They were called "Blue Laws". What they did was ban stores from doing business on Sunday. Their purpose, ostensibly, was to protect the "Sabbath" and keep it "holy".
These so-called "Blue Laws" were not some part of the Old Covenant, but rather civil laws found predominantly throughout the Bible Belt, southern regions of our own nation. And while their intent was arguably honorable, their pre-text was somewhat questionable on at least two accounts. First, the Sabbath is NOT Sunday, but rather the period of time between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday. Second, the Christian observance of Sunday is not tied to the Old Covenant Sabbath at all, but rather the day observed by Christians in recogition of Christ's Resurrection from the dead- that frees us from the letter of the Law!
So where did the "Blue Laws" come from? Consider a passage from our text for today:
Nehemiah 13:5 In those days I saw people in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath and bringing in grain and loading it on donkeys, together with wine, grapes, figs and all other kinds of loads. And they were bringing all this into Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Therefore I warned them against selling food on that day. 16 People from Tyre who lived in Jerusalem were bringing in fish and all kinds of merchandise and selling them in Jerusalem on the Sabbath to the people of Judah. 17 I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this wicked thing you are doing—desecrating the Sabbath day? 18 Didn’t your ancestors do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity on us and on this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.”
As part of Nehemiah's effort to restore not only the infrastructure of Jerusalem, but also its religious morale, he moved to protect the Sabbath observance by preventing the foreign merchants from plying their trade that day among God's people. God's prescription for the Sabbath was that it was to be a special day for His people. A day for renewal and restored perspective on their relationship with Him and with each other.
But, back to the "Blue Laws" for a moment. At their heart lay another motive- one that is worth our consideration. They sought to preserve the Divine concept of a "special day". Jesus Himself said that the Sabbath rest was ultimately created for the benefit of man- not for the day itself! The Bible Belt Christians of our day saw the value of a "Christian Sabbath"- not for the sake of keeping some imagined Old Testament Law requirement, but for the greater purpose of maintaining a regular time of the week that would allow for reflection upon God and escape from the trap of constant commercial activity.
When a society chooses to set apart one day each week to focus on God, something really good takes place. It remembers the One Who is its foundation. It recovers its respect for Him- and in so doing preserves itself by sumitting to His priorities. In other times, this was once known as "The Fear of God".