The history of the Puritans always makes fascinating reading. If you want to know how to take your Christianity seriously, outside the history recorded for us in the Scriptures, going to the Puritan era will give you the most fruitful reading. Thus when we come to how best to understand and observe the Lord’s Day, there is no better place to go to than the example of the Puritans.
In 1559, an Act of Parliament declared the Queen of England as the head of the Church of England. This took place because, after being under the rule of Rome for many years, the Church of England had resolved to return to the Protestant Faith. There was opposition from two quarters. The Roman Catholics rejected this for obvious reasons. They wanted England to remain under the Pope. However, there was another group that opposed this Act of Parliament for totally different reasons. These were the Puritans. They opposed the Act of Parliament because they were convinced that only Jesus Christ could be rightly called the head of the church. So, to them, the reformation of the church was not complete as long as a human being was still being viewed as head of the church. They wanted a purer church (thus the name they gained for themselves – The Puritans). They objected to vestments; they tried to change the form of government of the Church of England; they ridiculed its bishops; and they encouraged unofficial meetings for the study of the Bible.
“Puritanism was a reform movement within English Protestantism that emerged in the sixteenth century. The movement proposed to purify the Church of England and to invigorate the daily practice of religion. They followed the Calvinistic tradition. They considered the Bible the only authority in matters of faith. They wanted to restore Christianity to its original condition as we find it in Scripture” (Pumps, p 21).
The Puritan movement was not a homogenous whole. Some Puritans separated themselves from the Church of England, while others stayed and tried to reform the church from within. Those who left did so largely because they could not accept everything in the Book of Common Prayers, which spelt out the beliefs and practices of the Church of England. It was dangerous to be identified as a Puritan because both state and church persecuted them. Many of them died because of their convictions. Despite the little support that they enjoyed in the corridors of power, Puritanism still made steady progress because it was a grassroots movement. It went forward primarily through the preaching and writing of its pastors. Some of the leading Puritan pastors were William Perkins (1558-1602), Richard Sibbes (1577-1635), Thomas Goodwin (1600-77), etc. Among the Puritan writers whose influence continues to be felt today, we have William Gurnall, Richard Baxter, John Owen and Matthew Henry.
These men studied the Scriptures and taught their people from there. Their teachings covered the full length and breadth of Christian belief and practice. One of the areas that they did not forget to touch upon was that of the Lord’s Day. They were fairly homogenous in their teaching and practice on this subject.

The honouring of the Lord’s Day
The Puritans demanded a strict obedience to the will of God, as revealed in the Scriptures. This obedience was to cover matters related to everyday life. So, their teaching on the Lord’s Day grew out of that conviction. They taught that nature demanded that a day be set apart for worship, just as days were set apart for work. They believed that we should rest from work on the Sabbath so that God can work in us as we took time away from everything else and spent it in holy contemplation. “This is an act of mercy from God that a day is given to disburden ourselves of the cares and business of the world, which may hinder our holy communion with God and one another, and wholly apply ourselves to learn the will of God. We should accept mercy” (Baxter, 470). So, they encouraged believers to spend the Lord’s Day in holy exercises without unnecessary diversions.
As one reads Puritan writings, it is clear that they understood that the Sabbath commandment was perpetual. However, what changed between the old and the new covenant was the day that was to be thus observed. They taught that Sunday (the first day of the week) was to be observed as the Christian Sabbath. This was because Christ rose on the first day of the week and he poured out the Holy Spirit on the first day. The Puritans also observed that the apostles met with the church on the first day of the week and they were the ones that God gifted to set up the order of the Church. Thus wherever they had the upper hand in enforcing the law of the land, they demanded the observance of the Lord’s Day and empowered church governors to enforce it.

The purpose of the Lord’s Day
The Puritans were very meticulous about their spiritual condition. They were masters, almost to a fault, of the art of meditation and self-examination. They came up with many guidelines on how to ensure that your heart was truly set on Christ. They encouraged the keeping of spiritual diaries, showing how your heart measures up to your profession of religion. In this kind of atmosphere, one can see why they treasured the “free time” they were able to get on the Lord’s Day. It gave them the time they needed to reflect hard on the health of their souls.
Thus, the Puritans could only do works of necessity and works of mercy on Sunday. They observed the whole day! More modern writers have accused the Puritans of Pharisee-ism because of what they forbade on the Lord’s Day. For instance, they did not permit sports on the Lord’s Day, however “innocent” the sports were. They made sure that there was no form of amusements on this day. They forbade stage plays or dances. Surprisingly, even being idle was forbidden. However, this was not because of Pharisee-ism but because they saw the Sabbath as the market-day of the soul! The whole day was set apart to be spent in public worship and in private communion with God. Hence, the Puritans taught their people to spend the whole day for the good of their own souls and the souls of others.

The keeping of the Lord’s Day
It is not possible, in the space that I have in this journal, to go into any detailed quotations of how the Puritans kept the Sabbath day holy. Having gleaned what I could from such writings, I will simply proceed to sketch what Puritan observance of the Lord’s Day looked like.
The Puritans began their Sabbath preparations the day before. Richard Baxter warned, “Remember the Lord’s Day before it comes, and prepare for it, and prevent those disturbances that would hinder you, and deprive you of your benefit… Six days you must labour, and do all that you have to do” (Baxter, p.142). So, the day before the Lord’s Day, especially in the evening, they took time to shake off worldliness from their souls by getting into the right frame of mind for public worship the next day. This they did by reviewing the Word of God that they listened to the previous Sunday. They thought about how they lived in the previous week and used the opportunity to repent of any sins that would hinder their fellowship with God the next day. In this way, their anticipation for the next instalment the following day was heightened. They also retired early to bed so that they were fresh and better able to concentrate during the Sabbath ministrations.
On the Lord’s Day itself, Puritan homes were up as early as though it was a working day. To them “rest” did not mean extra hours in bed or in front of the mirror adorning oneself. Rather it was rest from their work in order to attend to the needs of the soul. They utilised the Lord’s Day, firstly, for domestic reading and meditating upon the Word of God. Family worship was taken very seriously and was conducted either early in the morning or at the end of the day, and sometimes it was done on both ends of the day. The head of the home took his wife, children and domestic helpers and catechised them in the doctrines of Scripture. The household then moved on to the public preaching of the Word of God, prayer, and the breaking of bread.
After church, it was a time to find out how much of the sermon had been understood and applied by the members of the household (which again included house servants). Servants, particularly, needed more help in understanding the Word that was preached. They talked about Christ over their Sunday meals in the home. In some cases, it also meant returning to church for evening worship. “After supper examine your children and servants what they have learnt all day, and sing a psalm of praise, and conclude with prayer and thanksgiving” (Baxter, p.473). In this way, the Puritans laboured to keep the knowledge of God and true religion vibrant in the world.
In view of the emphasis that the Puritans had on the heart, they ensured that the Sabbath rest was not merely outward or for the body. They encouraged their people to meditate much on the world to come, so that its effect could be felt upon the present world. Christians were to allow their hearts to be ravished by thoughts of God’s free, sovereign and redeeming love. And, as they allowed this, they were to deplore any form of sin they may have entertained in their lives. They were to love God back because of the extent of his own love for them, which they had gazed upon in their Sabbath meditations. Their hearts were to be filled with renewed joy and their tongues with a new song.

Some lessons from the Puritans
Someone said, “The only thing that we learn from history is that we do not learn from history.” The Lord has given us such a rich heritage that we do not need to be spiritually impoverished. The Puritans struggled to shake off the confusion of Roman and Anglo Catholicism. What is it that made them such champions of the faith? There is no doubt that their full utilisation of this “day of mercy” has a lot to do with it. The Puritans fully attended to their souls on this day and this helped them to guard their souls during the week. Once you pay little attention to your soul on the Lord’s Day, you will not have time during the week to do so because of “pressure of work”.
The Puritans observed the Lord’s Day as they did because they had developed a full-orbed doctrine of the Christian Sabbath. They taught their people what the Bible said about the Lord’s Day. This is where our primary failure lies. One thing very evident among Christians today is the neglect of the Lord’s Day. This is primarily due to ignorance and bad theology. We need to search the Scriptures so that we will anchor our faith in the Word of God.
The Puritans influenced every segment of their society because they used the Lord’s Day to invest spiritually in their families. It was a day to weed out any spiritual malaise and misunderstandings so that the members of the household are better able to serve God in this world. By the time their children were being released into the world, they went with a well-rounded biblical world-view. Today, the exact opposite is true. There is a general neglect of our families and servants. We need to learn from the Puritans how to care for our children so as to nurture spiritual giants in our homes.
Sadly, among the people who observe the Lord’s Day we see a spirit of the Pharisees. There is a lot of legalism. Emphasis is almost exclusively on what you must not do on the Sabbath. The thought that this is the day you go to “the market” – the spiritual market – to stock up for your soul’s well-being is missing. You cannot accuse Puritans of the spirit of Pharisees because theirs was a very positive emphasis. It was certainly not mere legalism. They delighted in the Sabbath!

Baxter, Richard, A Christian Directory, Morgan, Soli Deo Gloria Publications. 1646.
Dabney, R. L., Systematic Theology, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth Trust. 1871.
Edwards, Jonathan, The Works of Jonathan Edwards Vol. 2, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth Trust. 1834.
Lloyd-Jones, D. M., The Puritans, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth Trust. 1987.
Houghton, S. M., Sketches from Church History, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth Trust. 1980.
Pumps, Russell, Encyclopaedia Americana, Danbury, Grolier Incorporated. 1918.