Remember the Sabbath
by Mel Robertson
Many countries have "Remember" days on which historical events are recalled. In the United States there is "Remember Pearl Harbour", "Remember the Alamo", "Remember the Maine", etc. In England, there is "Remember the Guy" to commemorate Guy Fawkes' attempt to blow up Parliament on Nov. 5. Other countries have similar "Remember" days.
However the "Remember" day of my 1920's childhood was "Remember the Sabbath". This was not a "Remember" day like those referred to above, but rather a warning not to forget the many restrictions the "Sabbath" placed on people.
First, in explanation, we must define the "Sabbath". To some people, it is Saturday and to others, Sunday. I will not enter into any theological arguments as to which is correct other than to say that in 1920's Burford, the "Sabbath" was on Sunday. Then, before I get into any other theological quibbles concerning my right to discuss the "Sabbath", I must define my own religious background.
My mother's people were pioneer Methodists from the Prescott, Niagara and Bur-ford areas who numbered among their ranks a noted lay minister who always confused his congregations by ending his prayers with the words "For Joseph's sake". No one knew why he did this and apparently he was such a formidable person that no one dared to ask him. My father's people were Aberdeen Presbyterians of the strictest type. My grandfather John Robertson was one of three men who founded the Bishopsgate Presbyterian Church which is now the home of Mr. and Mrs. E.J. Chosen on King Street East. The church operated in accordance with strict Scottish terms. An hour-glass regulated the length of sermons
and no musical instruments were allowed to lead the singing. This part of the service was handled by a "Prefecter" - a man who struck the note with a tuning fork, emitted a loud "humm" and led the singing.
I was raised a Methodist with some Scottish Presbyterian influence. I attended a Baptist university (McMaster) where I took a couple of very interesting Bible
courses, along with my other in the RCAF, I always entered into the church life of the community where I was stationed and I sang in United Church and Baptist choirs.
My relationship with the R.C. Church consisted of friendships with a number of R.C. Chaplains. One of these was rather amusing. When I was stationed with No. 3 Fighter Wing in Germany in the 1950s, a number of R.C. air-women got married. For some reason, I was always asked (in the absence of their Canadian fathers) to "give them away". The R.C. Chaplain used to laugh and say, "Every time I look down the aisle, there is Squadron Leader Robertson coming up with another young lady on his arm".
Then, about 45 years ago, due to a close friendship with an Anglican priest and his family, my wife and I became Anglicans and, for a number of years, I was very active in the work of Huron Diocese, Brant Deanery and Holy Trinity Church in Bur-ford. I suppose that this may be considered religious instability, but I would prefer to consider it religious curiosity. I won't discuss this further, but I hope that anyone who has read my article this far will consider my background when I discuss the Burford "Sabbath" of the late 1920s.
In 1920's Burford, the out-of-home lives of children were governed by two things - the school and the church. The school offered a Marine Boot Camp type of education with everything done in a military manner with little input from the children. However, among all the rigidity, I remember one thing and that was the religious instruction we received. Since there were no two-member religious sects in Burford that regarded the anal emissions of seagulls as sacred prophecy, there were no "politically correct" or "charter" restrictions on religious education in schools. We started each day with the reading. And were required to memorize certain portions of the Bible such as "The Lord's Prayer", the 23rd Psalm and the 13th letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians about love and charity. I won't enter into arguments as to the value of this either as religious writing or as beautiful prose, nor will I speculate if this increased or decreased our life value. However, in reading these writings I must, as an historian, stand in awe of the wisdom of the writer and the skill of the translator.
The 1920's Burford churches offered a vast variety of activities for children including libraries, picnics, sports groups, debating societies, musical groups, and "Scouting" type clubs for both boys and girls. All this was done with very little equipment. Children were expected to use their imagination with some help from adults. The only restrictions placed on these organizations was that the rules of the "Sabbath" had to be observed such as no dancing, no games of chance and no meetings on the "Sabbath".
Religious affiliation for most 1920's Burford children began when they were about four. Then at about 10:15 on a "Sabbath" morning, they were dressed in their best, given two cents for the collection, and sent off to Sunday School. There they were divided sexually into boys and girls classes, told to sit on little chairs, put their hands behind their backs and not to talk. Then after the preliminary exercises, they were marched to classes and given a "lesson" from a little book. After that, each received a Sunday School paper, and a Sunday School attendance card. Then they were allowed to rejoin their siblings and go home.
In the afternoon, most children were put on their father's knee and read stories from "Hurlburt's Stories from the Bible". This was a well-written book with interesting stories told in an "un-preachy" style.
At about 3:00, children were brushed up and almost every child, no matter what his or her church affiliation, went to the Baptist Sunday School which was held in the building that is now the Rebekah Lodge. I don't know why this mass migration took place, but I think it was due to the fact that, at the Baptist Sunday School, there was no sexual separation. The class was all one big, informal, happy get-together where, for an hour or so, children felt free of some of the "Sabbath" restrictions.
On Sunday evenings, children went to adult church with their parents where they nodded through the long sermons and were kept awake with big hot peppermint drops. Then they went to bed wondering about the day and hoping they had gotten their two cents worth.
During my progress through Sunday School, I recall a couple of things. When I was about eight years of age, a less-than-Christian competition developed between our class of boys and a girls' class of the same age biggest collection to be posted on the blackboard. At two cents a kid, this didn't amount to much, but we had a secret weapon. Our teacher was Mr. Wellington Hunt, a highly-respected Burford man. Mr. Hunt was also the engineer at the local milk factory where, due to the lack of refrigeration to handle large quantities of milk, he sometimes had to work on Sunday. He didn't like to do so, but made up for it by donating all he made on Sundays to our collection. Thus, every now and then, our collection was increased dramatically and we were able to give the girls' class the 1920 version of "Nah Nah". A more memorable Sunday School event took place when I was about 12. Our teacher was a man who is no longer living and who has no relatives in the area. This man did not teach us from the approved text, but from a book on adolescent sex that had been written by a Dr. Kellogg, who not only invented corn flakes, but also ran a fashionable health clinic whose chief treatment was five enemas a day. Kellogg also fancied himself as an expert on adolescent sex and wrote a book about it that was directed at the birds and bees. Our teacher was enthralled with this book and every Sunday we were warned to avoid all contact with girls or women, to take cold sponge baths when we got up and when we went to bed, and to avoid the consumption of raw eggs. He also warned us, with great seriousness, against "vile
practices" which he said would make us blind, insane and something called "impotent". Since boys of the 1920s were less socially-advanced than boys of 1995, all this confused us. We were still more confused when we asked our parents the meaning of several words our teacher used, to be told never to ask them again. Parents would not believe that this Sunday School teacher was teaching such trash. I don't know what effect it had on the dozen 12-year old boys of the class but, as far as I know, none became celibate, cold sponge-bath addicts who took five enemas a day or avoided contact with women. As for myself, the only effect it had on me was a strange aversion to corn flakes. I don't know how long this phoney adolescent sex education continued, but I imagine it stopped when boys became more socially-advanced and began to ask the teacher the questions their parents had refused to answer.
With these recollections of a personal "Sabbath", I will turn to my recollections of a general 1920's Burford "Sabbath". This was a day of strictness and piety. All work, other than the getting of meals, ceased. Stores pulled down their front window blinds and some homeowners did the same. Children's games of all sorts were stopped and for a child to go swimming or skating on the "Sabbath" was a major sin. Adults assumed serious faces and seemed to walk slower than usual. The only generally accepted Sunday afternoon relaxation was to go for a walk in the Congregational cemetery. Almost everyone in the community acted as an informal police force to see that no one violated the "Sabbath". An example of this was when a local professional man tried to burn his leaves on the "Sabbath". This transgression brought several people to his front door ordering him to put out the fire and threatening him with a "Greater Fire" later on. Playing of tunes was restricted to "church" music and anyone who dared to bang out "It ain't gonna rain no more" on the piano would have been stopped.
One strange "Sabbath" transgression is noted in the columns of rural areas to the "Advance". There, correspondents never failed to censure young men for hitching up a horse on Sunday afternoon and going "girling" to some neighbouring community. This apparently was not done on the "Sabbath" and correspondents delighted in condemning young men who "got left" or failed to pick up a girl. Apparently "courting" by any but betrothed couples was not the "thing" to do.
Most children accepted "Sabbath Day" restrictions without complaint. However, now and then, some kid would dare to take a skinny dip on a hot "Sabbath" only to get "one alongside the ear" when he came home with wet hair. Other rebellions were more subtle. On one occasion, a young lady who played the organ at a Burford church became so annoyed by all the restrictions that were placed on what she could play that one Sunday night she slowed up a popular waltz and played it while the collection was being taken. She was praised after the service for the tune she played, but I am sure that if people had known that it was really a slow version of a popular waltz titled "The Passionate Dream" they would have asked for their money back.
And so as the years rolled on. Automobiles began to take people almost anywhere on the "Sabbath" and aeroplanes made a trip to the Orient as easy as a trip to Brantford in one of "Pap" Johnson's buses. Radio gave people access to the sermons of Aimee Semple McPherson and other evangelists with varying views on religion. Then TV brought people face to face with Billy Graham and Oral Roberts. Children began to know the meaning of words used by Dr. Kellogg without asking their parents. Clergymen in turtlenecked sweaters began to recommend complete emancipation from most of the sins that worried people in the 1920s. Gender relationships became less formal and more explicit. Children became computer-intelligent and began to question the authority of their parents and teachers. Politeness and consideration became taboo and soon the "Sabbath" was just a day when you could do everything you did on the other six. Now the "open" Sunday reigns supreme, for better or worse. If people have become better or worse
standards of "betterment" the individual observer may have.
In closing this article, I dare say that some people may think that I am deriding the "Sabbath" and praising the "open" Sunday. Not in the least. I am merely pointing out the differences between the two without making moral judgments. The main difference between the two types of Sunday was that in the 1920s, people were told how to observe the day and were given little opportunity to decide for themselves. The Christian religion dominated Burford in the 1920s. Now Burford, and every other place in Canada, must bow to the restrictions of "political correctness" and the "Charter" and any two-member sect that worships the anal deposits of seagulls can exert its "rights" over the religions of millions.
What is religious "truth"? Some egoists claim to know the answer. It is an age-old question. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in his essay on "Truth" wrote, "What is truth, said jesting Pilate and would not stay for an answer". Maybe "truth", like beauty, is "in the eye of the beholder".
As a final word, if there are still people who observe the restrictions of the 1920's "Sabbath", I say more power to them. I say the same thing to those who observe the "open" Sunday. Let both extremes work on the people in between.