Friday, August 10, 2007

Sabbath public transport - the historical view

Some people think that the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland position opposing the use of public transport on the Sabbath is rather idiosyncratic and divides them from the rest of the Christian world unnecessarily. They think it is rather extreme, but they fail to realise that it is warranted by Scripture and that godly men of the past have taken the same view.

The use of public transport on the Sabbath is against Scripture because it is a commercial transaction taking place on the Sabbath requiring someone to work for a purpose other than that of necessity and mercy. The traveller is effectively hiring the transport and the driver and employing someone on the Sabbath. A clear provision and consequence of the fourth commandment is that we cannot employ someone or make them work on the sabbath, 'the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates' (Exodus 20:10).

As Thomas Boston put it – this is a commandment that prohibits 'all handy-labour or servile employments tending to our worldly gain'. Public transport is being run on the Sabbath for the purposes of profit and the traveller is involved in this commercial enterprise. Chapter 11 of The History of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland 1893-1970, which can be viewed at outlines the reasons that the Free Presbyterian Church took this stand. As the Synod in 1928 put it wrong - wrong, because, in itself it is, and claims to be, nothing more or less than a piece of worldly, "week-day" business, conducted on worldly, "week-day" lines, and transacted on God's holy day in which "He challengeth a special propriety for Himself' - wrong on the part of the payee, because, without deference, implied or expressed, to what the Fourth Commandment prohibits, on the one hand, or allows, on the other, he, as a contracting party, carries forward into the business of the Lord's Day the same mercenary aims, the same working conditions, and the same contract terms which he lawfully and necessarily employs on the six days during which, God says, "thou shalt do all thy work" and wrong on the part of the payer, because, as the other contracting party, by availing himself of the service, and by paying the stipulated fare, he voluntarily, and for the most part, cheerfully accommodates himself to these aims and conditions and accepts these terms. Nor can any amount or species of motive serve to make it right.'

It is quite clear that the paying traveller cannot remain guiltless in using this transport: 'Any use made of them on the part of an individual entails the giving by that individual of a certain proportionate moral and material contribution towards the support of the evil, thereby making him a party to it and involving him in the guilt of it.'

'This may appear in the case of some to constitute a hardship in so far as it precludes them from worshipping under conditions to which they had formerly accustomed themselves. The Synod believe, however, that in the end this will be found to be a hardship in appearance only; that the difficulty of it will be seen to have yielded to the forces of faith and faithfulness; and that the compensations of obedience to the truth and of preserving a conscience void of offence toward God and man are more than sufficient to counter-balance any amount of specious comfort foregone and of inconvenience suffered. "Then shall I not be ashamed, when I have respect to all thy commandments."

In order to be consistent the church that does not bar those using public transport on the sabbath from sealing ordinances cannot bar those driving and operating such public transport on the sabbath. And if one form of employment in the realm of worldly gain can be permitted then to be consistent no type of employment on the Lord's Day can be made a matter of discipline. So the church that is consistent in this way will be left with no witness against the breach of the Sabbath whatsoever.

Witness against Sabbath public transport in the past

Those that profane the Lord's Day for worldly gain are like those that profaned the Lord's house with their profiteering money-changing. The Church has always treated this as breach of the Fourth Commandment. The Church of Scotland in the 1640s passed Acts against those that set sail in boats on the sabbath and proceeded in discipline against masters that allowed their servants to work on the sabbath even though it was not in their direct employ.

Previous generations understood this clearly. Evangelicals across the ecclesiastical spectrum were staunchly united against public transport on the sabbath. The prominent Anglican evangelical JC Ryle wrote: 'When I speak of public desecration of the Sabbath, I mean those many open, unblushing practices, which meet the eye on Sundays in the neighbourhood of large towns. I refer to the practice of keeping shops open, and buying and selling on Sundays. I refer especially to Sunday pleasure excursions by public transport and the opening of places of public amusement; and to the daring efforts which many are making in the present day to desecrate the Lord's Day, regardless of its Divine authority.

Last, but not least, these ways of spending Sunday inflict a cruel injury on the souls of multitudes of people, Public transport cannot be run on Sundays without employing thousands of persons if people will make Sunday a day for travelling and excursions. Entertainments cannot be opened on Sundays without the employment of many to cater for those who patronise them. And have not all these unfortunate persons immortal souls? Do they not all need a, day of rest as much as anyone else? Beyond doubt they do. But Sunday is no Sunday to them, so long as these public desecrations of the Sabbath are permitted. Their life becomes a long unbroken chain of work, work, unceasing work: in short, what is play to others becomes death to them.'

The Drummond Tract Enterprise in Stirling had its foundation in protest against breach of the Sabbath. In 1848 Peter Drummond published a series of tracts against taking the ferry across the river for Sabbath picnics at Cambuskenneth Abbey, and he also sought to prevent the trains running on the Sabbath. An edition of ten thousand copies of the tract, entitled 'The Sabbath' was exhausted within a month.

Robert Murray McCheyne opposed those seeking to run the railways for profit on the sabbath. “Unhappy men, who are striving to rob our beloved Scotland of this day of double blessing, "ye know not what you do." You would wrest from our dear countrymen the day when God opens the windows of heaven and pours down a blessing. You want to make the heavens over Scotland like brass, and the hearts of our people like iron. Is it the sound of the golden bells of our ever-living High Priest on the mountains of our land, and the breathing of His Holy Spirit over so many of our parishes, that has roused up your satanic exertions to drown the sweet sound of mercy by the deafening roar of railway carriages? Is it the returning vigour of the revived and chastened Church of Scotland that has opened the torrents of blasphemy which you pour forth against the Lord of the Sabbath? Have your own withered souls no need of a drop from heaven? May it not be the case that some of you are blaspheming the very day on which your own soul might have been saved? Is it not possible that some of you may remember, with tears of anguish in hell, the exertions which you are now making, against light and against warning, to bring down a withering blight on your own souls and the religion of Scotland?”

John Kennedy also spoke out forthrightly against Sabbath trains:
“What a contrast a Scottish Sabbath now presents to that of earlier times – to that even of the generation which has just passed away! Think of our railway trains rushing over all parts of the country with their thousands of passengers, disturbing the Sabbath quiet and tempting so many to forget that there is a “God in the earth who judgeth righteously” – think of so many open shops along the streets of our cities, on the day of rest, which is the day of God, and receiving such support as tempts ungodly men to extend the traffic – think of the increasing crowds of those to whom the Sabbath has become a day of amusements, who never think of entering a place of worship, and who by their conduct prove that vice is the ally of ungodliness – think of how even those, who are not prepared utterly to abandon the public worship of God, are beginning to act as if an enforced partial attendance in the courts of God’s house earns for them a right to do what they please on what remains of the Sabbath – think, too, of the easy tolerance of such practices already so apparent in the unfaithful supineness both of the Church and of the State while all this desecration of the Sabbath is in progress – and what a contrast the Scottish Sabbath of today presents to that of times gone by! And what unspeakably greater contrast is the present observance of the day of the Lord to “what is required in the Fourth Commandment”!”

In 1868 James Begg opposed the desecration of the Sabbath by unnecessary employment of cabs on the Lord's Day. In the meeting of Presbytery in January, he stated that he and others had had an interview with the magistrates of the city on the subject. "There was," he said, "an impression abroad that there was an obligation on the part of cab-proprietors to place their cabs on the stances on the Lord's-day; but they had succeeded in obtaining from the magistrates a contradiction of that impression."

In America at an earlier stage the Presbyterian Church was stirred up to a defence of the Sabbath. The 1836 General Assembly declared that “the owners of stock in the steam boats, canals, rail roads, &c. who are in the habit of violating the Sabbath, are lending their property and their influence to one of the most wide-spread, alarming, and deplorable systems of Sabbath desecration, which now grieve the hearts of the pious and disgrace the church of God.” Instead they urged that “the friends of the Lord's day” should “establish such means of public conveyance as shall relieve the friends of the Sabbath from the necessity under which they now labour, of travelling at any time in vehicles which habitually violate that holy day; and thus prevent them from being partakers in other men's sins, in this respect.”
The noted presbyterian minister Samuel Miller took the leading part in the preparation of this motion. The strength of the opposition expressed is remarkable even to denounce sabbath transport as tending to 'disgrace the church of God' and to be 'partakers in other men's sins'.

In 1855 the Presbyterian Board of Publication, Philadelphia, U.S.A., under the title, 'Monitory Letters to Church Members'. One of these is a 'Letter to one who travels on the Sabbath'. Part of that letter reads as follows: 'You find yourself distant a hundred and fifty miles from home on Saturday night; and you ask whether you are not justified in spending the night in a steamboat, and reaching home early the next morning, rather than remain where you are, and perhaps spend the Sabbath in a hotel. I am to say, I think not. For, take the best view of the case you can, you certainly pervert several hours of the Sabbath to a worldly purpose; or if you say that you do nothing worse than sleep, the answer is, that the boat in which you travel is not managed by sleepers, and that you patronize a systematic violation of God's holy day.'

Certain owners of hired carriage businesses in the USA were keen to advertise that they were maintaining their business on Sabbath-keeping principles. In 1859 in Pittsburgh had passed strict blue laws, which were then used against the very Presbyterians who had urged their passage. Two prominent Presbyterian laymen, Mr. Logan and Judge Lowrie, were fined in October for hiring men to drive their carriage to church on the sabbath.

These examples could be multiplied but they serve to demonstrate that the FP position in relation to public transport on the sabbath is neither novel nor extreme but simply an unchanged position in continuity with the godly men of the past.