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What are blue laws?

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“Blue laws” are laws pertaining to the regulation of work, commerce, or entertainment on Sunday. Blue laws originated in Puritan New England as a way to regulate morals and protect Sunday as a day of rest and worship. Why the word blue was used is unclear, but it could stem from an eighteenth-century usage of blue to mean “rigidly moral.” In the strictest communities, blue laws forbade any buying, selling, traveling, sports, or regular work on Sundays. Though greatly lessened in severity, blue laws continue to some degree in the twenty-first century by restricting the selling of cars or alcohol on Sundays.

Blue laws were an attempt to honor the fourth commandment, which instructed the Jews to “remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). God’s Law for His people included rest on the seventh day as part of His covenant with them (Exodus 31:13). However, the Old Testament Jewish Sabbath is not the same as the New Testament worship on Sunday. Although the motivation for blue laws may have been honorable, it was misguided. Christians are not commanded to keep the Old Testament Law as part of following God, as were the Israelites before Jesus established the New Covenant (Hebrews 8:13; 10:1). While it is good to follow God’s pattern of setting aside a day of rest, worship, and reflection, it is not required under the New Covenant. Nowhere does the Bible command non-Jewish nations to legislate this practice given only to the Jews.

We must remember that God’s civil law was given to a nation as part of their operation as a theocracy. God was their King, and the people followed their lesser rulers as though hearing from God Himself. No nation since that time has been decreed by God to be a theocracy; therefore, any attempts by a nation to apply the Israelite Law of Moses fall far short. That nation would have to impose all 613 ceremonial, sacrificial, and civil laws in order to be pleasing to God, and the Jewish failures show us that is impossible. Jesus came to fulfill the Law for us so that we could walk in grace and liberty (Matthew 5:17; James 2:12).

Blue laws were intended to show reverence for God by limiting regular commerce and encouraging worship. Though perhaps misguided in their zeal, the Puritan leaders were attempting to establish a society where God was publicly honored. We are not bound by the Law of Moses as it pertains to government and civil structure, but we are wise to study and draw application from all of God’s Law. In our fast-paced world, it is only wise to set apart time to slow down, recoup, and rest. Blue laws, to some degree, helped protect workers and forced everyone to recharge before plunging into the next week. In that sense, blue laws were a good idea.

One reason that blue laws ultimately fail is that worship cannot be legislated. Efforts to enforce religious practice in a secular society result in an empty show of religion, at best. Blue laws were an attempt to be blessed as a “nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 33:12), but they could do nothing to touch the hearts of the people. It is the heart God desires (Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 15:8). Public policies such as blue laws don’t create worshipful hearts, just as Prohibition didn’t create voluntary sobriety.

A society has the right to institute any policy it deems to be in the best interest of its people, and blue laws may fit that description. Setting aside a day when people can go to church and spend time with family is healthy for that society. But, if enforced as a way of legislating spirituality, blue laws fall far short (Mark 7:7).

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This page last updated: January 13, 2023