Keeping the Sabbath Day Holy
February 2000

“Keeping the Sabbath Day Holy,” Ensign, Feb. 2000, 49

Keeping the Sabbath Day Holy

Prophets such as Moses and President Gordon B. Hinckley have repeatedly testified of our need to honor the Sabbath.

Several years ago I accompanied President Gordon B. Hinckley to a regional conference in which he expressed to the priesthood brethren some of his concerns about members of the Church. One of his concerns was “our tendency to take on the ways of the world.” He then said: “We don’t adopt them immediately, but we slowly take them on, unfortunately. I wish I had the power to convert this whole Church to the observance of the Sabbath. I know our people would be more richly blessed of the Lord if they would walk in faithfulness in the observance of the Sabbath” (Heber City/Springville, Utah, regional conference, priesthood leadership meeting, 13 May 1995).

So far as I can recall, I cannot remember when I did not have a testimony of the gospel. I believe this is due to my having been reared in a God-fearing home. The Church was our lives, and we were taught to emulate the faith and example of our parents. One element of their faith and obedience was the proper observance of the Sabbath day. I would like to discuss the teachings of the Church regarding the proper observance of the Sabbath day.

When President Hinckley expressed concern that our people may “take on the ways of the world” by not observing the Sabbath day, I thought of the revelation of the Lord through the Prophet Joseph Smith in the 59th section of the Doctrine and Covenants. In verse nine, the Lord states, “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.”

The Lord counseled us that we as a people may keep ourselves “unspotted from the world” by properly observing the Sabbath. As a community of Saints, we should emulate the righteous traditions of our fathers and be known as a people who honor the Sabbath. There should be no misunderstanding among our associates and friends, whether members of the Church or not, about how we, individually and as a community of Saints, observe the Sabbath day. This example of our people should reflect how we act as well as what we teach. While others may watch how we observe the Sabbath day, we should not be self-righteous or appear to elevate ourselves in the eyes of others. We should simply observe the Sabbath day in the proper manner because we know it is correct and because we receive personal joy and strength from doing so.

Origins of the Sabbath

The word Sabbath comes from the Hebrew shabbath, meaning day of rest (see Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. [1966], 658). Flavius Josephus, an oft-quoted scholar who lived during the first century after Christ, stated that the Sabbath was a day “set apart from labour [and] dedicated to the learning of our customs and laws” so that the people might learn a good thing and avoid sin (The Complete Works of Josephus, enlarged-type ed., trans. William Whiston [1987], 338). It is interesting to me how closely this definition parallels the scriptural basis for honoring the Sabbath.

President Spencer W. Kimball said that the Sabbath “contemplates quiet tranquility, peace of mind and spirit. It is a day to get rid of selfish interests and absorbing activities” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball [1982], 215).

What is the origin of the Sabbath day? Some mistakenly think it originated with Moses when he gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments. Moses did, however, give us new insight into proper Sabbath observance. The fourth commandment, recorded in Exodus, chapter 20, consists of 94 words, as compared to some of the other commandments which consist of only four words:

“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).

Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–85) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles stated that Sabbath observance is an eternal principle, and he noted five occurrences in the scriptures when observance of the Sabbath day was required by the Lord:

  • “From the day of Adam to the Exodus from Egypt, the Sabbath commemorated the fact that Christ rested from his creative labors on the 7th day (Ex. 20:8–11).”

  • “From the Exodus to the day of [Christ’s] resurrection, the Sabbath commemorated the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage (Deut. 5:12–15).”

  • “From the days of the early apostles to the present, the Sabbath has been the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, in commemoration of the fact that Christ came forth from the grave on Sunday (Acts 20:7).”

  • “The Latter-day Saints keep the first day of the week as their Sabbath … because the Lord so commanded them by direct revelation (D&C 59).” This revelation was given on Sunday, 7 August 1831.

  • “Sabbath observance was a sign between ancient Israel and their God whereby the chosen people might be known (Neh. 13:15–22; Isa. 56:1–8; Jer. 17:19–27; Ezek. 46:1–7)” (Mormon Doctrine, 658; emphasis in original).

Early Sabbath Observances

I learned to observe the Sabbath day from my parents. I grew up on a large farm where we had animals to feed and care for, cows to milk, and vegetables to pick, harvest, and market. It would have been very easy for our family to break the Sabbath day. Although we attended to essential chores on Sunday—such as feeding the animals, milking the cows, and taking the water turns when they came—we never did farmwork on Sunday that could be done at other times during the week. Our tractors were turned off, and no plowing, planting, or cultivating were done on the Sabbath. We never hauled in the hay before a coming storm. My parents had a very simple philosophy: “The day we violate the Sabbath day and have to miss our Sunday meetings to care for the farm is the day we sell the farm.”

As I grew up, married, and had a family of my own, my wife and I taught these same principles to our children. When our family was young, we lived in Connecticut and were the only members of the Church in our small community. When our oldest son was nine years of age, he was invited to play Little League baseball. He was outfitted with a complete baseball suit, and he practiced very hard to be a good member of the team. Several days before the first game was to be played, the coach of his team came to our home and informed us that due to a recent scheduling change, all games would be played on Sunday. Our son was devastated. We convened a family home evening the next Monday and discussed the matter and left the decision to our son. Knowing of our heritage and principles, he made the decision that he would not play. I can still recall his heartbreak as I drove him to the coach’s home where he turned in his newly acquired baseball uniform.

I recall reading a talk by President Hinckley in which he spoke of the faithfulness of our pioneer forefathers in their observance of the Sabbath. He said: “May I take you back 142 years when there was, of course, no tabernacle here, nor temple, nor Temple Square. On July 24, 1847, the pioneer company of our people came into this valley. An advance group had arrived a day or two earlier. Brigham Young arrived on Saturday. The next day, Sabbath services were held both in the morning and in the afternoon. There was no hall of any kind in which to meet. I suppose that in the blistering heat of that July Sunday they sat on the tongues of their wagons and leaned against the wheels while the Brethren spoke. The season was late, and they were faced with a gargantuan and immediate task if they were to grow seed for the next season. But President Young pleaded with them not to violate the Sabbath then or in the future” (“An Ensign to the Nations,” Ensign, Nov. 1989, 51; emphasis added).

Imagine how tempting it must have been for our pioneer forefathers to break the Sabbath day. Their survival depended upon the food they could grow and harvest. Yet their leaders counseled them to exercise faith in the promises of the Lord and to respect the Sabbath day. Church members are the beneficiaries of that heritage and of the promises of the Lord to those who are faithful. We must always remember who we are and that we are different from the world.

Scriptural Lessons

Two scriptures in particular teach us what we should do on the Sabbath and the promises that come from keeping the Sabbath. The first scripture is found in the Old Testament:

“Ye shall keep my sabbaths, and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord.

“If ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them;

“Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.

“And your threshing shall reach unto the vintage, and the vintage shall reach unto the sowing time: and ye shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely.

“And I will give peace in the land, and ye shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid: and I will rid evil beasts out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land. …

“For I will have respect unto you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, and establish my covenant with you” (Lev. 26:2–6, 9).

We can relate to the promises of the Lord in this modern-day world. Do we not need today, just as the Israelites did in the Old Testament, to have the land yield her increase and the trees of the field yield their fruit? Do we not also need to have rain in due season and peace in the land and to be able to lie down and not be afraid and to not have the sword or wars go through our land? Do we not also want the Lord to have respect for us and help us be fruitful and multiply and establish His covenant with us? All of these promises apply to us today.

I personally believe that some of the destruction and suffering we see in the world today is the result of a people who mock God and who do not keep His basic commandments, such as properly observing the Sabbath day. One of the key messages of the Book of Mormon is how people suffer when they do not keep God’s commandments. As a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Ezra Taft Benson quoted President George Albert Smith as saying that “much of the sorrow and distress that is afflicting and will continue to afflict mankind is traceable to the fact that they have ignored his [God’s] admonition to keep the Sabbath day holy” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1935, 120; quoted in “Keeping the Sabbath Day Holy,” Ensign, May 1971, 7).

The second scripture is found in the Doctrine and Covenants: “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).

Please note the promises, which are similar to those found in Leviticus, that come to those who live the law of the Sabbath:

“Verily I say, that inasmuch as ye do this, the fulness of the earth is yours, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which climbeth upon the trees and walketh upon the earth;

“Yea, and the herb, and the good things which come of the earth, whether for food or for raiment, or for houses, or for barns, or for orchards, or for gardens, or for vineyards;

“Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart;

“Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul” (D&C 59:16–19).

Modern-Day Counsel

Once again the promise is that “all things which come of the earth” are for our benefit if we will observe the Sabbath and other commandments. I believe that we as a people, a community of Saints, would be entitled to the marvelous blessings pronounced by the Lord if we would keep the Sabbath day holy as required by Him.

However, we should not be judgmental of others who do not believe or practice as we should. Tolerance and humility, in a personal sense, are true attributes of a follower of Christ.

President Kimball taught how we might observe the Sabbath: “The Sabbath is a day on which to take inventory—to analyze our weaknesses, to confess our sins to our associates and our Lord. It is a day on which to fast in ‘sackcloth and ashes.’ It is a day on which to read good books, a day to contemplate and ponder, … a day to study the scriptures and to prepare sermons, a day to nap and rest and relax, a day to visit the sick, a day to preach the gospel, a day to proselyte, a day to visit quietly with the family and get acquainted with our children, a day for proper courting, a day to do good, a day to drink at the fountain of knowledge and of instruction, a day to seek forgiveness of our sins, a day for the enrichment of our spirit and our soul, a day to restore us to our spiritual stature, a day to partake of the emblems of his sacrifice and atonement, a day to contemplate the glories of the gospel and of the eternal realms, a day to climb high on the upward path toward our Heavenly Father” (Teachings, 216).

President David O. McKay said: “Sunday is a day when we change our clothes, put on clean linen. It is truth that ‘cleanliness is next to godliness,’ and the Lord said, ‘Be ye clean that bear the vessels of the Lord’” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1956, 90).

We have always tried to teach our children that perhaps we can better observe the Sabbath by the manner in which we dress on the Sabbath. It may not be that we would always remain in our white shirts, ties, and suits all day Sunday, but it may be that we would not quickly change to our “grubbies” or commonly worn workaday clothes on Sunday. We ought to consider dressing better on Sunday than we do the rest of the week. This will help us to properly observe the Sabbath and to do the things that ought to be done on the Sabbath.

A member of the Seventy once shared that in his home the family observed the Sabbath by trying to focus on reverence in three areas: attitude, appearance, and activity. President Kimball reviews some excellent suggestions of the Brethren on what types of activities we might consider doing on the Sabbath: “‘As we plan our Sunday activities, we may want to set aside time for our family to be together, for personal study and meditation, and for service to others. We might want to read the scriptures, conference reports, and Church publications; study the lives and teachings of the prophets; prepare Church lessons and other Church assignments; write in journals; pray and meditate; write to or visit relatives and friends; write to missionaries; enjoy uplifting music; have family gospel instruction; hold family council meetings; build husband-wife relationships; read with a child; do genealogical research, including the four-generation program and family or personal histories; sing Church hymns; read uplifting literature; develop our appreciation for the cultural arts; plan family home evening study and activities; plan other family activities; friendship nonmembers; fellowship neighbors; visit the sick, the aged, and the lonely; hold interviews with family members’” (Teachings, 217).

Elder Ezra Taft Benson gave similar counsel:

“—Engage in activities that contribute to greater spirituality.

“—Attend essential Church meetings in the house of prayer.

“—Acquire spiritual knowledge by reading the scriptures, Church history and biographies, and the inspired words of our Church leaders.

“—Rest physically, get acquainted with your family, relate scriptural stories to your children, and bear your testimony to build family unity.

“—Visit the sick and aged shut-ins.

“—Sing the songs of Zion and listen to inspiring music.

“—Pay devotions to the Most High through prayer (personal and family), fasting, administration, and father’s blessings.

“—Prepare food with a singleness of heart: simple meals prepared largely on Saturday.

“—Remember that Sunday is the Lord’s day, a day to do his work.”

The above suggestions of the prophets, on how we may observe the Sabbath, are modern-day applications of ancient scriptural admonitions. As members and families, we ought to start by selecting the one or two suggestions that best accommodate our needs and then incorporate additional suggestions, from time to time, to the point where we more completely keep the Sabbath day.

Some may ask, What about the Sabbath and television? Is it right or wrong to watch television on the Sabbath? Speaking to fathers, President Harold B. Lee once said, “The most important of the Lord’s work you and I will ever do will be within the walls of our own homes” (Stand Ye in Holy Places [1974], 255). Parents are best equipped to answer this question. The gospel principles are known. What activities may occur in the home, in harmony with gospel principles, is the responsibility of the parents and the family.

One way to more effectively keep the Sabbath day holy is to prepare in advance. Elder Benson gave us the following additional suggestions. These practical suggestions might well be performed by all members of the family, with husband and wife and all children cooperating together before the Sabbath in order to be prepared and ready for the Sabbath:

“—Houseclean, straighten up, refuel the car, and prepare clothing and meals in advance on Saturday.

“—Provide for recreation and amusements during the week and provide for a holiday during the week, if possible.

“—Get a good rest on Saturday night.”

We might also consider what activities do not fit the spirit or purpose of the Sabbath. Elder Benson offered the following suggestions of what to avoid:

“—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. …

“—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). …

“—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, 6–7).

Shopping and Working on Sunday

I would like to discuss the matter of shopping on Sunday. When President Hinckley counseled the priesthood leaders that he was concerned that our people would become like the world by not properly observing the Sabbath, he made the following additional statements:

“There isn’t anybody in this Church who has to buy furniture on Sunday. There really isn’t. There isn’t anybody in this Church who has to buy a new automobile on Sunday, is there? No. There isn’t anybody in this Church who, with a little care and planning, has to buy groceries on Sunday. No. Most of us have refrigerators. A quart of milk will hold, insofar as the bacteria go, from Saturday till Monday. There is no question about that. You don’t need ice cream to be bought on Sunday. You don’t need to buy groceries on Sunday, brethren. You don’t need to make Sunday a day of merchandising. I don’t think we need to patronize the ordinary business merchants on the Sabbath day. Why do they stay open? To get customers. Who are those customers? Well, they are not all nonmembers of this Church. You know that and I know that” (Heber City/Springville, Utah, regional conference, priesthood leadership meeting, 13 May 1995).

Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has said: “Modern-day prophets have encouraged us not to shop on Sunday. … Those of us who shop on the Sabbath cannot escape responsibility for encouraging businesses to remain open on that day. Essential services must be provided, but most Sabbath transactions could be avoided if merchants and customers were determined to avoid doing business on the Lord’s day” (“Brother’s Keeper,” Ensign, Nov. 1986, 21).

The Lord taught us that principle many years ago. In the 10th chapter of Nehemiah, verse 31, the people were taught to observe the Sabbath with the following instruction: “And if the people of the land bring ware or any victuals on the sabbath day to sell, that we would not buy it of them on the sabbath, or on the holy day.”

Let’s not shop on Sunday. One way we avoid this is by planning ahead. Fill up the gas tank of your car on Saturday. Acquire the needed groceries for the weekend on Saturday. Don’t be the means of causing someone to work on Sunday by patronizing their establishment. Of course, we know that there are essential services that must be open on Sunday, such as those serving emergency, medical, and transportation needs.

President Kimball tells of interviewing a man when he was reorganizing a stake. “‘What is your occupation?’ And he said, ‘I operate a service station.’ And I asked, ‘Do you operate on the Sabbath?’ His answer was, ‘No, I do not.’ ‘Well, how can you get along? Most service station operators seem to think they must open on the Sabbath.’ ‘I get along well,’ he said. ‘The Lord is good to me.’ ‘Do you not have stiff competition?’ I asked. ‘Yes, indeed,’ he replied. ‘Across the street is a man who keeps open all day Sunday.’ ‘And you never open?’ I asked. ‘No, sir,’ he said, ‘and I am grateful, and the Lord is kind, and I have sufficient for my needs’” (Teachings, 227).

Nearly 125 years ago, Elder George Q. Cannon (1827–1901) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles gave the following counsel: “A man deceives himself when he thinks that by working on Sunday he advances his labor or his interests. So also with those who take that day for excursions and pleasure hunting. A man who strictly confines his labors to six days, and will not work himself, not suffer his animals to work on Sunday, will perform more labor during the year and be prospered to a far greater extent than the man who is careless upon this point.

“So also with those who seek pleasure; they lose by using the Sabbath for that purpose. If they would select some other day, they would find themselves better off at the end of the year than they would be in using Sunday for this purpose. It should be an inflexible rule with every man, woman and child in the Church to hold Sunday sacred for the worship of the Lord and never to perform any labor on that day if it can possibly be avoided” (Gospel Truth, 2 vols. in 1, comp. Jerreld L. Newquist [1987], 394–95).

For those who work on the Sabbath when it is not necessary, President Kimball said, “I wonder if money earned upon the Sabbath, when it is unnecessary Sabbath earning, might not also be unclean money.” To students, he said: “I hope students will use the Sabbath for studying only as an emergency. … I believe that generally, with careful organization of time through the week, most studying can be done on weekdays, leaving the Sabbath for worship. … There might be times when one would feel forced to study, when he might feel that it was an ox in the mire. I am expressing only my personal opinions on this matter, but since we are talking to students, it would be my hope that your studying could be done in the season thereof and not as a cramming process just before you go on Monday mornings” (Teachings, 227, 229).

There are personal goals to be set and achieved in the spirit of humility and meekness and not in judgment of others. When we can achieve this level of Sabbath observance, we will experience quiet strength, knowledge, and peace. I like the statement of Elder Mark E. Petersen (1900–84) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles:

“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” (“The Sabbath Day,” Ensign, May 1975, 49).

I bear witness that observing the Sabbath day is a commandment of the Lord and that the Lord is very displeased when we do not honor His day. If we as a people, and each of us as an individual, will follow the counsel of the prophets, we will truly be unspotted, that is, in the world but not of the world, and we will be blessed.

Let’s Talk about It

Questions for a family home evening discussion or personal reflection.

  1. In what ways have I or my family kept the Sabbath day holy?

  2. What blessings have I or my family realized from keeping the Sabbath?

  3. What habitual Sunday activities would I like to see my family or myself eliminate? What activities would I like to introduce to enhance my family’s or my Sabbath worship?

Moses and the Tablets, by Jerry Harston

Painting by William Whitaker

Electronic composition by Patric Gerber

Inset: Painting by John Willard Clawson

Prayer and Dedication in the Salt Lake Valley, by VaLoy Eaton, courtesy of Zion’s Bank

Inset: Photo by Jed Clark

Photo by Craig Dimond

Inset: Photo by Paul VanDenBerghe

Photo by John Luke

Photo by Robert Casey