Letter to one who travels on the Sabbath

From an anonymous work, published in 1855 by the Presbyterian Board of Publication, Philadelphia, under the title, Monitory Letters to Church Members.

It is a subject of deep regret with many of your Christian friends, that you recently returned home from a journey on the Sabbath. It is understood, moreover, that you traveled on the Sabbath repeatedly during your absence; in short, that you have no scruples in spending God’s holy day in this way, whenever your convenience may require. You cannot think it unreasonable, sustaining the relation to you that I do, that I should ask you to look at this matter in some of its more practical and solemn bearings.

There are those, I know, who deny that the Christian Sabbath has the sanction of divine authority; and, of course, whatever they may think of its importance as a human institution, they have no idea that any respect is due to it as an ordinance of God. This lax opinion in respect to the Sabbath prevails extensively, as you are doubtless aware, on the continent of Europe; and hence American Christians who travel in those countries are often shocked at the manner in which the Sabbath is treated, even by those whose views of religious truth generally are in accordance with our own. But I have never understood that you had expressed any doubts as to the question whether or not the Christian Sabbath is a divine institution; and I shall take for granted, in this communication, that you do not feel any.

Is it not obvious, then, upon your own principles, that in traveling needlessly on the Sabbath, you offend directly against one of the laws of God — nay, that you do so deliberately, and with your eyes open? You profess to believe that God requires you to remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy; and yet, in the face of that command, you pervert it by needless traveling, to purposes of mere worldly gratification, or worldly profit. And are you, who have professed to be a servant of God, and have pledged yourself to walk in the way of his statutes, prepared thus to assume the attitude of a transgressor? Can you, while you thus deliberately violate one of the commandments, flatter yourself that you have really any regard to the divine authority? Do not your Sabbath day journeys sometime come as a most unwelcome subject of reflection at the communion table? But you propound to me particular cases. You say you have been absent from your family for weeks, and you are impatient to see them; that you know not but that some of them may be sick, and may require your presence and aid; and you ask me whether, in such a case, you are not at liberty to press on, even through the hours of the Sabbath, that you may reach them as early as possible. I answer, that if you have heard that any of them are seriously ill, or if you have any special reason for believing that they are, doubtless you are justified in continuing your journey on the Sabbath, that you may lose no time in being with them. But the mere possibility that this may be the case, because they live in a world in which there is more or less of sickness always, does not constitute even the semblance of a plea for your infringing on holy time. Still less is it to be admitted as a justifying circumstance, that your affection urges you forward to meet them, and that after an absence of many days or weeks, you know not how to submit to a longer separation. The same Being who gave you your natural affections to be indulged within proper limits, has ordained the Sabbath, and required your observance of it; and he does not allow any interference between your duty to your families and your duty to himself. If the Sabbath overtakes you when you are on a journey, you will render far better service to your families by pausing on your way, and commending them to God’s blessing, than you will by hastening forward to meet them, in violation of God’s commandment. You are safe in acting upon the presumption that the Being whom you profess to serve, “will have mercy, and not sacrifice”; but you are not warranted in listening to the pleas of natural affection, when natural affection would justify what God’s word absolutely forbids.

You propose another case. You find yourself distant a hundred and fifty miles from home on Saturday night; and you ask whether you are not justified in spending the night in a steamboat, and reaching home early the next morning, rather than remain where you are, and perhaps spend the Sabbath in a hotel. I am to say, I think not. For, take the best view of the case you can, you certainly pervert several hours of the Sabbath to a worldly purpose; or if you say that you do nothing worse than sleep, the answer is, that the boat in which you travel is not managed by sleepers, and that you patronize a systematic violation of God’s holy day. Besides, you are not hid among your fellow passengers; many of them know you, and some, at least, know that you are a professor of religion; and there are still more who will recognize you as such, when you leave the boat in the morning. The consequence is, that your example helps to lower the standard of the observance of the Sabbath. The man of the world, who, nevertheless, has some reverence for holy time, in consequence, perhaps, of a religious education, will now set off on a journey on Sabbath morning, without scruple, and feel that he places himself under the wing of your example. Depend on it, in your walk from your landing place to your dwelling, you are a conspicuous object; and there are things said of you by some of the passers-by, that would make your ears tingle. I advise you, in all ordinary cases, to remain until Monday, wherever you are when Saturday night overtakes you. It will be a poor preparation for profiting by the privileges of the Sabbath, to spend its first hours in breaking God’s holy law.

Let me say that, as there is a blessing promised to the faithful observance of the Sabbath, so you have a right to expect a peculiar blessing, when you observe it at what seems to be a manifest worldly sacrifice. One thing, at least, you are sure to accomplish — you render a testimony in favour of the Sabbath, which is of great importance, especially in this Sabbath-breaking age — you help to deepen the public sentiment as to its importance, and thus to throw a wall of fire around this divine institution. I knew an individual several years ago, who was traveling for the benefit of his health, in a part of one of the Middle States, in which the Sabbath was not much observed. The stage reached a certain place late on a Saturday afternoon, and his fellow passengers perceived that he was making his arrangements to stop; and as they knew he had not reached the end of his journey, they earnestly inquired the cause. He told them that the Sabbath was just at hand, and he felt under obligation to observe it. They thought it preposterous that he should make such a sacrifice, and to induce him to proceed, they told him that he could not find in that place even decent accommodations for a man in health, much less comfortable ones for an invalid, whereas, by going on with them, he would find himself early the next morning in a large town, where everything would be to his mind, and, withal, he would be there in time to attend church. The appeal, however, did not avail, and he stopped almost in the woods, and settled down to spend the Sabbath. The next day he met a little company of Christians in the neighborhood, and engaged with them in social worship; and the day succeeding proceeded on his journey. In all this, he thought of nothing beyond keeping a conscience void of offence, in yielding to a divine requirement. But after many years had passed away, and he had even forgotten the name of the place at which he stopped, he met a gentleman who resided there at the time, and who asked him if he remembered the circumstances of his having once passed a Sabbath there. On being answered in the affirmative, the gentleman remarked to him, “You have probably never known how much good you accomplished on that day. So uncommon was it for people in that part of the country to let the Sabbath detain them on a journey, that your example in the matter was talked about far and near; and while it came as a rebuke to the multitude, it came no less as an encouragement to the few who sympathized with you in your regard for this divine institution.”

There is one effect which this loose way of treating the Sabbath must always have, which is exceedingly adverse to the general influence of the Church — it produces the impression that Christian principle is not so strong, but that it can easily yield to convenience. Your doctrine is that the Sabbath is to be kept holy; and if any body were to teach a contrary doctrine, you would, perhaps, be shocked at it; nevertheless, if you have any worldly object to accomplish, you can reach home on the Sabbath, or you can leave home on the Sabbath, as if there were no divine prohibition in your way. “What sort of a religion,” asks scrutinizing and caviling world, “is that which obeys the divine commands only when it is convenient? What sort of a conscience is that which accepts as an apology for breaking the fourth commandment, the prospect of some worldly advantage? Is it not safe to neglect a religion which sits so easily upon its professors as this?” True, there is nothing in this reasoning but falsehood and absurdity; but who would wish to give occasion for it? — who would willingly be responsible for the consequences of it?

Related Reading