Rev. James R. Willson on the sabbath and the civil commonwealth of the United States

James R. Willson (1780-1853)

“God has annexed a penalty to the violation of the Sabbath. (Exodus 31) Wherever Jehovah has appended to any law a penal sanction, there it is the duly of the civil ruler to enforce the observance of the law; for to him alone it is competent to inflict the penalty. It is on this principle, undoubtedly, that in nearly all christian commonwealths, laws have been enacted, with annexed penalties, to promote the observation of the Sabbath, and to deter from its violation. Such laws have for ages existed in every christian nation in Europe, and do now in the codes of, we believe, all the states of this great American confederacy. Those who enacted these laws considered the breach of the Sabbath an immoral act, tending to harm the peace and interrupt the good order of society. It would be a curious and important question, and it is one which ought to be tried, whether those who are employed in carrying United States burdens, in the transportation of mails, openly and directly violating the state laws, might not be arrested by the state authorities, and compelled to observe the Sabbath. Ought not the breach of the Sabbath by the agents of the United States’ government, to be considered as also a violation of the national compact and an invasion of state prerogative? In the United States constitution, the states certainly have not delegated to the United States’ authorities a power to bind any of their citizens by oath, compel them to violate this precept of the law of God, and set at defiance the laws of the states for the suppression of vice and immorality. Will it be maintained that the spirit of the United States government not only contains no guarantee for the security of moral practice, but that it also requires of those who administer it to disregard those state enactments which are designed for the preservation of morality? Its friends will not, surely, maintain such a position. If the Federal government may, at pleasure, violate the penal laws of the states in this case, they may, on the same principle, in all. To ascribe such a prerogative to the general government, would be most preposterous.”

– James R. Willson, “The Sabbath. A Discourse on the Duty of Civil Government, in Relation to the Sanctification of the Lord’s Day


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