‘A Dundee Working Man on America — No. 13.’ by a Correspondent in New York (15 July, 1882)

The following is part of a series of articles on the condition of the United States of America for working class Scottish immigrants. One of the core tenants of The People’s Journal was to encourage self-improvement for the working classes. For these reason the paper would regularly promote emigration and provide news  and publish correspondence from the major destination of Scots in the period (the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). Here the discussion focuses on churches and observance of the Sabbath.

Churches and Sabbath Observance.

Taking up a Yankee newspaper, I read a paragraph commenting on Dundee having a population of 142,000 souls, and on a given Sunday only 30,000 church attenders. After reading this I thought I could not do worse than give you a short resume of Sabbath observance in America. In the first place, I think that if we had the Saturday half-holiday here it would tend in some measure towards the better observance of the Sabbath, for we find that human nature is human nature all over, and if a man works hard, as is generally the ease here, for sixty hours a week, and comes home on Saturday night after six o’clock, tired and weary, with no time for recreation or social enjoyment, are there not some extenuating excuse for him if he, instead of going to church, seeks some of the sociality which he is denied at any other time through the week? Can you blame him for going to our free hills and valleys and sniffing the [illegible] air, or in looking through nature up to nature’s God? But there are plenty of God-fearing, church-going people in America, as you have among yourselves, and, I suppose, many hypocrites as well. They sometimes, like some orthodox Scotchmen, profess more than they practice. According to the following advertisement, which appeared in one of our newspapers lately, there are some very pious people here. Said advertisement read thus:—“Wanted, a young man to take charge of a pair of horses of a religious turn of mind.” So that not only the people themselves, but even their horses are “unco guid.” It would be superfluous to tell your readers that there is no Church and State patronage in this country; but I can assure them that if disestablishment will cause the churches to be as attractive as they are here the sooner they join the disestablishment crusade the better. The churches of all denominations in this country are very elaborately and comfortably fitted up. The pulpits, or rather platforms, are elegantly set out with easy chairs and desks. They are seldom above two or three feet from the ground, and are ascended by two or three steps at each side. All the passages, aisles, and floors are laid with carpets. The bottoms and backs of the seats are soft lined; footstools covered with thick cloth and small [illegible] or drawers for holding books are in every pew. In winter stoves are placed in different parts of the buildings, which keep it nice and warm. In summer all the ladies and a few of the gentlemen use fans with great vigour, which keeps a soft breeze (having a perfume of confectionery) buzzing all over the church. I went into a church in Pittsburgh once on a hot summer’s evening, which happened to be the Sunday for the dispensation of the Sacrament. A clergyman [illegible] distance preached the sermon, and the minister of the congregation had a large fan, which he used with a power equal to steam in fanning the preacher. But this fanning system is of great benefit to churchgoers, for while the clergyman is administering balm to your spirit, the ladies look after your bodily comforts. There is a great deal more freedom used here between pastors and their flocks than there is at home—there not being nearly so much straitlacedness or stiff-neckedness among clergymen here. For instance, during the time the congregation are assembling for worship the pastor goes up and down the aisles shaking hands and asking after his flock’s social as well as spiritual welfare. If there are any pic-nics, concerts, social meetings, or any pleasure parties held in any way connected with the members of the churches, the pastors almost invariably give them their countenance and presence. I think this commingling of social matters between preachers and hearers is of great mutual benefit, and tends to foment a brotherliness between parties, instead of blind idol worship, as I have seen at home, where some people are more in awe of their earthly pastor than they are of their heavenly Master. As a rule, there are only two diets of worship in Presbyterian Churches on Sabbaths—one in the forenoon, the other in the evening, with Sunday schools and Bible classes between. The evening services do not begin until half-past seven, which is, I think, a mistake, as it is often nine before one can get home, which to us Scotch people is rather late for a Sunday evening. I have before me a Rochester newspaper in which is a large advertisement headed thus:—“Grand Sacred Concert, Sunday, February 5th, at Genesse Falls Park,” then follows the programme, with selections from “Billee Taylor,” followed by songs, solos, polka, quadrille, and other sacred music.  One Sunday evening we went to the Free Methodist Church, and the first objects which met our gaze on entering the edifice were large placards hung round the walls on which was painted in letters of enormous size the following:—“The congregation is expected to remain until the close of the service.” Another ran thus:—“Do not spit on the floor.” The first and principal part of the evening’s proceedings was the taking up of the collection. I may say that I have never seen any plates at the church doors here, but they have the barefaced, old-fashioned plan of thrusting the wooden ladle under your nose. All denominations are kind to strangers. Two ushers generally stand at the end of the aisles to lead you to a seat and find a book for you. In fact, they are as kind as a Reform Street draper after you have made a heavy purchase, for when you are retiring they bow and scrape and smirk and smile, and say—“Good evening, sir. Call again, sir. Be happy to see you, sir.”

I have told you before that there is a law in this and other States I have been in against the selling of intoxicating liquor on Sunday; but, like many other laws here, it is a dead letter. Any one that wants strong drink on Sabbath can get as much as he can pay for without any difficulty whatever. Almost every city has its Sunday morning newspapers. Rochester has three or four Sunday papers, and it is a very busy morning with the newspaper boys and the shoeblacks. Some of the newspaper sellers open their shops up to mid-day, while some have stalls on the streets and in arcades, where you can get all the newspapers or periodicals you may want. Street cars run in all directions all Sabbath. A few passenger trains are run to and from different destinations. Goods and freight trains run night and day, Sabbath as well as Saturday. Jaunting on Sabbaths in summer is all the rage among working men. If there is a garden to weed, a fence to put up, a hen roost to repair, a vinery to trim, or any improvement to be made in your dwelling-house, Sabbath is generally allotted for that purpose. But it is seldom that any public works are set in motion on Sabbath. I have never been asked to work on the seventh day yet, and I hope never will. If any dispute or agitation comes up betwixt employer and employed, Sunday is taken advantage of to hold meetings and discuss the situation. I rather fear that this view of Sabbath observance is a good as can be given in any of the States of America, for as far as I have heard the Fourth Commandment is but little respected in some of our Western and Southern States. It is not for the want of good earnest Christian men and women trying to bring about a better state of affairs. The clergymen are not afraid to speak of and denounce in very plain terms the sins committed in the body. Some time ago a Methodist clergyman in Washington gave out for his text the beautiful quotation from Pope, “An honest man’s the noblest work of God.” After giving out his text he looked over the congregation for a minute, then ejaculated with impressive fervour. “But God Almighty hasn’t had a job in this city for the last fifty years.”

Before any of your readers who are orthodoxly inclined or disposed to heresy hunting blame the people of the country for their backslidings I would have them to remember the numerous thesis, tenets, creeds, and beliefs there must be among the population which comes from every nook and corner under the canopy of heaven to inhabit this country. It must be fair easier to enforce the civil and religious enactments of a small country, where the great preponderance of its people are nearly allied to one another by being of one nationality, and being mutually used to the laws and observances of one country and one government, than it is to govern 50 millions of people of all creeds, of all temperaments, of all colours, of all characters, from the Salvation Armies down to cranks like Oscar Wilde or Charles Guiteau. If any of your readers think that I am wrong in trying to mitigate the faults and sins of the people of America, I say to them—

“Ye high exalted virtuous dames,

Tied up in godly laces,

Before ye gie poor frailty names,

Suppose a change o’ cases.”


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