Robertson's complex reasoning about sabbatarianism — and specifically about the question whether the Crystal Palace should be open on Sundays so workers could visit — exemplifies his relation to various parties in and out of the established church. In Victorian practice Sabbatarianism meant that pubs, theatres, and various places of recreation must remain closed on Sunday, the Christian sabbath, was chiefly a Evangelical doctrine. Since the wealthy both had the opportunity to visit places of edification and amusement during the work week and had access to private clubs on Sundays, many opponents, particularly those in the working classes, believed Sabbatarianism clearly favored the rich and powerful and took away the recreation of the poor. Or as Robertson puts the case, "there is a tendency now to be very indignant about a poor man's spending Sunday afternoon in a tea-garden . . . Why do they not preach a crusade against noblemen driving in the park? . . . Why do they say that it is a crime to sacrifice a single policeman to the comfort of the community, by making him work on the Sabbath, when their own servants are 'sacrificed ' — if it be sacrifice — in making their beds, cleaning their rooms, boiling their luxurious hot potatoes, &c., &c., &c." (251). Of course, devout sabbatarians rich and poor often would permit themselves to read only the scriptures, sermons, and obviously religious texts, such as Milton's Paradise Lost.

In explaining his own views to his correspondent, a Mr. Wright, Robertson begins by pointing out that according to St. Paul, "the Sabbath is abrogated, being, as he calls it (Col. ii, 16, 17), a shadow of which Christ is the substance. This [Old Testament] Sabbath has given way to a larger, grander, more spiritual Sabbath — the Rest of the people of God — a life claimed, not in parts, but as a whole, for Him — a perpetual sacrifice," and in another place (Gal. iv. 10, 11) Paul argued that to insist that keeping the Christian sabbath is "indispensable to salvation" violates the spirit of Christianity" (25o). Nonetheless, Robertson argues that the "Christian Church [can] appoint days and times . . . provided only that she does not bind them on human consciences as indispensable" (250). Moreover, he points out that from early Christian times, believers appointed "the Lord's Day," thought it was "not a transference of the Jewish Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, but arose out of the great Christian principle, which views all life in reference to the Church's crucified and risen Lord . . . I hold this institution of the Lord's Day to be a most precious and blessed one, not to be dispensed with except with danger" (250). Robertson, who points out that Paul at times qualified his poisiton, seems first to deny the main points of sabbatarianism and then seems to reverse direction. In fact, he offers two reasons not to open the Crystal Palace on Sundays:

Now here is my first objection to the spirit in which the Crystal Palace is proposed. It contemplates a non-observance of the Sabbath,' but not a religious one. It is not non-observance to the Lord. It does not proceed from a sublime view of Christian life as one great Sabbath, but from laxity, indifference, and love of lucre. At least, I fear so, for it is put forward in the light of a speculation.

My second objection — not so much to the thing itself as to the grounds on which it is advocated — is the assumption, that to humanise the people is identical with Christianising them. I am very anxious to humanise and polish the people; but I cannot shut my eyes to the lesson of history — that the arts, such as painting, sculpture, music, poetry, have not in them selves ennobled, but often deteriorated nations. The worship of the Beautiful is not the worship of Holiness ; and therefore to talk of statue galleries and museums as if they were to do the work which can only be done by the Cross of Christ, and to represent such aesthetic amusements as the true and right religious use of rest, I hold to be mere false sentimentality.

Having admitted his own objections to allowing the Crystal Palace to remain open and therefore accessible to workers, he then states that despite them, "I am strongly opposed to every endeavour to put down the Crystal Palace by petition or legislative enactments" (250) for three reasons:

1. Because it is a return to Judaism to enforce, by human enactment, that which St. Paul declares repealed. I may much regret the probable tendencies of this measure; but still I cannot try to forbid by law a sort of recreation for the poor man in public gardens and public picture galleries, which the rich man has freely allowed himself in private gardens and galleries, with no protest whatever from the clergy.

2. Because a severe and stringent law injures the conscience. Whoever multiplies enactments beyond what is essential, tempts human consciences to transgression. For it is transgression when a man does a thing which he thinks wrong, even though it be not abstractedly wrong. Hence St. Peter speaks against 'putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither he nor his fathers had been able to bear.' And hence St. Paul speaks of the 'motions of sin which were by the law;' that is, caused and stirred into motion by the law. I am persuaded that much abandonment is caused by the strict severity of Sabbath observance, when others, who are not fit for it, are compelled to obey, at the risk of being treated as infidels. Many a criminal on the scaffold can trace his first declension in crime to such a restriction and the feeling of hopelessness and defiance which seized him when he had once broken it.

3. And I refuse to sign such a petition, lastly, because to exalt a 'law positive,' that is, a law contrived for temporary and special ends — into the ranks of a moral law externally binding, has always been the first step towards relaxing the reverence for that which is moral. Thus the Pharisees were very scrupulous about tithing mint, anise, and cumin: justice, judgment, and truth they cared little for. They were furious at a transgression of the Fourth Commandment, but they would allow a man to be as proud, and selfish, and tyrannical as he pleased. And so, in the same way, there is a tendency now to be very indignant about a poor man's spending Sunday afternoon in a tea-garden, whilst there is little zeal against the real damning sins of social life. Why do they not preach a crusade against noblemen driving in the park? Or why do they speak of God sending a judgment on this nation for a Crystal Palace, while they quietly ignore the fact, or are too polite to take notice of it, that four-fifths of our male population are living in a state of concubinage till they are married ? Why do they hold up hands of pious indignation when a train runs by, while more than one religious person in this town drives regularly to church on fine days as well as wet ? Why do they say that it is a crime to sacrifice a single policeman to the comfort of the community, by making him work on the Sabbath, when their own servants are ' sacrificed ' — if it be sacrifice — in making their beds, cleaning their rooms, boiling their luxurious hot potatoes, &c., &c., &c., none of which are either works of necessity or works of mercy — the only works, they say, which are excepted from the rule? Why do they not grapple with the slander, and the gossip, and the pride of society, and the crimes of the upper classes ? Why are they touched to the quick only when desecration of the Sabbath puts on a vulgar form ? Because, as I said before, scrupulosity about laws (positive' generally slides into laxity about the eternal laws of right and wrong. [250/251]

Finally, Robertson concludes, he is believes that spending Sundays at the Crystal Palace might be "an improvement on the way in which the poorer classes at present spend their Sundays" (251). Needless to say, Brooke adds, he was attacked by Evangelicals for being irreligious and un-Christian.

Robertson and Victorian Religion

References

Brooke, Stopford A. Life and Letters of Fred[erick]. W. Robertson, M. A., Incumbent of Trinity Chapel, Brighton, 1847-53. People's Edition. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co., 1902.


Victorian Overview Religion F. W. Robertson

Last modified 7 December 2007