I causally opened John Tyndall’s New Fragments (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1896) this morning on the desktop and was pleasantly surprised by its first entry, “The Sabbath,” a Presidential Address delivered before the Glasgow Sunday Society in October, 1880, which was then quickly published in The Nineteenth Century the following month, and subsequently as a pamphlet in December.
I say “surprised” because I knew that Draper and White had made much use of the then emerging comparative religious studies in their work, including new studies on higher criticism of the Bible. But did Tyndall? Indeed he did, and this short essay demonstrates this physicist’s wide reading in the new emerging field.
He begins by observing that the present age desires “to connect itself organically with proceeding ages.” This “developmental” view has been set forth, he says, by scientific naturalists Darwin and Spencer, but also by religious scholars Renan and Müller. In particular, Tyndall finds a kindred spirit in Scottish theologian John Caird (1820-98). According to Tyndall, Caird maintained in his Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (1880) that “throughout the ages he discerns a purpose and growth, wherein the earlier and more imperfect religious constitute the natural and necessary precursors of the later and more perfect ones.”
This leads Tyndall to suggest that changes or “transmutations” (his word) in the mind, and especially in religion, are “often accompanied by conflict and suffering.” We see this, he says, with the transition from Roman paganism to Christianity, from “Jewish Christianity” to “Gentile Christianity,” from Peter to Paul. Tyndall derives this narrative from Renan’s L’Eglise Chrétienne, or The Christian Church (1879). But “men at length began to yearn for peace and unity,” he writes, “and out of the embroilment was slowly consolidated that great organisation the Church of Rome.”
Thus each “transmutation,” each period of growth, required some struggle, “in which the fittest survive.” In short, even the errors, conflicts, and sufferings of bygone times “may have been necessary factors in the education of the world.” This background leads Tyndall to the main point of the essay: namely, the “Sabbath question.” He sees the issue of keeping the Sabbath as a problem of dogmatic theology and not religion, however. Following the anti-Sabbatarian works of Scottish lawyer and phrenologist Robert Cox (1810-72), including his massive Sabbath Laws and Sabbath Duties (1853), his two volume The Literature on the Sabbath Question (1865), and others, Tyndall offers a number of proof-texts showing that adherence to dogma “oppressed almost to suffocation” human civilization. According to Tyndall, Jesus deliberately broke the Sabbath, crowning his “protest against a sterile formalism by the enunciation of a principle which applies to us to-day as much as to the world in the time of Christ”—namely, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”
What is particularly interesting in this essay is Tyndall’s concern about potential visitors to the British Museum. That is, he is targeting those who “object to the opening of the museums on religious [sic] grounds.” In an ironic twist taken from the natural theological tradition, Tyndall asks “Do they who thus stand between them and the public really believe those treasures to be the work of God? Do they or do they not hold, with Paul, that ‘the eternal power and Godhead’ may be clearly seen from ‘the things that are made’? If they do—and they dare not affirm that they do not—I fear that Paul, with his customary plainness of language, would pronounce their conduct to be ‘without excuse.'” He then lists Luther, Melanchthon, Tyndale, Calvin, Knox, and others, who, in his view, “emphatically asserted the freedom of Christian from Sabbatical bonds.” These reformers, in short, followed a “higher symbolism.”
At the same time, Tyndall could not help himself to a little military language, retelling the tale of the flat earth myth, the tyrannical power of the Catholic Church, and the “booming of the bigger guns” and the “incessant clatter of small arms” in his own day. He subsequently discusses the human nature of the Old Testament and his amazement that “learned men are still found willing to devote their time and energy to these writings under the assumption that they are not human but divine.”
Though this might seem a “liberal,” perhaps “radical” position, Tyndall claims he is truly a “Conservative.” He says that “madness or folly can demolish: it requires wisdom to conserve”! In his estimation, a conservative has foresight, looks ahead and prepares for the inevitable, and thus knows when the true spiritual nature of man will be bound up with his material condition. “Wholesome food, pure air, cleanliness—hard work if you will, but also fair rest and recreation—these are necessary not only to physical but to spiritual well-being.” This doctrine, he says, is the “true Gospel.” Indeed, a “most blessed influence would also be shed upon the clergy if they were enabled from time to time to change their ‘sloth urbane’ for action on heath or mountain.”
Taking a line from English poet, author, and humorist Thomas Hood (1799-1845), Tyndall reveals that his house of worship is not built by any human hands:
That bid you baulk
A Sunday walk,
And shun God’s work as you should shun your own
Calling all sermons contrabands, In that great Temple that’s not made with hands.