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Sabbath Observance:
The Testimony of Scripture
and the Voice of History

by Rev Murdo A. N. Macleod, Minister of Leverburgh Free Church of Scotland.

The following is the first part of an address given on 20th November 2000 at the Annual meeting of the North Uist Branch of the Lord's Day Observance Society.

This address was published in the Presbyterian Standard in two parts; Issue 21., January-March & Issue 22, April-June, 2001.

I INTEND this evening to examine the testimony of Scripture regarding Sabbath Observance with particular reference to the 13th chapter of Nehemiah. Also a brief look at Sabbath Observance in the history of the Church especially in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

The Church Recognises the Principle of Sabbath Observance

(a) It recognises it as a Biblical Ordinance

We find repeatedly in Scripture the command to separate the Lord's Day from the other days of the week. Thus Nehemiah testified against the wine press workers and the fish sellers from Tyre: "What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the sabbath day? Did not your fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us, and upon this city? yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the sabbath." (Neh. 13:17-18) Nehemiah preached from a conviction that the Lord had spoken on this matter. The Church finds in Scripture this wise and merciful provision from the hand of the Almighty.

(b) It recognises it as a Creation Ordinance

The Sabbath is given, not in chapter 3 of Genesis in the context of the fall of man, but in chapter 2 in the context of creation. The Sabbath was appointed before man learned to eat bread in the sweat of his face. The foundation of the Sabbath is thus seen to be laid in God's act more than man's need. There will always be a weakness in our argument for Sabbath Observance if we fail to take this fact into account.

(c) It recognises it as a Lasting Ordinance

Man in a state of innocency never quarrelled with the appointment of the Lord's Day. Such opposition arose out of the fall. Man changed, God did not. Heaven and earth must first pass away before we can ever imagine the Lord repealing the Sabbath law. Knowledge, righteousness and holiness has disappeared from the soul of man. The day of delight in holy fellowship with the Creator has become a dark and cloudy day. Yet the law still remains.

At Sinai, the Sabbath is safeguarded. "Six days ye shall gather it (manna); but on the seventh day, which is the sabbath, there shall be none." (Exodus 16:26) Some went out to gather and "the Lord said unto Moses, how long refuse ye to keep my commandments and my laws? See, for that the Lord hath given you the sabbath, therefore he giveth you on the sixth day the bread of two days." (v.28)

'Remember' stands like a sentinel at the begining of the fourth Commandment. The Sabbath is at the centre of the Moral Law. This places it's perpetual obligation beyond dispute. Remove the central link between our duty to God and our duty to man in the chain of the Ten Commandments and the decalogue falls to the ground. If one Command can be taken out why not another? Why not remove all? Why not worship idols? Why not kill without fear of retribution? We are now in the gospel age. The old dispensation is fulfilled in the new. Christ has come and the Ceremonial Law has passed away. Yet the Moral Law has not been abrogated in any respect.

The transition from one day to another takes place with ease in natural succession to the resurection. The Sabbath, as one old writer comments, "is now robed in double glory." It is a day speaking of creation. Yet it now also speaks joyfully of resurrection and re-creation. The old Sabbath of Sinai is now administered by the Lord of the Sabbath. It is in the hands of the Mediator for his glory and for the good of his Church. We are not startled or surprised to read that the Lord appeared in the midst of the gathered disciples on the Lord's Day. We are not surprised to see the apostle Paul with the gathered church in Troas for preaching and the administration of the Lord's Supper on the Lord's Day. Paul instructs the church in Corinth to make collections on this day: "Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him." (1 Cor.16:2)

The Church loves the Principle of Sabbath Observance

To natural man the fourth Commandment is a heavy and grievous burden against which the sinful deceitful heart rises in rebellion e.g. in Amos' day they are seen enquiring when the Sabbath will be past "that we may set forth wheat." (Amos 8:5) Yet Isaiah speaks of the Sabbath as a 'delight'.(58:13). Grace imparts a love for God, his Word, his Law, and his Day.

(a) The Early Church Fathers

In the writings of the apostolic Fathers such as Tertullian, Clement, and Augustine we see the Sabbath Day recognised as a day set apart by Divine ordinance for worship and the administration of the Lords Supper. The Council of Laodicea enjoined it's proper observance.

(b) The Celtic and Columban Church

In AD 563 Columba came from Ireland. His very name, Colum Cille i.e. 'Calum of the Church' testifies of his regard for the Sabbath Day. With over two hundred followers he arrived at Iona and built a church (though not the one seen today). He preached the gospel from Lindisfarne on the Northumbrian coast to Applecross in the west. Applecross would become the Iona of the North, its Gaelic name A Chomraich meaning 'a sanctuary'. The Columban church became in effect the Church of Scotland for at least 150 years. It differed from the Roman Church - still in its early days of error - in points of doctrine and ceremony and owed no allegiance to the Roman system. Amongst these men there was a love and regard for the Sabbath Day. The prohibition on washing, cooking, shaving, fuel collecting etc. on the Lords Day had its origins in this nation not in the austerity of the puritans, but in the zeal of the founders and builders of the Christian church in Ireland and Scotland.

(c) The Reformation

A survey gives a glimpse of early reformed attitudes. Quoting from the records of the Burgh Council of Inverness (1562), John MacKay notes the appointment of Elders and Deacons in the town. The record details fines for non-attendance at church on Sabbath. The first fault carried the penalty of twelve pence rising to ten shillings for each fault above the third. The Deacons in their districts collected such fines as the occasion required. West coast Presbytery and Kirk Session Records show the same concerns.

Of course attendance at worship was not the whole story. In the days of Charles II fighting and drunkenness in churches and churchyards was sadly not uncommon and this too was spoken against. In 1672 two Lairds, Martin MacGillvary of Aberchalder and Alexander Macintosh of Farr had a 'ploy' as Presbytery Records have it on the Lords Day in the church at Dunlichty. This led to a solemn rebuke from the local church leaders.

In the West the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) supported Catechists, missionaries and school masters. In the rules for school masters it stipulated that "the master shall spend a considerable part of the Lords Day with his scholars in praying, singing psalms, reading the Holy Scriptures and catechising."

Nor should this be construed as mere sabbatarianism. By which I mean a mere legalistic and outward observance with no thought or regard for higher spiritual purpose. As James Walker reminds us in 'The Theology and Theologians of Scotland 1560 - 1750' there was a God wrought desire in the hearts of the people to give a reverent and dutiful obedience to God and the Lords Day was seen as a means to this blessed end. Patrick Fairbairn argues lucidly that even physical rest, however needful and beneficial, was never meant to be an end in itself: "It is no part of the fourth commandment, fairly interpreted, to prohibit ordinary labour, excepting in so far as it tends to interfere with the proper sanctification of the time to God". The Westminster Confession of Faith states; "This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men after due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations; but are also taken up the whole time in the public and private exercise of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy. (Chapter 21.8)

(d) Recent times

In the more recent past we have the testimony of the Church as she has been spiritually awakened during revivals of religion. Here again we find evidence that the church loves this Sabbath principle.

In April 1824, Rev Alexander Macleod was inducted to Uig on the island of Lewis. He had previously ministered in Dundee and Cromarty. Spiritual Revival followed this settlement and the subsequent inductions in 1829 of Rev Findlay Cook at Ness and Rev Robert Finlayson at Knock. One of the first fruits of these awakenings was a ceasing of toleration to Sabbath desecration in its outward forms. In 'Aspects of the Religious Life of Lewis' Rev Murdo Macaulay records that the whole body of people became one of the best church going and Sabbath keeping people i n the British Isles . Macaulay continues, "This has always been and ever will be the fruit of vital godliness."' This is a sentiment with which we heartily concur. Dr Kennedy in his 'Days of the Fathers in Rossshire' speaks of a typical Sabbath in that area:

"On Sabbath they all meet in the house of God. The Lord Himself is in the midst of them; the Word is rightly divided; hungry souls are fed with 'the finest of the wheat'; some of "the whole" are wounded; and some of the wounded ones are healed. The public service over, the people return to their homes, and by the way they form into companies around some of the Lord's people, who are speaking of the sermon, and bringing again before themselves and others the precious lessons which it furnished. In the evening, district meetings are held, each presided over by an elder, or by some man of repute for godliness. After prayer and praise and the reading of Scripture, a certain number of the questions of the Shorter Catechism are asked and answered, and notes of the sermons heard during the day and repeated. Time is allowed for family duties, and in many a household the incense of prayer and praise ascends from the family altar to God. Such was an ordinary Ross-shire Sabbath in the good days of the Fathers." (The Days of the Fathers in Rossshire. John Kennedy D.D. 1997 edition. p99)

To this day, during times of a true revival of religion, Sabbath observance becomes a matter of concern because the church recognises - and in its best days dearly loves - this principle. However, as Nehemiah has reminded us (Nehemiah Chapter 13) the church not only recognises and loves this principle, but thirdly:

The Church defends the Principle of Sabbath Observance

(a) It does so out of a concern for the Glory of God

Surely this is to be our main concern. The catechism reminds us it is to be our "chief end". A primary concern for the glory of God has always characterised the church in her best days.

(b) It does so for the good of the people

We note this in our reading, "Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the Sabbath day? Did not our fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us and upon this city? yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the Sabbath." (Nehemiah 13:17-18). Thousands of years later, during the 1870's, we find that godly and noted Highland minister Rev Alexander McColl, during his ministry in Fort Augustus, warning of God's judgement on the nation for Sabbath breaking. McColl remarked on one occasion that because of Sabbath desecration, God's judgement would one day reduce the great industrial Clydeside so low that only a few puffs of smoke would be seen from its then innumerable chimneys. This has proven to be neither a false prophecy nor an exaggeration. Earlier that century the Presbytery of Lochcarron in its contending for the Lords Day decreed that within its bounds the sacrament of baptism for infants would be refused to applicants known to be Sabbath breaking fishermen.

This contending requires exertion. Again Nehemiah is our teacher: "And it came to pass, that when the gates of Jerusalem began t o be dark before the Sabbath, I commanded that the gates should be shut, and charged that they should not be opened till after the Sabbath: and some of my servants set I at the gates, that there should be no burden be brought in on the Sabbath day. So the merchants and sellers of all kind of ware lodged without Jerusalem once or twice. Then I testified against them. and said unto them, Why lodge ye about the wall? if ye do so again, I will lay hands on you. From that time forth came they no more on the Sabbath. (Nehemiah 13:19-21).

Inevitably such contending carries in its train opposition, misrepresentation and unpopularity, for the spirit of this world bridles against such contendings. In his recent publication 'The People of Great Faith' Douglas Andsell says that the main breaches of the Sabbath in the 17th and 18th centuries were sport, work and drinking. He might as well have said the year 2000.

We have already made mention of Rev Alexander Macleod of Uig. On his arrival in Uig, Lewis he found a lively market at the Church door on Sabbath. One man was selling whisky from a jar and another was busy selling tobacco! If popularity was his goal Macleod would have done well to have kept silent. However, we know full well that he faced the difficulty in the conviction and strength of the gospel. We also know that he proved the truth, "them that honour me I will honour". Nehemiah also proved the reality of this: "From that time forth came they no more on the sabbath." (13:21)

We are called to follow on such faithfulness, discovering as we go that there is nothing new under the sun. We say with godly Nehemiah "Remember me o my God for good."

James Walker, discussing the Sabbath as it was observed in Scotland in better days says, "for my part, I do not comprehend how any person with religious feelings and sympathies should not be ready to admit that at least there is something very grand about the Scottish Sabbath, in its idea of a day of communion with the unseen and eternal; of adoration of our maker and our saviour; of self-examiantion and moral exercises; of acquisition of religious knowledge; and all this in order to the spiritual elevation of the soul, the replenishing of our moral energies, and a closer hold of the verities which have a place in our creed."