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New Horizons

The Sabbath: Plausibility for Presbyterian Pilgrims

John R. Muether

Living in an age of Sabbath indifference, we may be surprised to learn how nearly universal was the Sabbatarianism of nineteenth-century American Protestantism. The sanctity of the Lord's Day was high on the agenda of nineteenth-century evangelical social reform.

For Presbyterians in particular, a protracted war was carried on to preserve the Sabbath. From the beginning to the end of the century, Sabbath desecration was always highlighted on any list of the vices that were threatening the moral fabric of the country. Special concern was voiced over social changes wrought by technological progress and the rise of mass culture. New modes of transportation brought weekend resorts like Atlantic City within the convenient reach of city residents. The Sunday newspaper dropped an alternative to public worship on the doorstep of millions. By the end of the century, professional baseball had begun to be played on Sunday. Equally troubling was the infidelity and irreligion of the expanding Western frontier. Presbyterian missionaries to the Missouri frontier called the land west of the Mississippi "the land beyond the Sabbath."

Particularly striking about this Sabbath rhetoric was the connection drawn between the observance of the Sabbath and the fate of the nation. The civil magistrate was expected to punish Sabbath breaking because it destroyed America's moral fabric. Writes historian Fred Hood: "The proper observation of the Sabbath was considered ... to be the most essential element in the maintenance of morals and therefore the preservation of the nation."

The Victorian Sunday

Often described as the "Puritan Sunday," the mind-set of Sabbath keeping might be more accurately described as the "Victorian Sunday." The Sabbath became a symbol of middle-class Protestant respectability, linked with other symbols such as temperance. And in good Victorian fashion, the Sabbath was lauded as "a day of intellectual and moral improvement."

This cause also served as an instrument of social control. Protestants, in part, were promoting the Sabbath in order to maintain their hegemony over unruly waves of immigrants, especially Catholics, Lutherans, and Jews, who neither abstained from drinking alcoholic beverages nor kept the Christian Sabbath. When social crusaders spoke of maintaining the social fabric, they had a specific vision of what that meant: a nation that was Protestant, middle class, and rural. Their Sabbath wars were part of a larger cause to bolster the Protestant establishment against threats from religious minorities. If these newcomers and outsiders were to share in the American experiment, they had to adopt Protestant mores.

This form of public piety sounds a little strange to us today, because it gradually went out of fashion during the twentieth century. What happened to the Sabbath over the past one hundred years has been well described by sociologist Benton Johnson. Presbyterians simply "dropped the subject": they lost interest in the Sabbath as it had been traditionally observed. A strong Sabbatarianism was severely tested by the secularization and pluralization of American culture after World War I. As Johnson observes, "Prohibition, blue laws, and ÔPuritan' standards of conduct were belittled in the press, in popular literature, on the stage, and in the movies." Rising affluence and social mobility undermined the control that churches exerted over their members, especially in matters that seemed particularly burdensome, like Sabbatarianism and prohibition. Johnson concludes that the decline of the Sabbath "was simply the next step in an erosion of commitment to the religious tradition." Ironically, American Protestants themselves proved only too adept at assimilating into the increasingly pluralistic environment of the late twentieth century.

Thus, the Sabbath's role in defining Christian America declined steadily during the twentieth century. Nearly all Protestants, both mainliners and evangelicals, abandoned or greatly modified the practice of Sabbath keeping, convinced that the challenge of living in a highly technological and pluralistic world demanded a reconsideration of the Sabbath and its obligations.

The Sabbath in the OPC

How does the OPC fit into this picture? Rarely is the Sabbath mentioned in descriptions of OPC identity. Yet, despite the relative silence, Sabbatarianism has been a key, if unarticulated, feature of its corporate life, and we can find indirect evidence of the church's commitment to uphold the Lord's Day. Consider, for example, George Marston's booklet, A Communicant Church Membership Course. There he lists five duties of covenant church membership, and the first is keeping the Christian Sabbath. Witnessing the drift in Sabbath keeping in other parts of American Protestantism, the Presbyterian Guardian (and later New Horizons) did not keep silent about its importance, publishing over two dozen articles and editorials on the Sabbath.

The consensus on the Sabbath represented in those articles would undergo a stiff test in the 1970s, when two matters came before the OPC's General Assembly. In 1973, a special Committee on Sabbath Matters presented a divided report on "the extent to which the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms faithfully reflect the Scripture teaching in regard to the Fourth Commandment." The majority report (the recommendations of which were adopted by the Assembly) found the Confession's teaching on the Sabbath to be in essential harmony with Scripture, and it argued that "so far as the teaching of our secondary standards regarding the Christian Sabbath or Lord's Day is the teaching of Scripture, its acceptance is required by the second ordination vow" of church officers. Thus the Assembly upheld the strong Sabbatarianism of the Confession of Faith. Four years later, the General Assembly denied an appeal from a minister who had been suspended by his Presbytery for playing semipro soccer on Sundays. The Assembly reasoned that the Presbytery had the right to take such action "in seeking to uphold the teaching of Scripture and the confessional standards relevant to the Sabbath and its observance."

These decisions reiterated the centrality of the Sabbath to Orthodox Presbyterian piety. The church insisted on adherence to Scripture and Confession with respect to the moral law, refusing to soften its corporate witness on the Sabbath and declining to follow the path of mainline and evangelical churches.

But how does that profession compare with practice? An indication of Sabbath practice in the OPC can be obtained by studying congregational habits with respect to evening worship. The sentiment was frequently expressed in the Presbyterian Guardian that Sunday evening worship was a good indicator of the extent to which Sabbatarianism was practiced in American culture. If we look back fifty years to 1958, we find that 95 percent of our congregations had two services on Sunday. According to the 2008 OPC Directory, that percentage has dropped to 70 percent. That is still a large majority which indicates that a strong Sabbatarianism still pervades our denomination. But signs of decline, or at least a weakening of the consensus, may be emerging.

The Pilgrim's Sabbath

The OPC has maintained a strong commitment to Sabbath keeping, but this does not mean that it has simply preserved what most of Protestantism has surrendered over the past century. A closer look reveals that the OPC has shaped its doctrine of the Sabbath in distinctive ways. Orthodox Presbyterian reflection on the Sabbath did not spring from a nationalist agenda, but from the perspective of the church as a community living under the covenant. As Charles Dennison has observed, our spirituality is premised on the notion of pilgrimage: the OPC is a countercultural people marching to Zion.

This vision of the church as a dissident band of "resident aliens" has significance for the shaping of the Sabbath. The Sabbath serves as a "plausibility structure" for the OPC. Sociologists argue that under conditions of intense religious pluralism, orthodox worldviews are difficult to maintain with confidence. Plausibility structures are organized practices that still our doubts and reinforce our religious convictions. This is precisely what the Sabbath does for Orthodox Presbyterians: it enables us to live out our convictions in the context of fellow believers, providing the social support for their "otherworldly," or heavenly, citizenship. Put another way, a countercultural identity and the practice of the Sabbath become mutually reinforcing.

This sociological insight does not reduce the Sabbath merely to a socially constructed coping device. It is better described, not as "the social construction of reality," but as "the eschatological construction of reality." Professor Richard B. Gaffin has argued that the new covenant requires not only a shift in the day of Sabbath observance, but also a shift in the logic of observance. The Christian Sabbath is grounded in the eschatological structure of New Testament times: life in the "already / not yet." In the covenantal Sabbatarianism that it espouses, the OPC seeks to give the Sabbath a heightened eschatological focus. Because it is a pilgrim people "not yet" in the promised land of a consummated kingdom, the OPC continues to mark the weekly Sabbath as a testimony that it is still on the way. Because it "already" possesses the kingdom in its inaugurated state, it refuses to accept the agenda of this world, and instead it defines the Sabbath as part of its participation in the kingdom of God.

By emphasizing the eschatological character of the Sabbath, the OPC has insisted that the church is not for hire, neither by the state nor any other cause short of the hope to which it is called to testify. Similarly, it has said that the Sabbath is not for use in the defense of that which is fading away, not for the improvement or progress of the kingdoms of this world.

The rise and fall of American Sabbatarianism was tied to its use as an instrument for Protestants to assimilate minorities and to preserve the social order. The OPC, in contrast, has emerged in God's providence as a culture of dissent, not of assimilation. It has not employed the Sabbath to recover a golden age of Protestant cultural hegemony. The Sabbath maintains the faithfulness of the church and its character as an eschatological covenant community. To employ the Sabbath otherwise would be to deny the already of the church's kingdom identity.

The pilgrim's Sabbath becomes a symbol of heavenly citizenship, a sign of our true and only hope. It is a subversive tool to renounce the worldly idols of work, leisure, and consumption. It provides a weekly embodiment of the church's pilgrim identity.

Looking toward the Future

So central is this discipline to the identity of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church that it prompts our reflection: are we fully embracing the Sabbath as it is designed to be? Or will the experience of the Protestant mainline repeat itself? America can now be fairly said to be "the land beyond the Sabbath," and in our age of Sabbath indifference there is no reason to take our Sabbath identity for granted.

Now more than ever, the church must resist the temptation to assimilate to the surrounding culture. It is not too bold to suggest that the OPC will prove more attractive in our postmodern times to the extent that it highlights and refuses to disguise its distinctively covenantal and eschatological practice of the Sabbath.

The author, an OP ruling elder, teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Fla. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2009.

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