Jeremy Young                                                                                                                       REL 319

                                                                                                            Prof. Westblade

                                                                                                            1 December 2003


God’s Great Gift to Man: Jonathan Edwards & His View of the Sabbath


            Long before the birth of Jonathan Edwards, the Puritans had established a strong tradition of the Sabbath. This view, set forth by Scripture and imparted by generations of Puritan beliefs, gained a stronghold in England through legislative imperatives and royal decrees, and these rigid mandates concerning the Lord’s Day continued in the New World after the Puritan migrations. In many ways Edwards supported this legalistic tradition of the Sabbath. Instead of placing the emphasis on precise adherence to the law, though, Edwards aimed to show his congregation that the Sabbath served a higher purpose than societal harmony or rest for rest’s sake. As in all things, Jonathan Edwards believed that the Sabbath existed as a means by which God would be most glorified, and in doing so, man placed himself in the greatest position to receive God’s glory and mercy.

            The Puritan tradition, to which Edwards belonged, first looked to the Old Testament to give them guidance on how they should observe the Sabbath. After all, Puritans placed the foundation of their theology on the principle of sola scriptura, “that ‘the Bible alone’ should guide Christian life and worship…”[1] Though they did not consider the Sabbath a sacrament, the Puritan view did hold that the Ten Commandments served as God’s covenant and personal instruction to his chosen people. “To remember and keep the day is to acknowledge Yahweh as Creator-Sustainer and to affirm that life continues under his Providence.”[2]

            John Calvin kept Old Testament law relevant to the Christian Church by his declaration of the moral perfection of the Decalogue. While Christ came to fulfill the law, man could reflect God’s righteousness by living in accordance to the law, especially the law given through the Ten Commandments. For Calvin, this meant that the commandment to observe the Sabbath, as included in the Decalogue, remained authoritative as a legitimate command of God.[3] Though his influence alone did not cause the development of the Puritan dedication to the Sabbath, Calvin did much to instill in the Christian Church the importance of observing the Lord’s Day.

            This importance helped to introduce a flurry of decrees in England throughout the 16th and 17th centuries in support of the observance of the Sabbath. For instance, the Act of Uniformity and the Royal Injunctions of 1559 “required observance of Sundays and holy days by public and private worship.”[4] To its credit, the decree did allow leniency during times of harvest, while also condemning superstitious abstention from work during the Sabbath. This increasingly legalistic view of the Lord’s Day came to be known as Puritan Sabbatarianism, defined by the assertion that the Sabbath should be observed on Sunday, and that it should be observed rigidly.

            The Puritans who traveled to America carried with them this idea of Sabbatarianism. John Winthrop, who would become the governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, “equated good Sabbaths with good Christians before the Puritan exodus to New England began.”[5] The colonies passed laws like the prohibition of dispensing alcohol and playing leisurely games. Reverend Samuel Peters in Connecticut supposedly issued laws that prohibited shaving, making of the beds, or mothers kissing their children on the Sabbath.[6] The prohibitions would escalate; in 1678, the Chesapeake colonies prohibited all physical labor on the Sabbath.[7]

The Puritans still believed that the Fourth Commandment existed for the glorification of God, and that rest on the Sabbath was purposeful toward that end. “All held that the Christian Sabbath rest was for worship and Puritan strictness about resting the whole day involved a corresponding devotion of the whole day to religious duties.”[8] As stated in chapter XXI of the Westminster Confession:

                        This Sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a 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 also are taken up, the whole time, in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.


Nevertheless, laws continued to be passed, perpetuating an environment of harsh legalism. Perhaps the role of the tythingman illustrates this atmosphere most lucidly. His responsibility included the apprehension of all Sabbath-breakers, especially the “restless boys.”[9]

            Somewhat surprisingly, Jonathan Edwards held to the tenets of Puritan Sabbatarianism in a forthright manner. He expressed his view through a series of sermons, titled “The Perpetuity and Change of the Sabbath,” sermons through which Edwards strongly asserted the prevailing authority and validity of the Fourth Commandment. These works demonstrate a call for such strict adherence that Edwards seemed to embrace the legalistic tradition in which he had been raised. In truth, though, Edwards yearned to bring the glorification of God to the forefront. Regarding the Sabbath, God was most glorified through its sincere—and severe—observance.

            Edwards began his doctrinal affirmation by stating, “It is the mind and will of God, that the first day of the week should be especially set apart among Christians, for religious exercises and duties.”[10] Edwards made this assertion because of his belief in the authority and veracity of Scripture. In accordance with Puritan Sabbatarianism, he believed that Scripture revealed the will of God and the knowledge that He imparts to man.[11] Edwards considered the Fourth Commandment and its perpetuity one of these instances:

                        It is sufficiently clear, that it is the mind of God, that one day of the

week should be devoted to rest, and to religious exercises, throughout all ages and nations; and not only among the ancient Israelites, till Christ came, but even in these gospel times, and among all nations professing Christianity.[12]


            True to his Puritan Sabbatarianism tradition, Edwards firmly believed that the day of the Sabbath should fall on Sunday. At first his reasons for choosing this view seem superficial: The Bible, particularly the Decalogue, offers no objection to the Sabbath being observed on Sunday; both Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15 focus on a day’s rest after six days of labor. That day of rest happens to take place on the first day of the week because of the convention of the American calendar. Edwards resolutely denied, though, that this ambiguity somehow diminished the authority of Scripture. “…By the institution of the christian sabbath, there is no change from the fourth command; but the change is from another law, which determined the beginning and ending of their working days.”[13]

            Edwards’ true reasons for his view of the Sabbath on Sunday had to do with Christ and His resurrection. Puritan Sabbatarianism held that just as God had rested at the end of creation, so too did Christ rest on the day of his resurrection, the day on which he completed his work of redemption. That day of rest, according to Edwards, came on Sunday. “Christ hath evidently, on purpose and design, peculiarly honoured the first day of the week, the day on which he rose from the dead…”[14]

            Moreover, Edwards asserted that Christ chose the first day of the week to appear to his disciples and to send forth the Holy Spirit. He gave Acts 2:1-4 as an example, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles on Pentecost, which was the first day of the week.[15] Thus, Edwards believed that Scripture gave reason for calling the first day of the week the Lord’s Day. “This expression, the Lord’s day, is found by the ancient use of the whole christian church, by what appears in all the writings of ancient times, even from the apostles’ days, to signify the first day of the week. And the expression implies in it the holiness of the day.”[16]

            One implication from the belief of the Sabbath’s great holiness was the necessity for public worship, an outward sign of an inward faith. The doctrine of America as a city on a hill ran deep in Puritan tradition. For Edwards, the Sabbath served as a means from which the light of the aforementioned city could shine:


                        By a strict observance of the sabbath, the face of religion is kept up in

the world. If it were not for the sabbath, there would be but little public and visible appearance of serving, worshipping, and reverencing the supreme and invisible Being. The sabbath seems to have been appointed very much for this end, viz. to uphold the visibility of religion in public, or among professing societies of men and by how much greater the strictness is with which the sabbath is observed, and with how much more solemnity the duties of it are observed among a people; by so much the greater is the manifestation among them of respect to the Divine Being.[17]


            An immediate conflict should have arisen for Edwards, who concerned himself so greatly with external signs of professing Christianity in ”A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections.” In this treatise, he granted that the fulfillment of external duties and responsibilities concerning the Church could receive the grace of God very well. “But yet, on the other hand, persons being disposed to abound and to be zealously engaged in the external exercises of religion, and to spend much time in them, is no sure evidence of grace; because such a disposition is found in many who have no grace.”[18] More specifically, Edwards pointed to Isaiah 1:12-15, in which Judah observed the Sabbath without true conviction.

            Edwards offered no direct defense of this apparent contradiction, though perhaps no response would have satisfied any dissenters of his assertion that the Sabbath be observed strictly. Rather, he gave his congregation Biblical and uplifting reasons why each Christian personally should pursue a strict observance of the Lord’s Day. One such reason came from Mark 2:27: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Edwards strongly believed that man’s observance of the Sabbath placed him in the best position to receive the grace and blessings of God.

Toward that end, man had a duty, and indeed a reward, for keeping the Sabbath holy: “Let us be thankful for the institution of the christian sabbath. It is a thing wherein God hath shown his mercy to us, and his care for our souls.”[19] Edwards already illustrated Christ’s affinity for acting in one way or another on Lord’s Day. Most of all, Edwards believed, the Lord loves to pour forth his blessings upon his people on the day named after Him. “And as God has promised that in all places where he puts his name that he will come to us and will [bless us?], so by a parity of reason we may expect that in all times on which he puts his name (as he has on the Christian sabbath), in them he will come to us and will bless us.”[20]

Therefore, just as God gives his utmost to his children on His day, so should his children give back to Him in His honor and adoration. Edwards seemed to believe that man achieved this most fully by observing the Sabbath as God commanded: Keep it holy.[21] Though a daunting task indeed, keeping the Sabbath holy began with each man taking great pains to abstain from sin. By devoting an entire day to rest and the worship of God, one removed all the distractions and temptations provided by worldly endeavors. Hence the reason for such gravity that was placed on observing the Sabbath, whether by threat of punishment or by assurance of God’s grace:

                        The more persons seek their salvation, the less sin they commit; for

there is no other way of seeking, but only avoiding sins of omission and commission: and surely, the more persons sin and provoke God, the more are they exposed to his wrath, and so to be denied his mercy.

                        And again, we know that God’s manner is to bestow his grace on men

by outward means. Otherwise, to what purpose is the Bible, and sabbath, and preaching, and sacraments, or doctrinal knowledge or religion?[22]


Yet Edwards’ view, and especially his affirmation of the Sabbath as an occasion when God eagerly gives his grace and mercy, begs to wonder why the holiness and honor given to the Lord’s Day is given on just one day. Edwards was not so naïve to think the glorification of God and the abstention from sin became important only on the Sabbath. However, he understood fully that secular work simply could not be avoided in most cases. “The state of mankind in this world is such, that we are called to concern ourselves in secular business and affairs, which will necessarily, in a considerable degree, take up the thoughts and engage the attention of the mind.”[23]

For that very reason, Edwards believed the Sabbath all the more important. Though man could serve God through his labor—indeed, he should pursue such a means to glorify the Lord—the significance of that one day in which he hallowed before God abounds because he cannot give such a commitment each day of the week. “Tho’ every day ought to be dedicated to Gods service, yet this doth not hinder but that some days should be dedicated in another manner & to other parts of his service than it is possible for us to dedicate every day…”[24] As for why the Sabbath filled an entire day and not merely a portion of the day, Edwards’ reasons were twofold. Firstly, Scripture called for an entire day of rest. Secondly, and more practically, he reasoned that an hour or two would not be enough to remove the possibility and ensuing temptation of secular affairs.[25]

Edwards’ view of the Sabbath seems convoluted in legalism and blind adherence to Puritan tradition. In many ways, such statements hold much truth to them; Edwards, being raised under Puritan Sabbatarianism, held beliefs that were quite consistent with his generation and the ones that preceded him. The difference, though, is that he took the regulations and expectations of the Lord’s Day and cast them in perspective of God’s greater purpose. God, being glorified through giving His blessings to His children, oftentimes does so through certain means, such as Scripture or decrees; and while these means cannot produce grace in and of themselves, they can be necessary for man to be in such a position to receive the grace of God.[26]

At the end of the day, perhaps Jonathan Edwards considered the legalism of Puritan Sabbatarianism necessary. He called for public worship that others may see the reverence of God, an outward sign of an inward faith. He insisted that the Lord’s Day be on Sunday. Yet above all, Jonathan Edwards required that the Sabbath be holy so that God would be glorified. By doing so, man received God’s blessings, which brought even more glory to the Lord, thus supporting the end for which God created the world. According to Edwards, man did his part through dutiful and sincere observance of the Sabbath.





Carson, D.A., ed. From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and

Theological Investigation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982.

Earle, Alice Morse. The Sabbath in Puritan New England. New York: Charles

Scribner’s Sons, 1893.

Edwards, Jonathan. The Miscellanies 501-1360. In Hillsdale College Department of

Philosophy and Religion [database online]. 17-24 November 2003.

----------. The Works of Jonathan Edwards. 2 vols. Peabody:

Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2003.

The Holy Bible. English Standard Version. Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2001.

Marsden, George M. Jonathan Edwards: A Life. New Haven: Yale University

Press, 2003.

Solberg, Winton U. Redeem the Time: The Puritan Sabbath in Early America.

Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977.

[1] George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 29.

[2] Winton U. Solberg, Redeem the Time: The Puritan Sabbath in Early America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), 9.

[3] D.A. Carson, ed., From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), 315.

[4] Solberg, 31.

[5] Ibid., 69.

[6] Alice Morse Earle, The Sabbath in Puritan New England (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1893), 245.

[7] Solberg, 99.

[8] Carson, 326.

[9] Earle, 66.

[10] The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2003), 2:93.

[11] Marsden, 81.

[12] Works, 2:94.

[13] Works, 2:97.

[14] Ibid., 2:99.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 2:99-100.

[17] Works, 2:101.

[18] Ibid., 1:255.

[19] Works, 2:101.

[20] Miscellanies 536.

[21] Works, 2:101.

[22] Miscellanies 538.

[23] Works, 2:94.

[24] Miscellanies 751.

[25] Works, 2:95.

[26] Miscellanies 539.