The Puritan View of the Sabbath
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Grounded in Creation

A tradition cannot be enforced without having a ground outside itself. This was the conviction of the Puritans of the 17th century. They demanded that all practices must conform to biblical principles. Especially in worship to God, all practices are to flow from God’s commands. Therefore the day of worship must have its foundation in the Word of God. Prior to the Puritan era, the Lord’s Day had been observed with varying degrees of strictness; however, the underlying doctrinal grounds for Lord’s Day observance had often been treated in an ambiguous way. The Puritans delineated the precise relation between the Sabbath referred to at creation and in the fourth commandment, as well as the relation between the Old Testament Sabbath and the New Testament Lord’s Day. Their central argument was that the Sabbath is a perpetually binding moral ordinance rooted in creation.

The Reformers highlighted the ceremonial and typological element of the Old Testament Sabbath. As Richard Gaffin reveals, John Calvin believed the Sabbath was a type of spiritual rest, which was fulfilled in Christ. On the one hand, Calvin said that the sanctification of one day in seven is no longer binding. On the other hand, he maintained that the command to worship God privately and also publicly remains.1 In a sermon on Deuteronomy 5:12-14, Calvin preached that we are called to worship continually, “but because of our weaknesses, or rather, because of our laziness, it is necessary that one day be appointed.” He continued: “We are to dedicate the day entirely to him.”2 Thus, Calvin was a practical Sabbatarian, despite the claims of some scholars who make too great a divide between the practice of the Reformers and the Puritans.3 Calvin’s position was common among the Reformers.

Yet, the seeds of the Puritan doctrine of the Sabbath are found in the writings of the Reformers. Patrick Collinson notes that the first puritans drew on earlier continental sources such as Bullinger’sDecades to support their views.4 They also drew from the English Reformers such as John Bradford and Hugh Latimer. The Second Book of Homilies, published in 1562, states that the Lord’s day is now the Sabbath day on which all ought to cease from work and worship God, in accordance with the fourth commandment and God’s resting at creation.5 The teaching of a perpetually binding Sabbath is hidden in the writings of the Reformers.

The impetus to the Puritans’ progression in this doctrine was their conviction that a scriptural warrant is required for all practices of worship and their concern for the prevalence of Sabbath-breaking.6 Rather than immediately getting caught up in the issue of how the fourth commandment relates to today, they began where Scripture begins concerning the Sabbath: Genesis 2. As John Primus remarks, “Sabbatarian thought was Creation-centred. Theologically, this was the nerve centre of Sabbatarianism.” The puritans cleared away the doctrinal ambiguity by revealing the Sabbath’s foundation in creation.

Upon creating all things, God rested on the seventh day as an example for Adam and all his posterity. God is the eternal, all-glorious, almighty One, who never faints. Therefore, as the early puritan, Richard Greenham, wrote, in “resting” God was “shewing rather what ought to be in us, then what was in him.”7 That God’s resting served as an example does not render his action meaningless. Though it is human language, it indicates that God delighted in the works of His hands on that day.8 Yet, the primary purpose of God’s resting was that He might thereby give a pattern of one day of rest following six days of work at the very beginning of man’s existence.

God’s action is a pattern to man because He blessed and sanctified the seventh day. In Genesis 2:3 “resting” is a distinct action from “blessing” and “sanctifying.” If He had merely rested, His action would have had no relation to our daily life, in that it may have been a one time action. However, He blessed and sanctified it as well. John Owen argued that God blessed the seventh day by sanctifying it. The day had good added unto it in that God sanctified it to His own glory. “Sanctify” has the sense of setting something apart and dedicating it to God. God set the day apart from the other six days so that it might be dedicated to Him in a particular way. Since God is perfectly holy (or sanctified), this sanctification must relate to man and his activities on it.9 All of creation was to give glory to God at all times of every day. However, God sanctified the seventh day particularly for man, who was to dress the garden the other six days, and dedicate the seventh day exclusively to the worship of God.

God sanctified this day as the supreme lawgiver. The puritans stressed that man owes obedience to God as his Creator.10 As Creator, God stipulates to man what he ought to do. The puritan Nicholas Bound asserted that the Sabbath command “was first delivered by lively voice, namely to Adam and Eve in Paradise.”11 William Perkins states that the Sabbath was one of the two commands given in Eden and was an element in the covenant of works.12 According to the puritans, the Sabbath is a pre-fall institution. Therefore, they argue that if the Sabbath was binding on Adam in his state of innocence, it ought much more to be binding on the children of Adam who are prone to forget God.13 In the words of John Owen, God blessed “that individual day in the first place, and a day in the revolution of the same space of time for succeeding generations.”14 Being grounded in the time of creation, the Sabbath is an obligation resting upon all of mankind.

The charge that the godly between Adam and Moses did not observe the Sabbath is dismissed by the Puritans. John Bunyan is atypical of the puritans when he argues that for 2000 years after creation the Sabbath was neither known nor observed.15Greenham argues for the knowledge of the Sabbath from the patriarchs’ evident knowledge of the rest of the moral law, of which the Sabbath is part.16 Anthony Burgess says the substance of the Decalogue was publicly preached during that time.17 The evidence for or against Patriarchal Sabbath observance is inconclusive if Genesis 3 through 50 is read in isolation from Genesis 2 and Exodus 20. However, Scripture ought to be always interpreted in light of the rest of Scripture. Owen is perceptive in noting that if its institution at creation is accepted, then its practice thereafter is a given.18

By beginning in Genesis 2, the Puritans demonstrated that the Sabbath is not simply a law for the Old Testament church but for the church from the creation of man to the end of time.


[1] Richard B. Gaffin, Calvin and the Sabbath: The Controversy of applying the Fourth Commandment, Mentor Series (Ross-shire: CFP, 1998), 141-142.
2John Calvin, 34th Sermon on Deuteronomy, which is the fifth on the fifth chapter, trans. James R. Hughes [sermon on-line] (James R. Hughes, 1996); available from; accessed 8 May 1998.
3David S. Katz, Sabbath and Sectarianism in Seventeenth-Century England (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1988), 4.
4 James T. Dennison, Jr., The Market Day of the Soul: The Puritan Doctrine of the Sabbath in England, 1532-1700 (New York: University Press of America, 1983), 38; see also John H. Primus, “Sabbatarian Appeals to the Continent,” in Holy Time: Moderate Puritanism and the Sabbath (Georgia: Mercer UP, 1989), 119-145.
5 James Gilfillan, The Sabbath Viewed in the Light of Reason, Revelation, and History (New York: American Tract Society, 1865), 41.
6 Winton Solberg, Redeem the Time: The Puritan Sabbath in Early America (Harvard UP, 1977), 32-34; see also Katz, Sabbath and Sectarianism, 1.
7The Works of the Reverend and Faithfvll Servant of Iesvs Christ M. Richard Greenham, A Treatise of the Sabboth (London, 1599), 321.
8 James Gillfillan, The Sabbath, 276.
9 John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 298.
10 Ernest Kevan, The Grace of Law (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria, 1993), 262.
11Primus, Holy Time, 148.
12 William Perkins, A Golden Chaine(1595), 20; quoted in Primus, Holy Time, 113
13 William Perkins, Works, vol. 1 (London, 1626), 46.
14 John Owen, Exposition, vol. 2, 295-96.
15 The Works of John Bunyan, vol. 2, Questions about the nature and perpetuity of the seventh-day Sabbath (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), 363-364.
16 Richard Greenham, A Treatise of the Sabboth, 307.
17 Anthony Burgess, VindiciaeLegis (1646), 150; quoted in Kevan, Grace of Law, 117.
18 John Owen, Exposition, vol. 2, 302.