"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
April 30, 2009
Sabbath Day rules
by Orson Scott Card

I remember when I was 24 years old, a happy bit of news reached me and my sister one Sunday evening. Standing in the entryway of our parents' house, we exuberantly grabbed each other and danced a happy polka step together.

My uncle was visiting at the time, and to our shock he barked at us, "What are you doing, dancing on the Sabbath!" Sheepishly we slunk away.

I might have politely acquiesced, but I didn't really accept his judgment. We hadn't set out to dance; we hadn't gone to a dance; we were just happy and expressed it by, momentarily, dancing.

I could not see that it would cause the Lord any distress on our account. It really was good news, and we were happy. The Sabbath didn't mean we couldn't be spontaneously joyful in our own home!

"Saturday is a special day," says the Primary song. "It's the day we get ready for Sunday."

And then there's a list of tasks: Clean the house, shop at the store, brush your clothes, shine your shoes, trim your nails, shampoo your hair.

Thus Saturday becomes our "get-the-work-done day," so "we won't have to work until Monday" (words by Rita S. Robinson).

A friend from my BYU days told a group of us what happened her first Sunday in a new off-campus apartment. She was joining three roommates who had been together for a while, filling in for a fourth who had gotten married over the summer.

My friend moved in on a Saturday and fell into bed exhausted. Then, as she usually did, she got up on Sunday morning and showered and washed her long, long hair, so she would be fresh and clean when she went to church.

To her, that showed proper Sabbath respect. But her roommates were horrified.

Apparently they had come to accept the list of rules from that Primary song as definitive -- hair-shampooing was definitely a Saturday activity. They reacted to my friend as if she had deliberately run over a cat with her car. How could she?

Ironically, though, it was in that same apartment that my friend got up one morning, padded into the kitchen in her jammies, and found a man sleeping on the sofa! Apparently, somebody's boyfriend was "too tired" to drive home from a date the night before.

My friend laughed about it when she told me, but she hadn't thought it was funny at the time. Her first thought had been: "All of us could have been kicked out of BYU for having a man overnight in our apartment! What were they thinking?"

They wouldn't wash their hair on Sunday, but they could have a date stay overnight! But inconsistency isn't my point.

A Primary song that my family had taken as a general principle was treated by these young women as a list of rules.

But look at the list: Who brushes their clothes anymore? (No, please, don't write to me that your family does. In this case, I'm the normal one.)

We took the clothes-brushing reference to mean that we should get the laundry done before the Sabbath.

But then, for some years as I was growing up, we still did laundry in an old wringer washing machine and then hung it on an outdoor line to dry. (Yes, I'm that old.) That was work. And if you didn't wash your clothes till Sunday morning, they wouldn't be dry in time for church anyway!

What about today, when machines do the work? Some orthodox Sabbath-keepers won't turn on a light switch on the Sabbath, but it's hard for me to classify lightswitches, dishwashers, and the washing machines and dryers of today as "work" in the Sabbath sense.

Yes, it's good to plan ahead so you don't have to work on the Sabbath. We really try to make sure our vehicles have plenty of gas and the fridge has plenty of milk.

But if we discover on Sunday morning that somebody thoughtlessly ran the car out of gas the night before, we're not going to walk the four miles to Church, arriving an hour late, rather than slide a credit card into a gas pump, push a nozzle into a hole in the car, and stand there idly while a machine fills up the tank.

There are those who would think my attitude is lax -- or worse.

And yet my family had other rules that others find absurdly restrictive. For instance, my parents instituted a rule that there was no television on Sunday except for General Conference. Period.

So I didn't watch the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Once the rule was in place, we didn't watch Bonanza or Wonderful World of Disney, either.

We knew there were Mormons who regularly watched those shows, and my parents taught us not to think of them as somehow worse or weaker than us. "We have our Sabbath rules, and they have theirs."

Jesus set the example of making sensible exceptions when he defended his disciples for "threshing" grain in their hands on the Sabbath. Notice that when he said, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath," he wasn't saying that the rule against threshing was a bad one (Mark 2:27). It merely has sensible limits.

The Sabbath shouldn't be a day when you bring all your employees together to do their work like any other day -- including threshing grain.

Neither should it be a day when you constantly look over your shoulder for fear that just by being alive you might inadvertently offend somebody's weirdly precise Sabbath rule.

For instance, I never understood the "trim our nails" reference in that Saturday song. What if I discovered a painful hangnail Sunday morning? Must I live with the pain whenever it snags on something? Could I bite it off? Or is that work, too?

A decade or so ago, my wife participated briefly in an online LDS group. She found that some in the group felt the Brethren had been rather lax for not providing the Church with a complete list of Sabbath rules. So they were going to provide it for them.

The plan was to search through Conference reports and the Journal of Discourses and the teachings of the various Church leaders and collect every reference to rules of Sabbath behavior. Then they'd publish the complete list.

We never did see the result of that project, because my wife quit the group.

I really do understand the impulse to make such a list, however. There are people who really want to know all the rules so they can carefully fulfil them all. They're like the students who raise their hands in class to ask, "Will that be on the test?"

They just don't want to be taken by surprise.

But as a teacher, I hate that question. It suggests that if it won't be on the test, they aren't interested in learning it. They intend to do the minimum.

Or ... they want to catch other people in error. One person in that online group was particularly irate about a Sabbath violation committed by every member of her bishopric and stake presidency. They all took the Sunday paper, forcing that poor paperboy to deliver it on the Sabbath.

The Brethren don't spell out a complete list because they are following Joseph Smith's maxim: They teach us correct principles and then expect us, household by household, to govern ourselves.

Instead of spending the Sabbath constantly on watch to avoid violating some minute rule, we are to spend the day in worship and service.

Some work will be done on the Sabbath, by even the most righteous. Not every Sunday is Fast Sunday; meals must be prepared. We must get to church somehow. Cleanliness means that most of us will bathe, will wash dishes, will change children's diapers, will clean up litter at church ... and so on.

And there are those whose jobs require them to do paid Sabbath labor. For instance, the interpreters and broadcasting personnel at General Conference or other Sunday broadcasts. The employees of radio and television stations that do not go off the air. Hospital workers. Night watchmen. Policemen. Firemen. Workers who will lose their jobs if they don't take Sunday shifts. Need I go on?

If somebody really thinks it's wrong to take the Sunday paper, then they shouldn't take it -- by the principle Paul set forth when he explained that the gospel did not forbid the eating of meat, yet if someone really felt that it was a sin to eat meat, he "is damned if he eat" (Rom. 14:21).

Every family's circumstances are different; so are their traditions and judgments. As long as they respect the Sabbath, setting it apart as a day different from all others, in which worship of the Lord and ministering to those in need are paramount, then what business is if of mine if their rules differ from those my wife and I have instituted in our home?

"So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God. Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother's way" (Rom. 14:12-13).

Let us all keep the Sabbath as best we understand what that means, for our family, in our circumstances.

And let us not judge others for having made decisions different from our own, whether more or less lax.

For the Sabbath has more than one test to it: How we keep the Sabbath is one, but how we judge our neighbor is certainly another.


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About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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