The Sabbath—Holy Day or Holiday?


Charles Didier
Now is the time to ask ourselves: Is the Sabbath a holy day or a holiday? Shall I worship the Lord or worship pleasures and recreation?

Safety has always been a major preoccupation of mankind. Many safety devices, warnings, and laws have been developed to prevent failure, breakage, or accident. From car safety belts, seats, and airbags to life preservers and safety glass, lamps, matches, pins, razors, and valves, all these devices have the same purpose: to avoid tragedies through prevention and protection. Many laws have also been enacted, and regulations, policies, procedures, agencies, offices, and administrations are associated with enforcing them. All around us we see safety preoccupation, either conscious or unconscious, in the form of signals, signs, and warnings. For example, the most visible signals are found on the streets and roads, and we become aware of them every time we walk, jog, or drive a car. The preservation or safety of our lives depends on observing and obeying these signals. No one would suggest that they be eliminated because they infringe on our agency, restrict our liberties, or abuse our rights under the constitution.

We immediately act to protect ourselves from physical dangers, but what about spiritual or moral dangers? We do have spiritual and moral laws to help protect us from the evils of the world, but these laws are more often questioned, opposed, criticized, and ignored than temporal laws. Is this because spiritual wounds are not as visible as physical wounds or because, while mortal death causes trauma, spiritual death causes only inner stress and anxiety? What is it that causes a rejection of what are considered spiritual laws? In answer, the Lord has said that it is worldly attitudes that lead to the rejection of spiritual laws: “They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall” (D&C 1:16).

Yet, despite the natural man’s tendency to reject spiritual direction, the Lord has always extended a loving hand to protect him against the calamities “which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth” (D&C 1:17). He gives us commandments and spiritual warning signs so “that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world;

“That faith also might increase in the earth” (D&C 1:20–21).

The blessings of obeying commandments far outweigh any sacrifices we might make. Commandments help us to come to an understanding, avoid error, be instructed, repent, be made strong, receive knowledge, and help to accomplish the mission of the Church.

The Sabbath Day

One spiritual safety device that is suffering a major assault in our day is the commandment to honor the Sabbath. To realize the importance of this commandment, we need to understand why the Sabbath was instituted; what it really means; what its implications are yesterday, today, and tomorrow; and what the results are of observing it. In doing so, each of us should follow the Lord’s instruction to “study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right” (D&C 9:8).

As we review the Lord’s pronouncements about the Sabbath in the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants, we can learn some of the basic elements of Sabbath observance:

  1. 1.

    It is a day of rest from our labors.

  2. 2.

    It is a holy day of worship.

  3. 3.

    It is a day to remember the Lord’s atonement and resurrection.

  4. 4.

    It is a day to renew our baptismal covenants by partaking of the sacrament.

  5. 5.

    It is a day of prayer and fasting.

  6. 6.

    It is a day of finding uplift in music, hymns, and songs.

  7. 7.

    It is a day to prepare, meditate, and study the gospel.

  8. 8.

    It is a day to visit the sick and the afflicted, the widow and the orphan.

  9. 9.

    It is a day to strengthen our ties with our living families, do work for those who died without the ordinances of salvation, and write family histories.

  10. 10.

    It is a day for missionary preparation and work.

Bible Lessons

Mentioned more than two hundred times in the Old Testament, the word Sabbath comes from the Hebrew word shabbath, which means “to break off,” “to desist,” or “to rest” (see Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., New York: Macmillan, 1992, 3:1241). The Old Testament sets the Sabbath’s doctrinal foundation.

We are told in Genesis that the Sabbath began as the day of rest that the Lord observed after he completed his work of creating all things.

“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.

“And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.

“And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made” (Gen. 2:1–3; emphasis added).

In Exodus, the Lord commands us to “remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

“Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:

“But the seventh day is 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:

“For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it” (Ex. 20:8–11).

After the Lord instituted the Sabbath, he frequently taught and reminded his people of its sacredness and the importance of honoring, remembering, sanctifying, commemorating, and keeping it. With the first mention of the word Sabbath in the Old Testament, Moses taught the Israelites to observe “the rest of the holy sabbath unto the Lord” (Ex. 16:23). Concerning the gathering of manna, he instructed them that “six days ye shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is the sabbath, in it there shall be none” (Ex. 16:25–26).

As the Old Testament continues, we learn about the penalties associated with defiling the Sabbath, which is clearly a perpetual covenant between the children of Israel and their God. The Sabbath concept is even extended to the land: “But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the Lord: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard” (Lev. 25:4). When the people of Israel forgot, changed, or profaned the original meaning of the Sabbath, prophets always reminded them of its importance. Such was the case when Nehemiah corrected Sabbath abuses and reinstated its observance (see Neh. 13).

The New Testament opens new doors to our understanding of the spirit of the Sabbath. Jesus Christ himself corrected the general misunderstandings about the rigidity of the law during his time. Answering the questions of the Pharisees, he stated: “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). At the same time, he gave the people an example of what could be done on that holy day: he taught in parables, lectured on spirituality, read from the law and the prophets, visited and healed the afflicted, blessed the obedient, pondered, prayed, called twelve Apostles, and rested.

After the death and resurrection of Christ, the Lord’s day became the first day of the week, to remember his resurrection. President George Q. Cannon defined the Lord’s day (see D&C 59:12) as follows: “‘The Lord’s day’ (Rev. 1:10) is the day on which He rose from the dead and on which His disciples at that period assembled to worship and break bread in His name. That was the ‘first day of the week’ (John 20:1; Acts 20:7), as they counted time. This custom was observed in the primitive Christian Church” (Hoyt W. Brewster, Jr., Doctrine and Covenants Encyclopedia, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988, p. 330).

Latter-day Lessons

The Book of Mormon confirms what we learn of the Sabbath from the Bible. Jarom, the first writer to mention the Sabbath, reported that his people “observed to keep the law of Moses and the sabbath day holy unto the Lord. And they profaned not; neither did they blaspheme” (Jarom 1:5).

The Doctrine and Covenants introduces us in modern times to the observance of the Sabbath. However, it is interesting to note that no revelation on this subject appeared until section 59 was given to Joseph Smith on Sunday, August 7, 1831. Before this date, the Saints were commanded only to “meet together often to partake of bread and wine in the remembrance of the Lord Jesus” (D&C 20:75). With section 59, the Lord’s ancient pattern was confirmed, and Sunday was affirmed as his Sabbath or holy day:

“And that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day;

“For verily this is a day appointed unto you to rest from your labors, and to pay thy devotions unto the Most High;

“Nevertheless thy vows shall be offered up in righteousness on all days and at all times;

“But remember that on this, the Lord’s day, thou shalt offer thine oblations and thy sacraments unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord.

“And on this day thou shalt do none other thing, only let thy food be prepared with singleness of heart that thy fasting may be perfect, or, in other words, that thy joy may be full” (D&C 59:9–13).

This instruction is confirmed later: “And the inhabitants of Zion shall also observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (D&C 68:29). The History of the Church reports that in the first conference meeting of the Church, held on 9 June 1830, “having opened by singing and prayer, we partook together of the emblems of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. We then proceeded to confirm several who had lately been baptized, after which we called out and ordained several to the various offices of the Priesthood. Much exhortation and instruction was given” (1:84).

The Doctrine and Covenants gives us insight into the blessings of obeying the Sabbath: “Inasmuch as ye do this, the fulness of the earth is yours” (D&C 59:16).

“But learn that he who doeth the works of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come” (D&C 59:23).

Modern Prophets Speak

Why do we worship? President Brigham Young said: “To keep us in remembrance of our God and our holy religion. … We are so liable to forget—so prone to wander, that we need to have the Gospel sounded in our ears as much as once, twice, or thrice a week, or, behold, we will turn again to our idols” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1978, p. 165).

President Spencer W. Kimball said: “We do not go to Sabbath meetings to be entertained or even solely to be instructed. We go to worship the Lord. It is an individual responsibility, and regardless of what is said from the pulpit, if one wishes to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth, he may do so by attending his meetings, partaking of the sacrament, and contemplating the beauties of the gospel. If the service is a failure to you, you have failed. No one can worship for you; you must do your own waiting upon the Lord” (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982, p. 515).

Elder Mark E. Petersen of the Quorum of the Twelve said: “We can readily see that observance of the Sabbath is an indication of the depth of our conversion.

“Our observance or nonobservance of the Sabbath is an unerring measure of our attitude toward the Lord personally and toward his suffering in Gethsemane, his death on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead. It is a sign of whether we are Christians in very deed, or whether our conversion is so shallow that commemoration of his atoning sacrifice means little or nothing to us” (Ensign, May 1975, p. 49).

What kinds of activities are appropriate for the Sabbath? President Ezra Taft Benson said: “It seems to me that the following should be avoided on the Sabbath:

“• Overworking and staying up late Saturday so that you are exhausted the next day.

“• Filling the Sabbath so full of extra meetings that there is no time for prayer, meditation, family fellowship, and counseling.

“• Doing gardening and odd jobs around the house.

“• Taking trips to canyons or resorts, visiting friends socially, joy riding, wasting time, and engaging in other amusements. (See Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 165; Daniel H. Ludlow, Latter-day Prophets Speak, pp. 360–63.)

“• Playing vigorously and going to movies.

“• Engaging in sports and hunting ‘wild animals’ which God made for the use of man only ‘in times of famine and excess of hunger.’ (See D&C 89:15.) ‘Let the boys have their exercise. Let them have amusements at the proper time, but let them be taught better things on the Sabbath day,’ said President Joseph F. Smith. (‘What Shall We Do on the Sabbath Day?’ Improvement Era, vol. 19, p. 864.)

“• Reading material that does not contribute to your spiritual uplift.

“• Shopping or supporting with your patronage businesses that operate on Sunday, such as grocery stores, supermarkets, restaurants, and service stations” (Ensign, May 1971, pp. 6–7).

Recommitting to Obey

Now is the time to ask ourselves: Is the Sabbath a holy day or a holiday? Shall I worship Him or worship pleasure or work?

We know from the scriptures and teachings of the prophets that the Sabbath was instituted for man for a definite purpose, that many blessings are associated with the righteous observance of the Sabbath, and that real spiritual dangers can result from not observing the Sabbath.

As we recognize the validity of this principle, study it in our minds, and then ask for confirmation, we will create the desire in ourselves to abide by it, and we will take corrective action to be more faithful and to use this spiritual safety device to protect us from harm.

To have a true, protected, spiritual Sabbath experience, why not plan a family Sabbath schedule and be prepared with activities that are in harmony with Sunday worship, asking ourselves how our activities will strengthen us spiritually and not only please the Lord but also make us happy and stronger in our relationship with the Lord. The words of Isaiah might then express what our feelings could and should be about the Sabbath:

“If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words:

“Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it” (Isa. 58:13–14).

Photography by Matthew Reier