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A rock and a hard place: Seventh Day Baptists, religious liberty, Sabbath-keeping, and civil authority.

Seventh Day Baptists occupy a unique place in the Baptist family because of their observance of the Sabbath.


Although their reasoning for this observance is the same as their observance of the other staples of Baptist belief and thought, unique challenges have always faced Seventh Day Baptists because of our distinctive conviction. De, spite, these challenges, Seventh Day Baptists have managed to find their way in the United States, from the founding of their first church in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1671 to the present day. One of the factors that consistently influenced their congregations is the freedom of' people to exercise their conscience to keep Sabbath instead of Sunday as the day of worship and rest. With the passage of the. Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment in 1791, Seventh Day Baptists found some relief from earlier difficulties experienced in the American colonies, but even with the protections of the First Amendment, many Seventh Day Baptists have made additional sacrifices in order to obey their conscience in America.

To avoid any confusion, a clarification of what Seventh Day Baptists mean by Sabbath observance is needed. Seventh Day Baptists observe the fourth commandment (Ex. 20:8-11) literally. In addition, they take seriously the prohibition from work, though in keeping with Baptist principles, they leave it to individuals to be convicted on the specifics of observance after careful study and prayer. Seventh Day Baptists worship collectively on the Sabbath (Saturday) and observe the day as a period of rest, consecrated to God. The purpose of this article is not to explore the specifics of Seventh Day Baptist theology, but to understand this basic foundational conviction is necessary in order to understand what follows. Seventh Day Baptists must be kept distinct from other Sabbath observing groups, which perhaps are better known because of their larger size. While Seventh Day Baptists may share some common Sabbath convictions with other denominations, they are the only denomination that also explicitly adheres to Baptist beliefs.

For nearly as long as Baptists have searched the scriptures for direction, Sabbath-keepers have been represented in their number. In England, like other Baptists, the Sabbath-observing Baptists suffered various persecutions at the hands of the government and of the religious authorities because of their convictions. In those days, they were also singled out for their Sabbath observance. The experience of Francis Bampfield, an early Seventh Day Baptist leader, was typical of those early English Seventh Day Baptists. He was imprisoned on a nearly yearly basis between 1660 and 1684 for both his Sabbath and Baptist convictions, and he died in Newgate prison in 1684. (1) Another Seventh Day Baptist leader, John James, was hung for treason in 1661 because of his political and religious convictions. (2)

In America, early Seventh Day Baptists met similar challenges. Driven out of Massachusetts Bay by religious persecution, the first Seventh Day Baptists in America covenanted together in 1671 in Newport, Rhode Island, meeting together on the Sabbath for worship and fellowship. (3) Five of the members of this Newport church had left First Baptist Church, Newport, and joined with two English Seventh Day Baptists after doctrinal disputes between the Sabbath-keepers and Obadiah Holmes necessitated the formation of the new congregation. (4) Following the formation of this Seventh Day Baptist church, Sabbath-observation beliefs and practices spread throughout Rhode Island.

Meanwhile, successful Seventh Day Baptist churches also began in New Jersey. One church in Piscataway began after a dispute broke out between Edmund Dunham and his brother-in-law, Hezekiah Bonham, regarding working on Sunday. Dunham found Bonham working on Sunday and went to correct him. When confronted, Bonham demanded scriptural proof that Sunday was the Sabbath. Finding none that satisfied their consciences, both men became convinced and brought up the matter in their local Baptist church. After a period of debate, the Sabbath-keepers left the Baptist church in Piscataway and formed their own congregation. The debate between those Baptists was so intense that Piscataway became known by some as "Quibbletown." A marker in the community bears witness to the debate to this day. (5)

Likewise, work also began in Pennsylvania, as many Quaker groups splintered and became convinced of Baptist principles. Groups meeting in Pennepek, Nantmeal, Nottingham, and Newtown by 1770 grew to a total of 130 members. Those early groups in Pennsylvania were plagued by doctrinal disputes and additional pressures from the civil authorities. (6) The Nottingham church suffered greatly as a result of the Sunday laws of 1794, which enforced Sunday as a day of rest. Because of their convictions, these Sabbath-keepers were forced into hardship because of their unwillingness to work on Sabbath and their legal obligations not to work on Sunday. One member of that church, Richard Bond, was selected for jury duty, and when he refused to serve on Friday night and Saturday because of his conscience, the presiding judge labeled him and his congregation as "a set of hypocrites." (7) Many of the Pennsylvania congregations eventually migrated to West Virginia in order avoid the restrictive nature of the Sunday laws. (8) This experience of the Seventh Day Baptists in Pennsylvania was not unique, and none of the Philadelphia area churches survived, although most of the members of those churches did move to places where Sabbath observance was tolerated, including New Jersey and Rhode Island, or to the frontier where laws that challenged Sabbath-keeping were not enforced.

The greatest obstacle faced by Sabbath-keepers in colonial America were the blue laws, which were set forth as early as the 1610s. These laws affirmed both the state and local governments as institutions ordained by God and set out what specifically was demanded of citizens. Some of the laws mandated discrimination against religious minorities, and Sabbath-keepers were not exempted from the discrimination apportioned to them. The blue laws of New Haven, Connecticut (1656), provide one example of the kind of struggle that Sabbath observers faced. Two of those laws forbade work and activity of various kinds on the Sabbath. Shortly after 1656, a law was added that defined the Sabbath as beginning at sunset on Saturday, exactly twenty-four hours after the Seventh Day Baptist conception of Sabbath observance. (9) Likewise, the blue laws enacted in Pennsylvania similarly limited Sabbath-keepers, including article 36 (1686), which read: "That according to the good Example of the Primitive Christians, and for the ease of the Creation, every First Day of the Week called the Lords Day, People shall abstain from their common daily Labour, that they might the better dispose themselves to Worship God according to their Understandings." (10)

Clearly, the freedom to worship in Pennsylvania was first contingent on the acceptance of the First Day as the day of rest, a concession no Seventh Day Baptists could make in good conscience. Because of the existence of blue laws, Pennsylvania remained a difficult place for Sabbath-keepers into the twentieth century, and legal action continued to be brought against those who attempted to work on Sunday.

The purpose of the early laws was to promote religious observance and to suppress godlessness and heresy. The discrimination perpetrated by the religious majority (who worshipped on Sunday) was an unpleasant byproduct of the attempt of the state officials to promote religion, and in fact, many of these laws are still supported by the Christian community at large because they encourage attendance in local churches. Although in some cases, no malicious intent was evident, state and local governments prevent Sabbath-keepers from worshipping unhindered in an attempt to apply the law uniformly.

Seventh Day Baptists responded to these developments as best they could, limiting their persecution by taking themselves out of situations that put them at risk. The first and most obvious way to avoid the legal difficulties was for church members to select occupations that did not explicitly require work on the Sabbath. The strong tradition of Seventh Day Baptists in education is likely connected to the shorter work week common to the teaching profession. Likewise, many Seventh Day Baptists became frontier farmers, fleeing the more populated areas for places where they could work their fields unhindered. Other Seventh Day Baptists started small businesses, which allowed them set their own hours and ply their trade under their own principles.

The other significant response to the persecution was to establish communities in which Seventh Day Baptists were the majority of the population, which increased the possibility of a favorable outcome when questions about Sabbath observance arose. These enclaves provided safe havens where Seventh Day Baptists could work and trade without having to make the choice between obedience to the law and obedience to God. All of these responses to difficulties are completely natural, but they amount to avoidance of the issue. Against a majority intent on imposing Sunday observance, avoidance was a successful strategy.

With the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1791, Seventh Day Baptists hoped that the First Amendment would finally allow them the freedom to live according to their convictions. The first clause of the amendment that "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion," seemed to indicate that the blue laws would soon be repealed in favor of more Sabbath-friendly legislation. Likewise, the clause ensuring free exercise of religion seemed to promise Sabbath-keepers that a new day approached. However, two things became clear after the Bill of Rights was ratified. First, the Bill of Rights did not forbid the individual states from passing their own legislation, some of which established religion and limited free exercise. Second, the Bill of Rights did not supersede laws contrary to its own language that had already been passed by the individual states, nor did it provide a means by which those aggrieved by state legislation could appeal to the federal government for relief.

After the passage of the Bill of Rights, Seventh Day Baptists continued to be challenged in their Sabbath observance. In 1846, German Seventh Day Baptists at Snow Hill, Pennsylvania, were in their fields on a Sunday working to get their crops in before a storm arrived. The church's neighbors reported a group of "lewd fellows of the baser sort" to the authorities for harassing the Snow Hill church's meetings, and the "lewd" group was punished. In retribution, those same "lewd fellows" reported several church members for their violation of the state's 1794 Sunday law, and the members were arrested. (11) The same neighbors of the church who reported the harassment earlier then counseled the arrested church members to appeal their sentence. The neighbors wrote letters to the judiciary asking for the Seventh Day Baptists to be excused from keeping that portion of the law. (12) The legal battle continued for the next two years until the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania finally decided against the Seventh Day Baptists in Specht v. the Commonwealth, upholding the fine and sentence imposed. (13) In 1848, the Sabbath Recorder reported that three members were again imprisoned under a similar set of circumstances, noting that "Had they been nominal observers of Sunday, they might have been acquitted on the plea of necessity, as provided by the act of 1794. But they were connected with a Society which observes the Sabbath; hence the law is enforced with all its rigor, and these three men have paid the penalty of its violation by suffering imprisonment six days." (14)

In this case, the sentence appeared to be specifically geared to provide hardship to Sabbath observers, as Sunday keepers had additional means to circumvent the law that were simply not available to Sabbath-keepers. Thus, fifty years after the passage of the First Amendment, the relief that Seventh Day Baptists hoped for had not yet arrived.

As Seventh Day Baptists approached the middle of the nineteenth century, they desperately needed a leader to unite them in support of the Sabbath cause. They found that leader in the person of Abram Herbert Lewis. Born November 17, 1836, in rural western New York, Lewis in his early years moved with his family to Wisconsin, where he was educated at a fledgling academy in Milton before going to further schooling at Alfred, New York. By 1866, Lewis had begun taking speaking engagements and pastoring churches, and by 1867, he was a full-time employee of the Seventh Day Baptist Tract Society. He began to speak widely on the issue of Sabbath-keeping and became the leader of the Seventh Day Baptists' "Sabbath Reform" movement, which aimed to raise the profile of the Sabbath in the United States, including making others aware of the plight of Sabbath-keepers.

In addition to his exhaustive speaking engagements, Lewis also authored several books including Sabbath and Sunday (1870), The Critical History of Sunday Legislation (1888), and Spiritual Sabbathism (published posthumously, 1910). in addition, he published five separate periodicals between 1870 and his death in 1908, and was the author of numerous tracts. He also was the editor of the Sabbath Recorder from 1898 to 1907. By the time of his death in 1908, he had overseen one of the largest efforts ever undertaken by Seventh Day Baptists, and his tireless work brought the struggles faced by Seventh Day Baptists into the public consciousness more than they had ever been before.

Meanwhile, the legal struggles of Seventh Day Baptists continued as they struggled both to honor the civil authorities and obey their consciences. Part of this struggle has always been their desire to honor the biblical injunction to respect authority; thus, not just the issue of Sabbath-keeping must be considered. Seventh Day Baptists must also consider how to respect civil authorities while not obeying the written laws.

In Cussewego, Pennsylvania, in 1877, Daniel Waldo was arrested for harvesting on Sunday. (15) His conviction was upheld. In 1888, the Blair Sunday-Rest Bill was introduced to Congress and would have made Sunday the national day of rest and religious observance, effectively serving as a national blue law. Seventh Day Baptists, along with other Sabbath-keeping groups, lobbied against the legislation, claiming that the bill was a violation of the separation of church and state. Lewis represented Seventh Day Baptists on Capitol Hill. The denomination circulated petitions, gaining over 7,000 signatures, a number particular remarkable because there were only 8,500 Seventh Day Baptists in America at the time. (16) Most likely, some of the signatories were not those of Seventh Day Baptists, but others supportive of religious liberty for all Americans. The text of the petition included an injunction to the government
 not to pass any bill in regard to the observance of the Sabbath or
 Lord's day or any other religious or ecclesiastical institution or
 rite; nor to favor in any way the adoption of any resolution for
 the amendment of the National Constitution that would in any way
 give preference to the principles of any one religion above
 another, or that will in any way sanction legislation upon the
 subject of religion: but the total separation between Religion and
 the State, assured by our National Constitution as it now is, may
 forever remain as our fathers established it. (17)

When these words were circulated within the denomination, Seventh Day Baptists had not received the rights "assured by our National Constitution" in full. They still could not worship on the Sabbath in several states without violating the written law of the land. The Blair legislation eventually died in committee and never reached a vote in Congress, but the Sabbath Reform movement had succeeded in one of its primary aims: to lobby for the increased religious liberty of Sabbath-keepers in this country and abroad.

As the twentieth century dawned, Seventh Day Baptists experienced some support in the area of religious liberty. The Blair legislation had been defeated, and the work of Lewis and many others had made advances in the fight for the freedom to observe Sabbath more fully. (18) In addition, the social developments and the advent of the five-day work week began to alleviate some of the stress that the six-day work week had placed on members of the denomination. Yet, nagging challenges remained. Seventh Day Baptists who owned small businesses were still not permitted to operate on Sundays. In numerous cases brought before the Supreme Court, the blue laws were upheld. The best example of the court's stance on the issue during this period may be Braunfeld v. Brown, a 1961 decision in which the court ruled in a 6-3 vote against Abraham Braunfeld, a Jewish shop owner in Philadelphia. Braunfield had sued the state of Pennsylvania for relief from the blue laws, claiming that his inability to work on Sunday combined with his own Sabbath conviction put his business at a competitive disadvantage. (19) In the majority opinion of the court, Chief Justice Warren wrote that it was "common knowledge that the first day of the week has come to have special significance as a rest day in this country. The cause is irrelevant; the fact exists." (20) Warren then noted that not all Jewish people were inconvenienced by the laws--only those who wanted to work on Sunday. The message of the court was that the blue laws did not directly interfere with religious observance of Sabbath-keepers, and the temporal inconveniences caused by their convictions were simply the dues that must be paid for the sake of their consciences.

Interestingly, the legislation that removed the greatest amount of pressure from Seventh Day Baptists in regard to their Sabbath observance was the famous Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its subsequent expansions, which are not always remembered for their religious freedom provisions. In Title VII of the Act, passed in 1972, Senator Jennings Randolph, himself a Seventh Day Baptist from West Virginia, worked tirelessly to include a provision in the bill for Sabbath-keepers. This provision made it illegal for a company to fire Sabbath-keepers for their beliefs unless undue hardships would be experienced by the employer. (21) Shortly after the passage, the bill was challenged and overturned in the courts. (22) Testifying on the matter before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1977, K. D. Hurley, the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference executive secretary, presented the denomination's concerns to the commission. (23) Hurley explained the long Seventh Day Baptist heritage, reminding the members of the promises of the First Amendment. He explained that Seventh Day Baptists have always kept the Sabbath and acknowledged that this observance is not based on tradition but is a matter of conscience before God. In describing the struggle for freedom, Hurley said:
 We did not come here today to list cases where there has been
 employment discrimination against Seventh Day Baptists because of
 our non-majority belief. We are a humble people, not prone to make
 demands on others because of our beliefs.... In fact, we believe
 that more often than not it has been the Seventh Day Baptist who
 has made the accommodation in any conflict between work and the
 Sabbath ... our people have gained ample experience dealing with
 Sabbath issues in non-conflicting ways. (24)

His statement perfectly summarized the Seventh Day Baptist experience with the First Amendment. The denomination has indeed been free to worship on the Sabbath, although the arrangement to do so has often been left up to individuals or churches when necessary to accommodate that belief; thus, Seventh Day Baptists have had to make the sacrifices necessary to be responsible citizens and convicted Christians. They have also been helped in this effort by the work of Baptist agencies that champion the cause of religious liberty, including the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, which has provided periodic assistance to churches and individuals struggling in situations in which their religious liberties are being impinged upon.

Today, only a rare Seventh Day Baptist has not had to make these accommodations and sacrifices. Although the belief in the liberty of conscience under the guidance of the Holy Spirit means that not all Seventh Day Baptists honor the Sabbath in the same way, nearly all observances require a sacrifice of some kind, whether it is struggling in the workplace, in school, or in the larger Christian culture. Throughout their history, Seventh Day Baptists have gladly made these sacrifices in order to honor their convictions, and the unique freedoms of the First Amendment have made such an arrangement possible. While the road has frequently been strewn with challenges, God has preserved both Seventh Day Baptists and their distinctive brand of Baptist faith, in which their study of scripture led them to honor the Sabbath.

(1.) Don A. Sanford, A Choosing People: The History of Seventh Day Baptists (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1991), 69.

(2.) Ibid., 68.

(3.) Isaac Backus Papers, Hubbard Diary, Collection of the Rhode Island Historical Society.

(4.) Edwin S. Gausted, Baptist Piety: The Last Will and Testimony of Obadiah Holmes (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian University Press, 1978).

(5.) Sanford, A Choosing People, 112.

(6.) Ibid., 108.

(7.) Don A. Sanford, "Blue laws' Blues," Sabbath Recorder, January 2004, 14.

(8.) Sanford, A Choosing People, 109-10.

(9.) New-Haven's Settling in New-England and Some Lawes for Government (London: Printed by M. S. for Livewell Chapman, 1656).

(10.) The Frame of the Government of the Province of Pennsylvania in America: Together with certain laws Agreed upon in England by the Governour and the Divers Free-Men of the aforesaid Province (London: A. Sowles, 1682).

(11.) Don A. Sanford, "Sunday Laws--Persecution in Pennsylvania," Sabbath Recorder, July 16, 1846, 14.

(12.) Ibid.

(13.) Don A. Sanford, "Snowhill Sabbath Blues," Sabbath Recorder, May 1993, 10.

(14.) Ibid.

(15.) Don A. Sanford, "Pearls from the Past" Sabbath Recorder, January 2004, 4.

(16.) Seventh Day Baptist Anniversary, 1889, (Alfred Centre, NY: American Sabbath Tract Society, 1889), 33-34; Seventh Day Baptist Anniversary, 1890, (Alfred Centre, NY: American Sabbath Tract Society, 1890), 25ff. See also Religious Liberty Petition to Congress, 1888-1889, archives of the Seventh Day Baptist Historical Society, arranged and indexed by Jennie Wells.

(17.) Ibid.

(18.) In fact, so much energy was spent in the Sabbath Reform movement that some contemporary Seventh Day Baptists have questioned whether the General Conference could have better fulfilled other "kingdom responsibilities" during the period. Regardless of the answer to the question, the fact that it could be raised and seriously considered demonstrates the scope of the initiative.

(19.) Braunfeld v. Braun 472 U.S. 703 (1961).

(20.) Ibid.

(21.) For more on the contributions of Jennings Randolph, see Nicholas Kersten, "Jennings Randolph: Servant, Statesman, Seventh Day Baptist," Baptist History and Heritage 41, no. 3 (Summer/Fall 2006): 79-88.

(22.) The 1976 case, Parker Seal v. Cummins 429 U.S. 65, resulted in a rare split decision, 4-4, affirming the rights of Cummins, a Sabbath-keeper. The decision was later reversed, and the privileges that Sabbath-keepers enjoyed for a short period were suspended.

(23.) Thomas Merchant, "Seventh Day Baptists Testify Before EEOC," Sabbath Recorder, May 1978, 12-13.

(24.) Ibid.

Nicholas J, Kersten is the librarian-historian of the Seventh Day Baptist Historical Society, Janesville, Wisconsin.
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Author:Kersten, Nicholas I.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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