Dr Neil Stanley Independent Sleep Expert
The influence of religious observance on sleep in pre-industrial England - Part 2 In the Old Testament sleep is a gift from God either the sweet sleep of the labourer or the divinely given deep sleep. So why did early Christians forgo sleep and promote the idea of midnight and/or early morning prayer? Early Christian fathers, influenced by their Greek philosopher forbears, practiced asceticism which to varying degrees involved denying themselves sleep. More generally the early Church had to function under the threat of persecution, as Bishop of Durham said ‘I grant, in the primitive church God’s people had their prayers early afore day, because at other times they were not suffered; but in those assemblies were not only monks or priests, but all sorts and degrees of men were gathered to pray, hear sermons, and receive the sacraments: for at other times of the day they durst not for the greatness of persecution.” here. There was also a very real belief that Jesus really was going to return ‘like a thief in the night’. This belief became stronger over the centuraies as the passing of time was believe to make Chirst’s return even more imminent. As Horneck writes “One great reason why the Primitive Christians rose at midnight to Prayer, as I said before, was because they knew not, but Christ might come at that time to Judgment. Did they thus prepare for his coming above Sixteen hundred years ago, and have not we far greater reason to watch for his coming, upon whom the ends of the World are come? Did they think the Day of Judgment was near at hand, and shall not we fear it much more?....Were they afraid of being a sleep at midnight for fear a noise should be made, Behold the Bridegroom cometh, and have not we far greater reason to be afraid?” One of the foremost advocates of early rising William Law (1728) took it for granted that “every Christian, that is in health, is up early in the morning; for it is much more reasonable to suppose a person up early, because he is a Christian, than because he is a labourer, or a tradesman, or a servant, or has business that wants him.”and he asked “how odious we must appear in the sight of heaven, if we are in bed, shut up in sleep and darkness, when we should be praising God; and are such slaves to drowsiness, as  to neglect our devotions for it”. This is because “sleep is the poorest, dullest refreshment of the body, that is so far from being intended as an enjoyment, that we are forced to receive it either in a state of insensibility, or in the folly of dreams. Sleep is such a dull, stupid state of existence, that even amongst mere animals, we despise them most, which are most drowsy. He, therefore, that chooses to enlarge the slothful indulgence of sleep, rather than be early at his devotions to God, chooses the dullest refreshment of the body, before the highest, noblest employment of the soul: he chooses that state which is a reproach to mere animals, rather than that exercise which is the glory of angels” here. Although he was not completely negative about sleep as a couple of years earlier he had written 1726 “If you have every day more time than you can, employ in reading, meditation and prayer; if this time hangs upon your hands, and cannot be turned to any advantage ; let me desire you to go to sleep, or pick straws ; for it is much better to do this, than to have recourse to corrupt and impertinent books. Time lost in sleep, or picking straws, is better lost than in such exercise of the mind”. Because of the influence of the Book of Common Prayer of worship in the Church of England the observance of vigils and matins came to be associated with Catholicism, as early as 1561 the bishop of Durham writes that “The papists have a rule of their own making, to say their matins in, which I think was a great cause of these early matins, and also of saying them over night.” "But as all their religion is of their own devising, so is their reward: God has made them no such promise, and therefore they can claim nothing at his hands.” Wheatly 1802 writes that ‘Such decent solemnities’ as midnight prayers are ‘looked upon as Popish and Antichristian’ (Rational Illustration Of The Book Of Common Prayer Of The Church Of England. Charles Wheatly, M.A. at The Clarendon Press. 1802 here) this theme is repeated a few years later when Chandler writes “in the present days, these systematic subdivisions may stand a chance of being objected to, as formal and old-fashioned; or be condemned as tending to cramp the energies of the awakened soul with unwarrantable shackles.” (Hymns of the Primitive Church, translated by the Rev. J. Chandler 1837)  And  ‘The temper of the age has, indeed, very little sympathy with “Nocturns,” “Matins” or “Lauds,” “Evensong” and “Completorium.” The very mention of them, we suspect, may be regarded as an undisguised symptom of attachment to Popery’ (The british critic, quarterly theological review, and #rclesiastical 13tcott). volume xxii. London : printed for J. G. & F. Rivington 1837 here). Although not mentioning ‘Popery’, Herbert in the The Clergyman's Instructor (1827) says that ‘the godly have ever added some hours of prayer, as at nine, or at three, or at midnight, or as they think fit, and see cause, or rather as God's Spirit leads them”, but he says “these prayers are not necessary, but additionary” (The Clergyman's Instructor, Or A Collection Tracts On The I Ministerial Duties. Fourth Edition. Oxford, At The Clarendon Press 1827). Whilst Ekirch contends that the normal pre-industrial sleep consisted of two periods of sleep separated by an hour or so of wakefulness, Horneck actually has to go so far as to recommend that people should get some sleep before midnight prayers as there is a tendency among many to work till midnight and then are “very unfit for this nocturnal Exercise” That this Exercise of rising at midnight to Prayer may be more satisfactory, and effectual, I would advise to going to bed betimes, that nature being refresh'd with some sleep before that time, may be the fitter for this service; and, it's very probable, that those who in the Primitive Church used this Watchfulness, observed this Rule. In this Age Tradesmen, and those that have any toiling Employment in the World, have brought themselves to an ill custom of sitting up at their Trade till midnight almost, and having tired themselves with running after their Worldly profit all day, it cannot be otherwise, but they must find themselves. Pilkington Bishop of Durham in 1561 wrote that “What great holiness was this, to have matins at midnight, when folk were on sleep in their beds? Is not common prayer to be had at such hours, when the people might resort commonly unto it conveniently? If midnight be such a time most convenient, let the world judge”. Wesley 1795 claims that he woke at midnight or 1am each night because he was sleeping too much. When he actively modified his sleep habits to shorten his sleep, to that which he believed god intended, he found that by early rising he no longer woke in the night. Horneck berates his readers asking “Would you think it troublesome to rise at midnight to get ten or twenty pounds?” and says that “This shews you can do it” but that they don’t because they think that they “may save your Souls at a cheaper rate”. “Can Men break their sleep to mind the works of Darkness, and shall not we break ours, for doing things, which become the Children of Light?” As support for his idea that there was a period of natural wakening around midnight between two periods of sleep Ekirch implies that “there was no shortage of prayers intended to be recited” in this period. However the sources he cites describe payers that are to be said "when you awake in the Night" or "at our first waking," e.g. Ejaculations to be used on several Occasions - When you awake in the Night.  Whole Duty of Prayer, 13; A prayer to be sayd at our first waking (A prayer at our uprising. Richard and John Day, A Booke of Christian Praiers . (London, 1578), 440–41;here) A praier when one awakes out of sleepe” (Furnivall, Phillip Stubbes's Anatomy of the Abuses, 221; here) Ejaculations and short Meditations to be used in the Night, when we wake. (Jeremy Taylor, Holy Living and Dying: Together with Prayers Containing the Whole Duty of a Christian . . . (London, 1850), 41; here) Thus it is clear that this means the first time you wake in the night and are not as such at a specific time. This is clear from the full version of the "directions for midnight" in the prayer manual for scholars at Winchester College which Ekirch partially quotes. “Directions for Midnight. IF you chance to wake in the Night, or can't sleep, beware, Philotheus of idle and unclean Thoughts, which will then be apt to crowd into your Mind;” and from “When the clock strikes, or however else you shall measure the day, it is good to say a short ejaculation every hour, that the parts and returns of devotion may be the measure of your time; and do so also in all the breaches of your sleep; that those spaces, which have in them no direct business of the world, may be filled with religion” (The Rule And Exercises Of Holy Living: By Jeremy Taylor, D.D).  Such prayers had 2 purposes firstly to thank God, the other to stop sinful thoughts In conclusion there is nothing in the the history of the Christian church that supports Ekirch’s conception of ‘segmented sleep’
© Dr. Neil Stanley 2013-2018