Sunday Rest and Sabbath Laws
Q: I was raised in a conservative Lutheran home. Some things weren’t allowed on Sunday, including knitting, sewing, and the like. I also remember my family talking about what else was forbidden when they were growing up, but the needle arts have stuck with me. Do you know from where these traditions came? My grandmother by the way was Moravian.
A: While you don’t tell us where you lived as a child, I know that such prohibitions were once common across much of the country, including in the bodies you name. None of these were part of the practices of the early Lutherans — nor, as far as I’ve found out, the Moravians — but pietistic and legalistic influences entered both groups through the years. Finally, many parts of the country saw Sunday become the week’s de facto Sabbath Day.
Some regions were more affected than others. Lutherans in certain parts of the United States made gentle fun of neighbors whose churches forbade certain pleasures, chief of which usually seemed to be “drinking, dancing, and playing cards.” Elsewhere, other Lutherans considered dancing to be a quick, almost inevitable step toward fornication.
Concerning drinking, differences remain to this day. Lutheran (and other) congregations in certain areas won’t allow any alcohol except communion wine on their premises, even if they see nothing wrong with moderate home use. At other churches, many of their annual dinners, homecomings, and the like are traditionally “wet” and alcoholic beverages may also be served on-site at wedding receptions, baptismal luncheons, and so forth.
The strictness of the prohibitions you mention exceeds most of what I’ve found in Lutheranism and I wonder if some of it may have been introduced via your Moravian grandmother. The restrictions sound like some of Garrison Keillor’s childhood memories of growing up among the Plymouth Brethren. While the Unity of the Brethren (the Moravian Church’s official name) isn’t directly related, almost every body including “Brethren” in its name places high value on personal piety. This piety often was regulated officially, with special behavior mandated for Sundays.
Sometimes a number of like-minded churches joined in encouraging local, regional, and state laws mandating the restriction of certain activities. For example, many people still living remember that large numbers of businesses were closed on Sunday when they were growing up. Even though it wasn’t on the true Sabbath (Saturday), civil laws required keeping a somewhat strict day of rest each Sunday.
Early restrictions in Connecticut became known as “Blue Laws” and the term spread elsewhere. Besides mandating rest, they removed competition from the churches by keeping stores closed on Sunday. They also dealt with community values and moral behavior, so liquor sales frequently were banned or restricted. Some of the American colonies even required church attendance. For example, in 1617, Virginia authorized the militia to force colonists to attend church services. Of course, America’s most extreme example of imposing “Christian” morality on others remains the “Noble Experiment” of Prohibition.
I’m familiar with some areas of the country more than others and I remember how few stores once were open in Kansas and, even more so, in Missouri on a Sunday. Missouri’s state blue laws date back at least as far as the early 1900s. I found a New York Times article headlined “Blue Laws in Missouri: Several Arrests on First Day of Their Enforcement.” Dated 17 August 1909, the article began by saying that the laws, “enacted by the recent Legislature, took effect yesterday and were enforced by the police of St. Louis.” The first offenders? “The gambling squad began a crusade against all games of chance in cigar stores.”
Even when many of the laws were repealed, some states kept a few on the books. Often these prohibited, shortened the hours, or banned certain types of sales of alcoholic beverages. For some reason, auto dealers also found themselves closed by law even as other business were allowed to open on Sundays.
A summary of Missouri blue laws from 2002 reads, “On Sunday, it is a misdemeanor to engage in the business of selling or offering for sale, at retail: motor vehicles; clothing and wearing apparel; clothing accessories; furniture; housewares; home, business or office furnishings; household, business or office appliances; hardware; tools; paints; building and lumber supply materials; jewelry; silverware; watches; clocks; luggage; musical instruments and recordings or toys; excluding novelties and souvenirs.” Some of these restrictions have been lifted but not all. As one online pundit noted of the Show Me State, while “car dealerships are closed on Sunday ... you can go to a casino on Sunday and by [sic] some Jack Daniels along with your groceries 24 x 7.”
Looking at the mixed bag of American blue laws, Sabbath regulations, and the like, I have two rather contradictory opinions. First of all, don’t many of these legal or church-sanctioned restrictions seem to be contrary to Jesus’ evaluation of the legalism of his day? As Mark 2:27 notes, “[Jesus] said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’”
On the other hand, as one of many Americans who feels like we’re rushing too rapidly through our days, I miss that time when our nation deeply valued a truly refreshing day of rest. Additionally, as a Christian, I see the other side of Jesus’ words. Since “the Sabbath was made for man,” while mankind still lived in the bliss of Paradise, before sin entered our lives (cf. Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 20:8-11), it must be even more vital for us now as we labor in our fallen state.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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Newspaper column #552:2