The Puritan legacy of Sabbatarianism

The day may be different, but the standards remain.

Edward Allen, D.Min., is pastor of the church at Hong Kong Adventist Hospital.

What are the roots of modern Sabbath observance? Why do differences exist across cultures? Have Sabbath standards changed over time?

The manner of Sabbath observance familiar to American Seventh-day Adventists had its origins in the late 1500s during England's Puritan re form movement. Pious pastors, seeking to guide parishioners from a merely formal religion into a heart experience, proclaimed the importance of personal godliness. The Ten Commandments became a touchstone for reforming morality. Out of this blossomed a movement to raise respect for Sunday as the Sabbath.

Bownde for 24 hours

Nicholas Bownde (also spelled Bound), pastor of a Suffolk County church, preached a series of sermons on the Sabbath. His congregation urged him to publish them. The resulting book, The Doctrine of the Sabbath, became quite popular. Many readers resolved for the first time to set aside a span of 24 hours for seeking God.

Sabbath prohibitions were not a major concern of Bownde. Rather, he sought to fill the day with spiritual exercises that would enhance sanctification. The prohibitions were merely a way of making time for spiritual activities. Bownde attacked public recreation and amusements on Sun day because they detracted from church services (often three of them). In their place he urged men and women to get up early on the Sunday Sabbath for prayer to prepare themselves for the proclamation of God's Word. Bownde taught that Sunday hours outside of services should be spent in personal and small group Bible study, ministry to the poor, and personal witnessing.

Bownde's book gained influence throughout England. The laws of the land already included strictures against many Sunday activities, and the Puritan crusade inspired local sheriffs to enforce the restraints more strictly. Opposition arose in high places. King James in 1617 published a four-page pamphlet, called "The Book of Sports," that decreed that recreation indeed was permissible on Sunday afternoons. When King Charles reissued "The Book of Sports" in 1637, the archbishop ordered that it be read out loud in all the churches. Many Puritan pastors refused to read the book and lost their parishes.

Burton's burden Not only did Pastor Henry Burton refuse to read "The Book of Sports" but he preached two sermons against it. From his perspective, the monarch's decree contradicted the fourth commandment. The archbishop had the sheriff knock Burton's door down, arrest him, and ransack his study. He was tried without benefit of counsel and condemned. After that the authorities pilloried him, cut off his ears, and sentenced him to life imprisonment in the dungeon of Lincoln Castle. On his way there, 100,000 people rallied in his support.

When Puritan forces gained the upper hand in England, Burton was released, and Parliament went about reforming the church.1 The Sunday Sabbath won a special place in the Westminster Confession, which declares that God appointed one day in seven to be kept holy unto Him. The words of the Confession are clear and unequivocal:

"This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs before hand, do not only observe an holy rest, all the day, from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy."2

That concept of Sabbath observance in the Westminster Confession became the ideal of English-speaking Protestants and later, Seventh-day Adventists.

American Sabbath-keeping

The Puritans, who raised the standards of Sabbath observance in England, imported even more rigorous practices to America. All the colonies eventually passed Sunday rest legislation, even the religiously tolerant Rhode Island.

The case of Pennsylvania is unique. The Quakers, who founded the colony, theologically repudiated Sabbath observance. George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends (Quakers), considered all days equally holy. Nonetheless, the Quakers themselves were typically Sabbatarian in practice. They felt it necessary to set aside time for rest and worship and chose the "First day" for this activity.

Laws in Massachusetts and Connecticut were especially inflexible. In Massachusetts it was illegal to walk the streets or fields except to attend church services. There was also a penalty for children playing on the Sabbath. In both colonies, attendance was mandated for Congregational worship. A quiescent Sabbath was enforced with a fair degree of rigor. Nathaniel Mather confessed that as a young child he had committed a great sin by whistling on the Sabbath day. Others were fined for trimming hair, carrying wood, and journeying unnecessarily.

The stringency of the New England Sabbath was so great that apocryphal stories sprouted about its se verity. One relates how Thomas Kemble was put in the stocks for kissing his wife on the Lord's day after returning from a three-year voy age. Probably this story was invented by an Anglican polemicist who falsely reported that such actions were against the law. Another story ridicules Connecticut authorities for arresting John Lewis and Sarah Chapman for sitting together under an apple tree on the Lord's day. What is left untold is the general concern of Sarah's parents and the authorities about the impropriety of the relationship. 3

One example of later Puritan teaching on the Sabbath comes from Jonathan Edwards. In his sermon "The Perpetuity and Change of the Sabbath," Edwards does not rest content to cover only the announced subject of his sermon. He concludes it with a lengthy exhortation of proper Sabbath observance. He does not see it as a dry and boring day. He says, "It is a day of rejoicing; God made it to be a joyful day to the church. . . . The Christian Sabbath is one of the most precious enjoyments of the visible church." Yet keeping the Sabbath is something God "will surely require ... of you, if you do not strictly and conscientiously observe it. And if you thus observe it, you may have this comfort... that in so doing you are in the way of God's acceptance and re ward." It is clear that for Edwards the Sabbath is something God demands from His people. Edwards promises his hearers, in terms reminiscent of the Jewish rabbis, that if they observe the Sabbath more strictly and perform their Sabbath duties more solemnly, they will have a greater manifestation among them of respect for God. This is almost a prescription for a detailed set of restrictions, the kind that would even forbid whistling.4

Wesley and the Sabbath

John Wesley had a similarly strict view of the Sabbath. In a three-page piece entitled "A Word to a Sabbath-breaker," Wesley emphasizes that the Sabbath is not any person's day but God's day. God lays claim to it, not for His own sake but for the sake of the person who serves Him. Wesley says to his reader, "For thy own sake He demands a part of thy time to be restored to Him that gave thee all." If people do not observe it, they are their own enemy, for it is a day of special grace.

"The King of heaven now sits upon His mercy seat, in a more gracious manner than on other days, to bestow blessings on those who observe it. . . . Awake, arise, let God give thee His blessing! Receive a token of His love!" The blessings include peace, joy, love, and "rest from doubt and fear and sorrow of heart." Attention to worldly business and idle diversions disappoint the design of God's love. Attendance at services in the house of God is expected both in the morning and afternoon.

Wesley encourages his reader to "spend as much as you can of the rest of the day, either in repeating what you have heard, or in reading the Scripture, or in private prayer, or talking of the things of God." If one spends what remains of the day in the fields, in a public house, or in a little diversion, talents are wasted and bare faced contempt is shown toward God and His authority. Wesley reminds his reader of God's judgments, even upon earth, against those who profane the Sabbath, and he contends that they are but drops of the storm of God's fiery indignation that will in the end consume His adversaries. Wesley concludes with the morbid thought that "your day of life and of grace is far spent. The night of death is at hand. Make haste to use the time you have; improve the last hours of your day." 5

The impression left by this short piece is far different from the impression left by the early Puritans. They had discovered in Sabbath observance a personal blessing they were eager to share. Wesley reveals a consciousness of that blessing, but for him the Sabbath is not something to be discovered but something to be enforced. It is something God demands, and the proper human response is to buckle under to divine authority lest one come under judgment and lose everlasting life.


Was Wesley a legalist? His experience with God was deep and pro found, yet his conception of the Sabbath, like that of Jonathan Edwards, tended to be legalistic. Both saw the Sabbath more as a demand than a means to freedom. In this they appear to be reflecting the cultural mind-set of their era.

One of Jonathan Edward's resolutions reportedly was "never to utter anything that is sportive or matter of laughter, on a Lord's day." This attitude prompted some to sneer that others read the commandment to say "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it gloomy." One author felt that the Puritans had turned the glad day of rest into a gloomy day of "inanition," teaching that it was a sin to take a walk or pick a flower.

Modern Sabbatarianism

In the early nineteenth century, along with the Second Great Awakening in America, came a revival of interest in Sabbath observance. A concern arose about laxity in "proper" Sabbath observance, brought on by two factors. First, massive immigration primarily from Europe. New immigrants observed the "continental Sunday," which was considerably more lax than the established view of the Sunday Sabbath. Traditional American Christians feared that lax observance would become the norm. Second, there were incredible advances in industry, technology, and transportation. Both in England and in America major debate focused on the propriety of public transportation on Sunday. Voices advocated the Sun day closure of even steel mills. Con servative church leaders strenuously opposed the opening of museums on the Sabbath. Many abhorred the publishing of newspapers on Sunday.

As early as 1848, there was strong opposition to a legislated Sunday. In that year an Anti-Sabbath Convention was held in Boston. Those present felt they had been taught to keep Sunday not for itself but as a duty, not from love but from fear. They rejected the day as stern, dark, and disagreeable. William Lloyd Garrison said, "It is not outward observances which are required, but that spirit of the heart and life which consecrates all things to God and humanity." A Mr. Browne justified his infidelity to Sunday observance as faith in an inward religion.6

The religious individualism evident here eventually brought about, not merely the repeal of most Sunday laws, but a neglect of the institution itself over the next 100 years.

Joys and sorrows of the Sabbath On the practical level of observance, many church people remained very strict about what was forbidden on the day. Laura Ingalls Wilder tells how her great-grandfather was brought home from church and expected to read the catechism Sunday afternoon. Once when he and his brothers sneaked out and rode their new sled, they were discovered when the sledful of boys hit a wandering pig. Their father did not punish them for breaking the Sabbath until the Sabbath was over, but when their punishment came, it was certainly severe.7 Protestant literature of the time reveals significant disagreement over whether children should be allowed to play on the Sabbath. Some felt that special Sabbath toys were acceptable, but others forbade playing altogether. While there were strongly worded attacks against a puritanical Sabbath Sunday, a general respect for the puritan manner of observance remained.

Many poems extolled the glories and blessings of the Sabbath. For example, the hymns "Safely Through Another Week" and "O Day of Rest and Gladness" were written about Sunday to celebrate the joys of Sabbath-keeping. Another fascinating poem about the Sabbath experience comes with its authorship simply listed as Bickersteth:

What true heart

Loves not the Sabbath? that dear

pledge of home;

That trysting place of God

and man; that link

Betwixt a near eternity and time;

That almost lonely rivulet, which


From Eden through the world's

wide wastes of sand

Uncheck'd, and though not

unalloy'd with earth,

Its healing waters all impregn'd

with life,

The life of their first blessing; to

pure lips

The memory of a bygone Paradise,

The earnest of a Paradise to come.

Who know the best love best, thou

pearl of days,

And guard thee with most jealous

care from morn

Till dewy evening,

when the ceaseless play

Hour after hour of thy sweet influences

Has tuned the hearts of pilgrims to

the songs and music of their

heavenly fatherland.8

Out of this milieu, the Seventh-day Adventist Sabbath observance developed. It is clear from the literature that early Adventists transferred from Sunday to Saturday the standards common to the conservative Protestant world. Adventists also inherited the struggle to maintain the holiness of the day without falling into legalism. At first legalism was the chief danger. Today it is possible that laxness could rob us of the peace and rest that come from spending time in the "trysting place of God and man."

1. Kenneth Parker, The English Sabbath (Cambridge: The University Press, 1988), pp. 178-219; Winton U. Solberg, Redeem the Time (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977), pp. 77-80, 157-159.

2. The Westminster Confession of Faith, XXI:vii, viii.

3. Solberg, pp. 193, 195,229-231,251,252, 263, 265-268, 169, 170, 276, 269.

4. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of President Edwards (New York: Leavitt and Alien, 1852), Vol. IV, pp. 632, 633.

5. The Works of John Wesley (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958), Vol. XI, pp. 164-166.

6. Proceedings of the Anti-Sabbath Convention, pp. 47, 29, 33.

7. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods (New York: Harper and Row, 1932; rpr. 1971), pp. 83-96.

8. Wilbur Crafts, The Sabbath for Man (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1885), p. 412.

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Edward Allen, D.Min., is pastor of the church at Hong Kong Adventist Hospital.

March 1994

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