A Rock and a Hard Place: Seventh Day Baptists, Religious Liberty, Sabbath-Keeping, and Civil Authority

By Kersten, Nicholas I. | Baptist History and Heritage, Summer-Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

A Rock and a Hard Place: Seventh Day Baptists, Religious Liberty, Sabbath-Keeping, and Civil Authority


Kersten, Nicholas I., Baptist History and Heritage


Seventh Day Baptists occupy a unique place in the Baptist family because of their observance of the Sabbath.

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Although their reasoning for this observance is the same as their observance of the other staples of Baptist belief and thought, unique challenges have always faced Seventh Day Baptists because of our distinctive conviction. De, spite, these challenges, Seventh Day Baptists have managed to find their way in the United States, from the founding of their first church in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1671 to the present day. One of the factors that consistently influenced their congregations is the freedom of' people to exercise their conscience to keep Sabbath instead of Sunday as the day of worship and rest. With the passage of the. Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment in 1791, Seventh Day Baptists found some relief from earlier difficulties experienced in the American colonies, but even with the protections of the First Amendment, many Seventh Day Baptists have made additional sacrifices in order to obey their conscience in America.

To avoid any confusion, a clarification of what Seventh Day Baptists mean by Sabbath observance is needed. Seventh Day Baptists observe the fourth commandment (Ex. 20:8-11) literally. In addition, they take seriously the prohibition from work, though in keeping with Baptist principles, they leave it to individuals to be convicted on the specifics of observance after careful study and prayer. Seventh Day Baptists worship collectively on the Sabbath (Saturday) and observe the day as a period of rest, consecrated to God. The purpose of this article is not to explore the specifics of Seventh Day Baptist theology, but to understand this basic foundational conviction is necessary in order to understand what follows. Seventh Day Baptists must be kept distinct from other Sabbath observing groups, which perhaps are better known because of their larger size. While Seventh Day Baptists may share some common Sabbath convictions with other denominations, they are the only denomination that also explicitly adheres to Baptist beliefs.

For nearly as long as Baptists have searched the scriptures for direction, Sabbath-keepers have been represented in their number. In England, like other Baptists, the Sabbath-observing Baptists suffered various persecutions at the hands of the government and of the religious authorities because of their convictions. In those days, they were also singled out for their Sabbath observance. The experience of Francis Bampfield, an early Seventh Day Baptist leader, was typical of those early English Seventh Day Baptists. He was imprisoned on a nearly yearly basis between 1660 and 1684 for both his Sabbath and Baptist convictions, and he died in Newgate prison in 1684. (1) Another Seventh Day Baptist leader, John James, was hung for treason in 1661 because of his political and religious convictions. (2)

In America, early Seventh Day Baptists met similar challenges. Driven out of Massachusetts Bay by religious persecution, the first Seventh Day Baptists in America covenanted together in 1671 in Newport, Rhode Island, meeting together on the Sabbath for worship and fellowship. (3) Five of the members of this Newport church had left First Baptist Church, Newport, and joined with two English Seventh Day Baptists after doctrinal disputes between the Sabbath-keepers and Obadiah Holmes necessitated the formation of the new congregation. (4) Following the formation of this Seventh Day Baptist church, Sabbath-observation beliefs and practices spread throughout Rhode Island.

Meanwhile, successful Seventh Day Baptist churches also began in New Jersey. One church in Piscataway began after a dispute broke out between Edmund Dunham and his brother-in-law, Hezekiah Bonham, regarding working on Sunday. Dunham found Bonham working on Sunday and went to correct him. When confronted, Bonham demanded scriptural proof that Sunday was the Sabbath.

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