By John Angell James, 1846


(Editor's note. Though I do not believe that New Covenant Christians are under obligation to keep the Old Covenant Sabbath, I have found the following article to be filled with practical and profitable counsel.)

My dear friends,
The design of the present address is to direct you, "How to Spend a Profitable Sabbath." How rich a boon has celestial mercy bestowed upon our laboring, toil-worn world in the way of sacred rest. What would we do, as regards either body or soul, without the Sabbath, to invigorate the impaired energies of the one, and recruit the weakened piety of the other? If the man of wealth and leisure, whose time is all his own, to spend it, if it pleases him so to do, in reading, meditation, and prayer, feels little need of such a season of repose—not so the tradesman, the servant, and the laborer. How sweet to them, as Saturday evening is closing upon them, and all the weariness of six days' labor is pressing them down, is the reflection, "Tomorrow is the sabbath of the Lord." There is no need to prove to them by elaborate argumentation, that the sabbath is of perpetual obligation, for they cannot persuade themselves that He who has loved them in Christ Jesus, would have left them without such an opportunity as this affords, in their scene of toil, to dwell upon his love, and enjoy it. And hence, and often as the season comes round, they meet its very dawn with the words of Watts—

"Welcome sweet day of rest,
That saw the Lord arise—
Welcome to this reviving breast,
And these rejoicing eyes."

The various mental associations, equally serene and delightful—the hallowed pleasures—the recollections and anticipations—the pure immortal hopes—the rapt exercises of devotion, which, like the day-spring from on high, bless the passing hours of the Sabbath, and render it the best type of heaven itself, make it a blessing to the child of God, which he would not part with for ten thousand times the gain he could acquire by devoting it to business and to wealth—and his heart would claim it as a privilege to keep holy the Sabbath day, even if his conscience did not dictate it as a duty.

If, my dear friends, you would keep up the power of godliness in your souls, if you would live by faith upon the Son of God, if you would overcome the world and set your affections upon things above—spend well your sabbaths! These are the days of the soul's gains; her golden seasons for growing rich, in all that constitutes spiritual prosperity; her times, not only for the enjoyment of devotion, but for gaining new light to guide the conscience, and fresh strength to invigorate all her religious and moral principles. Religion would retire from the world with the sabbath, and would be feeble and sickly in the church, if, indeed, it could live even there, without the aids of this holy day.

But how may our Sabbaths be made profitable and pleasant to us?

1. By a deep impression of their inestimable value, and a great concern to spend them well. That which we esteem of no consequence, we shall be at no trouble to apply to any useful purpose. The first way, then, to spend a profitable sabbath, is real solicitude to do so. And are you destitute of this? Taken up as you are with the cares, labors, and anxieties of the world; urged by incessant demands upon your time; distracted by various claims upon your attention by objects all around you, and worn down by labor day after day, until, if you were not too busy, you are too weary to meditate on things unseen and eternal; ought you not to be anxious about the improvement of your sabbaths? Ought you not to be full of desire that these days may be well spent? If they are lost to your soul's interests, nearly all time is lost, and no portion will be well employed for your eternal welfare. Professing Christians are not duly impressed, in general, with the importance of this matter. They complain how much their time and attention are occupied with this world's business through the week, and yet are not sufficiently impressed with the necessity and vast importance of spending well their sabbaths.

2. Endeavor, as much as possible, to keep up through the days and business of the week, a spiritual frame of mind. The great obstacle to the profit and pleasure of our sabbaths, is the intrusion of worldly thoughts and anxieties. These are the obscene birds which light upon the sacrifice, and which we find it so difficult to keep or drive away. Why is this? Just because we allow our minds to be so deeply, I may almost say wholly, occupied by earthly pursuits during the six days of labor. It is not safe nor proper to shove out our religion from working-days, and trust entirely for its preservation to the exercises of the sabbath. We cannot easily make so sudden and entire a transition from things secular to things sacred—as to be wholly carnal and worldly up to Saturday night, and then entirely to throw off the world on Sunday morning, and be wholly spiritual through that one day. The day of devotion and the days of labor act and react upon each other; they who would keep up their piety in the week, must be diligent in cultivating it on the sabbath, and they who would successfully cultivate it on the sabbath, must not let it down very low during the days of the week. It is a fatal error, and sad delusion, for a professor to quiet his conscience, when reproaching him for his backslidings of heart, by the answer, "Sunday is coming, when I shall fetch up this lost ground."

3. It is desirable, where it can be accomplished, to end the business of the week early on Saturday evening; and thus secure a portion of time for reflection and devotional exercises. Unhappily, the modern habits of trade render this all but impossible with many, who are kept hard at work until almost, if not quite, sabbath morning, and then retire to rest so jaded, that they find it difficult to rise early next day for the worship of God. But where time can be commanded, it ought to be, and an extra half-hour or hour spent in the closet on the eve of the sabbath, communing with God, the Bible, and our hearts. It was the custom of the Christians in America, at one time, to begin the sabbath at sunset on Saturday evening. This cannot and need not be done, but they who would enjoy and improve the season of holy rest, should not, if they could help it, drive business or social festivities to a late hour on Saturday evening. That evening ought not to be a visiting time, except it be such visits as would prepare the mind for sabbath occupations. Should a few godly friends in the same neighborhood determine to meet at that time for prayer and Christian communion, this would be not only proper in itself, but a useful method of preparing for the exercises of the sacred day.

4. We must not only abstain from worldly labor on the sabbath, if we would improve it to any spiritual purpose, but from worldly THOUGHTS. When the tradesman closes his shop on Saturday evening, he should lock up in it all his worldly thoughts and anxieties, plans and purposes—nor allow any of them, if possible, to escape, to molest him on the Sabbath. An eminently holy friend of mine who carried on trade in London, and lived in its environs, used to say, he always left his business on Saturday evening on London bridge, to be taken up there again on Monday morning. This is a blessed kind of self-control, and to a considerable extent may be acquired by labor and prayer. Let the tradesman say, and try to give effect to his saying, "I will leave my business in my shop on the eve of the Sabbath, and endeavor to forget on that sacred day that I have a business." Of course it will require great pains, but if such pains are taken, it may and will be done. Oh, how many turn the house of God into a house of merchandise, and while hearing sermons, or professedly joining in prayer, or receiving the sacramental emblems, are thinking about buying and selling, and reflecting upon the business of the past week, or making arrangements for that of the coming one! How sinful is this in the sight of God, what a detriment to religion, and an injury to the soul!

If you would keep away worldly thoughts, do nothing to produce them. Never open business letters on the Sabbath, nor even have them brought to your hands. It is a great reproach for professing Christians to be seen going to the post office for or with their letters on the sabbath. Do not converse with others about trade and politics on the day of rest, and never touch a newspaper. Such practices turn away the mind from spiritual things, and divert the whole current of its thoughts. There can be no real communion with God, no steadfast beholding the things that are unseen and eternal, if we thus keep the world at our elbow, and place its objects before our eyes.

We must endeavor, as much as possible, to divest ourselves of a secular frame of mind, and put on a holy, serious, and devout one. Not that we should be gloomy and sad—no, while every dream of levity, every trifling disposition, every feeling of unhallowed mirth, is suppressed, and the mind is resolutely and conscientiously directed toward religious truth and duty, the Sabbath, seeing it is a feast and not a fast, and a festival of great and lasting interest, should be a day of cheerful gratitude, and of joyous thanksgiving, as becomes the auspicious season, which the great Spirit of the universe has set apart for receiving the homage of his creatures, and for ratifying his grace to the children of the dust. "It is not for Israel in the hour of hope, in the prospect, yes, the possession of redemption, to hang their harps upon the willows, as if nothing befitted their condition, but silently and in sorrow to listen to the sullen murmurs of the waters of Babylon." "Rejoice in the Lord. Enter into his gates with thanksgivings, and into his courts with praise. Be thankful unto him and bless his name."

The Christian, always cheerful, should let his joy not only be felt internally, but seen on the sabbath. If he is the head of a family, he should illumine his dwelling on that day especially, with the light of his countenance, and present to his children and his servants, who then have a nearer and better opportunity of observing what kind of man he is, the type of happiness and holiness; the gladsome spectacle of one who, in the passing hours of an earthly sabbath, realizes the emblem and the pledge of "the rest remaining for the people of God."

5. If we would spend a profitable sabbath, we must not waste "the sweet hours of morning" in slothful indulgence upon our bed. They who sleep away the morning until they have scarcely time to get ready for public worship, can expect no benefit, for they seek none, from the ordinances of God's house. Early rising is essential to a devotional spirit. If we secure no portion of time for private prayer before breakfast, we can rarely get any through the day. The sabbath is the last day we should allow to be abridged by lengthened slumbers. If, then, you would spend well this holy season, say, as did the Psalmist, "My heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed, I will sing and give praise. Awake, my glory; awake, psaltery and harp; I myself will awake early." Awake to prayer, reading the Scriptures, and meditation. Arise to seek the favor of God. "His morning smiles bless all the day." Be found at his footstool wrestling for his grace to come upon your souls in the ordinances of religion. Can he who goes prayerless to the sanctuary expect to be blessed in it? What right or what reason has he to look for favor from the Lord, who will not sacrifice half an hour's sleep to seek it by prayer? The slothful Christian can no more expect to prosper, than the slothful tradesman. On the other hand, what a rich communication of light, and love, and joy, might he not look for, who rises early to obtain it by supplication, and who always goes from the closet to the sanctuary.

6. If we would gain benefit by the word, we must make our PROFITING the specific object of hearing it preached. By profiting I mean our growth in religious knowledge, affection, and practice; in other words, the increase of our holiness, spirituality, and heavenly-mindedness. In nothing, I believe, are professing Christians more deficient, than in their manner of, and motives for attending the public means of grace. It is painful and humiliating to think how extensively the gratifications of taste, and the pleasure produced by eloquence and oratory, are substituted for the cultivation of the mind in scriptural truth, and the improvement of the heart in Christian excellence. To be pleased—and not to be profited—is the object of the multitude. Hence the question, so often asked of those who have been listening to the solemn truths of salvation and eternity, "Well, how have you been pleased today?" And hence also, the common answer to such an inquiry, "O greatly delighted. It was a most eloquent sermon." Pleased we may and ought to seek to be, but only as we are profited. Eloquence we may covet and admire; but then it should be the eloquence of truth, and not of mere rhetoric; the eloquence which makes us hate sin, love God, and mortify our corruptions; the eloquence which leaves us neither time nor disposition to praise, or scarcely think of the preacher, but absorbs us in the subject; the eloquence which burns into the very heart and consumes our lusts, and stimulates and strengthens our virtues; the eloquence of the Bible, and not of the schoolbook.

What sabbaths we would spend, if before we left our habitations to take our seats in the house of God, we entered our closet, and, as in the presence of God, solemnly placed such questions as these to our souls, "What is, or should be my object in going to the house of God today? Am I going to be pleased or profited? Is it my wish to hear merely the preacher—or his Master? Is it the manner in which the truth is to he stated, or the matter of the truth itself, that I am anxious to hear? And what is now the state of my soul, and what are my wishes in reference to it? Do I want my lukewarmness to be kindled into the glow of holy love? Do I desire my corruptions to be mortified, and my languishing graces to be revived? Do I seek the conquest and eradication of some besetting sin, and am I prepared to be pleased with any sermon, though destitute of all the attractions of eloquence, that will accomplish this object?"

The Christians who take this view of the end of preaching; who go to hear God's truth and not mere eloquence; who, while hearing, consider that it is God speaking to them by and through his minister; who pray while they hear, and whose prayer it is, that they might be profited; these are the people who spend not only pleasant but improving sabbaths.

7. Much of the improvement of our sabbaths depends on the state of our minds during what may be called the DEVOTIONAL exercises—the prayers and the singing. If we consider these, as too many do consider them, only supplemental and inferior parts of the service, in which we have little interest, and which require but little attention, we shall not derive much spiritual advantage from the ordinances of God's house, and the occupations of the day of rest. It is to be feared, that a sinful vagrancy of thought, which they take no pains to check, characterizes the frame of many people during the season of prayer; and that at the very time the cloud of incense is rising before the throne of heaven, their mind is wandering to the very ends of the earth, and instead of communing with God upon the mercy seat, they are conversing with the most trifling—or perhaps, with sinful objects. The prayers, if they are such as should be presented, simple, fervent, devout; and the singing, if it be such as alone ought to be conducted in the house of God, congregational, plain, solemn—have a peculiar adaptation to give intensity to the devout feelings of the heart, and to promote our personal piety; and those people will profit most, who endeavor to enter deeply into all the sentiments and emotions of these parts of the worship of God.

8. In order to spend a profitable sabbath, great care ought to be taken to improve well, the time of travel to and from public worship. It should be our aim, where the matter is within our choice, not to live at too great a distance from the sanctuary; much time is lost, much distraction of mind is produced, much weariness of mind is brought on, by not attending to this, and the mind is prevented by fatigue from enjoying its ordinances, when it reaches the house of God; and by the same cause, from profitable reflection on returning home. We should not allow the impressions produced by public worship, to be effaced by general conversation on our way back to our own homes, or around our own table. On reaching our place of abode we should seek the retirement of the closet, to recall what we have heard; to perpetuate by reflection and meditation, our feelings, convictions, and purposes; and to sanctify all by prayer.

Instead of wishing to indulge our appetite by a warm and plentiful dinner, in the preparation of which we have deprived our servants of their day of rest, we should be content with simple and cold fare, and consider the sabbath as a day rather to feast the mind, than the body. The afternoon should not be spent in lounging over the table and the wine, but partly in meditation and private prayer; partly in catechizing the children; and partly, where it can be enjoyed, in domestic psalmody and thanksgiving. Every family should be a choir, where there is a capacity for vocal music, and, in order to this, it would be desirable that singing should be more cultivated than it is. If, instead of our sons and our daughters being trained to music—merely as a drawing-room accomplishment, and for the purpose of having their simplicity corrupted, and their vanity flattered by showing them off before company—they were trained for domestic harmony in song—to what a holy and happy account might their musical talent and acquirements be turned! What harmony is sweeter—if that of the great congregation be grander—than the dulcet sounds which gladden the habitation of a godly family on the Christian sabbath, when parents and children blend their vocal and instrumental music in the praise of Almighty God, and the Lord Jesus Christ!

9. Before the day quite departs, and sleep drowns in oblivion, or only keeps alive in dreams, the solemn engagements and topics which have filled its fleeting hours—we should be found again in our closets, reviewing the whole, and pouring over all the silent and dewy influence of prayer—this being done, then taking care, as the last duty of the day, as we lay our head upon our pillow, and resign ourselves to slumber, to fall asleep with the petition, "Seal this instruction upon my heart, O God!"

10. One more step should be taken, and that is, to secure a portion of time on the Monday morning before we re-plunge into the business, and labors, and anxieties of the world, to look back on the day that is past, for the double purpose, first, of recalling the views, emotions, and purposes, that were suggested by the services of the sanctuary, and the sabbath; and then, of settling with ourselves a plan for reducing them all to action.

There are one or two classes of Christians, who perhaps may feel that the foregoing remarks are not so applicable to them as to some others, and to whom, therefore, I would now suggest a few hints. Many SUNDAY SCHOOL TEACHERS happily know by experience the value of the sabbath, but are in danger of losing something of its enjoyment, and even of its improvement, by the bustle and labors of their office. It is, I am aware, an act of self-denial, and no small sacrifice, to surrender the calm repose of the closet and the sanctuary, for the active, and sometimes harassing duties of the schoolroom and the class. You, my young friends, need great care, lest you lose the profit of the sabbath for yourselves, while you are seeking to render it profitable to others. Rise early in the morning for meditation and prayer, before you go to the scene of your labors. Endeavor to discharge your duties to the children in a spirit of seriousness and prayer. Avoid all trifling conversation with your fellow-teachers. Let the intervals of worship be well employed in retirement, and try as much as possible to keep your attention fixed on the sermon and the prayers in the house of God, even when seated amid your youthful charge. Endeavor, in humble dependence upon the Spirit of God, to be useful—and then, "in watering others, you shall yourselves be watered."

The POORER MEMBERS of the church demand a little special attention. Be, my dear friends, peculiarly thankful for this short, sweet respite from the curse denounced on fallen man, "In the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread until you return unto the ground." Enter into God's merciful provision for your comfort, and do everything to enjoy and improve the season of rest. Let everything necessary to be done for the order, comfort, and cleanliness of the family—be finished on the Saturday evening, and even have the food prepared for the sabbath's meal. Let not the husband deprive the wife of her day of repose by requiring her to give up her attendance upon public worship, or if detained at home by young children, to endure the additional privation of losing her opportunities of private and solitary devotion, in order to gratify his palate by a warm dinner.

Nor should the husband refuse to take his turn in looking after the house and the young family at home, that his wife may have an opportunity to enjoy the refreshing influence of public worship, and "the communion of saints." Few people are more to be pitied than the poor mothers of young families, who are united to husbands, who have not tenderness enough to give their wives a share of the sabbatical privilege. Let such women, amid all their privations, keep up the expectation of "the rest that remains for the people of God."

Yes, heaven is an eternal sabbath. There the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest. No domestic cares shall follow you there. No family labors or duties shall there detain you from the assembly of the saints. No ungenerous husband shall there hinder you from going to the sanctuary of God. No infirm body shall obstruct your enjoyment, or be a clog upon the spirit that would otherwise mount on the wing of devotion to God its supreme good. Eternity shall roll on, and its repose shall never be broken in upon, by a single sorrow, sin, or labor—your soul shall end its weary pilgrimage, and lie down to rest forever in the presence of God, where there is fullness of joy, and at his right hand where there are pleasures forevermore!

In such manner, my dear friends, we may spend our sabbaths upon earth both pleasantly and profitably—and spend them in the prospect and hope of a heavenly and eternal one, and in preparation for its exalted services, and its complete felicity. The sun of that day shall never set; its holy convocation shall never break up; and its services never know a termination, an interruption, or intermission. "Remember therefore the sabbath day to keep it holy." "Let its high and sacred character be ever present to your minds, persuaded that it was appointed for no trivial purposes—that if there are benefits of a subordinate nature to be derived from it, such as the respite afforded by it, from the labors of the week, these are not its most noble distinctions; but that it is an institution founded by a mandate of the Deity to secure from oblivion the most momentous facts, and to exist throughout all generations, a memento of the creation of the world by the power of God, and the salvation of man by the death of Christ. Let the day, therefore, which testifies to the world that God is righteous, powerful, and good—and that man is redeemed, and immortal—be spent in a manner correspondent with these stupendous facts!"