Sunday, October 1, 2017
Recycled High Council Stuff
I'll get back to Economic Insanity with the next post, but some of the conference talks this weekend got me thinking about a different topic. Since Sabbath Day observance has been a point of emphasis for the General Authorities lately, I thought I’d post a rather unconventional talk I gave on that subject last year. I serve on the high council and happened to be assigned to my home ward for this topic. I’m pretty sure you’ll never hear a talk like this in general conference (or probably in your own sacrament meeting), but here goes. Thanks to Craig Harline for most of the history.
The Sabbath Day Is a Perpetual Covenant
The topic the stake presidency asked the high council to address comes from Exodus 31:16: “Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant.”
In our instructions from the stake presidency, they asked us specifically to extend their love “to each and every member.” They also asked us to thank you for your “goodness and obedience in following this prophetic priority in ‘elevating the spirit and power of the Sabbath day.’”
So, it’s my challenge to speak about the Sabbath. I’ve got more family here than usual today. Tricia and her family are visiting from Texas, and Matt is here from New York. Believe me, they didn’t come all the way to Utah to hear me speak, and I’m sure they’re saying to themselves, “He can make anything complicated. I wonder what he’s going to do to a simple topic like this.”
Well, the truth is, it’s not me that makes things complicated. Most things in life, when you look at them carefully, are already complicated. I just don’t see any purpose in simplifying them unnecessarily. So, what about the Sabbath?
As most of you are aware, when the Lord gave the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy, he was referring to the seventh day of the week, which began and ended at sunset. But here we are, on Sunday, the first day of the week, which begins and ends at midnight, attending worship services, trying to make it a day of rest, and even calling it the Sabbath. How did this happen?
Most Mormons, I suspect, just assume that after Jesus was resurrected on the first day of the week, either he himself or his Apostles determined that the Sabbath should just be shifted one day so that it would now be celebrated on the first day of the week instead of the seventh. Well, as you might suppose, it isn’t quite that simple.
And I knew just where to look to find out how this shift took place. Craig Harline, a history professor at BYU, wrote a book titled Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl. Some of you might recognize Craig as the father of Jonny Harline, the BYU tight end who caught the pass from John Beck in the end zone with time running out to defeat the Utes a few years ago. But Craig is actually a very good historian and is quite entertaining.
So, let’s go back in time a few millennia. Harline begins his book by observing that trying to find the origins of Sunday is like trying to find the source of a great river. “The delta at the end and the long channel flowing into the delta are easily recognizable. Yet the farther one moves upstream toward the source of the river, the trickier the going: tributaries multiply, lead astray, or go underground. And when finally located, the humble source may bear so little resemblance to the massive amounts of water downstream that one will surely wonder what the beginning can possibly have to do with the end.”1
But this much is clear: “‘Sun Day’ emerged in the ancient Middle East, as part of a seven-day planetary week.”2 But this was just one of many options. Weeks in the ancient world varied anywhere from five to sixteen days. But parts of the Middle East and then the Roman Empire settled on a seven-day week. Each day was named for one of the known planets. “Saturn Day was the first day (not the seventh), Sun Day was the second day, then Moon Day, Mars Day (Tuesday), Mercury Day (Wednesday), Jupiter Day (Thursday), and Venus Day (Friday). (Some of our English day names seem a bit obscure because they come from the old Germanic names for the gods the planets were named after.)3
The idea that one day of the week was superior to the others came from a different seven-day system, that of the Jews. They also had a seven-day week, but only two of their days had names: the Sabbath and the day before the Sabbath, called the Day of Preparation. The other days were numbered.4
Now, as you might suspect, these two seven-day systems bumped into each other, and by the first century AD, the Romans started observing a weekly day of rest. Their initial choice was apparently Saturn Day, the first day of their week, which just happened to coincide with the Jewish seventh day or Sabbath. This was convenient for everyone. And by at least AD 100, the Romans had started regarding Saturn Day as the seventh day, instead of the first.5
As you are probably aware, the Jewish day began at sunset. So did the days in the old planetary system. But the Romans began their days at midnight. So what we now have is the result of two or three different systems colliding.
Only one element of our current system was missing. That is the prominence of the first day, Sunday. This came, apparently, from the followers of both the Roman Sun God and the early Christians, who began calling the first day “the Lord’s Day” because that was the day on which Jesus was resurrected.6
Craig Harline says that “the early Christian portion of the long-flowing Sunday river is perhaps murkier than any other.”7 Scholars have never been able to be certain about when, where, and why the Lord’s Day emerged among early Christians. “Was it in Jerusalem or Rome or elsewhere? Was it the work of the apostles or later church leaders? And most of all, was it meant to replace the Jewish Sabbath, to accommodate the pagan Sun Day, or to establish something entirely new and uniquely Christian?”8 Unfortunately, there is not enough evidence in the surviving records to say for sure.
We do know a few things, though. First, while the Sabbath for the Jews was a day of both rest and worship, the Lord’s Day for early Christians was just a day of worship. In the Roman Empire, Sunday was initially a work day, so the Christians met early and late, before and after work.9 Many of the early Christians also regarded the fourth of the Ten Commandments as obsolete, because it was part of the Old Testament, which had been fulfilled by Jesus. They regarded the Jews as an apostate people and sometimes criticized them for being lazy because they rested on the seventh day.10 But for the first three centuries, some Christians observed both the Jewish Sabbath and the Lord’s Day. This explains why so many elements of the Jewish Sabbath found their way into our observance of Sunday. If this is all a bit confusing, welcome to real life.
In AD 321, the Emperor Constantine declared Sun Day as the official holy day in the Roman week. And by the later fourth and early fifth centuries, Christians began treating Sunday as a day of rest. After the fall of the Roman Empire, church leaders continued supporting Sunday as a day of rest and worship. According to Craig Harline, the Council of Rouen, in AD 650, “was the first church council explicitly to require a twenty-four-hour Sabbath-like Lord’s Day, to make rest and worship obligatory.”11 The council also produced a list of penalties for violating the day of rest—but only after “first condemning all ‘superstitious’ rules and penalties of the Jewish Sabbath.”12 In the year 755, “the Frankish king Pepin III gathered the bishops of France, condemned Judaizing within the Church, then promptly proclaimed a long list of prohibited Lord’s Day activities.”13
This is a tendency that has prevailed since ancient times. We know that the Jews of the Old Testament had created numerous rules and penalties regarding what a person could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath, which caused them to criticize some of Jesus’s activities and caused Jesus in return to remind them that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. This tendency is obviously hard to avoid. In our LDS efforts to make sure people are observing the Lord’s Day appropriately, we often resort to similar sorts of formal or informal list making. But I think this may defeat the purpose of the day.
There are two general types of commandments we are given. There are higher laws and lesser laws. The lesser laws are usually rather straightforward and involve some minimum standard of acceptable behavior. There is, for instance, only one way to keep the commandment “thou shalt not kill.” You just don’t kill anyone. Likewise, there’s only one way to keep the commandment “thou shalt not steal.” You don’t take something that’s not yours. Higher laws, by contrast, are usually open-ended. An example is the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. There are millions of ways to keep this commandment. So, of which type is the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy? For the most part, I would suggest, it is a higher law. It has a stated objective, but it is pretty much left up to us just how we go about keeping the commandment.
Of course, there’s also the question of why, exactly, we think that Sunday is the Sabbath. It’s not really, of course. Sunday is the Lord’s Day. But over the centuries, Christians have largely transferred both the intent and the injunction given in the fourth commandment from the seventh day of the week to the first day. As Craig Harline concludes, “It would remain this way for so long that countless generations in the Western world would consider the day’s very existence, name, and status as obvious, unquestioned facts of life, as if things had always been this way.”14
He spends chapters discussing how Sunday was observed over the centuries in various countries. He explains, for instance, how America inherited (through the Puritans) a very strict version of Sunday, while in continental Europe a very different and more pleasant sort of Sunday prevailed. One aspect of Sunday was rather common, though. In the agrarian economies that existed until the Industrial Revolution, Sunday, of necessity, was for most people a day of work, to one degree or another. In spite of all the lists of rules. And after the Industrial Revolution, the capitalist owners of businesses made sure that it was a day of labor for the working class, until the labor unions and churches gained enough influence to convince business owners to give their workers one day off each week.
If you look at all the tributaries that flow into the river of modern LDS Sunday observance, they would include the ancient Jews, the Romans, the early Christians, the Catholic Church, the Reformers, labor unions, a particularly strict Puritan writer named Nicholas Bownd, the Methodists of the 1820s and 1830s, latter-day scripture, and, dare I say it, the modern corporation, which is at least partially responsible for the extreme level of organization we now have and all the planning meetings Mormons like to hold on Sunday.
So, what instructions does the Lord actually give us in modern revelation about what we should do on his day? The only information we get is in D&C section 59. In verses 9 through 14, we read:
And that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day;
For verily this is a day appointed unto you to rest from your labors, and to pay thy devotions unto the Most High;
But remember that on this, the Lord’s day, thou shalt offer thine oblations and thy sacraments unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord.
And on this day thou shalt do none other thing, only let thy food be prepared with singleness of heart that thy fasting may be perfect, or, in other words, that thy joy may be full.
The phrase that jumped out for me in these verses was “And on this day thou shalt do none other thing.” I wonder how all of our meetings and other Sunday duties fit in with this commandment. I know, for some of us, Sunday is actually the busiest day of the week. Hardly a day of rest, and often not a day of rejoicing and prayer either. Perhaps we should strive to view the Lord’s day as the early Christians did—as a day of joy.
I can’t help thinking of Sunday evening two weeks ago. Sheri and I, somewhat like peasants in the Middle Ages, were out in the garden picking raspberries because they were ripe and we weren’t going to have time to pick them Monday morning. I couldn’t help hearing what was happening in our next-door neighbors’ backyard. Their kids and grandkids were there, and I could hear some of them playing some sort of a game. It may have been kickball. If you know the Nelsons, it had to involve a ball. But they were having a great time. Now, some people might look down on this sort of activity on Sunday, but I knew at the time that I would be speaking on this topic, and I couldn’t help thinking that there was a lot of joy going on in the Nelson’s backyard. And joy is what the Lord’s Day meant to early Christians.
One other thing we ought to remember is that we shouldn’t judge each other on how we decide to keep this higher law.
My hope is that you will focus more on the purpose of the Lord’s Day, which is to remember him and worship him, and not get bogged down by lists of rules or questions about what is and isn’t appropriate. If you get the purpose right, chances are you’ll also get the behavior right.
1. Craig Harline, Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 1.
2. Harline, Sunday, 2.
3. Harline, Sunday, 2–3.
4. Harline, Sunday, 3–5.
5. Harline, Sunday, 5–6.
6. Harline, Sunday, 7.
7. Harline, Sunday, 6.
8. Harline, Sunday, 7.
9. Harline, Sunday, 16.
10. Harline, Sunday, 12, 19–20.
11. Harline, Sunday, 22.
12. Harline, Sunday, 22.
13. Harline, Sunday, 22.
14. Harline, Sunday, 25.