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How the Bible Sabbath Saved a Remote Island

How the Bible Sabbath Saved a Remote Island

Around the world, Pitcairn Island is known as the stuff of legend. The island is situated in the middle of the southern Pacific Ocean, some 3,390 miles from New Zealand, the nearest mainland—and there’s no airport. Fewer than 50 people live there, and there’s only one church. 

The story behind that church is an amazing one.

Pitcairn’s European settlement began in 1790 when nine mutineers from the HMS Bounty ended up there; the famous 1932 novel Mutiny on the Bounty brought the story to life, especially when adapted for the screen, which has happened three times, most recently in 1984. 

When the mutineers traveled to Pitcairn, it was to escape the inevitable British Navy search party that would come after learning they had overthrown the ship’s captain. The inaccessibility of the island provided an effective hiding place, but it also isolated them. Soon, alcoholism, murder, and other debauchery followed. In short, the island was far from being a paradise on Earth.

A man named John Adams was the last of the mutineers to survive on the island, and shortly before the start of the nineteenth century, he underwent a religious conversion. Using a Bible and a Church of England prayer book as his only guides, Adams instilled a religious sensibility in the island youth—and Pitcairn went from chaotic living to a place noted for its sense of moral order.

Herbert Ford of the Pitcairn Islands Study Center puts it this way: “The devout religious attitudes and observances of the Pitcairners—reported to the outside world by captains, crews and passengers of ships calling at the island--set loose a wave of approval so forceful that it only intensified the piety and religiosity of those on the island.”

Sabbath Truth Arrives in Pitcairn

An evacuation to Tahiti and then to Norfolk Island caused difficulties for the faith of the island’s people, but by 1850, a pastor named George Hunn Nobbs helped re-establish a climate of faith among the residents. Weekly worship continued, and residents grew in their faith.

In 1876, a visiting ship captain left a box of religious literature from a Sabbath-keeping denomination. These pamphlets and books exhorted the islanders to observe the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week—according to the Ten Commandments. The literature also spoke of a soon return to Earth by Jesus and the need to be faithful to God’s will for His people.

Ten years would pass before one of the Pitcairners, Rosalind Young, would read one of the tracts. She was convicted by it and shared it with her father. The elder Mr. Young encouraged others on the island to read the long-hidden literature.

Historian Ford quotes a literary account of what happened next: “At first the Pitcairners read the papers with extreme care and suspicion, as though they were afraid of being entrapped, but when they found that every doctrine presented was given on Biblical authority their fears subsided. The more they studied, the more interested they became. … Although nearly every one of them felt an inner conviction on the matter, no one had the courage to break away from the established custom and begin the observance of a different day of worship.”

In October and November of 1886, Sabbath-keeping layman John I. Tay spent five weeks on Pitcairn, holding Bible studies with the residents, the majority of whom chose to follow what the Scriptures taught. Many were baptized. The island soon became known as a Sabbath stronghold, a place where traders would not sell items to visiting tour ships on Saturday.

Although religion has not been, as Ford put it, “an absolute shield against the anti-social or lawless actions,” it has remained an important influence. Today, the Sabbath-keeping community on Pitcairn is in rebuilding mode, with regular pastoral visits and care for the people.

Despite some scandals, the basic character and life of Pitcairn Island were forever changed by the discovery of the truth about the Sabbath. This relatively small island in the middle of nowhere remains a testimony to what genuine fidelity to God’s Word can accomplish in society.

God’s Challenge for Today

What confronted the Pitcairners two centuries ago remains a challenge for us today. Either the Bible Sabbath is true, or it’s not. And those who say they follow Christ and His commandments will either observe that Sabbath—or they’ll choose to ignore God’s will for them.

It’s that stark a choice; it’s also that simple. The Sabbath is very much like a stop sign when a driver approaches a busy four-way intersection. You can stop and be safe, or you can plow through and risk the consequences. With the Sabbath, we can stop and rest and honor God, or we can take our chances.

But the Sabbath is not a “day of obligation” in which we serve God out of fear. In Mark 2:27, Jesus noted, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” The seventh day is a gift from God to humanity. (See Genesis 2:1–3.) It offers a rest from the worries of the world, the opportunity to restore one’s peace of mind, connect with our Creator, and re-center our lives to form a character like that of Jesus.

Our free article “7 Promises of the Sabbath” is a great place to begin learning about what the Sabbath can do for you and your family. You can also watch the five-part video series “The Seventh Day,” hosted by noted actor Hal Holbrook, for free; it will take you step-by-step through the history of the Sabbath and its meaning—and challenges—for us today.

This article contributed by Mark A. Kellner
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