Sabbaths and Holy Days are interchangeable concepts. Puritans understood the Christian Sabbath largely as a continuation of the OT Mosaic code translated to Sunday observance. Anglicans took a more nuanced view, retaining the general idea of “rest” but putting aside the ceremonial strictness of the OT. Such a treatment of Sabbath-keeping gave Anglicans leeway to establish other holy days aside from fixed Sundays, revealing a pastoral sensitivity toward Sabbath-keeping as well keeping the proper division of ecclesiastical vs. divine law.
The observance of calendar Holy Days other than Sunday was a controversy particularly acute during the reign of Charles I (1625-1649) when prayer book conformity was imposed upon Puritans scruple. Puritans understood the Christian Sabbath through a literal reading of the fourth commandment, strictly translating the OT Mosaic code into Sunday observance. However, Anglicans took a less literal view of Sabbath, retaining the general idea of “rest” but putting aside the ceremonial aspect– such as easing the length of a ‘day’, prohibitions against work and sports, as well related punishments. The consequence of recognizing nuances with Sabbath-keeping allowed Anglicans to retain holy days like Christmas and other fixed times that normally didn’t fall upon Sunday. It also allowed the addition of new Sabbaths like Restoration Day or, in America, the cherished Day of Thanksgiving.
The Anglican nuance in reading the 4rth Commandment came by knowing Sunday worship as a ‘mixed’ law composed in one-part by human convention for the sake of keeping divine principle. Christ’s death set aside the civil and ceremonial aspects of Moses, leaving Christians to affix their own times and place to the moral precept of “sabbath” or public worship of God:
“VII. Of the Old Testament. ‘Although the law given from God by Moses, as touching ceremonies and rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any common-wealth; yet, notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.”—1562 Book of Articles.
Not only was circumstance given freedom but Anglicans also had liberty to attach fasts, seasons, and ceremonials around the occasion. Thomas Cranmer, the 16th century author of our prayer book, explains the mixed or nuanced nature of the Christian Sabbath in his 1543 Catechism :
“For, as St. Austin saith, All the other nine be merely moral commandments, and belonged not only to the Jews, and all other people of the world in the time of the Old Testament, but also belong now to all Christian people in the New Testament. But this precept of the Sabbath, as concerning rest from bodily labor on the seventh day, is ceremonial, and pertained only unto the Jews in the Old Testament, before the coming of Christ, and pertaineth not unto us Christian people in the New Testament. Nevertheless, as concerning the spiritual rest which is figured and signified by this corporal rest, that is to say, rest from the carnal works of the flesh, and all manner of sin, this precept is moral, and remaineth still, and bindeth them that belong unto Christ; and not for every seventh day only, but for all days, hours, and times. For at all times we be bound to rest from fulfilling of our own carnal will and pleasure, and from all sins and evil desires… Which things, although all Christian people be bound unto by this commandment, yet the Sabbath day, which is called the Saturday, is not now prescribed and appointed thereunto, as it was to the Jews; but instead of the Sabbath day succeedeth the Sunday, in the memory of Christ’s resurrection. And also many other holy and festival days, which the church hath ordained from time to time, which be called holy days, not because that one day is more acceptable to God than another, or of itself more holy than another, but because the church hath ordained that upon those days we should give ourselves wholly without any impediment unto such holy works as be before expressed.” (p. 306-307, Formularies)
Again, the ceremonial part was removed allowing the church to establish additional holy days plus their specifics regarding the duration and degree of rest. Alterations were typically reasoned upon grounds of custom, edification, and/or pastoral wisdom rather than requiring explicit scriptural proof. Therefore, the expiration of Moses’ civil and ceremonial codes enabled new Sabbaths founded on common authority. Cranmer continues describing the Church’s liberty in this respect:
“But we Christian men in the New Testament are not bound to such commandments of Moses law concerning differences of times, days, and meats, but have liberty and freedom to use other days for our Sabbath days, therein to hear the word of God and keep an holy rest. And therefore that this Christian liberty may be kept and maintained, we now keep no more the Sabbath or Saturdays as the Jews do, but we observe the Sunday and certain other days , as the magistrates do judge convenient, whom in this thing we ought to obey” (p. 40).
The Second Book of Homilies (1571) written largely by Bishop John Jewel concurs with Cranmer’s estimation,
“And albeit this commandment of God doth not bind Christian people so straitly to observe and keep the utter ceremonies of the sabbath-day, as it was given to the Jews, as touching the fore-bearing of work and labor in time of great necessity, and as touching the precise keeping of the seventh day, after the manner of the Jews: –for we now keep the first day, which is our Sunday, and make that our Sabbath, that is, our day of rest, in the honor of our Savior Christ” p. 233
Even the calvinism of Alexander Nowell has a certain agreement. In Nowell’s longer catechism for schools, he affirms the division of precept and statute,
“M. Sayest thou then that we must every seventh day abstain from all labor?
S. This commandment hath a double consideration. For insomuch as it containeth a ceremony, and requireth only outward rest, it belongeth peculiarly t the Jews, and hath not the force of continuing and eternal law. But now, by the coming of Christ, as the other shadows of Jewish ceremonies are abrogated, so is this law also in this behalf abridged.
M. What then, beside the ceremony, is there remaining whereunto we are still perpetually bound?
S. This law was ordained for these causes; first, to stablish and maintain an ecclesiastical discipline, and a certain order of the Christian commonweal; secondly, to provide for the state of servants, that it be made tolerable (time off from toil); thirdly, to express a certain form and figure of the spiritual rest.” (p. 19-20, First Instruction)
Once more, Anglicans read two types of law within the OT Sabbath. The divine precept was kept while the particulars of the Mosaic code passed away. The Reverend William Nicholson (1) explains the fourth commandment also as a mixed law in his Plain but Full Exposition of the Catechism (1630),
“In strict terms it was given to the Jews: and it hath two parts, the precept, and the reason for the precept. The precept again stands upon two legs, the moral and ceremonial. 1. The moral part of it is, that a certain time be set out for public worship, which is perpetual and eternal. 2. The ceremonial is, that it be precisely the seventh day here mentioned, which St. Paul saith, ‘was a shadow of good things to come’. Equity requires that men should set out one day in a week to spiritual and religious duties: now the primitive Church, instead of the Jewish Sabbath, which was to be abolished after the death and resurrection of Christ, made choice of this day, in which He arose from the grave, on which He sent down the Holy Ghost, as a day of gladness and exaltation to them and all posterity, and honored it with the name of the “lord’s day”; the observation thereof having continued in all ages since the Apostles. Neither have Christians since judged it reasonable or convenient to alter such an ancient and well-grounded custom, which is commonly reputed to be an apostolical tradition.” (p. 96-97)
Among those holy days ascribed to the Christian Calendar, if any NT Sabbath had divine institution it would be the Paschal Resurrection of Christ. Curiously, this was the original date under the Julian calendar astutely observed by some Eastern churches. Bishop John Cosin speculated that the Pascha was the proto-Sabbath from which all other Holy Days spring. If there’s any’Sabbath Day’ prescribed by scripture, Cosin believed Easter was it:
“Easter Day. It is a most solemn festival as the glorious resurrection of Christ’s self, by which it was declared and instituted to be kept holy (saith St. Augustine), and, by virtue of it, all the Sundays of the year besides; being for this cause called by the Apostles the Lord’s Day, and by the Fathers—God’s own Easter Day, and both by them and our own church, the day which the Lord hath made. That what holy institution soever the other solemnities of the year have received, some from the Apostles, and some from the Fathers of the church in succeeding ages, we may be sure that this sacred festival (Easter) was instituted by the divine authority of God and of Christ himself. If regard whereof, it out to be no less to us, than it was of old to the Christians of the world over, even the feast of all fests, and the solemnity of all solemnities, the highest and greatest value we have.” (p. 80, A Collection of Private Devotions)
Alongside various Anglican opinion, Hardwick and Browne both advised the weight ” of the history of Reformation movement in the midst of which the Articles had been produced”. The Articles were produced at the early part of the Reformation, an usual era marked by amity between Lutheran and Reformed churches . As a consequence, the Philipist Augsburg Confession with Apology may be an interest, giving further evidence to the meaning of the Evangelical sabbath,
“The apostles observed certain days, not because this observance was necessary for justification, but in order that the people might know what time they should gather. They observed also certain other ceremonies and orders of lessons whenever they gathered. The people kept the customs of the Fathers from their Jewish festivals and ceremonies. As in commonly the case, the apostles adapted to the history of the Gospel certain things, although somewhat changed. Among these things were the Passover and Pentecost. The apostles did this so that not only by teaching, but also through these examples, they might hand down to posterity the memory of the most important subjects” (p. 150, Book of Concord).
Godly Application: Without the strictness of the Jewish sabbath, a range of pious opinion emerged as to the requirements of proper Sabbath- keeping (e.g., types of work permitted, penalties for violation, the duration of a ‘day’, the frequency of holy days, and so forth). In England the Crown, in conjunction with the local Bishop, retained authority to set details. The Christian Sabbath thus might be longer or shorter, more or less Godly, etc.. given it served the Christian weal for time and place– be a consideration of edification, laudable custom, or even retaining the civil order. It was the pastoral leeway with Gospel Sabbaths that Puritans complained. Yet, isn’t this the pastoral spirit which the Christ commends?
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”— Mark 2:27
Nonetheless, vocal critics of Anglican pragmatism demonstrated their disfavor by their conspicuous absenteeism from established services, wanting the elimination of all church sabbaths that did not coincide with the example Sunday in scripture. The more serious of Puritan complaints were aimed at alehouses opened during Anglican parish festivals. Yet, by today’s standards, the typical Anglican practice was nonetheless rigorous, averaging six to eight hours of solemnity each Sunday when forenoon and afternoon services are tabulated.
The real problem was how Anglican divinity made studied distinctions regarding the degree the Christian Sabbath might be violated. For example, the Book of Homilies gives two types of sabbath offenders,
“…these people are of two sorts. The one sort, if they have any business to do, though there be no extreme need, they must not spare Sunday…they must keep markets and fairs on Sunday: finally, they use all days alike; workdays and holy days are all one. The other sort yet is worse. For, although they will not travail nor labor on the Sunday as they do on the week day, yet they will not rest in holiness, as God commandeth; but they rest in ungodliness and in filthiness, prancing in their pride, pranking and pricking, pointing and painting themselves, to be gorgeous and gay; they rest in excess and superfluity, in gluttony and drunkeness, like rats and swine; they rest in brawling and railing, in quarrelling and fighting; they rest in wantonness, in toyish talking, in filthy fleshiness; so that it doth too evidently appear that God is more dishonoured and the devil better served on Sunday than upon all the holy days in the week beside…” p. 341
A further division was given by Bp. Andrewes who separated the mere neglect of the Gospel Sabbath from its outright profanation, as in the case of viscous men who drink or brawl. Of the latter type, he says:
“[those] that are drunken and surfeit on the sabbath day; for seeing the works of our calling are not lawful on that day, much less these or any the like sinful actions; for this were a double offence, both against other commandments and this, therefore, may well be called sabbatum Satanae, ‘Satan’s sabbath’.” p. 160
Like Andrewes, the author of the Whole Duty of Man also condemns the Holy Day profanation, particularly upon Christmas, describing a scenario likely familiar to us today:
“But then we are to look that our Feasts be truly spiritual, by imploying the day thus holily, and not make it an occasion of intemperance and disorder, as too many, who consider nothing in Christmas and other good times, but the good cheer and jollity of them. For that is doing despite instead of honour to Christ, who came to bring all purity and soberness into the World, and therefore must not have that coming of his remembered in any other manner” p. 51
The discrimination between profane and idle sheds light on King James’ Book of Sports which excuses some diversions for the sake of moderate social good (such as keeping the King’s subjects able-bodied for battle). The Book of Sports was issued in 1618, and noticeably re-issued in 1633 under Charles I. The Book is pastoral lenient regarding commoners who otherwise confront constant toil with little time for refreshment:
“the other inconvenience is, that this Prohibition [i.e., the Jewish Sabbath] barreth the common and meaner sort of People from using such exercises as may make their Bodies more able for War, when we, or our successors shall have occasion to use them. And in place thereof, sets up filthy Tipplings and Drunkenness, and breeds a number of idle and discontented speeches in their ale-houses. For when shall the common people have leave to Exercise, if not upon the Sundays and Holidays, seeing they must apply their Labour, and win their living in all Working Days” p. 7-8
What exercises did the Crown then admit?
“That after the end of divine service, our good people be not disturbed, letted, or discouraged from any lawful Recreation, such as Dancing, either Men or Women, Archery for Men, Leaping, Vaulting, or any other such harmless Recreation, nor from having of May-Games, Whitson Ales, and Morris-Dances, and the setting up of May-Poles, and other Sports therewith used, so as the same be had in due and convenient time, without the impediment or neglect of divine service…” p. 10-11
It should be remembered, these provisions were tolerated only within Godly restraint. For example, the above recreations could only be enjoyed if attendance at Evening Prayer was had– thereby concluding the final public service of the Day. Nor would authorities bridge disorderliness within lawful recreation, especially if they resulted in general disturbances like drunkenness, fighting, or gambling. Under the King, certain pastimes indeed remained punishable. The discouragement of Bowling seems a curious exception, but it’s disfavor might be understood by its nuisance to property, appropriating parks or alley-ways for ball-lanes. The games forbidden on Sabbath days regardles:
“we do here account still as Prohibited, all unlawful Games to be used upon Sundays only, as Bear and Bull baiting, Interludes, and at all times in the meaner sort of People by Law prohibited, Bowling.” p. 11
Anglicans were largely pragmatic about these points, dividing between wholesome games that refreshed or strengthened the body (and likewise 5he spirit) versus those which induced social ill. This practicality might go as as letting the meaner sort of men work on Sundays rather than permitting them the waste their tim eby wanton abuse of Sabbath time. Surprisingly, Cranmer quotes Augustine’s authority on this exception,
“For, as St. Austin saith of the Jews, they should be better occupied laboring in their fields, and to be at plough, than to be idle at home. And women should better bestow their time in spinning of wool, than upon the Sabbath day to lose their time in leaping or dancing, and other idle wantonness.” p. 309, Formularies of Faith
Whether dealing the lawful sports, acceptable theater, or honest labor, the flexibility of Anglican theology is owned to the mixed nature of the Sabbath command, the civil part of Moses expiring under the Gospel, leaving the precise time for public religion to the care of souls under common authority. Thomas Deacon makes the NT form of Sabbath regulation plain:
“On this day therefore, all Christians are most strongly obliged to attend the public offices of the Church, and above all to offer and receive the Holy Eucharist, for no business or recreation can be allowed a dispensing power, nothing but want of health, or acts of necessary charity, can excuse them from performing these duties. When this is once secured, the lawfulness or unlawfulness of this or that labor, or this or that recreation, depends upon human law, which varies according to the diverse exigencies of times and places. There is little to be found, either in the law of nature or in the evangelical law, whereupon to ground the decision of such questions. ” (p. 183, A Full, True, and Comprehensive View)
Finally, the difference between Christian and Jewish Sabbaths are evident where Anglican divinity calls the return to Mosaic sabbatarianism ‘sinful’. William Nicholson insists those persons who sin against the Gospel are “They who Judaize either in their opinions of the Sabbath, or their observation of it” (p. 93, A Plain but Full Exposition). Bp. Ken likewise deplores ill-placed zeal with Sabbath-keeping, pleading against stiffness. Of course, the difference of dispensations for the Jewish to Gospel Sabbath lays the basis for foreboding harshness:
“Thou, O my God, O my Love, didst ordain the Judaical Sabbath as a Shadow of the true Gospel-Sabbath. O may I every Day keep an Evangelical Sabbath, and rest from my Sins, which are my own Works, while I live here; and my I celebrate an eternal Sabbath with thee in Heaven hereafter!..
Glory be to thee, O Lord God, who didst command the Sabbath or Seventh Day to be kept holy, and strictly observed by the Jews as thy Sabbath, in Memory of the Creation…
We Christians, O Lord God, following the moral equity of thy command, and authorized by Apostolical Practice, in Memory of our Redemption, in Memory of thy Resurrection from the Dead, O most beloved Jesu, when thou didst rest from the Labors and Sorrows of the new Creation. O may I ever remember thy Day, and thee!
Glory be to thee, O my God, my Love, who hast under the Gospel delivered us from the Rigors, but not from the Piety, of the Jewish Sabbath.
Lord, since the Blessing of everlasting Salvation, which we Christians on thy Day commemorate, does wonderfully exceed the Creation commemorated by the Jews; O let our Love and Praise, and Devotion, and Zeal, proportionally exceed theirs also…
O my God, O my Love, I renounce and detest, and bewail, as odious and offensive to thee, as directly opposite to thy Love, and to thy Glory, All profanations of thy hallowed Day, and of all other holy Times celebrate to thy Praise and thy Love. All Judaizing Severties, all Worldly-mindedness, and unnecessary Business, or not allowing those under my Care, Liberty, and Leisure for thy service on thy Day” (The Practice of Divine Love p. 68-70)
Conclusion: As a consequence of apostolic institution, the church has liberty to set apart days for worship, i.e., making “a new heavens and new earth”. In the Church of England that power acted through the Crown. Holy Days implicate Anglican treatment of scripture as well as moral law– not all commands are the same. Some can be for well-being, others of faith, and sometimes they involve both. Puritanism tended to collapse otherwise profitable distinctions into a sternness that was used largely for controversial ends.
Whether conscious of the Gospel Sabbath’s origins or not, Americans have retained Christmas (and other holidays) largely by reason of Anglican establishment among the colonies(2). Not surprisingly, the American Prayer Book includes Sabbath rests peculiar to our nation. Thanksgiving and Independence Day would therefore obey Anglican logic, being as true a Sabbath as any Sunday, adding the provision to rest for public worship of God.
(1) Nicholson has contemporary importance since the REC and APA’s Joint Affirmation in 2001, borrowing Nicholson’s ecclesiology as given in his 1655 exposition of the church catechism, p. 8. The Joint Affirmation has been credited from the REC’s move toward an ‘Anglican center’.
(2) If left to English Presbyterianism, the American religious calendar may have omitted Christmas. Methodism might have reversed this situation since retention of the Christian calendar was largely an Anglican practice. Wesley’s abridged version of the prayer book, his 1784 Sunday Service, kept the feasts of Christmas, Easter, Whitsunday, Ascension, and Trinity Sunday. However, Wesley tended to avoid what he judged as unnecessary controversy, and for the sake of the Americans, who tended to be more calvinistic, he called Christmas a “particular Sunday” rather than a “holy day”, etc..