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The English Sunday

Since Tudor times, and for four centuries, the observance of the Sabbath was strictly enjoined by Government regulation.

In 1672, a Frenchman visiting England noted that ‘there is no kingdom where Sunday is better observed’. The same thought must often have struck foreign visitors to this country in the ensuing three centuries.

To this day England is distinguished from every other country in the world by the rigidity of its laws on Sunday observance. It is still illegal to stage a live theatrical entertainment, to watch professional sport or to buy more than a few specified articles on the Sabbath.

This year Parliament will almost certainly pass three measures which seek to release the Englishman from his enforced rest on the seventh day of the week. They will finally destroy a national institution that has endured for over 400 years.

Regulations governing activities on the Sabbath can be traced as far back as the tenth-century laws of Athelstan which imposed severe penalties on those engaging in trade on the Lord’s Day.

But it was not until the Reformation that England adopted the fourth of the Ten Commandments, ‘Remember thou the Sabbath day, to keep it Holy’, and made it a national monopoly.

Protestant theology stressed the importance of Sunday observance in distinction to the Catholic Church’s attachment to Saints’ Days and festivals. The Biblical injunction to sanctify the Sabbath was taken up by Calvin.

And it was Arthur Golding, the English translator of Calvin’s works, who first pointed to the discrepancy between the ideal of a day ‘ordained for the hearing of God’s word to the reformation of our lives’ and the reality, when it was ‘spent full heathenishly, in taverning, tippling, gaming, playing and beholding of bear baitings and stage plays’.

The Puritans were not slow to take up the battle against these profanations of the Lord’s Day. They soon found that their crusade had an appeal to contemporaries which went beyond that of obedience to the Divine command.

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