A Pastoral Letter on the Sabbath (1814)

If you haven’t read Mark Jones’ article on Christians and the Super Bowl, this would be a good week to do so, and continue (or begin) to have your conscience Biblically informed (here’s a nugget – “If only our public zeal for the 6th commandment (murder, abortion, etc.) could be channeled into a similar public zeal for the 4th commandment, too. Maybe the Lord will bless us with more success in society regarding the 6th commandment if we show we’re serious about the 4th.”).

It’s not as if Sabbath-breaking is a new sin in the Presbyterian church. The following pastoral letter from the 1814 General Assembly proves that it was just as much an issue then as now; the difference is that the Presbyterian church then actually believed the 4th commandment had abiding significance for believers, and teaching and ruling elders weren’t taking exceptions to the Sabbath sections in the Westminster Standards (it boggles the mind how many elders take the “recreation” exception but in actuality practice a full-blown “commerce and anything else I want to do” exception). We should read this and weep over our worldliness and idolatry:

Dear Brethren—From the printed report transmitted to you on the state of religion in our bounds, you will perceive the prosperity which God has vouchsafed to our churches the past year; and you will, we trust, unite with us in praise and thanksgiving to his throne for his rich and condescending mercy. It is our duty to rejoice in this manifestation of the divine favour, but let us rejoice with fear and trembling. Many causes still exist which threaten to cloud our prosperity, and to cover us with mourning. Lukewarmness, intemperance, profaneness, sabbath-breaking, are prevailing sins in our land, and call aloud for our vigilance, our exertions, and prayers.

While the Assembly would lift up a warning voice against every kind of iniquity, and recommend such measures as promise in any degree to correct the evils of which they complain, they deem it proper at this time to direct the attention of the churches more especially to the profanation of the Lord’s day, a sin to which many are particularly exposed from the present calamitous state of our country.

Brethren, the God whom we worship is a jealous God—jealous for the honour of his institutions, but for none more than for that sacred day which he has commanded to be solemnly and exclusively appropriated to his service. Any profanation of this day is an immediate affront to his holiness, and when committed deliberately and openly, may be classed among those presumptuous sins against which he has given us the strongest proofs of his displeasure.

The Lord has instituted the Sabbath a sign between him and his people — a visible test of their sincerity. If they violate the duties of this day, or fold their hands in supineness and indifference when they are violated by others, he will regard their offerings as hypocritical and vain. This consideration deserves your serious attention, and ought to awaken and animate your zeal. But it is more important that you should reflect, that the sanctification of the Lord’s day stands in close connection with all the institutions of religion, and with the dearest interests of society. The visible worship of God can no longer be maintained than a sacred regard to this day is secured. In every past period of the world it has been seen that a departure from the strict observance of the Sabbath has been followed by a general neglect of religious duty, and this by a relaxation both of public and private duty, deeply to be deplored as it respects the peace and good order of society, and the spiritual and eternal interests of mankind. We hold as important maxims, never to be lost sight of, that without the Sabbath there will be no religion—without religion there will be no morality—and that where morality, sound and correct morality, ceases to form the basis of the public manners, the strongest bonds of society are dissolved, and nothing is to be expected but mutual jealousy and hatred, with all the crimes and miseries to which this painful and disordered state of things will lead.

Desirous, brethren, to engage you in a vigorous and combined effort to maintain the authority and influence of the Sabbath, we, as a judicature of Christ’s Church, address you, and earnestly entreat you to renew your attention to this subject. Take it into your serious and prayerful consideration, view it in all its extent and relations, mark its connection with the temporal and spiritual interests of mankind—its aspect towards present and future generations. What shall become of our children, whose spiritual and eternal destiny we should chiefly regard, if we suffer the holy Sabbath to be violated and its sacred influence lost?

Resolve then, brethren, for yourselves, and for those committed to your care, that you will strictly observe the duties of this day, doing nothing which is incompatible with that religious sanctification of it so minutely explained, and so solemnly enjoined, in the word of God. Let there be no coming in or going out among you, no bearing of burdens on the Lord’s day. Piously abstain in thought, word, and deed, from all your worldly avocations and amusements, and let the whole of this consecrated time be a rest unto God, employed only in the public and private exercises of religion, except such portions of it as are obviously due to works of necessity and mercy.

Where it is prudent and practicable, we recommend that societies be formed for the purpose of mutual encouragement and vigilance, and especially for guarding the Sabbath against encroachments made upon it by those who are unhappily ignorant of its blessings, and regardless of its authority and design. We invite to this subject the attention of parents and guardians, of ministers and elders of the Church. We entreat every friend of the Redeemer’s kingdom, every one who regards the welfare of society, whatever may be his capacity or relation, to exert his influence in promoting a strict and devout observance of the Lord’s day. Need we remind you. Christian brethren, of the solemn command of Jehovah, to ‘remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy?’ Need we call to your recollection the awful threatenings which he has denounced and executed against those who have voluntarily disregarded this command? You know the history of his providence; you know that for this very sin among others, his ancient people, the descendants of Abraham, were cast out of his sight, and their land made to enjoy that rest in desolation, which they had refused to consecrate to him in the observance of day’s prescribed for his worship. We conclude by bringing to your remembrance those gracious words of the prophet—‘If thou turn away thy foot from polluting the Sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable, and shall honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words; then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord, and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father, for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.’”

May the Lord bring His people back to a Biblical view of the Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath.


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