John Thomson on What it Means to Remember the Sabbath Day

John Thomson (1690-1753) was an important early Irish-American Presbyterian minister who served as a missionary in Virginia and North Carolina. He was the primary author of the 1729 Adopting Act. His commentary on the Westminster Shorter Catechism was the first Presbyterian book ever published in the Southern United States (in Williamsburg, Virginia). 

In this commentary, Thomson includes an extended discussion of what it means to remember the Sabbath Day, which itself is worth remembering today. 

John Thomson, An Explication of the Shorter Catechism, Composed by the Assembly of Divines (1749), pp. 116-117 on WSC #60 ("How is the Sabbath to be sanctified?"):

Q. 8. What is imported in remembering the Sabbath Day?

A. It imports a remembering of God's Command to keep it. 

Q. 9. When should we remember it? 

A. We should remember it before it comes, when it is come, and after it is past. 

Q. 10. How should we remember it before it comes? 

A. By preparing our Hearts for it, and the Duties of it; and by a prudent ordering all our worldly Affairs, so as they may least hinder or distract us in our Sabbath's Work when it comes. Neh. 13.19, 21.

Q. 11. How should we remember the Sabbath when it comes? 

A. By a diligent, sincere and serious addressing ourselves to the successive Performance of all the Duties of the Day in Season and due Order; and a watchful guarding against every Thing that may hinder, interrupt or distract us in or from these Duties. Isai. 58.13.

Q. 12. How should we remember the Sabbath after it is past? 

A. By serious Meditation on these Subjects which we were employ'd about during the Sabbath; and by a penitent Reflection on our short-comings, together with a sincere Resolution to be more watchful and punctual in sanctifying succeeding Sabbaths. 

William Plumer on the Sabbath Day

Have you ever considered the irony that many who plant Ten Commandment signs in their front yards today reject the fourth commandment as binding upon Christians under the new covenant? As you rejoice in this Lord's Day, be encouraged by the challenging, persuasive, and promissory words of William Swan Plumer: 

"He, who loves God's word and worship, he, who delights in prayer and praise, loves the day devoted to the study of Scripture, and the service of Jehovah. Among the thousands of religious biographies now before the world, is there one which shows that any heart loved the other precepts of the Decalogue and disregarded this?

It is generally agreed that Christ came to enlarge, not to curtail the privileges of his people, and espe­cially of the poor and afflicted, many of whom are not the masters of their own time. But if he abolished the Sabbath, he cut off the pious poor from one of their dearest privileges, one no less necessary to re­lieve their heavy hearts than to refresh their toil-worn bodies. 

The Scriptures contain many precious promises to those who reverently keep this day, and take pleasure in its appropriate duties. Isa. 56:1-7, and 58:14; Jer. 17:21-26. To such God will give, in his house and within his walls, a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters. He will give them an ever­lasting name, that shall not be cut off. He will make them joyful in his house of prayer, and will accept all their sacrifices; and blessings like those which came upon Jacob shall fall upon them." -- The Law of God, page 299

The American Sabbath One Century Ago

Echoing a line from William Cowper ("When nations are to perish in their sins, / 'tis in the Church the leprosy begins), the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States once affirmed: "Let us beware brethren: as goes the Sabbath, so goes the church, as goes the church, so goes the nation" (1948). The same ecclesiastical body stated in 1933: "This nation cannot survive unless the Christian Sabbath is observed." 

With that principle in mind, in 1905, a fascinating volume was published by the National Reform Association, which was authored by Richard Cameron Wylie (1846-1928), a Reformed Presbyterian minister and long-term lecturer on behalf of the NRA, with an introduction by NRA President Sylvester Fithian Scovel (1835-1910), a Presbyterian minister and also President of Wooster University, regarding the state of the Christian Sabbath in America, along with the Biblical rationale for its public and civil establishment therein: Sabbath Laws in the United States

Beginning with a look at the colonial history of Sabbath laws in America, Wylie goes on to analyze the status of each states (there were 45 in 1905) and territory within the jurisdiction of the United States. This detailed study is followed by the Biblical grounds for the need to uphold the Fourth Commandment in modern American civil legislation. 

A documented study of this sort, authored by those who themselves advocated public and civil Sabbath-keeping, is rare to find. This particular volume, which precedes the efforts of the National Football League to largely dismantle US Sabbath laws beginning as early as the 1920's, provides a snapshot of the spiritual state of the country in 1905, just over one century ago. It is a window into the soul of America's past, and worth prayerfully comparing with America's present. 

A Prize-Winning Essay on the Sabbath

In the mid 1870s, William A. Moore, a ruling elder of the First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, offered $200 for the best essay on the "Nature, Design, and Proper Observance of the Sabbath." E. T. Baird, Moses Drury Hoge, and C. H. Read were appointed the committee to judge the manuscripts submitted. These men were looking for essays that conformed to the scope set forth by Moore, that were "comprehensive, scholarly, clear, and forcible," and that evinced an arresting, tasteful, and convicting style. Though 108 submissions were entered, and several were remarkable in quality, only one could win the $200 prize - the essay by James Stacy, the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Newnan, Georgia, was chosen. 

Stacy unpacks the Sabbath day in the following particulars: 1) it is rooted in tradition; 2) it is inwrought in Scripture; 3) it is confirmed by nature; 4) it is not abolished with the Jewish ceremonies; 5) it is established by New Testament teachings; 6) and finally, its manner of observance. 

If you're looking for a short treatment on the Sabbath, don't miss this essay by Stacy!

A. A. Hodge's "The Day Changed and the Sabbath Preserved"

Archibald Alexander Hodge's pamphlet, "The Day Changed and the Sabbath Preserved," is a brief yet powerful argument for the permanence of the Sabbath commandment in both old and new covenant administrations of the covenant of grace. If you've never seen a copy of the original pamphlet, you can find it on the Log College Press website

In the space of 22 small pages, Hodge states the grounds on which the church has held that the fourth commandment is a part of the unending moral law, and that the first day of the week has been substituted for the seventh day by the authority of Christ's apostles (and therefore of Jesus Himself). Here are his points, which he unpacks in sufficient detail given the scope of his work:

1. The particular day of the week on which the Sabbath was to be kept never was, or could be, of the essence of the institution itself.

2. The introduction of a new dispensation, in which a preparatory and particularistic national system is to be replaced by a permanent and universal one, embracing all nations to the end of time, is a suitable occasion to switch the day.

3. The amazing fact of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus on the first day of the week constitutes an evidently adequate reason for appointing that in the stead of the seventh day to be the Christian Sabbath.

4. During his life Jesus had affirmed that he was "Lord also of the Sabbath day."

5. From the time of John, who first gave the institution its best and most sacred title, "Lord's day," there is an unbroken and unexceptional chain of testimonies that the "first day of the week" was observed as the Christian's day of worship and rest. 

6. With this view the testimony of all the great Reformers and all historical branches of the modern Christian Church agree.

7. The change of the day by the apostolic church has thus been proved by historical testimony, to which much might be added if space permitted, but against which no counter-evidence exists. 

The strength of Hodge's pamphlet lies in that inclusion of historical testimony, both from the early church fathers and the Reformers. Hodge is aware that the Reformers made statements contradicting the view he is arguing for, but he contends that these statements, unguarded and unadvised as they were, were uttered in the context of the Romanists reasoning from the early church's altering a command of the decalogue to the power of Rome to impose obligations on Christians, even to the altering of divine laws. Hodge draws from the writings of the Reformers themselves to show that the Reformers spoke in accord with a right view of the Lord's Day as the Christian Sabbath in several places. 

In an age in which Sabbath keeping is ignored or anathema even amongst Christians, Hodge's pamphlet is an important piece of writing we are glad to made accessible again to the church.

Saturday Evening Retirement

Ashbel Green (1762-1848) in his Lectures on the [Westminster] Shorter Catechism, Vol. 2, p. 112, on the Fourth Commandment, after arguing in favor of midnight-to-midnight observance of the Christian Sabbath, or Lord's Day, offers this bit of wisdom regarding preparation for keeping the day holy: 

"As far as practicable, it will be well for you, my young friends, to adopt what I know has been the practice of some devout Christians; that is, to spend the evening of Saturday, as much as you conveniently can, in retirement from the world. The children of dissipation often spend it in parties of mirth and levity, or at theatres, or other places of carnal amusement; and they often add to their other sins, by an actual trespass on holy time. Take for yourselves an exactly opposite course. Whenever you can, so order your affairs that your worldly occupations on the evening preceding the Lord's day, may be of such a retired and peaceful kind, as to admit of serious meditation avoid promiscuous company altogether; let your associations at this time, be with the pious, and your conversation be on religious topics; or better still, if you can, spend a part at least of the evening, in religious reading and devout meditation. I am well aware that may are so circumstanced that a stated compliance with this advice will not be practicable; and I offer it, not as pointing out a prescribed duty, but as a matter of Christian prudence, with those who are favoured in providence to have their time in some degree at their voluntary disposal. Even our ordinary devotions, on secular days, will not usually be performed to the greatest advantage, unless they are preceded by a short space of recollected and serious thought. And it is highly desirable, with a view to the most profitable spending of holy time, to prepare for it, by getting our minds into a devoted frame. It is delightful in deed to the practical Christian, when the evening which precedes the Lord's day is so spent, that his very dreams become devout; and that he awakes in the morning on which his Saviour rose from the dead, with the aspirations of his mind going forth to Him, as he is now seated on his throne in the heavens, and with the whole soul attuned to the employments of the sacred hours of this blessed day." 

Have you seen this essay by Samuel Miller on the Sabbath?

Samuel Miller was perhaps the J. I. Packer of the early 19th century - not only was he a prolific author in his own right, but he also wrote introductory essays to the works of other authors. At least, he wrote a 1833 introductory essay to John Holmes Agnew's Manual on the Christian Sabbath. Miller's essay deserves to be more well-known - which is why Log College Press exists!

Ashbel Green on the moral nature of the Sabbath, & the right interpretation of Colossians 2:16

"Let us now consider this subject in the light of Holy Scripture: and here I remark that it would appear strange indeed, that in the midst of a code of moral laws, intended to be of perpetual obligation, we should find one, and but one, of a merely ceremonial and temporary nature; and this without the smallest intimation that it was of a character different from the rest. There was, moreover, a marked difference between the manner in which the ten commandments were given, and that which was adopted in instituting the temporary ritual of the Hebrews. The ten commandments were uttered by an audible voice of Jehovah from Mount Sinai; and were also engraved by the finger of God on two tables of stone, which were to be laid up in the ark, and preserved with it in the most holy place. Not a single ceremonial institution, unless the fourth commandment is one, was given in this manner—a manner clearly intended to denote that those laws possessed a dignity and perpetuity of character, which did not belong to the ceremonial rites. These rites were indeed given by divine inspiration to Moses, and till the advent of the Saviour, were doubtless as binding on the Jews, as the precepts of the Decalogue. But the different manner in which they were promulged and preserved, seems clearly to intimate the Divine appointment, that the latter should be temporary, and the former perpetual...

From these considerations, and some others of a similar nature, which I do not think necessary to specify, we conclude, that the fourth commandment ought, beyond a question, to be regarded as a part of the moral law—equally obligatory, and as perpetual in its nature and design, as any other precept of the decalogue.

We are aware that those who represent the Jewish Sabbath as a ceremonial institution, endeavour to support their hypothesis by what the apostle says, Coloss. ii. 16,17. "Let no man, therefore, judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a holy day, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days; which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ." But when we consider that the writer of these words was in the practice of observing a particular day of the week, for special religious exercises, as is apparent from his epistles, as well as from the Acts of the Apostles, we cannot believe that he meant to condemn this practice. He would, by so doing, have condemned himself. By the Sabbath days, which are a shadow of things to come, he plainly means the Jewish festivals, in which holy convocations were held; and which are often in the Old Testament denominated Sabbaths. Indeed, it seems evident at once, by the enumeration in this passage of rites confessedly ceremonial, that the apostle is speaking exclusively of them. And accordingly, this prohibition is directed to Sabbath days, in the plural number, and not to the weekly Sabbath, which would have been mentioned in the singular, if that had been his object."

-- From his Lectures on the Shorter Catechism, Volume 2

How did Presbyterians in the first half of the 19th century think about the Lord's Day?

A Manual on the Christian Sabbath, by John Holmes Agnew, will help to answer that question. Originally lectures to students at Washington College (now Washington and Lee College) in Lexington, Virginia, this work covers the perpetual obligation of Christians to observe the Lord's day, the design of the day, the blessings and usefulness of the day, and our duties on the day. Worth the price of the book (or rather, the download!) is a Packer-esque introduction by Samuel Miller. 

The 19th century has much to teach us about the Sabbath day; this volume, with Miller's introduction, is a good place to begin.