be led to recognize the moral distinctions and obligation. This may be admitted conditionally. If it could be that the atheist should so analyze the functions of conscience as to recognize these truths: that the simple judgments of right and wrong are primary and necessary intuitions; that they are rational; that they are immutable; that the judgment of obligation attending this intuition is no mere modification of association, or of self-love, or of the love of applause, or of sympathetic harmony, but is itself an integral part of the necessary truth, then indeed he might be both atheist and recognizer of morality. But it is certain that no consistent atheist will ever make this correct analysis of the moral consciousness; there is an inevitable reason in his theory why he will not. Obligation implies an obligator. Who; where is he? The shortest and simplest examination shows that it cannot be merely the fellow-creature, nor civil government. Let a man deny that there is a God, and he finds no obligator. Then, it is logically impossible he should construe obligation aright. It is unavoidable that in his blind analysis he shall pervert this intuition of obligation, which points essentially to a God, into some imagined modification of some lower feeling. And let it be repeated, the consistent atheist is always a materialist. If man is only material, then this other feeling which is transmuted to simulate what the atheist calls judgment of obligation, be it what it may, cannot be anything higher than an animal sensibility. Thus the very possibility of moral, rational obligation is gone. Atheism cannot be moral, save by an utter inconsistency. Our writers, when asserting that even the atheist would find a basis for morals if he would analyze consciousness correctly, supposed that they were thereby paying an honorable tribute to the value of these moral intuitions. Their motive was good, but their words were none the less misleading; they gave us but an imaginary, hypothetical dictum, whose condition is impossible to be realized.

Much of the unbelief of our age is pantheistic. The same charge must be made against the pantheism which now prevails: that it is virtual atheism, and cannot have a consistent morality. One reason is, that it denies a personal God. But man’s common sense always views obligation as binding to a personal will. To say that there is no personal God is practically to say that there is no obligator. And secondly, if pantheism is true, then it is idle to talk of any standard of right and wrong controlling any human will from evil, for that evil will is God’s will. The divine will, being identified with all other wills, embraces and sanctions all the evil, as truly as the good. In this form also, atheism cannot be moral.

Thus the prime error of these infidels is refuted which asserts that “natural morality,” unsustained by either natural or revealed religion, is adequate for the purposes of society. This is positively false, as is proved by experience and reason. But the state is a moral institute. Its law professes to be a rule of moral right. Its legitimate ends are to protect the well-being of society, by upholding moral right between men. Hence the state cannot be atheistic and exist safely. It must seek its foundation in theism, with its doctrines of responsibility to God and divine rewards and punishments. It must derive its warrants from God, or else it retains no valid power over the conscience.

It follows from this truth, that he who assails the being and moral government of God thereby attacks the very existence of the state. He should no more have the privilege of doing his atheistic work than of attacking the family, which is the secular or earthly foundation of civil society. Both state and federal governments claim the right to ordain monogamy as the only wholesome condition of the family institute, and to uphold it by punishing bigamy with pains and penalties. In doing this, the government rightly scorns the pretext of the Mormon, that polygamy is one of his religious tenets, and that, therefore, his religious liberty is infringed if he is restrained by corporeal penalties from practicing it. The state has an equal right to restrain the public propagation of atheism and the blasphemy of Almighty God. Of course, we all recognize the inviolability of the rights of conscience, and the irrelevancy of corporeal pains as an agency to propagate truth in the love of it. But while assigning the widest possible scope to liberty of thought, and removing the limit of it to the outermost place consistent with beneficial existence of society, we can say no less than this: that the right of the state to exist must imply its right to preserve the essential conditions of its own existence; and that to this the narrower claims of individuals must, so far, give place. For instance: private creditors of a commonwealth have a right to be paid the just amounts of the debts due them. Few personal rights can be plainer. But if circumstances arise, as foreign invasion or domestic insurrection, in which the whole possible revenues of the state are necessary to maintain its own organic existence, then the jurist says that the right of the private creditor to payment must lie in abeyance. Because, if the state betrays its own existence, for want of those revenues, the creditor loses his right forever by the annihilation of the very personality of his debtor. In like manner, if the propagation of atheism destroys the foundation of the state’s existence, this pretended right to freedom of thought in teaching atheism is superseded by the state’s right to exist. She has the civil right, as a secular institute, to suppress this personal license. Hence it appears: so far from the Federal government’s being guilty of any oppression, in refusing to permit her mails to be used to carry blasphemous or atheistic documents, or attacks upon the purity of domestic life, this is the minimum of duty she owes to herself and her constituents. The only debatable question is, whether she ought not to do more. But, they cry, the government may, under pretext of this duty, carry her intrusions farther, and invade the proper liberty of thought of the citizens. If she does so, she will go wrong; and that will be the proper time to protest. If just and necessary powers are to be withheld because they may be abused, then no power whatever could be conferred on the state.

It has thus been shown that the maintenance of theism is the essential foundation of civil government. The constitution of the United States was, therefore, wrong, in that it omitted all reference to Almighty God as the source of its powers; and that of the late Confederate States was right in doing so. The reader is now at a point of view whence he can understand the concern of the commonwealth with Sunday laws. The observation deserves to be repeated: that the Sabbath was first given to man before he needed any redemption, by God as his natural Creator and Ruler. As such, it is an institution of God’s natural dominion over mankind, an institution of natural theism and social morals. In this aspect the Sabbath belongs to the race, under all ages and dispensations, and is as obligatory on Pagan and Moslem as on Jews and Christians. Man fell: and God was pleased to institute, in the hand of his Son our Messiah, a spiritual kingdom of redemption, for the justification and sanctification of believers: a kingdom independent, under the new dispensation, of civil governments; and he was pleased also to employ the Lord’s day, in this spiritual kingdom, as an ordinance of grace and redemption to saints. This latter application has in no sense superseded the primeval one. This is the truth which the assailants of Sunday laws, and even the Lutheran theology, overlook. The whole plausibility of their argument comes from this omission. If, then, it can be repaired by the establishment of our thesis, their sophism is exploded.

This error has, unfortunately, borrowed no little strength from the mistake made by the early Reformers, and especially the Lutheran, concerning the Lord’s day. They taught (see Augsburg Confession) that the Sabbath had never been anything more than a Jewish, positive, and typical command; whence it passed away, of course, at the vanishing of the old dispensation, like all other Jewish shadows. The Lord’s day therefore, if observed under the new dispensation, can have no other basis of authority than the ecclesiastical recommending a seemly holy day, and the secular law ordering a wholesome police regulation. It is easy to foresee how infidels, attacking the divine authority of the day, would avail themselves of this theological error. In fact, a mass meeting of infidel anti-Sabbatarians in one of the great American cities, exhibited the monstrous alliance of a Lutheran minister of the gospel joining his false exegesis with their license to overthrow God’s day. Now the proof of our thesis corrects this theological error as well as the infidel argument. By proving that the Sabbath command was anti-Levitical, was moral, was universal, and was perpetual, we effectually dispose of the false position, that it was abrogated with the shadows of the old dispensation. This Review (Oct. 1857) contained an exhaustive discussion of this phase of the question. Referring our readers to that number, we shall now touch the heads of the argument as briefly as our object permits. And our thesis as to the original institution of the Sabbath will be established by three proofs: ancient tradition, sacred history, and the physiologic and psychologic testimony of man’s nature itself.

The oldest of the traditionary testimonies is that latest discovered by Assyrian research. The cuneiform writings, along with their history of the flood, distinctly testify that primeval men observed the seventh day as sacred time and by divine appointment. The oldest of the Greek poetic theologians is Hesiod. He is quoted as saying (Dierum, line 6th): “The first, the fourth also, and the seventh is a sacred day.” And again: “The seventh day once more, the splendid dawn of the sun.” And Homer: “The seventh day then arrived, the sacred day.” Again: “The seventh was sacred.” “The seventh dawn was at hand, and with this all the series is completed.” Thus also writes Callimachus the poet: “It was now the Sabbath day, and with this all was accomplished.” Again: “Yea, the seventh is the parent-day.” Again: “The seventh day is first, and the seventh day is the complement.” The elegies of Solon, the Athenian legislator, also proclaimed the seventh day as more sacred than the rest. Josephus against Apion (II. 40), says: “There is not any city of the Grecians, nor any of the Barbarians, nor any nation whatsoever, whither our custom of resting on the seventh day hath not come.” Allowing for the exaggeration of the controversialist, we still find evidence here of a widely spread usage. It must have been rather the remaining effect of primeval custom and law than recent imitation of the despised Jews. Philo, the learned Jew, nearly contemporary with the Christian era, calls the Sabbath heorta pandamos. To such testimonies as these should, in justice, be added the numerous proofs of the observance of stated holy days, such as the new moons, among the most ancient pagans. These, though not in all cases coincident with the Old Testament Sabbath, still confirm its original authority in two ways: they are evidently inaccurate imitations of it lingering among the growing twilight of polytheism; they are practical admissions of the truth that, in order to continue such a creature as man religious, he must have a stated religious day.

Let it be understood that we, of course, do not advance this traditionary proof as sufficient, by itself, to establish the divine authority of the Sabbath. Rut it raises a strong probability. Taken with the proof that follows, it shows that God, in creating man, appointed him a sacred day. The appointment was for a long time observed as a world-wide institution. The separation of apostate parts of the race from the church in the lineage of the” sons of God” did not by any means terminate their observance of the day. But the decline in the proper observance of the day evidently hastened the spread of idolatry. And when the observance of the sacred day was totally lost in any tribe, then monotheism and the knowledge of the true God were also Lost. The necessity of Sabbath observance, as the great school of natural theism, is thus illustrated by the state of the whole pagan world in this historical fact. Wherever there has been no weekly sacred day, there has been neither pure monotheism, nor a single instance of a civic order combining civilization and constitutional liberty. Let the instance be produced. Paganism has presented us a certain degree of civilization, with despotism; or a certain rude freedom, with savagery, as among our Teuton ancestors described in Tacitus’ Germania: that is all. Our modern infidels vainly flatter themselves, that if they can banish the Sabbath, they will have a reign of rational atheism. They know very well, that by banishing the Sabbath they will destroy Christianity. But they are utterly mistaken. “That which hath been is that which shall be.” Human nature is still human nature. The condition they will inevitably have, will be, not rational infidelity enthroned, but rank superstition, fetichism, polytheism, pagan heirarchy; and their Sabbathless society will prove itself capable, not of republican freedom, but only of the species of gigantic despotism which ruled in Egypt and Chaldea, and which cemented the stones of the pyramids and the hanging gardens of Nebuchadnezzar with the blood of the “proletariat.” The commonwealth taught by history claims that she has a right to maintain the Sabbath, because she has the primary right of self-preservation, and God and his Sabbath are the cornerstones of her being. She sees that constitutional liberty has only been made possible for modern ages, as reformed Christianity has given back to the European races the theism and the holy day which God gave the race at its beginning.

The civil legislator, in appealing to the Bible as his second witness to this fact, uses the book, not as the gospel of redemption, but as the authentic and inspired history of God’s original constitution of human society. It is not forgotten that it is the trick of our opponents to set this witness aside with the easy assertion that the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, is mythical. This is no place to go into the full argument for its authenticity, nor is it necessary. The assaults upon its historical credit we simply denounce as impertinences. That battle has been long ago fought and decided. The true history of the race, the real scholarship, the intelligent virtue, are with the Bible. These renewed pretences, that it is discredited by any later researches, are shallow and unwarrantable. They are especially unworthy of respectful treatment at this day, when the marvellous results of Egyptology and the Assyrian explorations have shed a flood of confirmatory light on the sacred history, and when the proud waves of skeptical physical science are retreating from its bulwarks of truth in confessed defeat.

Authentic history is the chief guide of legislation, next to the eternal principles of right and wrong. The Old Testament is the most authentic of ancient histories, and it is, for the legislator, of most fundamental importance; because it is the only history in the world that gives the foundation facts of God’s organization of human society. No commonwealth can be safely reared, save on these foundations. If it be built on others, it must fall, because the very laws of nature and Providence are against it. Now, the sacred history tells us that the Maker founded human society on obedience to himself; and he being essential righteousness, this was to found it on righteousness. He raised two buttresses for it in Paradise, the family and the Sabbath; and man’s lapse from that first state did not supersede, but only enhance, the necessity of these two supports. The family was to provide moral nurture for the members of society; the Sabbath was to perpetuate that theism and knowledge and fear of God which are the essential condition of all social welfare, as well as future salvation for sinners. Thus, the Sabbath was originally no Jewish or Levitical ceremony; but the institution of the race, given to them in their first parents, even before their need of redemption had emerged. “The Sabbath was made for man.”(Gen. ii. 2, 3.) God blessed and sanctified the seventh day, at the end of the very first week. For whom did he sanctify it? Evidently, for Adam and Eve. (Gen. iv. 3, margin.) The seventh day was evidently observed for religious worship and oblation by the human family, when we next hear of them as sinners. (Gen. vii. 2, 10, margin.) God enabled Noah, even in the awful crisis of the approaching deluge, to complete his entrance into the ark against the sacred day. (Gen. viii. 10, 12.) Noah observes the seventh day’s division of time, while still shut up in the ark. (Gen. xvii. 12.) The male child must be circumcised one week after its birth; showing that this division of time by the sacred day still prevailed in Abraham’s time. (Gen. xxix. 27.) The usual length of a wedding-feast in the days of Jacob was a week, which shows that the Sabbath was still in use, at least as a division of time, in Mesopotamia, after it was becoming idolatrous. In Gen. 1. 10, we find that a week was the duration of a funeral mourning in the days of Joseph; and that for the Egyptians, as well as the Hebrews, Exod. all. 15 teaches us that before the Sabbath commandment had been given on Sinai, a week was the length proper for a solemn religious festival. In Exod. xvi. 25, still before the giving of the Decalogue, two supernatural exceptions weekly were made to the regular ordering of the manna, to insure Israel’s keeping the Sabbath. It fell on six days regularly; but none fell on the seventh. That which was kept over for a day, uniformly putrefied; but that which was kept over from the sixth for the food of the seventh, did not putrefy.

So, when we come to the Mosaic legislation proper Exod. xx. 8-11 — the command to sanctify the Sabbath begins: “Remember the Sabbath day,” showing that it was no new institute, but an old one, only requiring more faithful observance. So, while the ritual commands have often a reason assigned for them from some particular event in the Hebrews’ own history, as the Passover, from the sparing of their first-born in Egypt, the reason assigned for the Sabbath is as universal as the race of man. But the conclusive evidence is, that foreigners and pagans being among the Hebrews were required also to observe the day. Indeed, it was made the Hebrew magistrate’s duty to enforce the observance of it on the “strangers that were within his gates.” See also Neh. xiii. 16 and 21. This is most significant, because foreigners were not only not required to observe the ritual ceremonies peculiar to the Hebrew religion, but were forbidden. No pagan could participate in the paschal feast until he had become a Jew. Thus God teaches his church to teach the world that the Sabbath is not only obligatory on believers, as members of the kingdom of redemption, but also on men simply as subjects of the kingdom of nature. This evidence of sacred history is crowned by the fact that when the coming and sacrifice of Christ has superseded all the merely ceremonial reasons for the observance of the Sabbath as a type, still the apostolic Christians did not cease to sanctify the holy day. It was, indeed, moved forward to the first day, the commemoration of the resurrection and Pentecost; but the whole moral obligation of the Sabbath was, by inspired precedent, transferred to the “Lord’s day.” And the authority of the last of the apostles, John (Rev. i. 10), consecrated this as the sacred day of the Redeemer of the world.

Now, a cavil may be attempted from this change, thus: the Sabbatarians have conceded that the spiritual kingdom of redemption and the secular commonwealth are independent. Then this cardinal event in redemption should have no effect in changing the usage of the state. The latter, if it retains any Sabbath, ought to cleave to the seventh day. Indeed, since the Christian church believes that the completion of Christ’s sacrifice has superseded the typical reasons for the seventh day, the correct conclusion would be that the state also should cease to regard the seventh without taking up the first. This is the answer: that typical reasons for sanctifying the seventh, even during the typical period of the church’s history, were only a part of the reasons. Hence, though these were satisfied, the others remained, and men in all ages still have the same reasons to keep God’s original Sabbath which the man in paradise had, and which the men before Abraham and Moses had. Hence, all that could be fairly inferred would be this: that while the church moved over its observance to the first day, the state should retain its original day. But why should this discrepancy be kept up? Why embarrass the obligatory observance of all Christian citizens, by making that first day secular which their Redeemer compels them to make sacred ? Church and state are independent, but they are not hostile. The state, the organ of earthly righteousness, need not be so jealous of the church, the organ of spiritual salvation, as to refuse to act with her in this one non-essential point, when that God, who is both Creator and Ruler, and also “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” honored his risen Son by transferring the original Sabbath to his resurrection-day.

The third proof of our proposition is that presented by man’s body and spirit themselves. The experimental science of physiology has evinced that .man’s body and nerves were created by their Maker a seven-day clock. To secure their best endurance and working, they must be “wound up” weekly by the Sabbath rest. Yea, God has written the same law on the constitution of the very brutes which he has given to man for servants. The. wayfarer who rests one day in seven progresses farther than he who presses on seven days. The army which rests on the Lord’s day marches farther, in the long run, than the one which moves seven days in the week. The team which does its task on the Sunday is worn and broken down, while that which is permitted to keep the Sabbath rest continues fresh and healthy. The body of the human being who observes the rest is, other things being equal, more healthy, efficient, and long-lived than that of the Sabbath-breaker. The same rules hold of the health of the spirit. Let the tension of worldly care and business, of study, or of executive tasks, be continued through the seventh day as well as all the six, and the poise of the faculties is lost, the spirit becomes feverish, the emotions are exasperated, the soul wears itself out by its own friction. For the intelligent and candid reader these facts need only be intimated. He knows that they are too numerous and authentic to be disputed. It is thus seen that he who “made the Sabbath for man,” made man for the Sabbath. The creature and the institution are fitted to each other. This is a perfect proof that our thesis is correct in asserting the Sabbath rest to be an institution coeval with the race, and designed for a whole race, under all dispensations.

But when we come to the moral argument, we find it yet more conclusive. Let the reader again be reminded that we claim it, not as it might be constructed on the higher ground of man’s redemption and sanctification; but only from the position of man the rational, moral member of the secular but moral institute, the commonwealth. Let us resume the points established, that civil government is moral, and founded in moral obligation; that the only basis of morals and obligation is theism, the knowledge and fear of the true God of creation and providence, of his will as the prime rule of right, and of his righteous rewards and punishments; that a holy day reserved to him is the only sufficient means to preserve among men, especially as fallen, that knowledge and fear. The last point might be powerfully argued from experience alone. Where has there ever been a people who, after wholly deserting the Sabbath, have retained (not to say Christianity, but even) a healthy monotheism? History tells of none. Islam is monotheistic, and hence the Moslems have ever been more effective, civilized, and triumphant than .the polytheists near them; but this is because Islam has a quasi Sabbath, its Holy Friday recurring weekly, and devoted to the worship of God and the study of the Koran. Again do we remind our destructive “progressives” that there is no safe guide for legislation outside the law of righteousness, save experience. The experience of all ages is against them. Man’s nature remains the same. “Like causes produce like effects.” Hence, when they demand that we shall discard the sure light of experience, and plunge into their perilous novelties, they are guilty of an impertinence whose arrogancy can only be equalled by its injustice.

But the least modicum of practical wisdom shows us that our proposition cannot but be true. Man is a finite creature and a creature of habits. Hence he never does anything effectually, save as he has stated times for doing it. Life is full of homely instances of this rule. Savages eat such food as chance brings them at irregular times. But it is presumed that no people ever dined well who did not have a regular dinner hour. Courts of justice must have their court days. Merchants must have their hours of exchange. Banks must have their “discount days.” So, if there is to be any instrumentality to keep alive the knowledge of God, it must have its stated season allotted to it, or it will be forgotten. Thus it comes about that, when the Sabbath is lost, true religion is lost. There is also a vital connection between the family, that other bulwark of society, and the Sabbath. A day of rest from secular pursuits is necessary to enable the parental and domestic influences to come into effectual play. While the working-day world flows on, it absorbs parents and children in its stream, and, indeed, usually separates them by their avocations, so that they are almost strangers to each other. In every civilized community the majority of the people must be, toilers. But the wealthy and self-indulgent are in most’ cases equally absorbed by the equally exacting demands of pleasure. To bring parents and children together, this turmoil of work and amusement must be bidden to cease. A sacred leisure must be provided and protected from the temptations of gain and pleasure, in order that parents and children may be truly reunited around the hearth, the true altar of well-ordered society. There the sacred influences of parental love may play effectually, and the virtues of a moral and pious home be diffused. Nowhere is there a better and more truthful statement of this connection than in the “Cotter’s Saturday Night” of Burns. Without a Sunday there would have been no such Saturday night, with its blessed humanizing and restraining influences.

To sum up, then: it is admitted that every man ought to enjoy the fullest liberty of thought compatible with the ends of government, and that the secular state ought to be separate from, and independent of, the church, pursuing as its proper object the protection of the earthly rights of the people. If the Christian Sabbath were nothing but an ordinance of the spiritual kingdom and means of redemption, then the state should leave its enforcement, as it properly does that of the Christian worship and sacraments, to the persuasions of the church. But while the day is this, it is also another thing: the necessary support of that natural theism, domestic virtue, and popular morality, which are the foundations of the state. The state is from God, exists by his ordinance, holds its powers by delegation from him, and has no other basis for the righteousness it seeks to enforce between man and man than his will. On the basis of atheism there can be no stable structure, either of ethics or government. Hence the state’s right to exist includes her right to protect these essential conditions of her existence, and to enforce that outward observance of the Sabbath rest which alone makes the inculcation of God’s fear and of public and private virtue practicable, through those distinct, but friendly, cooperative agencies which God has ordained to keep men in his fear, the family and the church. Every true statesman knows that, unless the suitable conditions of public and private morality exist in the people, no statecraft, no constitution-making, can create or preserve a prosperous free commonwealth. In this sense, the statesman alone cannot make a state. Divine providence must contribute its essential cooperation, through those other institutes which are as truly ordained of God, as original and as independent as the state itself, the family and the church. Wise statesmen have learned from experience that the state’s tinkering with these, in the way of persecutions of heresies, state endowments, and such like expedients, only cripples their ability for good. But this is no reason why the state should rashly overlook or deny the vital value of their training work to its ends, or should so wield its secular power as to deprive them of the suitable means and opportunities for doing their all-important functions. On the contrary, the state is bound so to enforce outward rest and quiet, and the cessation of secular labors and public amusements, as to honor God’s natural ordinance, and to give the allied institutes, the family and the church, their proper opportunity for doing their work on the people.


Robert Lewis Dabney was a native of Virginian, educated at Hampden Sydney College, Virginia, the University of Virginia, and Union Theological Seminary at Hampden Sydney. He was ordained to the ministry of the Presbyterian Church in 1847 and spent his first six years of ministerial life pastoring a church. In 1853 he was called to the Chair of Ecclesiastical History and Polity at Union Seminary. In 1859 he transferred to the department of Systematic Theology. Following the Civil War, during which he was a chaplain and also served as Chief of Staff to General T.J. (Stonewall) Jackson, with the rank of Major, he returned to Union Seminary and continued to teach in the filed of Systematic Theology until 1883, when he moved to the University of Texas in the Chair of Mental and Moral Philosophy and Political Economy where he taught until 1894. His biographer said that he was entitled to “the first place among the theological thinkers and writers of his century.”

This article appeared in The Southern Presbyterian Review for January, 1880, reviewing Circular of the National Liberal League. 1878. 12mo., pp. 44. D., X Bennett, N. Y. Third Annual Congress of the National Liberal League. Cincinnati 1879 Pp. 115, 12mo. D. M. Bennett, N. Y.


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