It wasn’t exactly headline news, even in 1882, though for the then very small (17,169 members) and relatively new (founded in 1863) religious group, called the Seventh-day Adventists, it was a harbinger of things to
come. In Oakland, California, Willie C. White, a son of two founders of the church, and superintendent of the Pacific Press Publishing Association, had been arrested. The charge? Keeping the press open on Sunday.
“We have always supposed,” wrote George I. Butler in the Review and Herald (vol. 59, no. 9), an Adventist publication then located in Battle Creek, “[that] the old established communities of our country, habituated to church privileges and accustomed to religious influences and laws, would be the ones to enforce the Sunday law. . . . Our surprise has been great, therefore, to learn that a widespread agitation has sprung up in California relative to the strict enforcement of the Sunday law. Persons have been arrested, mass-meetings have been held, stirring speeches on both sides of the issue have been made, and great agitation has prevailed. Our brethren of the Pacific Press have been thrown into some perplexity to decide whether or not to run the risk of legal penalties by opening the office on Sunday as on other secular days, and Bro. W. C. White has been arrested for continuing to work on that day.”
There seems to be no court records of the arrest or of a trial, which probably means that nothing much resulted from it. And though that might be true, at least in regard to this one incident, the arrest of W. C. White for violation of a Sunday law was and (to a degree) still is symbolic of a much bigger issue: the free exercise of religion for a religious minority when a central practice of that religion clashes with the prevailing religious practice of the majority. In the case of Seventh-day Adventists, the clash arises from their keeping the seventh-day Sabbath in a nation of “Sundaykeeping” Protestants and Catholics.
Taking It Seriously
Of course, the phrase “Sundaykeeping Protestants and Catholics” is a bit of a stretch. For many Christians the keeping of any day holy is, really, a moot point. The vast majority of Sunday churchgoers are also Sunday store-goers and Sunday ballgame-goers and Sunday lawn-mowers and pretty much Sunday do-what-you-want-after-church-doers. This does not have to be a condemnation or a judgment; it is, simply, a statement of fact.
With Seventh-day Adventists, it is different. The name of the church itself, Seventh-day Adventists, pretty much reveals the seriousness with which they take the seventh day. They take it so seriously, in fact, that Adventists have lost their homes, their jobs, their families, and, in some cases (particularly overseas), their lives because of faithful adherence to what they believe is—just as much as “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not kill”—a commandment of God. Though, in the United States, Sunday-closing laws are few and far between, and the few on the books remain fairly toothless, that hasn’t always been the case, and Seventh-day Adventists in the United States have been jailed, fined, and even put on chain gangs for violating Sunday laws. Today, with the present eclipse of Sunday-closing laws, at least for now, Adventists in the United States still find themselves dealing with workplace conflicts when their refusal to work on the seventh day can cause problems with employers.
In short, this issue remains what it has been through the centuries: how to protect the rights of religious minorities whose practices clash with the cultural, political, and religious practices of the majority.
Remember the Sabbath Day
Why, though, do the Adventists take the seventh-day Sabbath so seriously? It’s because, as said above, they believe it’s one of the Ten Commandments, God’s law. And if one believes in the reality of sin, then one has to believe in the reality of God’s law, because the Bible teaches that His law defines what sin is. As Paul stated: “What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’” (Romans 7:7).1
Thus, if sin exists, God’s law must too, and because the fourth commandment—which commands keeping the seventh-day Sabbath—is part of that law, it should be kept as well. For Adventists it’s that simple.
A common argument, however, is that the seventh day is the “Jewish” Sabbath, and that Sunday is the “Christian” one. Though this isn’t the place to flesh out the challenge in detail, a few points are worth considering:
First, the sanctity of the seventh day was established at the Creation week, before any Jews existed. “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Genesis 2:2, 3).Thus, the specialness of the seventh day, according to biblical chronology, was established a few thousand years before the Jewish nation existed.
Also, the seventh-day Sabbath was in force before Sinai, as seen in Exodus 16, when Moses chided the children of Israel for getting manna on the seventh day. “Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will not be any” (Exodus 16:26). The whole chapter presents powerful evidence for the sanctity of the seventh-day Sabbath even before the covenant expression of the law at Mount Sinai.
Others insist that Jesus Himself either abolished the Sabbath or changed it to Sunday, an argument based on the Sabbath controversies that He had with the scribes and Pharisees (see, for example, Matthew 12:1-13; Mark 3:1-4; Luke 6:1-10; John 5:1, 2). However,in all these incidents the issue was always over how the seventh-day Sabbath was to be kept, never about whether it should still be kept or whether another day, Sunday, would replace it. In a startling admission, James Westberry, at the time the head of an organization devoted to keeping Sunday sacred, wrote: “There is no record of a statement on the part of Jesus authorizing such a change, nor is there such a statement on the part of the apostles.”2
Though others will vociferously argue against the Adventist position, whether, in the context of religious liberty, the Adventists are right or wrong is, really, beside the point. True religious freedom shouldn’t be dependent upon the perceived orthodoxy of the beliefs or practices in question (something that’s all but impossible in a pluralistic society like America, anyway). In Watson V. Jones (1872) the U.S. Supreme Court famously said: “The law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect.”
Though, of course, given the nature of things, the free exercise of religious practices cannot and should not be absolute (child sacrifice, for instance, would not be protected), the supposed orthodoxy or unorthodoxy of belief or practices must not enter the equation. After all, with more than 300 religions and denominations in the United States, just who would determine what’s orthodox or not? American jurisprudence wisely forbids the law from making that distinction.
Sunday Blue Laws
Nevertheless, for a good portion of American history Sunday was not only universally viewed (as it is today) as the biblical Sabbath—the colonies (and then the states) enacted legislation designed to enforce it. They had strict laws that in some cases, besides shutting down business, required church attendance. After the American Revolution, and the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, compulsory church attendance on Sunday stopped, but state Sunday-closing laws continued, with varying degrees of severity, across the United States, even as it expanded westward (as the 1882 incident with W. C. White showed).
Though Seventh Day Baptists were already keeping the seventh day when the Adventists discovered its importance, the Adventists quickly outgrew their Baptist counterparts, and before long ran afoul of the law. Committed to civil obedience, respect for the government, and love of country, many Adventists endeavored to obey the Sunday laws, however unjust they deemed them to be. Others, out of either what they believed was principle, or of necessity, found themselves in violation of the laws and were often jailed or fined or both. One iconic photo from the 1800s shows nine Seventh-day Adventists, including an ordained minister, working on a chain gang in Rhea County, Tennessee, as punishment for Sunday law violations.
A fair question would be Why not just obey the law, even if deemed unfair? After all, what nation would survive if people obey only the laws they deemed just?
On one level that’s a valid argument; on another, it misses the point. Seventh-day Adventists shut down their business on the seventh day because of religious convictions. If, however, business necessitates them being open six days a week, a Sunday-closing law—which mandates they close on Sunday as well —will bring financial hardship. Why should they be made to suffer for a law that reflects a religious position that they don’t adhere to? Isn’t the whole point of the First Amendment’s free exercise and nonestablishment clauses to protect people from having to adhere to religious practices that they don’t hold?
One would think so. Unfortunately in the 1960s the U. S. Supreme Court in a number of Sunday law cases upheld the constitutionality of Sunday-closing laws, arguing that, though originally religious, they now were essentially “civil regulations.” They no longer promoted any particular religious belief, but simply advocated a day of rest.
Of course, one could retort (and many Adventists did) that the very concept of a “day of rest”—especially with Sunday (the “Christian Sabbath”) just happening to be that day of rest—is a purely religious idea, even if one dresses it up in secular garb. Fortunately, despite the High Court fumbling this one, the power of the demos kicked in. Because most people found Sunday-closing laws a pain, not to mention silly (in one county it was illegal on Sunday to buy toy submarines, staples, and staplers, but toiletries, flowers, and souvenirs were OK), Sunday laws in the United States, with some exceptions, are mostly a thing of the past.
At least for now. Who knows what could happen that could bring them back, and with a vengeance, too?
Whatever the future holds, Sunday laws are symptomatic of the bigger question regarding the power of the state to enforce religious dogma. It’s kind of ironic and sad that the High Court, which is supposed to protect minorities from the majority, dropped the ball, and it was the majority who helped rid the nation of these antiquated and ill-conceived laws. And though the arrest of W. C. White was, in and of itself, a small incident, it remains a symbol of the grand question of religious liberty and how best to protect it.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all texts in this article are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
2 James P. Westberry, “Are We Compromising Ourselves?” Sunday, April-June 1976, p. 5.
Author: Clifford R. Goldstein
Clifford Goldstein writes from Mt. Airy, Maryland. A previous editor of Liberty, he now edits Bible study lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.