Dusty arguments about the nature of ‘the Sabbath’ seem of little relevance to the modern world. This feeling is heightened in the specialised world of the Christian observation of the Saturday Sabbath. After all, isn’t this a Jewish idea?
But, in the seventeenth century, for a handful of Britons, it was vital and for many, literally a matter of life and death.
These Sabbath-keepers did not form a new denomination; indeed, they were not even a unified group. They just believed they were just one step ahead of their brethren who would soon see the light.
The story is of real people many of whom displayed the same human failings as modern religionists; from naïve openness to unreflective zeal.
Today if we hear of Christians observing the Saturday Sabbath we think of Seventh-day Adventists. Before them, there were (and still are) Seventh Day Baptists. Before them in seventeenth-century England, there were individuals who had many differing opinions about other theological and political topics.
Soon after James I came to the English throne in 1603, a Puritan manifesto asked him, as head of the Anglican Church, to settle some religious disputes in their favour. The astute King wanted a different religious settlement. He listened to prominent Puritan leaders but sided with his bishops. He dismissed the peevish legacy of old Puritanism and aimed for the ‘middle-ground’.
Soon after the publication of the famous King James Version of the Bible in 1611, John Traske, an itinerant, arrived in London. Disgusted by the obvious corruption of some clergy, he preached that God would give his Spirit to those who obey him in the way they live their lives. Not a new idea.
He began advocating fasting and went on to revive the Old Testament prohibition on unclean meats. In a short time, this gifted preacher had built a significant following of men and women. Hamlet Jackson was one such scrupulous student. His studies led him to conclude that there was no Biblical command to observe Sunday and that the Saturday-Sabbath observed by the Jews had never been abolished.
Traske agreed, indeed he may have already held this view. Certainly, they began observing and preaching for the ‘Saturday Sabbath’. Most of Traske's congregation also adopted it.
Sunday verses Sunday
At this time, the wider society, two opposing and equally elaborate arguments were developing about the meaning of Sunday. The traditional view, upheld by King James, saw Sunday as a Christian festival. It had been established by the early church, and it was called the ‘Lord's Day’ in honour of the Lord's resurrection. It had no connection at all with the Sabbath of the Old Testament, which became redundant.
Opposing this view, Puritan opinion insisted that the Bible did not abolish the Sabbath command. However, because of the resurrection, the Sabbath had been transferred to Sunday; the ‘Christian Sabbath’. Exactly how and when this transformation took place was the subject of much argument.
Traske's view was by contrast attractively simple: the Sabbath command remained and it had not been changed to Sunday. Anglican and Puritan both cried ‘Judaising’ against him. While the term was not well defined, all agreed it was a very undesirable thing to be.
Traske and his followers were arrested in 1616 and brought before a panel of bishops. Traske refused to be argued back to Anglican orthodoxy. Offended by his challenge that they would all one day observe Saturday, they imprisoned him and urged him to repent.
While in prison Traske studied early Church history, with material provided by the bishops. He made another surprising move. He denounced Easter as a man-made blasphemy of the same kind that Sunday was. In its place, Traske adopted the Passover and also observed the Days of Unleavened Bread as did the Jews.
Infuriated, Traske's persecutors formally charged him in 1618 with seducing the King's subjects away from the Church to Judaism. Traske was imprisoned, degraded from the ministry, whipped, branded with a ‘J’ on his forehead, and fined one thousand pounds. Defeated and dejected, Traske published a recantation three years later.
Traske was the first known Christian of modern times to observe the Sabbath. But his name became so stigmatised that the following generation of Sabbath-keepers didn’t mention him.
Brabourne: an intelligent development
Puritans and their parliamentary supporters were eventually provoked into open revolt against James successor, Charles I, who was crowned in 1626. He promoted William Laud to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury and took a hard line on religious dissent.
In 1621, the Puritan Thomas Broad published a book detailing the reasons why Sunday should be considered the Christian Sabbath. It became prescribed reading for Puritan ministers, and Theophilus Brabourne was one of the many respectable preachers who studied it.
However, Brabourne could find no evidence for the change of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. Amazed, he published a book, Discourse on the Sabbath in 1628.
Brabourne had more surprises to come. Nobody responded to his book. So he revised it, putting the case more forcefully, and dedicated the work to King Charles I, asking him to enforce the Saturday Sabbath.
This book certainly was noticed: Charles was offended and Brabourne found himself before the Bishops. He was sent to Newgate Prison for eighteen months. After a year, he was re-examined and threatened with the loss of his ears in an effort to clarify his thinking. He quickly submitted a brief ambiguous statement, which was accepted as a recantation. Perhaps his captors were happy to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Brabourne lost his living as a minister but continued to observe and write for the Sabbath. However, not wishing to be disloyal to the Church of England, he remained a staunch supporter and refused to lead a breakaway congregation. Unlike Traske, he was generally well regarded by later Sabbath keepers who reflected familiarity with his well thought out writings.
Parts 2 and 3 to follow.