Book Review: "The English Sabbath" by Kenneth L. Parker

Kenneth L. Parker
Cambridge University Press
Publication Date: 1988; Online Publication Date: 2009
Online ISBN: 9780511555305
Hardback ISBN: 9780521305358
Paperback ISBN: 9780521526562
Reviewed by Rev. Dr. Michael Philliber for Deus Misereatur

Sleuthing Sabbath Study – 5 Stars out of 5

Normally, when the notion of “Sabbath” is mentioned in modern North American Christian circles, the listeners guffaw and mumble something about, “We’re no longer under the Law, but under grace”, and slough off any further thought of the subject. In more theologically Calvinistic and Reformed circles, though, folks respond with anything from annoyance to joyful interest. It is here, inside the boundaries of this Calvinistic and Reformed neighborhood, that civil, and not always so civil, discussions are surfacing. For those who have taken up this conversation and desire to say something meaningful and thoughtful, Kenneth L. Parker has provided a significant study from a historical theology perspective. “The English Sabbath: A Study of Doctrine and Discipline from the Reformation to the Civil War” is a 264 page book, in three formats, that delves into the topic, as it was viewed, perceived, argued for and against in the 16th and 17th Centuries. This is important background material to the mid-17th Century Westminster Confession of Faith and its attendant catechisms.

Parker addresses the sentiment, voiced by some anti-sabbatarians under Archbishop William Laud, that the idea of a Christian Sabbath was a puritan invention. He begins by showing how the Lord’s Day, held as a Christian Sabbath, goes as far back as the medieval era with hints of even earlier church fathers articulating similar views. Parker explains that starting from Aquinas the fourth commandment was perceived as having two parts; the more provisional, ceremonial side and the permanent, moral facet. This two-part perception of the fourth commandment surfaced repeatedly in the discussions of the 16th and 17th Centuries on how the Sabbath was to be observed.

The author methodically and carefully uncovers the reigning, nearly unified perception that Christian Sabbath observance was accepted, defended, and promoted in the English Church. He records testimonials from British pastors, Bishops, Archbishops, and several Archbishops of Canterbury, throughout the focal decades, as clear evidence. For example, Parker cites numerous original sources from cross the spectrum, including a section out of the 16th Century Book of Homilies, titled “An Homily of the Place and Time of Prayer”. These homilies were to be read in parish churches if there was not an ordained minister, because they gave the Church of England’s official doctrinal position on the various subjects. This particular homily, dated 1582, gives the reasons for keeping the Lord’s Day sacred and set apart. In doing so, it expounds how the Christian Sabbath is to be observed, and also describes ways that people (in the writer’s time) dishonored the Day. Interestingly enough, there are clear correlations between this particular Church of England homily and the Sabbath sections in the Westminster Confession of Faith and its catechisms.

As the author goes on to show most of the established Protestant Church under Elizabeth and the Stuarts held to the Lord’s Day as a Christian Sabbath. Even the Book of Sports issued under James, and later reissued under Charles and Archbishop Laud, dictated that the recreations and sports were for after evening prayer, “after the afternoon sermon or service” (“The King's Majesty's Declaration to His Subjects Concerning Lawful Sports to Be Used (1633)”); that these activities should in nowise interfere with the sacredness of Sunday and morning and evening worship, “that they to whom it belongeth in office, shall present and sharply punish all such, as in abuse of this our liberty, will use these exercises before the ends of all divine services for that day” (Ibid.).

It was not until William Laud was installed as Archbishop of Canterbury that anti-sabbatarian troubles began to rise. Parker convincingly demonstrates that most of the anti-sabbatarian push, fostered by Laud, was more political than for theological conviction. Laud appears to have used the Sabbath as a launching point to go after political enemies, and to try and re-establish ecclesiastical jurisdiction, all of which seems to have backfired.

“The English Sabbath” is not a book proving the biblical necessity for the Lord’s Day being seen and observed as the Christian Sabbath; that is left to other writers. The primary concern of the book is to show that (1) the Sabbath nature of the Lord’s Day was the reigning view in the English Church from before the Reformation on past the 17th Century; (2) that the charge of the Sabbath being a puritan invention was erroneous; (3) that the real innovators were the mid-17th Century anti-sabbatarians; (4) that the quibbles over the Christian Sabbath were more correctly arguments over who had the authority to establish Sunday as the Christian Sabbath, Ecclesiastical and Canon law versus sola scriptura; (5) and, finally, that there was a general consensus that, at a minimum, “recreations” should not intrude on the Lord’s Day worship, morning or evening.

“The English Sabbath” would be a valuable addition to seminary classes, and ought to be examined by those who hold to the Three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Confession of Faith along with its attendant catechisms. It gives historical background to the thinking behind the sections on the Lord’s Day being the Christian Sabbath, and builds confidence that the Presbyterian and Reformed concern for the Christian Sabbath was not innovative but has a long pedigree that is fairly catholic. I highly recommend the book.



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