All I really gotta do is live and die
But I’m in a hurry and don’t know why
In the hustle and bustle of twenty-first century life, we find ourselves incessantly running about to save time. Everything in our life is built to speed things up: drive-thrus, super-highways, smartphones, yet no true rest is ever obtained. For most, each day looks essentially the same. Sure, there’s some variety in the midst of our monotony. Maybe you take Saturdays off work and attend church on Sunday, but is there any day fundamentally different from any other?
Though our modern world repudiates such a notion, Natural Law and divine revelation both attest to such a day: a Sabbath day, a day of rest. In modern evangelical circles, this Sabbatarian position is often met with derision and dismissed as legalistic, outdated, or simply bad theology. In some cases, each of these descriptors are accurate. However, the classic, Reformed argument in favor of the Sabbath does not lie in obscure ceremonial passages, but in creation itself.
The Sabbath is a creation ordinance, rooted and revealed in nature, and denoted in the moral law. Such was the position of Calvin, the Westminster Divines, and the Puritans. Likewise, the universality of the seven-day week exemplifies such an argument. Every other measurement of time has some astronomical basis: a year, a month, a day, an hour, but not a week. And yet, it is observed universally; six days of work, one day of rest. However, with our culture’s newfound indifference to special revelation comes also an indifference to natural revelation.
There was, however, a time when even non-believers argued in favor of the legal enforcement of the Sabbath. According to the North Carolina Law Review Volume 69, in 1779 Thomas Jefferson drafted for his home state of Virginia Bill 84, entitled: “A Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers.” The law was presented by James Madison and sought not only to protect the right of worshippers to gather freely but also to punish those who took up their earthly labors on the Lord’s Day:
If any person on Sunday shall himself be found labouring at his own or any other trade or calling, or shall employ his apprentices, servants or slaves in labour, or other business, except it be in the ordinary houshold offices of daily necessity, or other work of necessity or charity, he shall forfeit the sum of ten shillings for every such offence, deeming every apprentice, servant, or slave so employed, and every day he shall be so employed as constituting a distinct offence.
The argument was grounded in natural law and made ample provision for religious liberty. Religious worship was not required by the law. Rather, it simply ensured that the church and the marketplace were not pitted in competition. The day was a day of physical rest for all and of spiritual rest for those willing to partake.
Fast forward to 2023 when Chick-fil-A being closed on Sunday is a cultural anomaly. We have abandoned, even in Christian circles, the observance of the Sabbath. Some for theological reasons, some for cultural, and some for cultural reasons masquerading as theological. Blue laws, legislation that prohibits work on Sunday (save acts of necessity or mercy), used to be commonplace in the United States. However, over the course of the twentieth century, these laws were almost entirely done away with.
Though most of the opposition to Sabbath observance in modern evangelical culture stems from theological objections, we should have no illusions about why Sundays are no longer sacred: the disregard of blue laws in the twentieth century was a matter of economics, not theology. Hear Alan Raucher in his article entitled “Sunday Business and the Decline of Sunday Closing Laws: A Historical Overview” as it appeared in the Journal of Church and State, Issue 36: “In ways insufficiently appreciated, [blue] laws were eventually undermined by the gradual public acceptance of the commercialization of Sunday, part of the spreading culture of consumption that included buying, selling, and leisure activities.”
Blue laws certainly had religious motivations at their outset. However, even as the culture became increasingly secular, they were not seen in contradiction with the principle of separation of church and state. Rather, as Raucher goes on to say in his article, the court came to view blue laws as “purely civil regulation.” Rest was seen as an essential element of human flourishing. The widespread repeal of blue laws was not an attempt to guard against some tyrannical theocracy, but rather an accommodation for an increasingly commercialized society.
At first glance, it seems that the eradication of blue laws was a step towards greater individual freedom. Even if blue laws result in a more exhausted society, at least this exhaustion is voluntary. After all, those who desire to observe a commercial sabbath can still do so, right? However, a commercialized Sunday forces businesses to operate in order to keep up with the competition. Those who prefer a day free of commerce no longer have that choice if they want to stay competitive. Such is the case not only for business owners, but workers as well. What was once a universal day of rest now comes at a very high cost, as Sunday has become one of the busiest days of the week for those in retail, entertainment, and food service industries.
Though the dismissal of blue laws has allowed for freedom of commerce on Sundays, it has eradicated the freedom to rest and not suffer financial consequences. Certainly, our economy has grown since this eradication, but at what cost?? Study after study shows Westerners with unprecedented levels of exhaustion. Sure, the removal of blue laws offers us a world of economic gain, but it does so at the expense of our souls.
Christian realists have a solution to this because God has a solution for this. He has inscribed it into nature (Ex. 20:11), written it on our hearts and consciences (Rom. 2:15), and given it to us for our own good (Mk. 2:27). So may we lay hold of this wonderful natural law tradition; observing the Sabbath in our churches, advocating for it in the public square, and delighting in it in our hearts.