The Loss of the American Sabbath

Written by, Leonard Woolsey Bacon
Published under, The American Church History Series, Consisting of a Series of Denominational Histories Published Under the Auspices of the American Society of Church History, Vol. 13, General Editor, Philp Schaff, Church Historian.


An event of great historical importance…

…which cannot be determined to a precise date, but which belongs more to this period than to any other, is the loss of the Scotch and Puritan Sabbath, or, as many like to call it, the American Sabbath.

The law of the Westminster divines on this subject, it may be affirmed without fear of contradiction from any quarter, does not coincide in its language with the law of God as expressed either in the Old Testament or in the New. The Westminster rule requires, as if with a “Thus saith the Lord,” that on the first day of the week, instead of the seventh, men shall desist not only from labor but from recreation, and “spend the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.” —(Westminster Shorter Catechism, Ans. 60. The commentaries on the Catechism, which are many, like Gemara upon Mishna, build wider and higher the “fence around the law,” in a fashion truly rabbinic.)

This interpretation and expansion of the Fourth Commandment has never attained to more than a sectarian and provincial authority; but the overmastering Puritan influence, both of Virginia and of New England, combined with the Scotch-Irish influence, made it for a long time dominant in America. Even those who quite declined to admit the divine authority of the glosses upon the commandment felt constrained to “submit to the dominance of man for the Lord’s sake.”

But it was inevitable that with the vast increase of the travel and sojourn of American Christians in other lands of Christendom, and the multitudinous immigration into America from other lands than Great Britain, the tradition from the Westminster elders should come to be openly disputed within the church, and should be disregarded even when not denied. It was not only inevitable; it was a Christian duty distinctly enjoined by apostolic authority.

The five years of war, [The American War between the States] during which Christians of various lands and creeds intermingled as never before, and the Sunday laws were dumb “inter arma” not only in the field but among the home churches, did perhaps even more to break the force of the tradition,and to lead in a perilous and demoralizing reaction. Some reaction was inevitable. The church must needs suffer the evil consequence of over-straining the law of God. From the Sunday of ascetic self-denial – “day for a man to afflict his soul”–there was a ready rush into utter recklessness of the law and privilege of rest.

In the church there was wrought sore damage to weak consciences; men acted, not from intelligent conviction, but from lack of conviction, and allowing themselves in self-indulgences of the rightfulness of which they were dubious, they “condemned themselves in that which they allowed.”

The consequence in civil society was alike disastrous. Early legislation had not steered clear of the error of attempting to enforce Sabbath-keeping as a religious duty by civil penalties; and some relics of that mistake remained, and still remain, on some of the statute-books. The just protest against this wrong was, of course, undiscriminating, tending to defeat the righteous and most salutary laws that aimed simply to secure for the citizen the privilege of a weekly day of rest and to secure the holiday thus ordained by law from being perverted into a nuisance.

The social change which is still in progress along these lines no wise Christian patriot can contemplate with complacency. It threatens, when complete, to deprive us of that universal quiet Sabbath rest which has been one of the glories of American social life, and an important element in its economic prosperity, and to give in place of it, to some, no assurance of a Sabbath rest at all, to others, a Sabbath of revelry and debauchery.

One thought on “The Loss of the American Sabbath

  1. Timothy A. Williams

    Reblogged this on The Protestant Pulpit and commented:
    Despite the Antinomian tendencies, the Lord’s Day is a moral obligation. It predates the Mosaic, finding its root in the creation narrative, and its perpetuity spans the church age until we reach the everlasting Sabbath.

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