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Christopher Lane

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The Striking History of Britain's Sunday Law

Posted: 01/10/12 10:00 AM ET

The "Act for Preventing Certain Abuses and Profanations on the Lord's Day, Called Sunday," which Britain's Parliament made law in 1781, bears more than a striking name. For more than a century-and-a-half, while Britain was industrializing and democratizing, the Observance Law was responsible for closing each Sunday not just the nation's theaters, but also its libraries, museums, zoos, public gardens and of course its stores. Especially toward the end of the 19th century, adjustments to the law relaxed its broad powers. But as late as 1972, amazingly, the Sunday Theatre Act was needed to make it fully legal for British theaters to hold performances on such days.

In his book "The Literature of the Sabbath Question" (1865), the Victorian Robert Cox justly complains that the law had become a "barrier" to public learning and relaxation, as well as one that "prevents the admission of the public on Sundays to the Crystal Palace at Sydenham." But wryness wasn't the only Victorian response to the law. In his famous treatise On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill notes that zealots had begun invoking the law in their "repeated attempts to stop railway traveling on Sundays." He calls such obstructions a type of "religious bigot[ry]" -- a form of harassment against freethinkers and unbelievers, to say nothing of those simply wanting to move freely around the country. Such harassment stems, Mill writes, from "the notion that it is one man's duty that another should be religious ... a belief that God not only abominates the act of the misbeliever, but will not leave us guiltless if we leave him unmolested." It is, he concludes, "the opinions men entertain, and the feelings they cherish, respecting those who disown the beliefs they deem important which makes this country not a place of mental freedom."

How the observance law came to exist in the first place is itself notable. The bill that Parliament approved, greatly affecting British culture for more than 150 years, stemmed almost single-handedly from the actions and concerns of one influential bishop, Beilby Porteus. An avid reformer and abolitionist with keen interests also in the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, Porteus was bishop of Chester before passage of the bill, but made bishop of London after its approval. In 1780, he writes candidly in his memoir, uncovered a few years later, he sought the aid of Parliament to crack down on religious criticism in Britain: "The beginning of the winter of 1780 was distinguished by the rise of a new species of dissipation and profaneness."

On Sundays, the bishop noted with dismay, groups across London would assemble in public meeting rooms, adopting names such as "Christian Societies, Religious Societies, [and] Theological Societies." Though meeting "under pretence of inquiring into religious doctrines, and explaining texts of holy Scripture," he claims, they were "unlearned and incompetent to explain the same." The bishop, who has since been noted as a likely prototype for Mr. Collins in Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" (1813) (there's a portrait of him here) argues that such discussions "were calculated to extinguish every religious principle," and thus "threatened the worst consequences to public morals." They "gave offence ... to every man of gravity and seriousness ... several of whom I have heard speak of [them] with abhorrence." Foreigners apparently had been "shocked and scandalized ... considering it a disgrace to any Christian country to tolerate so gross an insult on all decency and good order."

Passage of the bishop's bill was far from smooth. Several members of Parliament "violently opposed" it, Porteus recalls, and heated discussion also broke out in the House of Lords, though the bill eventually "passed [both houses] without a division."

But the new law also led to the publication of a powerful and articulate rebuttal, an anonymous pamphlet called The Doubts of Infidels: Queries Relative to Scriptural Inconsistencies & Contradictions (1781). Its author called himself "A Weak but Sincere Christian" who was submitting his questions to "The Bench of Bishops for Elucidation." As a self-described infidel, however, the author captured both the word's flavor of heresy and its suggestion of infidelity ("infidel" comes to us via the Old French infidèle). Bristling with indignation and anger, he was doubtful of the bishops' ability to answer pages of well-documented concerns about scriptural inconsistency, which he detailed for them chapter and verse.

The pamphlet has since been attributed to William Nicholson (1753-1815), a renowned London chemist and philosopher, and it begins as brilliantly controlled satire: "An act of parliament is," he writes, "an excellent engine for producing that kind of uniformity of opinions, which consists in holding the tongue. ... It is carrying the notion of liberty too far to suppose, because we are free-born Englishmen, that we may choose our own faith and go to heaven our own way!"

Then follows a series of devastating questions: "How can the attributes of God be vindicated, in having performed so great a number of miracles, for a long succession of very distant ages, and so few in latter times?" "Is the account of the creation and fall of man, in the book of Genesis, physical or allegorical?" And so on, for 21 more pages.

In "The Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty" (2011), which details this and several other major wrangles over doctrine and dogma, I show that Nicholson's pamphlet was not the only one to appear after observance of Sunday as "the Lord's Day" became law across Britain for more than 150 years. However, Nicholson's intervention helps underline how well-argued doubts about the Bible galvanized British freethinkers in the 1780s, creating a vibrant culture of doubt and unbelief that, among other things, helped temper the extremes to which some Victorians, in their attempt at restricting the public's movement on Sundays, made clear they were still very much prone.