A Puritan idea of the great controversy:

Thomas Tillam and Sabbath at the last days

Donny Chrissutianto, PhD, is an assistant professor of historical and theological studies and Master of Divinity program director at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Cavite, Philippines.

One of the distinctive beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists is the significance of the seventh-day Sabbath at the end times. Another distinct idea is the great controversy. One may argue that these two understandings are isolated concepts in Christianity. However, historical evidence shows that these two concepts also existed among the Puritans during the 1650s.

The idea of the Sabbath among Puritans appeared in England during the second half of the sixteenth century. At that time, their discussion on the Sabbath related to Sunday observance. John Traske expressed his belief in the seventh-day Sabbath in the seventh century.1 Due to his faith, the local authority imprisoned him in 1618. As a result, he recanted his conviction, but his wife was still faithful to death.2 Theophilus Brabourne continued the proclamation of the seventh-day Sabbath through his treatise Discourse Upon the Sabbath Day in 1628. It seems Brabourne was the first among the Puritans to connect the seventh-day Sabbath to the prophecy of change of times and laws in Daniel 7:25.3 Thomas Tillam continued the idea of Brabourne and made further significant contributions. In 1657, he wrote that at the end of days, there would be a final great controversy in which the issue of the Sabbath would be significant.

Thomas Tillam

Tillam’s interest in the Sabbath appeared through his poem on June 29, 1638.4 At that time, his conviction was the first-day Sabbath. He became acquainted with the seventh-day Sabbath about 1654 or 1655 when he met a physician, Peter Chamberlen.5 As an English Baptist preacher, Tillam’s ability to communicate the gospel received praises from the Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell. In late 1655, he moved to Colchester, where a group of Sabbath observances existed. In the new post, Tillam held church services on Saturdays and advised his church members to work on Sundays. For this practice, he was incarcerated in 1656. Tillam did not waste his time during imprisonment. He wrote what Ernest A. Payne says is Tillam’s “best-known work.”6 This book was published in 1657, entitled THE SEVENTH-DAY SABBATH Sought Out and Celebrated. OR, The Saints last Design upon the Man of Sin, With Their Advance of God’s First Institution to Its Primitive Perfection, Being a Clear Discovery of That Black Character in the Head of the Little Horn, Dan. 7:25.—The Change of TIMES & LAWS—With the Christians’ Glorious Conquest Over That Mark of the Beast, and Recovery of the Long-Slighted Seventh Day, to Its Ancient Glory, Wherein Mr. Aspinwal, May Receive full Answer to his Late Piece Against the SABBATH.7 Even though the style of this work is apologetics, the reason the Sabbath will still be important is apparent. In this book, Tillam promulgated his idea about the Sabbath in a more balanced way than in other publications he wrote after 1657.

However, after he publicized The Temple of Lively Stones in 1660, people began to see Tillam as reflecting Jewish concepts. In 1661, some people labeled him as one of the “dangerous men” and “seducers of the People.”8 Tillam’s idea to encourage people to move to the Palatinate in Germany and the practice of circumcision among his followers led to even some seventh-day men “distancing themselves” from him and his followers.9 In an account of his death, somebody reported that he died in Germany in 1674.10

Sabbath

In his 1657 publication The Seventh-day Sabbath Sought Out and Celebrated, one can see Tillam’s idea about the significance of the Sabbath. He affirmed that the Sabbath is based on “an honourable perfect law of liberty,”11 which is the Ten Commandments. He also understood the seventh-day Sabbath as “truly moral” because it is part of “the ten commandments [which are] are fitly termed moral.”12 This expression signifies that all of the Ten Commandments carry “equal honour and dignity.”13

Tillam affirmed that the origin of the Sabbath was in the Creation and not in the wilderness; thus, it should not be connected to the ceremonial law of the Israelites. He said, “God that from the Worlds [sic] foundation placed holiness in this day, and what God hath sanctified let not us presume any longer to make common.”14 In this understanding, the Sabbath existed before the ceremonial law and the fall of Adam and Eve. This idea shows that the cross did not abolish the seventh-day Sabbath, and the death of Jesus did not obliterate it.15

Regarding the nature of the seventh-day Sabbath, Tillam regarded it as spiritual and literal, in contrast to many of his contemporaries, who understood it as only spiritual in meaning. He objected to Christians in his times who understood the Sabbath only as spiritual and not literal. Tillam wrote against the idea that the fourth commandment is only related to the “spiritual Sabbath, leaving all literal obedience as too low for their bewitched fancies, as if Christ and primitive Christians were not as spiritual in obedience to these literal commands.”16 In this understanding, he rejected the interpretation that the Sabbath is only spiritual without a literal seventh-day command. Tillam argued that the merely spiritual sense of the Sabbath came from the allegorical interpretation method. This approach, according to Tillam, contributed “to prophane the seventh day under pretence of keeping a mystical Sabbath, by cessation from sin.”17 This spiritual interpretation of the Sabbath without acknowledging the literal seventh day is the “last invention” of Satan to deceive many people.18

Tillam substantiated that the legality and authority of the Sabbath came from God and was observed by His people. He believed that the Father was the One who established it and was confirmed by the Son and approved by the Holy Spirit; then, the saints observed it.19 Even though Tillam believed in the continuity and eternality of the Ten Commandments, at this time, he stated, “The law is not a foundation for our faith, it is neither under us, nor over, we are not under the law, but under grace.”20 In this way, Tillam attempted to keep a Protestant perspective on the relation between grace and law.

Sabbath and the great controversy

The ideas of the Sabbath and the last great controversy are interrelated in Tillam’s thought. He understood that the last great controversy would happen at the end of times, and the issue would be about the seventh day as the true Sabbath. Tillam mentioned the idea of the last conflict at the opening of his discussion. He wrote, “The first Royal Law that ever Jehovah instituted, and for our Example celebrated, (namely his blessed Seventh-day Sabbath,) is in these very last days become the last great controversy between the saints and the man of sin, the Changer of Times and Laws.”21

Tillam believed that the little horn in Daniel 7:25 was the one who changed the Sabbath, and the false Sabbath would relate to the beast’s mark in Revelation 13.22 He also equated the little horn with the antichrist.23 The author interpreted the little horn as the power of the Roman church, and this ecclesiastical authority prevailed in changing the seventh-day Sabbath to Sunday using Constantine’s civil power.24 He believed that the “seventh-day Sabbath never changed till the little horn arose”25 and that it was an “abuse of the Lord’s Sabbath time.”26

Concerning the eighth day, which relates to Sunday, Tillam associated the Roman Church with Jeroboam, the king of Israel. He called Jeroboam the “Jewish Antichrist” because he changed God’s ceremonial law of the Feast of Tabernacles from the seventh month to the eighth month (1 Kings 12:32, 33; cf. Lev. 23:34). This shifting idea from the seventh to the eighth month reminded him of the change from the biblical seventh-day Sabbath to the eighth day of the “Christian Sabbath.”27 Thus, as Jeroboam changed one of the ceremonial laws, the little horn also changed one of the moral laws.

Tillam interpreted the character of the last remnant in Revelation 12:17 as significant in this controversy. In this text, he emphasized the importance of keeping “the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus”28 related to Sabbath observance. He associated these two characteristics of God’s people as “the character of a new Creature, that hath a faith working by love.”29 Thus, only the ones whom Christ changed through the Holy Spirit could obey God’s commandments. In this 1657 publication, Tillam did not yet show his tendency toward Jewish ceremonialism, as indicated after this year.

In Tillam’s interpretation, even though the dragon and the beast would enforce their false Sabbath to the seventh-day Sabbath observers, God’s people would stay faithful and overcome the beast and his image.30 Indeed, God’s people would restore the breach of the wall through their faithfulness by observing the true Sabbath as prophesied in Isaiah 58:12, 13. This restoration would happen “in these last days.”31 The effort to repair the wall is “a glorious work for such onely as get victory over the Beast[,] his image[,] and his mark.”32 For Tillam, being faithful to the observance of the true Sabbath is an attitude of victory over the little horn and his mark.

Seventh-day Adventists believe in the seventh-day Sabbath as part of God’s eternal moral law. This group also embraces the great controversy idea that the law of God is one of the significant factors in the final apocalyptic conflict, as stated in the eighth statement of this church’s fundamental beliefs. There are similarities in the idea of the Sabbath as a test of loyalty at the end times and the final result when the victory will be at the side of God’s people. Still, there are some differences between Tillam’s thoughts about the Sabbath and the great controversy for Adventists. Tillam saw the great controversy issue as limited in the perspective of the Sabbath controversy between the righteous and the wicked at the end times, but Seventh-day Adventists understand the great controversy in a broader scope, between Christ and Satan, from the origin of sin in heaven to the destruction of Satan and evil, even though this denomination understands the Sabbath is part of this great controversy.33 Despite these differences, one can see that the ideas of the great controversy, the Sabbath, and its significance as the test of loyalty at the end times existed during the Puritan period.

  1. Aidan Cottrell-Boyce, “John Traske, Puritan Judaizing and the Ethic of Singularity.” Journal of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions 6 (2018), 1-37.
  2. Kenneth L. Parker, The English Sabbath: A Study of Doctrine and Discipline from the Reformation to the Civil War (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 163-164.
  3. Nikolaus Satelmajer, “The Contributions of Theophilus Brabourne to Our Understanding of the Sabbath,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 9, nos.1–2 (2000): 174.
  4. Thomas Tillam, “Upon the First Sight of New-England,” in American Poetry of the Seventeenth Century, ed. Harrison T. Meserole (Philadelphia, PA: Pennsylvania University Press, 1985), 397, 398.
  5. Bryan W. Ball, The Seventh-Day Men: Sabbatarians and Sabbatarianism in England and Wales, 1600–1800 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1994), 268.
  6. Ernest A. Payne, “Thomas Tillam,” Baptist Quarterly 17 (1957–1958), 63–64.
  7. Full capitals in the original document. Tho[mas]. Tillam, The Seventh-Day Sabbath Sought Out and Celebrated [. . .] (London, UK: Livewell Chapman, 1657).
  8. Ball, Seventh-Day Men, 273.
  9. Aidan Francis Cottrell-Boyce, “Judaizing and Singularity in England, 1618–1667” (PhD diss., Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, UK, June 2018), 205.
  10. Ball, Seventh-Day Men, 274.
  11. Tillam, Seventh-Day Sabbath, 6.
  12. Tillam, 9, cf. 19.
  13. Tillam, 11.
  14. Tillam, 23.
  15. Tillam, 15.
  16. Tillam, 27.
  17. Tillam, 107.
  18. Tillam, 27.
  19. Tillam, 94, 95, 110, 165.
  20. Tillam, 150.
  21. Tillam, 1.
  22. Tillam, 173.
  23. Tillam, 2.
  24. Tillam, 113.
  25. Tillam, 45.
  26. Tillam, 4.
  27. Tillam, 126, 127.
  28. Tillam, 135.
  29. Tillam, 132.
  30. Tillam, 134, 173.
  31. Tillam, 155.
  32. Tillam, 156.
  33. Kenneth A. Strand, “The Sabbath,” in Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology, ed. Raoul Dederen (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2000), 513.

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Donny Chrissutianto, PhD, is an assistant professor of historical and theological studies and Master of Divinity program director at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Cavite, Philippines.

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