J.W. Alexander on Sabbath Evenings in Former Days

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James Waddel Alexander, writing in 1851 under the pen name “C.Q.,” has given us a description of how evenings were spent on the Lord’s Day, after public worship was over. It is valuable to note the place given to family worship, Scripture, the Psalms, the Westminster Shorter Catechism and the reading of classic religious books.

Among our Presbyterian forefathers it was not customary to have public service on Sabbath evenings. That time was usually devoted, in England, and especially in Scotland, to the instruction of the household. In addition to the family worship, which at these seasons was more solemn and more extended, the domestic ordinance of catechizing was observed with great punctuality and zeal….

After the evening meal of the Sabbath, the whole family was gathered, not excepting the domestics, some of whom were grey headed servants of Christ, who had grown up under the roof. In our day of restlessness it is thought enough to despatch a few questions and answers; but the Scottish method was to go through the whole Shorter Catechism, without omission or abridgment. The presiding person, in this exercise, was the master of the house; and we know families, in which, even now, this service is constantly performed without book. We were lately told by a lady, that, after her father's death, the catechetical examination was faithfully carried on by the mother; and no doubt, this has happened in thousands of instances. Though the Larger Catechism was extensively taught, as was the case in a family from which the writer is descended, it was the Shorter Catechism which every youth, without exception, was expected to know. Any one who chooses to try the experiment, may easily satisfy himself how deeply this form of sound words is impressed on the memory of all who have enjoyed a regular Presbyterian training. After attaining a perfect knowledge of the text, children were made to learn a sufficient number of Scripture proofs. This was in itself a theological education. By weekly repetition, it was not merely taught, but inculcated, in the proper sense of that term; so that scarcely any lapse of years could entirely eradicate it from the mind. Whatever may be said about the tediousness of such a discipline, we believe all who have passed through it agree in looking back to those evening exercises as serenely delightful; and in regretting the seeming necessity of denying the same to their own children.

In the Presbyterian houses to which reference is now had, Holy Scripture had its place, in the looking out of passages quoted by the preacher, and in repeating psalms and paraphrases. Expositions of a familiar kind were not unfrequently given, which left their impression on the youthful mind. In days when books were scarcer than at present, many an hour was spent in reading aloud from such works as Rutherford's Letters, Boston's Fourfold State and Crook in the Lot, Erskine's Gospel Sonnets, Guthrie's Interest, and the Sermons of Binning and Andrew Gray. Does not the heart of some reader bless God for these golden opportunities?

There are many congregations among ourselves, in which the evenings of the Lord's days are vacant. It is a very serious question for parents and householders, how far they may employ this sacred season, statedly, for the benefit of their families. Thorough and effectual catechising demands at least a weekly exercise; and where there is no other engagement, the best time for these is the Sabbath evening. Religious instruction, at such a season, is sanctified by the hallowed day, and sweetened by the flow of home- feelings. The service need be neither tedious nor burdensome. A little management may render it delightful. Next to the house of God, there is no place so favourable for the conversion of children as the happy fireside. Let not the subject be laid aside, without some careful recurrence to the past, some candid self-examination, some deliberate planning, some resolved purpose, some self-denying and courageous endeavour, and some prayer to God for his blessing.

Alexander’s snapshot of Sabbath evenings past was meant to encourage readers of his own day to redeem those hours with family exercises of worship, catechetical instruction, and devotional reading. How much more do we need — “in our day of restlessness” — such encouragement in the early part of the 21st century?

A scar on the author's wrist: J.W. Alexander's story for children

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James Waddel Alexander (the father of seven children) was known for the many books for young people which he authored, especially for the American Sunday-School Union. One — part of The Infant’s Library series consisting of 24 small books for the littlest children — was published in 1825 under the title The Sabbath Breaker. This little work is not yet available on Log College Press, but the autobiographical story authored by Alexander can be read in a biography of Edward Norris Kirk (1802-1874) by David Otis Mears. It is about two boys (James and Edward) who learned a lesson about keeping the Lord’s Day holy.

The Sabbath Breaker

Children, I am going to tell you another story. Every word of it is true, and I know it to be so. There were two boys, named James and Edward. They knew what was right, but they did what was wrong. This is very bad. They knew that the Sabbath was God’s day, but still they profaned the Sabbath.

One fine Sabbath afternoon, they had a lesson in the Bible to say to their teacher. But they were wicked and played truant. They did not get their lesson. And they played instead of going to their teacher. You will see what happened to them.

Edward and James used to go to bathe in a brook about two miles from home. Edward asked James if he would go and bathe there. James was at first afraid to go, because it was the Sabbath. But he was ashamed to say so. So they both set off to go to the brook.

As soon as they set off, they saw that some clouds were rising. But they went on.

When they got to the water, it thundered very loud, so that James was afraid to go in, though he was undressed. Edward went in and bathed.

The thunder was so loud, and it rained so hard, that they boys dressed themselves in a great hurry and began to return. The storm increased, it was very dark, and the lightning was dreadful. The boys were frightened. They knew they had done wrong. They knew that God saw them. They heard his thunder in the heavens, and were afraid. One clap of thunder was awful. The lightning struck a house in the town, and threw down a part of the chimney. James trembled, because he was afraid the Lord would strike him dead. But God is merciful, and spared these bad boys. The storm was short, and it was soon clear weather again.

When James and Edward got half-way home, they began to laugh and talk again. James was afraid Edward would think he was frightened. To show how brave he was, James took a penknife and tried to strike it into his coat-sleeve. The knife slipped, and the whole blade went into the back part of his wrist. The blood spouted out, and ran over his white clothes. He was then frightened indeed. He had escaped the storm, but now he saw that God had punished him. He had to send for a doctor. The doctor said it was a wonder he had not cut an artery. This was many years ago, but I saw the scar on his wrist, just before I wrote this. Remember the Sabbath.

The two boys in this story grew up to become devout and serious Christians, as well as friends for life — not unlike David and Jonathan, according to Kirk’s biographer. And the lesson they learned in their youth about keeping the Lord’s Day holy became a story to teach other young children as well.

A.A. Hodge on the essence, duration and change of the Sabbath

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Charles A, Salmond, “the Scottish Princetonian,” recorded the “Table Talks” of Dr. Archibald Alexander Hodge in Princetoniana (1888). Some of his thoughts on the Christian Sabbath from these Table Talks are extracted below for meditation on this Lord’s Day. For a longer read by Hodge on this subject, be sure to read The Day Changed and the Sabbath Preserved (highlighted previously here and available to read here).

The Essence of the Sabbath.

That a regular portion of time, appointed by God, to be observed by all men, should be set apart for rest and the worship of God, — this is the essence of the Sabbath; that one-seventh of time should be so set apart is, relatively to this, the accident. It is, however, the case that one-seventh of time has been positively set apart by God for a Sabbath, and a particular one-seventh of time. The choice has not been left to us.

Duration and Extent of the Sabbath Law.

"Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy," is as much a moral law as "Thou shalt not steal" — the law founded on the relations of property. Its duration and extent are determined by the character of the institution and the abiding reason for it; and also by Scripture, in the New Testament portion of which its permanence is incidentally recognised, though there is no specific re-establishment of it, any more than of infant church membership.

The Lord's Day and the Sabbath the same.

Our "Lord's Day" and the Jewish "Sabbath" are not different in essence. Both are days of rest and festival, not of gloom. The essence of the Sabbath could not be changed without changing the nature of man. But the accidents of it may be changed by competent authority, and were actually changed by the college of Apostles, for a sufficient reason.

The Change of Day.

The stream of Sabbath observance on the seventh day of the week came right down to the time of the Apostles; it took a bend at that point; and it has come right on ever after. Only they could have altered it; the authority of no other would have wrought such an universal change in the Christian world. The adequate reason for the change was, the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ and the new creation it secured. The competent authority was that of the Apostles, and no other. (The trouble with the hierarchical bishops now is, that they are all Apostles, though they have not seen the Lord — not a soul of them!)

T.V. Moore on 'good and necessary consequence'

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The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6)

In an anonymously-published article in the January 1849 Methodist Quarterly Review, Thomas Verner Moore addresses the question of by what authority was the Sabbath day changed from the last day of the week to the first? In his discussion of this important question, still as relevant to our church and society today as it was in 1849, he first raises a point that must be considered when answering such. That is the question of whether doctrine may rightly be deduced from Scripture as well as set forth expressly. Let us see how Moore handles this.

We also concede that no merely human power can alter the law of the Sabbath in any particular; and that, if altered at all, it must be by the same authority on which it was originally instituted. The only question then that remains is, Has God made a transfer of the Sabbath from the seventh to the first day of the week?

The evidence on which we are warranted to receive this transfer must be similar to that on which we receive other articles of our faith. God has declared his will by various modes of manifestation. Sometimes he has announced it in the most explicit terms; at other times he has left it to be gathered by inference from several particulars. Thus, before the utterance of the fourth commandment, the Sabbath was binding on the patriarchs; but this obligation was with many of them not a matter of direct revelation, but an inference that such was the primitive revelation.

There are many things likewise in New Testament times, concerning which we are left to infer the will of God from differ[ing] facts, rather than informed of it by a formal statement. Thus, we infer the passing away of many Jewish rites and ceremonies; the right of women to the Lord's Supper; the duty of social and family prayer; and the discipline and worship of the house of God. It is thus, also, with the canonical authority of much of the Scriptures. Let the man who demands the will of God, in ipsissimus verbis, that the Sabbath shall be transferred from the seventh to the first day of the week, furnish similar proof of the canonical authority of the Epistle of James, the Epistle of Jude, or the Revelation, and we will comply with his demand. If, however, he receives these books as canonical, mainly, if not exclusively, because they were so received by the primitive Church during the continuance of inspired men, he could not fairly object if we furnished him with no other evidence than this in regard to the Lord's day. If, however, we can furnish him not only the same kind of proof in a stronger degree, but also independent evidence of this transfer, he surely cannot demur to the Divine authority of the Lord's day as the Christian Sabbath. Such evidence we think will be afforded by establishing a few propositions.

He goes to discuss how it is possible to distinguish between the observance of the Sabbath rest and the day upon which it is observed, which indicates that they are not inextricably linked. This distinction leads to an inference that such a transfer of the day is at least conceivable.

The same principle is recognized by men in similar observances. When our national Independence is celebrated on the third or fifth of July, in consequence of the fourth falling on the Sabbath, no one dreams that the celebration is vitiated, for the observance is distinct from the day.

An examination of the fourth commandment more narrowly will confirm this view. What is its main object? Plainly not to render sacred any particular day, because of its position in a numerical series, but to sanctify the Sabbath, and to state that one-seventh of our time shall constitute that Sabbath. It does not determine any order of enumeration, but commands simply that after labouring six days we shall rest on the seventh. Hence those who keep the Lord's day, obey the letter of the command; for they labour six days and rest on the seventh, in precise obedience to the law. It may be said, however, that we know that this enumeration began on a certain day. We grant it; but the fixing of this enumeration is something extraneous to the commandment itself, which does not contain within itself any particular series, but is adapted to whatever date it may please God to affix as the period of the weekly Sabbath.

Further discussion of this distinction — which is crucial to a right understanding of the distinction between that which is moral and enduring versus that which is ceremonial and temporary in regards to the Fourth Commandment — continues in Moore’s article, and is especially fascinating to read from the perspective of a Christian Sabbatarian which predates the institution of world-wide time zones, but as it goes beyond the focus of this brief post, the reader is invited to read T.V. Moore further on the transfer of the Sabbath day from last day of the week to the first here. Meanwhile, consider, dear reader, what Moore has said here about the value of good and necessary consequence in understanding Biblical doctrine.

"Jubilee of days!" - Samuel J. Cassels on the Christian Sabbath

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Providence and Other Poems (1838), historically at least, is “a pioneer work in Georgia literature” (Lawrence Huff, “Samuel Jones Cassels: A Pioneer Georgia Poet,” in The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 4 (Dec. 1963), p. 412), one of the first books of poetry ever to be published in that state. In one section titled “The Church,” the Presbyterian minister-poet Cassels gives a special tribute to the Christian Sabbath that is worth reflecting upon as the Lord’s Day draws nigh.

The first was Sabbath Day — holiest of time.
For many ends did God this day appoint;
The first — to celebrate his glorious praise
For wise construction of the universe,
And living memory thereof transmit
To farthest sons of distant time unborn.
The man, who by the nerve of mighty arm —
By laboring long and hard with weighty care —
Has founded by his sword an Empire vast, —
And widely spread o'er all the rescued land,
The beauteous works of peace and happiness —
The massy stone erects on high and there
His own, his country's name he writes, and stamps
The date, when sheath'd his sword, the work was done.
But chief, this day now points to second birth
Of world and man — to Resurrection-morn —
When vanquished Hell, and Death are captive bound,
From rocky tomb the great Redeemer rose
And brought in triumph high the vict'ry forth.
Another end — to give to thoughtless men
A leisure time to fit their souls for Heaven —
In shadows substances to show — and thus
T' unlock their fast clenched arms, and cast away
The world, more lov'd by most than Book of God.

Loveliest of time! Jubilee of days!
In secret bower hid, the christian rais'd
His eye expecting long its dawn to hail:
And as upon the distant East it blush'd
He met with rolling tear of holy joy —
Felt through his soul diffus'd a richer light,
And bending low at holy feet divine,
His heart pour'd forth in drops of gratitude;
Then rais'd his eye, in faith he fervent ask'd,
For dawn of endless Sabbath on his soul
O'er all the land sweet stillness wide prevail'd;
And nature joyous seem'd in silent gaze
Upon her God — while ear of saint devout
The footsteps soft of angels walking hears,
And sweetest notes that from the world of light
Escaping fell from lips of Seraphim.
High Heaven and Earth seem'd join'd in union sweet,
And God with either hand encircling each
Did to his bosom bring the Archangel
And the saint that wept in penitence —
Them brothers call and Him their Father kind.

May your Lord’s Day be blessed, dear reader.

Ashbel Green on the Best Way to Spend the Christian Sabbath

When the Westminster Confession of Faith says that “the whole time [of the Lord’s Day, or Christian Sabbath]” should be taken up in the public and private exercises of His worship (and in the duties of necessity and mercy, which is a topic for another post), how are we to understand this? Ashbel Green tackles this question in his Lectures on the Shorter Catechism, Vol. 2 (1841):

That our whole time, on the Sabbath, is to be spent in "the public and private exercise of God's worship," with no other exceptions, than those which we are afterwards to notice.

"God's worship," you will observe, includes in it, not only acts of prayer and praise, in which it immediately and more especially consists, but also every thing calculated to dispose us to those acts, and enable us to perform them with enlightened and holy ardour; and indeed, whatever has a tendency to promote the honour and glory of God.

The exercises suitable for the Sabbath are so many, that I can do little more than name them, and furnish you with some hints, on which you must enlarge for yourselves.

Green then lists the chief devotional activities that are consistent with Biblical Sabbath-keeping, such as:

  1. Meditation. — This is a duty too little practised, or thought of, by Christians generally. The Psalmist says — "My meditation of thee shall be sweet, I will be glad in the Lord." Meditation, intermingled with devout ejaculations and aspirations of soul, is exemplified in many of the Psalms, and should form a part of a Christian's exercises on every Lord's day. The subjects of meditation are the works, the government, and the providence of God, his providence in relation to our own lot in life particularly, and more than all, the glorious plan of redemption, as a whole, and in its various parts and aspects.

  2. Self-examination. — This is a duty which no Christian should neglect on the Lord's day. He should, if I may so speak, settle his spiritual account with himself, on the regular return of this day. He should examine, generally, whether he is in a gracious state, consider whether he is gaining or losing in religion; and should particularly go over the past week, to mark his defects, to observe the temper he has been in, the example he has set, to repent of what was wrong, and to form good resolutions for the future.

  3. Secret prayer and praise. — Although no real Christian can neglect secret prayer, habitually, on any day of the week, yet he should perform this duty more frequently, particularly, and extensively, on the Sabbath, than he ordinarily can on other days, unless they be days specially set apart for the purpose of prayer. It is in secret prayer and praise, that the soul of the believer holds converse and communion with God; and what so proper as this, on the day which he claims as his own: and when this converse and communion is very sensible, no exercise so fully antedates heaven, the sabbatical "rest which remaineth for the people of God."

  4. Reading the Holy Scriptures, and other books of devotion. — This, although it should be, to some extent, and as circumstances favour, an employment of a portion of our time on other days, yet it demands a special attention on the Sabbath. As far as practicable, method should be adopted in this, as in every other important concern. Let me advise you, my young friends, to confine yourselves principally, if not wholly to reading, studying, and meditating, on the word of God, in the former part of his day; to read some sound, doctrinal and practical writer, in the latter part; and to leave sacred poetry (except psalms and hymns,) with religious periodicals, to the evening. By pursuing this course, you will avoid the danger, which seems to be real and imminent at the present time, that the numerous publications of a periodical kind, will exclude almost every other sort of religious reading. Should this unhappily be realized, the rising generation, whatever zeal they may possess, will be greatly deficient in that sound doctrinal knowledge, which is the only sure basis of consistent, stable and exemplary piety.

  5. Family devotion and catechetical instruction. Family devotion, you are aware, consists of prayer and praise, connected with the reading of the Holy Scriptures. These exercises should, ordinarily, be somewhat more extended on the Sabbath than on secular days: and the reading of some pious commentator, such as Henry, Burkitt, or Scott, on a portion of the divine word, will also he profitable. By catechetical instruction, I mean especially a due attention to the Shorter Catechism of our church, which every member of the family should be able accurately to repeat without book, and which the younger members should recite, and hear a portion of it explained by the head of the family. It will be well, if they can add the scripture proofs, and better still, if they can add to both the Larger Catechism. These were once common attainments, in pious families of our church; and I am persuaded that whatever has taken their place, is not for the better, but the worse. But in catechetical instruction, I also include a questioning of the children of the family, on a previously prescribed portion of the Bible; requiring an account of what other books they have read; and examining them, as to what they can remember of the discourses they may have heard in public. It is this family instruction, which must, in most cases, be principally communicated and acquired on the Lord's day, and which more than any thing — I had almost said, more than every thing beside — contributes to raise up a generation of well in- formed and steadfast Christians. It was this which long distinguished the best reformed churches, and for it, I am persuaded, no adequate substitute ever has been, or will be found

  6. Public worship. — This is an important and essential part of the exercises of the Sabbath, to all who can avail themselves of it. Alas! that there are so many parts of our country, in which the privileges of the sanctuary cannot be enjoyed. But great is the criminality of those who neglect these privileges, when placed within their power. The command to such is explicit, " Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is;" and the pretence too often made, that the Sabbath may as well be employed without going to the sanctuary, as by attending there, is utterly vain and inexcusable. Nothing but the want of health and opportunity, can justify the omission. In religion, the blessing of God is every thing, and he will not confer it on those who disobey his command. Nor is it a formal attendance, but one truly devout, that God requires. We should, in ordinary circumstances, always make special prayer for a blessing to ourselves and others from the ser- vices of the sanctuary, immediately before going to them, if this be practicable; and for a blessing on what we have heard, immediately on our return to our retirements. But although I thus inculcate the duty of public worship, I cannot forbear to say, that I think there are some Christians, who greatly err, in endeavouring to spend almost the whole of the Sabbath in public. Much of it should be spent in private, in those exercises which I have already specified. Two attendances on public worship are, as a habit, as many as will be profitable, to those who seek to employ their holy time in the most advantageous manner.

  7. Religious conversation is the last exercise, that I shall mention as proper for the Lord's day. This should take place when Christian friends are together on this day, and whenever we go to, or return from, the house of God in company, unless we pass the time in silence. Conversation on news, or politics, or other secular subjects, though mournfully common, is a real profanation of the day, in any part of it, and peculiarly so, immediately before, or after, the services of the sanctuary. By this evil practice, all serious thought and good impressions are often prevented; or banished or effaced, after they have been received. The conversation of Christian families, while taking their meals together, ought also to be on religious subjects. Often a profitable topic may be furnished by the sermons they have heard — not however if they be subjected to severe criticism, but when so treated as to impress the sacred truths which have been heard in public.

As Sabbath-time is the most precious time of the week, may we consider how best to spend the whole day in these activities listed by Ashbel Green and so to honor the Lord on his holy day.

What should we call God's holy day? Samuel Miller answers

In January, 1836, Samuel Miller, writing for The Biblical Repertory and Theological Review, addressed a question with which many Christians today still wrestle. What should we properly call the first day of the week, that is, God’s holy day? His ten-page article is titled “The Most Suitable Name for the Christian Sabbath.”

As Miller reviews the history of the title of this day of the week, he considers the Jewish Sabbath, and certain modern objections to a Christian association with that term; distinctions observed in the early Church between “Sabbath,” “Lord’s Day,” and “Sunday;” the Quaker preference for no other designation than “first day of the week;” and the Anglican and Puritan understandings of both the purpose of the day and its appropriate title.

Finally, Miller weighs the origin and meaning of the terms “Sunday,” “Sabbath,” and “Lord’s Day,” and makes his own preference known, giving solid arguments as to why. Consider his reasoning for yourself here. There is much food for thought for us today from a 19th century Presbyterian pastor who loved God’s holy day.